One common way of denying that prudence is required for leadership is to cast political decisions as essentially easy. Politicians need not be prudent men, we think to ourselves, because any moron can just look at problem X and see what needs to be done. If we simply point out that people are starving, or uninsured, or immoral, or uneducated, or oppressed, or attacked then what we should do (or whether we should do anything at all) is assumed to be immediately obvious. Notice that on this supposition, a bad leader can only be incredibly stupid or evil or both, since this is the only way to to account for why he neglects to do obvious goods.

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6 Comments

  1. Edward said,

    August 21, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Reading this post and the last one, my initial question is “What kind of thing is politics?” I ask because even if political decisions are essentially hard I am not sure that prudence would be valued by modern man. What I mean is that there are many difficult things that do not require you to be a good man in order to excel. Chess, for instance, is a game that requires great skill, but no one would say that you need to be a good man in order to be good at it. Popular sports is another category. In fact, sports players are notoriously flawed characters. So is politics like these things or is it something different? Or am I asking the wrong question?

  2. August 21, 2009 at 9:23 am

    No, that’s exactly the right question. You are right that all of the skills you mentioned do not require prudence. There is no impediment to the devil being great at Chess, poetry, Athletics, etc.

    The use of the word “skill” is very apt. Chess and Politics both require skill, but the question is whether the prudence that we see as desirable in our leaders is a skill in the same way that chess is, or whether it is a skill that is also a virtue.

  3. Brandon said,

    August 21, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    This always comes up when I teach Intro Phil (which I am gearing up to do now) because I teach Plato’s Gorgias and this issue of skill and politics is a big issue for that dialogue — one way to teach it is to take the rhetors, Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles, as advocating a view of politics as skill like chess, which Socrates opposes with a conception of politics as a skill that is also a virtue. One of the things that students start realizing how much of their own view of politics is being criticized by Socrates — their ideal politician is a Callicles who agrees with them.

    • August 21, 2009 at 1:34 pm

      I’m getting ready to teach an intro phil too which will start with the Gorgias (I, um, practiced the sincerest form of flattery with parts of your syllabus). I had a few questions:

      1.) Did the final dialogue work out for the students?
      2.) Did you have success with making them keep a portfolio?

      • Brandon said,

        August 21, 2009 at 1:55 pm

        I go back and forth on the portfolio. They never really give you what you expect; sometimes it’s a very pleasant surprise and sometimes it’s not. This term I’m not doing a portfolio for the overall course, although I still have a special project for the Gorgias, and it’s still portfolio-like. I don’t like essay assignments — besides the fact that I think the essay is an overrated form for conveying what one knows, they don’t really know how to write them, even the ones who are reasonably good writers (one thing doing a portfolio has taught me is that students will sometimes do the research and put the thought into it that they’re supposed to, but it will never make it into the final product), and, unfortunately, to teach them how I would have to convert my Intro course into a philosophy-essay-writing course. Which I may try some day, just to see how it works; but it would require giving up a number of things I like about the way I do it now.

        The dialogues work out nicely, all things considered, and I’m doing them again this term. I do get some odd ones, but many interesting ones, too. The tricky thing is that they always try to do it all at the last minute, and you just can’t do that with a philosophical dialogue. It’s the old problem of teaching — students will take what seems to be the shortest and easiest path to the grade they deem acceptable, and so you have to rig the assignment so that it’s clear that the shortest and easiest path is through doing the things that they’re supposed to do. And I haven’t entirely figured out how to do that.This term I’m breaking the dialogue project into three parts:

        (1) The dialogue and its outline.
        (2) A signed comment on the dialogue from at least one of the other students. (And everyone is required to provide at least one comment on someone else’s dialogue).
        (3) A brief response to the comment.

        We’ll see how it goes.

        I find teaching the Gorgias great fun, and it’s often the part of the course students like best. But prepare for the probability that a quarter to half your class will, despite seeing through Gorgias and Polus, think that Callicles is basically right, and that nothing Socrates or you can say will convince them otherwise in the course of the term.

  4. Edward said,

    August 21, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    Many people who read Plato find Socrates’ arguments compelling yet counter intuitive and ultimately few go so far as to agree with him. My most immediate experience of this was a class on Plato that I took last semester. We read about six or seven dialogues and the class was almost always divided in opinion.

    I think I would like to join the ranks of philosophy teachers someday.


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