Today was a good day. In my morning class on "Moral and Political Leadership," we were discussing Abraham Lincoln, relying on William Lee Millers very fine Lincolns Virtues. Taking as our point of departure Millers treatments of Lincolns stance on the Mexican-American War (ch. 7) and his role in the 1848 election (ch. 8), we worked toward a distinction between two different moral roles in political life--prophetic witness and statesmanship. Since both episodes in Lincolns life have close contemporary parallels, making a case for their relevance wasnt too terribly difficult. Since there is an awful lot of talk in contemporary religious circles about the role of the church in offering prophetic witness--speaking truth to power and letting the chips fall where they may (relying, in other words, on Providence)--I left my students with the following questions. Statesmen, who are responsible for the ongoing welfare, security, and prosperity of their communities, have to care about the consequences of their actions. They have to make decisions based upon moral principle, the best information they have available, and their best estimates of how others will respond to their actions. And as new situations emerge, they have to re-evaluate. A prophet called by God has a responsibility only to utter the word of the Lord. But how does the prophet know that he or she is called? How do we know that the prophet is called? How frequently is prophetic witness an explicitly and self-consciously political stance, in which case the same strictures regarding information, reactions, and consequences would seem to apply? In other words, is there really a sustainable distinction between prophetic witness and statesmanship, assuming that those who inhabit both roles are moral actors?
And then there was my afternoon class on "Liberal Education and Political Philosophy," in which we were supposed to get to Allan Blooms The Closing of the American Mind, but continued a discussion (begun last week) of Leo Strausss "Liberal Education and Responsibility" (from Liberalism Ancient and Modern). The issue I pressed my students on is the very "political" nature of Strausss presentation of the role of liberal education, as he addresses himself to people living in democratic times and treats specifically of the role of liberally educated people in a democracy. Why cant we have an "aristocracy of everyone"? Why cant we realize Marxs vision in The German Ideology, where everyone is a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a critical critic after dinner, i.e., where everyone acts in effect like a liberally educated person with leisure? And if we cant realize these goals, then why shouldnt we do the just thing and offer everyone the same "mediocre" education? How can we "justify" offering some an excellent (liberal) education that isnt available to everyone? How can people so educated profit those who dont share in their education?
Fun stuff that makes students heads hurt.