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Justice Among Nations: On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace
by thomas l. pangle and peter j. ahrensdorf
university press of kansas, 362 pages, $45

Makers of American foreign policy today are experiencing a philosophical dearth, a want of broad principles of governmental conduct in world affairs. This is due primarily to the new power relationships created by the collapse of the Soviet Union. No longer is politics among nations structured by the dramatically simple confrontation of two superpowers. The world has always contained more complexities than the bare concept of bipolarity adequately explained, but suddenly the complexities, now set loose from any clear framework of interpretation, seem to be crowding in upon us. In these circumstances, Justice Among Nations—dealing, as the subtitle indicates, with “the moral basis of power and peace”—is very much to the point.

In form, the book is a broad history of Western political philosophy. It is distinctive in giving particular attention to ideas bearing on international relations, these having been of peripheral concern to most of the great political thinkers of the past, hence neglected in standard histories of political philosophy. In substance, however, the book is more than a history. The authors reveal their intent, as well as their method, in a characterization of “the true Socratic” as seen by Cicero. He is one who “writes in such a way that he need not declare his own views but may leave his teaching as a politically responsible provocation to the reader to think for himself.” The ultimate concern of Pangle and Ahrensdorf is philosophical rather than historical, and the audience they address is made up exclusively of those willing, whether as amateurs or professionals, to be philosophers on their own. They aspire to lead readers inhabiting the new world of power politics into realms of reflection in which they can search in their own ways for the principles that tell us how and when nation should act upon nation.

They accomplish their aim with such evident professional mastery that a critical appraisal scarcely seems called for. The authors display a thorough knowledge of the history of political thought, and they describe this history, in its bearing on global politics, in clear, vigorous, and unpretentious prose. A reviewer thus is not prompted to ask whether the book is a good one. Clearly it is. Nor is a reviewer tempted to outline the lessons to be drawn from the book. That would be to preempt a task that the authors themselves, with their Socratic aim and method, eschew. But it does seem in order to indicate the kind of issues in which readers may find themselves engrossed.

There is, for example, the venerable issue of just war. This is given new life by showing that the traditional doctrine, contrary to many presentations, is not mere common sense. Thus in the Middle Ages self-defense was not seen as justifying war. For both St. Augustine and St. Thomas, war was just solely when launched for the purpose of punishing wrongdoing. A morally legitimate war was punitive—a policing action. Just war doctrine thus originated in the consciousness of a moral order informing relations among nations, and in the conviction that war-making leaders should be animated primarily by moral considerations.

This of course is appealing to idealists. But idealists will be set back (and impelled to think) by the corollary which, the authors argue, accompanied so moral a standard. They argue that medieval just war doctrine, at least among the Scholastics, allowed for “the infliction of atrocities against entire civilian populations in cities with a view to spreading terror in the hearts of the enemy and inflaming the ferocity of the just warriors”—a view at first glance completely unacceptable yet, we should note, receiving implicit support in recent times in America. Debate arising on the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima elicited cogent arguments to the effect that, given the alternatives, the use of nuclear weapons in that instance was not completely unreasonable.

Just war doctrine is interesting partly because it presents a double issue, that of ends and of means in the use of organized violence. An issue more thoroughly philosophical, yet absolutely inescapable, is that of natural law. Throughout the history of political thought, the idea of natural law, in one form or another, has been integral to the claim that politics must be construed and carried on in accordance with moral principles. It has been virtually equivalent to the notion that beneath the disorder among polities there is a moral ground, knowable apart from revelation, hence common to the whole human race, irrespective of varying cultures and faiths.

However, with David Hume and his questioning of the necessities that had been thought to bind together the outward order of nature, a breach in this ground appeared. As we know, Immanuel Kant constructed repairs by means of the concept of the categorical imperative, and these for a time were effective. In the twentieth century, however, the breach has opened up into a chasm, not only through the systematic atrocities committed by various tyrannical and totalitarian nations, and the seemingly untroubled relativism professed by most intellectuals, but through the postmodern thesis that the order of nature is no more than a construct of human power and self-interest. Is there any philosophical pathway by which we might return to this ground? If not, where can we find the standards so urgently needed in the global politics of our day?

A related issue, posed in various ways in Justice Among Nations, concerns the final purpose that human nature (if such exists) sets for our lives. Is it power? Justice? Self-preservation? Divergent answers to these questions gave rise to a debate well-known to everyone familiar with scholarly controversies in twentieth-century America—that between “idealists” and “realists.” The former is typified by Woodrow Wilson, the latter by Reinhold Niebuhr, (who is inexplicably ignored by Pangle and Ahrensdorf). The polarity is quite artificial in that “idealists” were not necessarily indifferent to reality nor did “realists” ordinarily deny moral ideals. But it did reflect a persistent divergence of temperament and emphasis, if not of principle. And often, of course, Christians were among the realists—those impressed by how preoccupied humans are, sometimes rightfully, sometimes not, by matters of power and self-interest.

The authors suggest that deeper than the issue of idealism and realism, which is mainly modern, is an issue prominent in antiquity and the Middle Ages: that of “classical rationalism,” as enunciated most fully by Cicero, and “biblical theology,” as typified by the writings of Augustine and Aquinas. This is a wise suggestion. The older dichotomy focuses, as the modern dichotomy does not, on religion. In this way it involves us in reflection not only on empirical human nature but on the divine origin and end of human life, or at least on the question of whether there is such an origin and end.

Justice Among Nations does not probe very deeply into such matters, and this may be its most serious weakness. This weakness may be seen, however, as the obverse side of strength. The authors do not think very carefully about political theology, one may surmise, because their minds are on philosophy. Their view of philosophy—emergent again and again in the course of the book—is highly debatable, yet, especially for religious readers, of considerable interest.

In their analysis of practically every thinker, the authors manifest an urge to exalt a life of philosophical contemplation, or at least of philosophical activity, set apart from the polity. Such a life is not only inherently noble; it is somehow essential to the balance and health of the political order. The authors detect a conviction to this effect in most of the philosophers they discuss, including Thucydides. They suggest that even Machiavelli may have harbored a secret preference for a private, philosophical life. Here important questions, some perhaps of a sort the authors do not intend to provoke, may arise in a reader’s mind.

To begin with, do we need philosophers or philosophical thinking to advance justice among nations? There are numerous philosophies at hand, and it may be that what we lack is not original thought but rather a consensus as to which of these philosophies is most relevant to our situation. Or perhaps we lack statesmen of philosophical depth. Or our need may be for the sort of settled and judicious national purposes that come more from culture and tradition than from solitary reflection. Few would deny that philosophical reflection is among the more estimable human activities. That it has very much to do with the wise conduct of foreign relations, however, will not be as clear to many readers as it seemingly is to Pangle and Ahrensdorf.

The most significant questions of all—neglected by the authors in spite of their interest in the classical rationalism/biblical theology dichotomy—concern the relationship between philosophy and religion. One might ask, for example, whether the ideal of philosophical contemplation makes sense outside of a religious context. Why should an empiricist, who envisions the universe as originating in chance and unfolding in causal laws unrelated to any ultimate purpose, find unsurpassable delight in beholding reality? Plato, with his doctrine of forms, may have found such delight (although his forays into practical governance raise doubts). But Thucydides? It is impossible not to wonder about the suggestion of Pangle and Ahrensdorf that Thucydides attained greater fulfillment in contemplating the terrible events of the Peloponnesian War as an historian than he would have had he been able to continue as an Athenian general.

In addition to the question of contemplative delight there is that of moral guidance. Can philosophy, without religion, provide the moral resources needed in a world of contentious and masterless nations? The Western concept of justice—which governs relations among nations as well as those among individuals—involves necessarily the proposition that every individual is sacred. Biblical religion supports that proposition. Does philosophy? Perhaps a few philosophies, such as later Stoicism and Kantianism, do. Their support, however, is disputed by other philosophers, and is thereby vulnerable in a way that religious support is not. Most philosophies render incomprehensible or absurd the notion that a human being as such, regardless of intelligence, education, beauty, character, and other such personal qualities, is of unconditional worth. Even so large a spiritual figure as Plato gave no support to such a notion.

In short, the highly philosophical authors of Justice Among Nations may be reproached for not being sufficiently critical of philosophy itself. Perhaps, however, they would be undisturbed by this reproach. Their purpose, after all, is not to lead readers to specific conclusions but to provoke the kind of thinking through which they will reach their own conclusions. It seems safe to say that this purpose will be achieved with most of their readers, who will find themselves pondering not only the social role of philosophy but a multitude of other questions related to the perplexing and perilous global politics of our time.

Glenn Tinder is Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author of The Political Meaning of Christianity.