Political science and the art of prudence
“If American troops ever entered Pakistan, I would be the first to volunteer for a suicide mission.” This sudden verbal bomb from Saddiq exploded in mid-discussion during the first week of my teaching career. In hindsight, perhaps I should have expected it. After all, I had chosen my first teaching position in the heart of Islamic radicalism: Peshawar, Pakistan. This city rose to global prominence in the wake of 9/11 for having birthed the Taliban – those advocates of unshaven men and uneducated women.
Before Saddiq’s outburst, I had read books about how to teach in Pakistan. As a result, I had altered my curriculum to suit a male-only class. I had learned how to put the class at ease with a foreign teacher. I had prepared myself to respond discreetly to frequent academic dishonesty. Yet in the heat of that moment, I could scarcely rely on textbook answers – there were none.
This heightened classroom scene illustrates well the practical challenges of my chosen field: political science. How so? As Aristotle knew, politics is a practical science. It demands the classical virtue of prudence. Aristotle defines prudence as “grasping the truths of reason about justice”. And yet he must have written that definition with a wry smile, because he goes on to show that prudence is better illustrated than defined.
Why is prudence so difficult to define in a textbook? It deals not with physical objects, which can be ruled absolutely by precise and definite laws of thermody- namic systems. Rather, prudence deals with human subjects, whose actions are fundamentally free and thus not entirely predetermined. (Ask yourself: how many pollsters correctly predicted the last Presidential election?)
For this reason, in political science we examine the philosophies that have guided political actors in unex- pected situations, and we explore how their theories worked (or didn’t work) in practice. For example, we examine how leaders understood human nature – and understand the people they dealt with. We survey how they weighed their responsibility to their constituents with the legitimate interests of others. We study how they balanced the need to reflect carefully with the imperative to act quickly. In doing so, we aim to foster responsible political judgment – which gives
us the words to say when someone drops a sharp but misleading opinion about the day’s political events. And we seek to develop the capacity for a calm and measured response when we find ourselves respon- sible for those threatened by bombs – metaphorical or literal.
I learned this as an undergraduate while studying the origins of World War I. Many ascribe the war’s catastrophic carnage to the inevitable forces of the international alliance system (thankfully not yet a thermonuclear system). Yet an Aristotelian lens illustrates the free decisions of several crucial actors: the reckless and distrustful Kaiser Wilhelm; the frail and insecure Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph; and the duplicitous and incompetent Count Berchtold,
his Foreign Minister. Had the protagonists exhibited more prudence, Kaiser Wilhelm might have persuad- ed Austria-Hungary to avoid war, and the alliance system would have been credited instead with preventing war. In other words, the story behind the story involves the individuals, not just the system. When I discuss this case study in POL 207 (Peace and War), I ask students what they might have done differently, and I see them learning in the same ways that I did.
After I graduated from university, I sought to complement my reading about prudence with an academic fellowship in the rough-and-tumble of national politics. At one point, I had the opportunity to pick the brain of a major party power broker. Our discus- sion turned to a recent intra-party dispute in which the party leader had ousted a long serving legislator. Seeking to impress my (senior) partner in conversation, I speculated on the philosophical, geographic, and intra-partisan differences between the two disputants. His response? “Never offer an intellectual analysis when a good old-fashioned personality conflict will suffice.” In other words, character matters.
This political education – both inside and outside the classroom – prepared me to think quickly in response to Saddiq’s salvo. How would I maintain my authority in a class that included two religious imams? How could I defuse the situation without causing Saddiq to lose face? Based on what I knew
of Saddiq, I quickly surmised that the statement reflected more about his psychology than his politics. Instinctively, I passed up the bait, suppressing my own desire to publicly point out Saddiq’s hypocrisies. Instead, I calmly reminded the class that we needed time to complete the day’s lesson, and invited them to chat after class once the passions had cooled.
By the end of the semester, many students told me that their perception of the West had dramatically improved, both from my teaching and from my character. Saddiq himself invited me for tea, and led me on a tour of the medical school he was attending.
This experience showed me that the power of reason and example can transform hearts and minds – even in the world’s prime breeding ground for terrorism. This up-close experience of international relations inspired me to attend graduate school and to take up the vocation of a professor.
Here at Assumption College, I continue to face student questions – albeit in a much friendlier man- ner. Students sometimes ask, “why should I study political science when other, more ostensibly marketable majors beckon?” My first response is that your career success and satisfaction depends more on your long-term ability to navigate the practical science of
office politics than on the technical skills you might humblebrag about in your first job interview. But my deeper response takes a more Socratic turn. I respond with a series of rhetorical questions: Would you want a well paying job working for an autocratic foreign despot? What good is a large salary in a war-torn failed state?
The answers to these questions are anything but rhetorical. Our own democracy cannot long endure without an educated and responsible citizenry. We must be capable of resolving our disputes without resorting to identitarian appeals that inexorably turn violent; we must instead exercise prudent reason about the common good. As Federalist Paper No. 55 points out, republican government presupposes the cultivation of these latter qualities in the highest degree. I am honoured to teach in a Department and a College that takes up this inspiring, demanding and rewarding mission.
Professor Geddert is a political science professor at Assumption College. He is a special to Le Provocateur.