Shimon Cowen – ABC Religion and Ethics – 9 May 2012
Politics, understood as a moral vocation, requires humility to accept truth – and being wary of the prejudices that might lead one to dismiss it or the fears that might keep one from affirming it.
Over the years, I have frequently studied a famous essay by the great German sociologist Max Weber, “Politics as a vocation.”
Weber spoke of the politician as one who proceeds from conviction of a worldview. For Weber himself, however, there was an inherent relativism about worldviews. He found no mooring in religious tradition, describing himself as religiously “unmusical” (tone-deaf).
So there is something relativistic, perhaps even a little nihilistic about his view of the “polytheism” of warring or colliding worldviews among which the politician found their own personal conviction.
Having written a book about universal ethics, which I believe is at the root of the world cultures and world religions, it should be obvious that I take exception to such relativism. Since Weber could not find any truth criterion for a particular worldview, at the very least he required of the politician a strong sense of responsibility for the consequences of acceptance of a particular worldview in politics.
What strikes me in particular is Weber’s conception of politics as a vocation, as a profound and earnest calling. Indeed, I believe that the most important arena of ideas is the political arena.
John Maynard Keynes said that every statesman is the slave of a defunct economist – in other words, that academic ideas do filter through and influence politics. Still I would prefer that ideas be alive and fresh and conscious in politics, precisely because politics is the realm of action, ideals within reach of actualization.
So, as one who is more academic than a politician, I have sought to arouse and inject ideas, which are living, vital and universal, rather than allow the input to remain that of a defunct academic. Here are some thoughts from the ringside of politics about what constitutes real vocation in politics.
The fundamental quality of a politician for whom politics is a vocation is idealism, or a commitment to goals. Genuine idealism must recognize the whole person of the individuals who make up society – people who are a composite of body, mind and soul.
One of the appalling features of modernity has been the eclipse of the human soul. Its denial seems to me as absurd as the denial that one has a body. The exclusion of the reality and experience of the spiritual, which is one of the most natural human experiences, is denial in every sense of the word: intellectual and emotional denial. It is irrational, though paradoxically it parades as rationality.
My observation and engagements of the last few years, which produced much of the material of my book, confirms the importance and necessity of action in politics. We not only have to know what is right, but also to do it – not cowering in the face of political correctness, disfavour and ridicule, but thinking, saying and doing the right thing.
Politics, in other words, is about loving the truth. I had thought that a particular phrase came from Jewish tradition, but discovered that Isaac Newton also said it (or something like it): “Love Plato, love Aristotle, but love the truth more.”
For politicians to speak in terms of truth does not mean that they present themselves as paragons of truth and virtue. Rather – and here let me drawn on another piece of wisdom from our tradition – to love the truth is to “accept the truth from the person who says it.” In other words, to accept the truth, not because the person who says it has a virtuous and unchequered past, but because now what she is saying is true.
This means having the humility to accept truth, and being wary of the prejudices that might lead one to dismiss it or the fears that might keep one from affirming it. Humility is, of course, a hallmark of commitment to truth.
Honesty is another hallmark of commitment to truth. We may believe what we believe, but we have to acknowledge what we do not know. Bertrand Russell was such a person. He was an avowedly non-religious person, with many values which I reject, but he acknowledged what he did not know, and what the limits of his own understanding were.
This is the first step to self-transcendence: to recognize not only the foibles of our character, but also the limits of our intellect. This opens the door to the soul and its qualitatively different knowledge.
Love of one’s neighbour is essential to a true political vocation – recognition of diversity, freedom and creativity, but always within the bounds of universal ethics and with respect for Divine image of the human being. As I have argued, within the compass of universal ethics there can be diversity – say, Liberal and Labor – but we must know what the boundaries are, where the compass points lie, what lines we cannot cross, and which basic shared values we are bound to affirm.
I’m not referring here to some conflict between the religious and anti- or non-religious. Every human being is made in the image of God, and every human being has a soul. Some are more activated than others, and those that are not so activated are not to be blamed, even from a religious standpoint, since we live in a culture of spiritual “deactivation.”
I have been reading a book by Herman van Rompuy, the President of the European Council. He affirms the religious tradition of humanity, and writes simply that materialism is the great enemy of the human spirit. It does not allow the human spirit to emerge.
Perhaps we could say that there are two kinds of materialism. One is the materialism of self-indulgence, or simple hedonism. According to this principle, any pleasure should be indulged if people so desire it. That is the materialism of the body.
Then there is a sophisticated version of materialism, the materialism of intellect, which says, “What you see is all there is.” The physical senses at the disposal of intellect do not see G-d, they do not see one’s own soul. This kind of intellectual materialism ends up as the advocate of bodily materialism in the service of human pleasure and convenience: it leads to active euthanasia, abortion on demand, the annihilation of all sexual boundaries.
There is only one human faculty that knows G-d with certainty, and that is the human soul itself. It has been submerged by the materialisms of body and intellect, daily reinforced by secular and secularizing media, made helpless by the breakdown of the family, in which these values were once transmitted, and the failure of education to provide children with spiritual literacy.
This is something which calls for repair, not denunciation. With the famous psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, all I would propose (and this, surely, is the objective of politics itself) is that we all make an effort to transcend ourselves – that is to say, to rise above our perceived desires and wants and our limited grasp of reality, and ask ourselves: Why are we here? What is required of us? How we can make the world a better place?
That is already the route to our own intrinsic spirituality, without asking anyone to make any religious affirmation. In that we will find our common spirituality and humanity.
We should also remember, drawing again on Viktor Frankl, that the true meaning of tolerance is not moral relativism – that I tolerate another’s view, since who knows where the truth lies – but rather is the commitment to love and acknowledge another. Tolerance is not the suspension of belief, but the deeper adherence to that which is true and universal.
Politics is a sphere in which we engage to change our lives and the lives of others. This makes it the most responsible, the most earnest of all realms of human conduct.
Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen is Director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilisation in Melbourne, and the author of Politics and Universal Ethics.