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The Forum and the Tower

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

National Review has an interesting interview with Mary Ann Glendon about her new book, The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt (reviewed in the Wall Street Journal here).

Glendon, who teaches law at Harvard University and is a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, wrote the book to fill “a gap in the literature–the need for a book that links some of the most influential figures in political theory to the events of their times, and that connects their theories to their personal histories. Since all of the persons I chose as protagonists are giants in Western political history, there is much to admire about all of them. And since they are all only human, they all have their flaws and failings, some more than others.”

At one point in the interview Glendon is asked to comment on Max Weber’s observation that “the qualities that make a first-rate thinker are not the same as those required for success in statesmanship.” Her reply:

Some of the greatest political achievements in history–the framing of the U.S.  Constitution, the Corpus Juris of Justinian, the Napoleonic Codes, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — were the products of the synergy that came from collaboration between statespersons and scholars. Nearly all the scholars and political actors profiled in my book shared the belief that society benefits if political actors keep in touch with the world of ideas and political theorists attend to what is going on in the world around them.

Plato, who tried hard to keep a foot in both worlds, had little use for politicians who never looked beyond the business at hand, or philosophers who kept their heads in the clouds. The former, he said, develop minds that are “narrow and crooked.” As for philosophers, he warned that they need to stay grounded in reality, not only for the sake of philosophy, but in the interest of self-preservation: to assure the maintenance of conditions under which intellectual life can flourish.

The bottom line, she continues, is that “it is hard to resist the conclusion of the classical philosophers that no polity can afford to neglect the nurture and education of future citizens and statespersons.”

On that, we heartily agree.