In these last several years of serious reading of political philosophy (I, regrettably, did not read it seriously in college, though, according to the transcripts, I did read it) I have conceived of far more questions than answers, more problems than solutions, more drops-of-the-jaw than satisfied nods; and the most at once astonishing and exhilarating question of all, is the question which I have found myself confronted with repeatedly: “What was X philosopher really up to?”
That this question, in many cases — cases of the greatest importance, touching on the most influential political philosophers — cannot be answered conclusively, is a fact which prompts something more than mere astonishment or amazement, something shading into the categories of wonder and awe.
It is not, for example, a mere curiosity of obscure historical interest that we did not possess an authoritative or even satisfactory manuscript of John Locke’s text Two Treaties of Government until the 1960s, not because archeology had failed to unearth the manuscript, but because historical scholarship had failed to identify, out of the mass of editions, the correct one. For instance, for over 250 years, scholars of Locke’s work erroneously misdated the First Treatise as predating the Second Treatise, when in fact it was written after it. Sequentially, the second is actually the first.
Then there is the problem of translation. Everyone at all familiar with metaphysics — and I am no expert, not by a long shot — is familiar with the feebleness of the English language and its “being” verbs. (Hence the strange but unavoidable use of the phrase I AM to represent God’s infinite Being in the Bible.) Some philosophers, particularly Germans like Hegel have probably never been satisfactorily translated, and may never be; and even superb French writers like Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville have been problematic for translators. It is extraordinarily hard to substitute translation for reading an author in the original language.
But aside from these technical problems, there is the still the nagging question of what a given theorist is trying to say. There is the question of his object and intent, which for many great theorists would remain controversial even if we possessed a perfect authoritative manuscript of the text.
The most (in)famous specimen is Niccolo Machiavelli. Nearly half a millennium after his death scholars are still not settled on what the author of The Prince was getting at, though it may be that ultimately the Straussian interpretation will prevail, and Machiavelli will finally be recorded as having launched modern political philosophy as a deliberate and cunning revolt against the classical and biblical tradition. Maybe.
THE CONTROVERSIES RAGE throughout the history of modern political philosophy: Was Rousseau the revolutionary that so many have claimed, or was he something greater and more fascinating? Is the Rousseau of “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains,” the “real” Rousseau, or is it the Rousseau of The Government of Poland who vigorously praises many of the “chains” prevailing in Poland’s ancient institutions, and anticipates, in his own way, the conservative federalism of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay?
Another example: Did John Locke really assent to the doctrine of Natural Law, which he seems to do when he acknowledges his debt to Richard Hooker and takes swipes at Hobbes? Or was this mere “window-dressing,” implicitly and resoundingly refuted by the force of his teaching? Does Locke represent a point of continuity with the ancients and mediaevals, or a break with them? This is still a matter of dispute.
Closer to home, there is the question of why The Federalist, the most magnificent document of American political philosophy, has so often been denigrated as “propaganda” by historians. Why have so many gone to such lengths to brand it for history not political philosophy at all but mere polemic?
Or, again, there is the question of whether Locke was as pivotal an influence on the American Founders as schoolchildren have been led to believe; whether the Founders were primarily Lockeans — a question which throws us back, now with greater consequence, to the question of Locke’s posture toward the philosophical tradition of the West.
If they were indeed Lockeans, and Locke was indeed a profound innovator, even a revolutionary, then America was indeed the vanguard of political modernity. But if they were not Lockeans, if the bulk of the founders in fact rejected the emerging Lockean innovations and instead drew from an earlier philosophical tradition, then America was a vanguard of reinvigorated premodernity. The consequences of a definitive answer to this question, it should be clear, are about as far-reaching as one can imagine.