Who Says Political Philosophy Isn’t Practical?

Sometimes it may seem like getting too deep into the philosophical end of the classics just isn’t “practical,” since so much of it seems airy-fairy, high-falutin’, divorced from “the real world” of everyday experience. But then you read things like this, from Plato and you suddenly realize that even the philosophical material in the classics is very practical because it is rooted in the real world of every day experience:

“When offices are filled competitively, the winners take over the affairs of state so completely that they totally deny the losers and the losers’ descendants any share of power. Each side passes its time in a narrow scrutiny of the other, apprehensive lest someone with memories of past injustices should gain some office and lead a revolution. Of course, our position is that this kind of arrangement is very far from being a genuine political system; we maintain that laws which are not established for the good of the whole state are bogus laws, and when they favor particular sections of the community, their authors are not citizens but party-men; and people who say those laws have a claim to be obeyed are wasting their breath….Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.”

Laws 715a-d

To be sure, questions arise from these thoughts, particularly regarding what the phrase “for the good of the whole state” means. (Won’t that be precisely one of the things that even “party men” claim lies at the root of their sectarian programs?) And does the passage really enjoin that any citizen, upon deciding that some laws promulgated by the government are “bogus laws” made by “party men” and therefore no one who doesn’t wish to has to obey them?

Still, these are very provocative words, and again they illustrate that even the more philosophical parts of the classics really ought to be carefullly studied right along with all the other supposedly “more practical” parts.