Highlight: "Authoritarian regimes don't like philosophy"
Shadi and Damir take on political theorist David Polansky in a recent episode of the podcast.
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On a recent podcast, political theoristargues that while he personally values individual freedom and dislikes Aristotle's attribution of moral significance to democracy, he recognizes the importance of democratic symbols for state legitimacy. Shadi agrees with David but underscores how democracy allows the pursuit of philosophy and friendships without authoritarian restrictions. Damir questions David's detachment from politics, suggesting that Shadi's moral case for democracy still holds. David acknowledges the benefits of liberal democracy but criticizes its own distinct forms of control along with the lack of a societal case for “the good”. A partial transcript of this conversation is below.
The following transcript excerpt has been lightly edited for readability.
DAVID POLANSKY: I think yes, it is impossible. And I think, look, every state has to make some use of democratic symbols, even non-democratic ones. They have to make some reliance. They have to pay some sort of lip service to popular sovereignty to legitimize themselves even when the people don't actually get to do anything. My own preference is to be left alone as much as possible. And as such, it would be impossible for me to be opposed to democracy on those grounds. But what I would say in an Aristotelian sense I don't like Aristotle. I don't assign moral significance to democracy. I mean in the sense that if you ask me what is best in life, you know like Conan, except I wouldn't say that it's to hear the lamentations of the women that drive your enemies. I would say I do find the Aristotelian answer very compelling, that what is best in life are philosophy and friendship, and to that I might add sex. And of all people, Machiavelli, who definitely agrees with me on the sex thing, you read that marvelous letter that he writes to Vittori. This famous letter where he says in the evening, ‘Read my books and I'm received by the ancients.’ And it's just the greatest pleasure. And I do think those things are higher than politics and Aristotle does too, which is funny. I think people forget, because he writes about politics so much but he doesn't treat politics itself as the highest good. You can't avoid it, for the most part. And it might be a means for — go ahead. What?
DAMIR MARUSIC: I was just going to say this is another good prompt to Shadi. I think you're on the cusp of agreeing with Aristotle because you're in many ways, you're tempted to abandon politics and the news and the rest of this but at the same time, you have very strong commitments to the moral superiority of democracy.
SHADI HAMID: Yeah, I don't think those things are mutually exclusive. Philosophy and friendship are in fact quite important. And I do agree with David completely that politics should not be the highest good or even like a higher good. But it’s precisely democracy and democratic arrangements, and the procedural aspects of democracy in particular, that allow one to pursue philosophy, that allow one to pursue friendships the way they see fit without fear of the government of an authoritarian government restricting that, or making you feel self-conscious about who you associate with in public life.
I mean, to my knowledge, all or almost all authoritarian polities are designed to break people apart because if people act too collectively, if you have strong bonds of friendship at the community level, that's ultimately a threat to the regime and its dominance. Philosophy is always a threat to authoritarian regimes because philosophy is about interrogating first principles. It's about asking deeper questions. Autocrats don't want you to ask deeper questions. So democracy is what allows and enables these higher goods.
DAMIR MARUSIC: David, I mean, is that fair? Because that doesn't get you to that level of distance that at least you're admiring in Aristotle, to be able to say of real indifference to it and that is to strip the moral content of it. I mean, that's Shadi's moral case for democracy there.
DAVID POLANSKY: Is that true? I mean, it's not untrue. Given the available alternatives in modern life, given the available alternatives in modern life, I'm very aware that there are certain societies in which I can pursue — I don't just personally think, but in [an] objective sense do think — the true goods in life and that is not a small thing. I mean, you watch something like The Lives of Others, and it's very clear that within my lifetime, there really are parts of the world where that's not the case. Having said that, I think that he makes too strong a case for the ways in which, to put it in Socratic terms, liberal democracy is not a cave. I think liberal democracy at the end of the day, modern democracies, they are caved, too. They have their own ways of controlling our thoughts, of making us what they, of the kind of citizens we're supposed to be, and to making sure that we play the game, just like Hobbes wanted us to. And I think it's very, very difficult to push back against that. Part of the reason it's very difficult to push back against that is because of the very minimalistic stuff that Charlie talks about. We are not able to posit a case for our political society that makes a case for the good. It simply is not on the table. And so the fact that the three of us can all sit around and say, yeah, philosophy, friendship, like those are the real good things, not jerking off and playing video games — those are not the best. That is not what's best in life. But as a society, no, that's not on the table. We don't get to really say that. I mean, not in any categorical sense. We can privately say it.
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