Political Philosophy and Poetry: A Restatement

"Political Philosophy and Poetry: A Restatement," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 54, No. 2  (Jun., 1960), pp. 471-473.


The REVIEW has been open-minded enough to publish two interpretations of Shakespeare. In these interpretations Jaffa and I argued that Shakespeare has a significant contribution to make to the understanding of political problems, and that part of Shakespeare’s intention was political. Our critic has seen fit to challenge our competence to interpret Shakespeare and hence to call in question our entire enterprise. Jaffa and I contended that Shakespeare’s plays give evidence of a comprehensive reflection about man’s nature, and that their significance can only be fully elucidated by a philosophic analysis of the actions and passions represented in them; their greatest depth and beauty, we believe, is a consequence of the fact that they incarnate fundamental human problems; the only interpretation that might do justice to all the details of a Shakespearean play is one which can make these problems as explicit as possible. We hold that there are a number of authors in the history of literature who used their art to educate men in their political responsibilities. In each instance there is, we believe, underlying their art, a developed view of human nature. From their works one can reproduce their teaching. Burckhardt denies all of this; this was and is the issue between us. Jaffa and I tried in two instances to show the necessity and advantage of such an approach. Burckhardt wanted to bring us before the tribunal of specialized literary criticism; we do not accept the jurisdiction of that tribunal; we can no more be expected to recognize an authority whose principles we reject than Galileo could rightly have been expected to submit his conclusions to the judgmentof the scholastic physics, which he argued could not understand the phenomena. The principles of judgment must first themselves be discussed. Burckhardt neither gave our arguments serious consideration nor did he refute the possibility that an author’s intention may be philosophic although he wrote dramas rather than treatises. The possibility persists that the distinction between literature and philosophy is not so simple as he assumes. His argument merely asserts that the interpretations seem improbable.