BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
A divided calling
, December 22, 2012
THE FORUM AND THE TOWER:
How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt
by Mary Ann Glendon
(New York: Oxford University Press)
Hardcover: 280 pages
Reviewed by John Ballantyne
According to Mary Ann Glendon, many students seek to study law for idealistic reasons, thinking it will give them the best preparation for a career in public life. Yet by the time they graduate most of them have become thoroughly disillusioned with politics.
Professor Glendon, who has taught law at Boston College, the University of Chicago and Harvard, says that the reasons her law students end up deciding against a career in public life are that they see politics as sordid; they have no wish to expose themselves or their families to the politics of character assassination; and they fear they would have to compromise on their principles if they wished to get ahead, and would thus end up betraying the very ideals that attracted them to public life in the first place.
Glendon, whose distinguished career has included serving as US Ambassador to the Vatican and being the first woman to serve as president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, was invited to Australia earlier this month in order to be awarded an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne and also to deliver a lecture, “Politics as a vocation”.
In her book, Glendon contrasts two types of contributors to political life: the activists who venture into the public forum, and the thinkers who retreat to the ivory tower — hence the book’s title, The Forum and the Tower. She also looks at individuals who have managed to be both thinkers and activists at the same time.
Her book skilfully examines the lives and careers of a great variety of famous figures, such as Plato, Cicero, Justinian, Machiavelli, Edward Coke, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Malik.
Socrates once famously said, “The punishment which the wise suffer, who refuse to take part in government, is to live under the government of worse men.”
His pupil Plato tried to teach sound philosophy to the citizenry of the Greek city-state. Increasingly he felt that the wise man should just “keep quiet and offer up prayers for his own welfare and for that of his country”.
Yet Plato’s unhappy experiences enabled him to write what Glendon considers to be probably his greatest, book, The Laws, in which he expounds the philosophical preconditions for good government.
Aristotle also wrestled with the forum-and-tower dilemma. He concluded that politics, along with philosophy, was a particularly worthy vocation for those persons desiring to acquire virtue.
He said: “There is a dispute among those who agree that the most choice-worthy life is that accompanied by virtue as to whether the political and active way of life is choice-worthy, or rather that which is divorced from all external things — that involving some sort of study, for example — which some assert is the only philosophic way of life.
“For it is evident that these two ways of life are the ones intentionally chosen by those human beings who are most ambitious with a view to virtue, both in former times and at the present; the two I mean are the political and the philosophic.”
Almost two thousand years later, in Renaissance Florence, Machiavelli was ambitious to embark on a public career, but was not particularly “ambitious with a view to virtue”, in the sense intended by Aristotle.
Machiavelli’s “the-end-justifies-the-means” philosophy has made his name a byword for political cynicism, rather like former Australian federal Labor minister Graham Richardson fittingly giving his memoirs the title, Whatever It Takes.
In contrast to Machiavelli, a famous French thinker of later centuries, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, deliberately held aloof from politics, thinking that the ivory tower would give a more independent vantage point from which to diagnose society’s ills and offer lasting remedies.
Rousseau was also quite mad, and many of his political ideas were fatally flawed. His disciple Robespierre, however, was taken by Rousseau’s sublime vision and, after the French Revolution, hastened to put his ideas into effect. This episode of French history is known to posterity as the Reign of Terror.
Has anyone succeeded in doing much lasting good in politics? Glendon names a few individuals. She particularly singles out for praise the Roman orator Cicero and the Irish-born British statesman Burke, even though their careers, by the world’s standards, seemed to end in failure.
Cicero’s closest friends begged him not to enter public life. “Just take a look around the Roman Forum,” they cried. “It’s filled with schemers and bribe-takers.”
Cicero could not deny this, but turned their argument on its head, saying, “What better reason could brave and high-minded men have for entering politics than the determination not to allow the state to be torn apart by the cowardly and wicked?”
Cicero was eventually murdered by his political enemies; but his speeches achieved immortality, inspiring later great figures such as St Augustine and Edmund Burke.
Professor Glendon says in the closing sentence of her book: “If one message emerges from the stories collected here, it is that just because one does not see the results of one’s best efforts in one’s own lifetime does not mean those efforts were in vain.”