from The New Republic, September 1, 1997, pp. 36-40
THE POLITIC MORALIST
by Peter Berkowitz
Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics
by Ruth W. Grant
(University of Chicago Press, 201 pp., $22.50)
It is fitting that President Clinton issued his recent call for a "national conversation" while he was
on campus. It is unlikely that he keeps up with contemporary scholarship, but his call from the University of
California at San Diego for a country-wide discussion of race uncannily echoed a theme that cuts across rival schools
in the world of academic political theory. This theme is that conversation is the essence of politics.
The numerous scholars who have been composing variations on this theme have been more impressed with what sets
their contributions apart from each other than by the common commitment that informs all their work. To an outsider,
however, what must be amazing is just how much the professors, when talking about politics, talk about talk. Rawlsian
liberalism places in the forefront of its reflections on politics the idea of public reason, the purpose of which
is to set firm boundaries on, and establish formal criteria for, public discussion in a liberal democracy. Communitarian
or civic republican critics respond that the idea of public reason is too restrictive: by bracketing questions
about the good, by formally excluding substantive argument about first principles and ultimate convictions from
political debate, Rawlsian liberalism creates a cramped public life that deprives citizens of the opportunity to
achieve the liberty that comes from sharing in self-government. For sharing in self-government means deliberating
with fellow citizens about the common good. Civic republican theorists aim to widen the national conversation and
place more fundamental issues on the agenda than is allowed by the idea of public reason. In the name of liberty
and the public good, they want citizens to bring their most deeply held moral and religious beliefs to political
discourse and make them the subject of public disputations.
Deliberative democrats, led by Jurgen Habermas abroad and by influential political and legal theorists at home,
in effect seek to split the difference between Rawlsian liberals and their civic republican critics. Like Rawlsian
liberals, deliberative democrats want to articulate procedural constraints that define the permissible forms of
political argument and set limits on the substantive issues that may be appropriately discussed in the public sphere.
And like civic republicans, they want an engaged political discourse in which citizens talk more to one another
and participate with greater energy and effectiveness in the determination of the laws that govern their lives.
Meanwhile, despite their sometimes flamboyant repudiation of reason and extravagant calls for the radical remaking
of social and political relations, postmodern political theorists agree with the goal shared by deliberative democrats
and civic republicans. They, too, desire the invigoration and expansion of democratic participation. Postmoderns
"contest the boundaries" of the political, which much of the time does not mean a widening but a refocusing
of the public agenda, and in practice does not involve an enlargement of the established terms of debate so much
as a demand for debate on their own terms.
In fact, most postmoderns are not at all eager to put all questions up for discussion–questions, say, about the
disadvantages of democracy, or the reasonableness of the all- out repudiation of reason, or the goodness of postmodernism
itself. And in this discrepancy between their bold rhetoric and timid agenda they are not alone among the proponents
of the politics of conversation. Deliberative democrats have devised complicated rules and procedures for keeping
the demos in line and on point while civic republicans display little enthusiasm for engaging seriously the full
range of moral and religious convictions already present in the public realm. Indeed, with all the hand wringing
about the current state of our national conversation and with so many of the professors pointing their fingers
at liberal principles, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the enlarged and enhanced conversation that liberalism's
critics envisage is one which always presupposes, and usually seeks to expand, liberalism's core principles of
liberty and equality.
So there is a consensus in America that conversation, properly conceived, is a cure for much that ails our public
life. It is not often remarked, however, that this cure, like any other, may have unpleasant side effects or substantial
costs. For a start, making talk the essence of politics can be highly destabilizing: you may well come to despise
what others have to say and they may grow disgusted or infuriated when they listen to what you have been thinking.
Candor often makes life harder and uglier, not easier and lovelier. And who really benefits from the politics of
conversation? The conversants, obviously. The well-educated, the plugged-in, the velvet-tongued have a considerable
edge in the burnishing of reputation and the acquisition of power when conversation is made the mark of civic involvement.
Indeed, aren't intellectuals who commend a politics that revolves around conversation--as opposed, say, to a politics
based on self-interest rightly understood or perhaps grounded in generosity, loyalty, patriotism, self-sacrifice,
and courage--a bit like the wealthy who defend the property qualification? Don't such intellectuals, like oligarchs
of all ages, place themselves in the compromised position of advocating a general principle to govern the entire
public which directly advances their own class interest? And isn't there a sunny and ironic Enlightenment optimism
that lies behind the various criticisms of liberalism in the name of conversation, a common faith that in an engaged
political discourse, through contesting the boundaries, by problematizing principles and practices, the truth will
out? Or is it rather, as the elegant arguments in Thomas Nagel's new book, The Last Word, might suggest,
that the proponents of the politics of conversation have, in tacit and sometimes open conformity to the irrationalism
and antifoundationalism of the age, given up on truth and have reinterpreted reason as the consensus of the community?
Yet the strangest difficulty with the scholarly defense of discourse as our defining political action is not that
it takes conversation too seriously but that it does not take conversation seriously enough. For conversation,
an egalitarian activity open to all, and one of life's delights, is also an elusive art. Mastering the art of conversation
requires a rare combination of gifts: a discerning eye, an alert ear, a generous heart, a disciplined mind, a respect
for the weakness of words and an attentiveness to silence's subtle textures. In the best of circumstances, when
friends meet face to face, conversation provides a respite from the idle chatter that gets one through the day,
an opportunity to share memories, form dreams, explore old ways and set out on new paths. In ordinary circumstances,
distance and distraction and distrust intrude. And yet every conversation somehow contains the promise of a meeting
of hearts and minds, of a self-perfecting world of patience and respect. So conversation is token of the troubled
coexistence in our world of the real and ideal, an everyday act that holds out the prospect of a mutual trust that
transcends words, but more often reminds us rudely of the barriers between us.
Conversation, at least for the conversant, is also a fertile breeding ground for hypocrisy since for them it is
easier to falsely profess conviction and devotion than it is to falsely exhibit them in deeds. At the same time,
perhaps because they are more adept at getting away with pretense and playacting in conversation, those who make
a profession out of professing their devotion to conversation sometimes seem particularly touchy when it comes
to confronting the haven to hypocrisy that conversation provides. In truth, conversation both harbors and hates
hypocrisy. And in this paradox, it turns out, conversation has something quite important in common with liberal
More than a decade ago in Ordinary Vices, the book in which her unforgettable voice can be heard most distinctly,
political theorist Judith Shklar identified the sources in liberal democracy that promote hypocrisy while making
citizens hypersensitive to its practice:
Still, as Shklar well knew when she wrote those lines, readers of Aristotle's Rhetoric were scarce. And they are
growing scarcer every day, so it is all the more necessary to stress that inasmuch as it takes the liberal democratic
emphasis on open persuasion in the public sphere and makes it a consuming concern, the politics of conversation
does not escape what Shklar calls the paradox of liberal democracy.
|The paradox of liberal democracy is that it encourages hypocrisy because the politics of persuasion require, as
any reader of Aristotle's Rhetoric knows, a certain amount of dissimulation on the part of all speakers. On the
other hand, the structure of open political competition exaggerates the importance and the prevalence of hypocrisy
because it is the vice of which all parties can and do accuse each other.
In these circumstances, Ruth W. Grant's careful study of the problem of hypocrisy in politics provides a great
refreshment. Grant defines a hypocrite as "a person who pretends to be morally better than he is for the sake
of some advantage to himself." And she takes as her point of departure the failure by contemporary liberals
in the academy to take hypocrisy in politics seriously. She traces this failure to the liberal aspiration to make
politics an honest affair by subjecting it to the demands of reason. Grant of course is not opposed to honesty
and rationality. Indeed, her argument is that demanding too much rationality in politics is unreasonable and generates
pressures that promote not merely dishonesty but self-deception.
With liberalism's best interests at heart, Grant seeks to make available a better understanding of the limits of
reason in politics. Like Shklar, she turns for insight to the history of political philosophy and literature, but
in contrast to Shklar, who characterized her own approach as a "ramble through a moral minefield," Grant
sets out to construct a sustained theoretical argument. She begins with a reconsideration of Machiavelli's complex
case for the necessity of hypocrisy in politics, and then, at the heart of her study, develops an intriguing account,
based on an eclectic rereading of a wide range of Rousseau's writings, of a standard of human excellence to which
she gives the name "integrity".
There is a powerful logic to Grant's coupling of Machiavelli and Rousseau. It would have been sufficient justification
that Machiavelli and Rousseau represent formidable spokesman for alternative points of view. But Grant goes beyond
this. She argues that their opposing judgments about the ethics of politics are rooted in a fundamental agreement
that ineliminable pressures toward hypocrisy are generated by the structure of politics and by the nature of human
Machiavelli did not trouble to conceal his opinion that deception was essential to politics. Grant focuses attention
on his famous teaching in Chapter 15 of The Prince that success in politics requires learning "to be
able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity." Unencumbered by the compulsion
to condemn or offer apologies for Machiavelli's breathtaking repudiation of conventional morality, Grant instead
seeks to understand it.
As many have remarked, Machiavelli's claim that rulers must free themselves from the authority of virtue so that
they can feign it effectively presupposes a far-reaching critique of virtue's authority. What Grant effectively
stresses, however, is that Machiavelli's conclusion that feigning virtue is a virtue also derives from his understanding
of the in-between character of political relationships. Real friends enjoy the luxury of relying on trust. Real
enemies unabashedly resort to force. Between the extremes lies politics. Political relationships unlike either
true friendships or open enmities, require hypocrisy because they are relationships of dependence among people
with conflicting interests. In politics, you need to cooperate with people who must remain your competitors. The
goods which people seek in political life cannot be achieved alone, yet many of them–wealth, reputation, and power,
but especially reputation or honor–seem to be diminished when shared. So in politics you must always to some extent
conceal your true motives in order to sustain the cooperation that gets you what is wanted, which usually includes
what your associates wanted, and then some.
Ultimately, the impossibility of a pure and honest politics purged of all hypocrisy stems, in Machiavelli's view,
from of the nature of human passion. So, far from linking the need for hypocrisy to doubt or despair about the
limits of human knowledge, Machiavelli presents his brief on behalf of hypocrisy as rooted in a claim to have acquired
knowledge of the "effectual" or unvarnished truth about the springs of human conduct. From loyalty and
pride, to vanity, ambition, and lust, human beings are moved by a range of stubborn and strong passions that are
often impervious to reason, frequently experienced as non-negotiable, and regularly in conflict with the desires
and interests of others. Politics has no choice but to accommodate these strong passions, and, because of their
stubborn resistance to the counsels of reason, it reasonable for rulers (and perhaps mere government officials)
to have recourse to manipulation and deception.
Not everyone agrees of course. And among those who do believe that manipulation and deception are constitutive
features of political life, not all share Machiavelli's delight in thinking through the mixture of force and fraud
that brings about political success.
There is, for example, Rousseau. He has given many readers the impression that in his view, if manipulation and
deception must be part of a practice, then the practice, not excluding politics and love, must be abandoned. This
Rousseau is a philosopher of the extremes whose thinking lends support to both the revolutionary fanaticism that
seeks to remake political life from the ground up and the antipolitical romanticism that demands withdrawal from
the corrupting influence of human association. This Rousseau equates the good with human wholeness and understands
by wholeness a purity of soul that prohibits compromise with or concessions to the so-called ways of the world.
Grant acknowledges that there is considerable evidence in his writings for this familiar Rousseau, but she argues
forcefully that there is an important strain in his thought that advances an alternative and more attractive understanding
of wholeness. This strain suggests that compromise, manipulation, and deception are not only on occasion compatible
with human wholeness but often required by it. And here Grant draws an important distinction. Integrity, the form
of human wholeness championed by the less familiar Rousseau that Grant brings to light, is not compatible with
hypocrisy. Whereas the hypocrite deceives others and in some cases himself for the sake of private advantage, Rousseau's
man of integrity never deceives himself and only deceives others for the sake of justice.
To clarify Rousseau's assessment of hypocrisy, Grant compares it with that of Molière, whom, Rousseau declares
in his Letter to M. D'Alembert on the Theatre, he regarded as "the most perfect comic author whose works are
known to us." Molière had provided a devastating image of the religious hypocrite in Tartuffe
and in the besotted lover of The Misanthrope. Alceste, he ridiculed the hypocrisy of the self-righteous
critic who looks for hypocrisy everywhere and finds hypocrisy wherever he looks. Similarly, in his writings on
politics and love Rousseau eloquently vivisected the foolish lies and cruel deceptions routinely practiced by civilized
men and women. But, as Grant makes explicit, Molière and Rousseau criticized hypocrisy in the light of contrasting
ideals. Molière's politic moderate sees through appearances, has a refined appreciation of the messy complexity
of human affairs, is a voice for common sense and compromise and decency, and, keenly aware of the costs of the
single-minded quest for justice, is prepared to tolerate calmly a generous portion of vice. Rousseau's uncompromising
moralist also sees through appearance, but he is scornful of half-measures, sees complacency in compromise and
decadence in mere decency, speaks the truth however distasteful to himself or offensive to others, and demands
justice from political life without calculation or qualification.
Grant finds integrity in both the principled moderate and the true moralist; but she seems to be of two minds on
the question of how to judge between them. On the one hand, she asserts that these competing ideals "are true
alternative possibilities; there is neither a synthesis of them nor a mean between them that can provide the definitive
answer to the question of what our stance ought to be toward principled political action." On the other hand,
Grant proceeds in her book to reevaluate her own characterization of Rousseau's ideal, so much so that she offers
in her final statement of Rousseau's political ethics what looks very much like a synthesis of, or mean between,
Molière's politic moderate and the familiar Rousseau's impolitic moralist.
To introduce a term that Grant does not employ but which I believe is fair to her argument, integrity, for Rousseau,
achieves highest expression in the politic moralist. The politic moralist strikes compromises, manipulates his
fellows citizens, and may even tell lies, though not to achieve a balance between vice and virtue but only when
necessary to advance the cause of justice. He is uncompromising in the sense that he demands the maximum in justice
from every act and situation. But he is politic in that he recognizes that what is the maximum for this act or
that situation cannot be specified in advance and may be less than what more propitious circumstances would permit.
The politic moralist bends but only to necessity and never to self- interest, passion, or prejudice.
Grant marshals a strong case on behalf of this less familiar Rousseau. In the Government of Poland, Rousseau does
not recommend the immediate abolition of Polish serfdom, as might seem to be necessitated by the egalitarian principles
of The Social Contract, but rather counsels reforms which would put serfdom, to borrow a phrase from Lincoln,
on a course of ultimate extinction. In The Social Contract, Rousseau insists, in defiance of democratic
dimensions of his political theory, on the need for a Legislator who can secure consent to just laws by deceiving
the people into believing that the laws are divine in origin. And Emile's tutor carefully contrives matters so
that Sophie and Emile believe their happy marriage is a result of a chance meeting and their having freely chosen
one another. Compromise, manipulation, and deceit, judicially employed, may not only be beneficial, they are obligatory
on the part of the man of integrity when their use can cause others to be freer and less dependent than they would
otherwise have been. For Rousseau, then, integrity has a certain substance, which consists in part in the love
of truth and a knowledge of justice, or what is good for the human soul.
This crucial distinction betwe n hypocrisy and beneficial manipulation, this distinction that Grant recovers from
Rousseau's thought, seems to be grounded, as students of Plato's Republicwill recognize, in the idea that justice
involves giving each what is due him. This principle underlies Socrates' appeal, in the process of constructing
a just city, to a lie: "one of those lies that come into being in case of need...some one noble lie to persuade,
in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city." It also informs the distinction
between Socratic irony which is dissimulation that is intended for the benefit of the interlocutor, and sophistry,
which is persuasive speech intended for the speaker's own benefit. These surprising connections, which Grant's
argument suggests but does not pursue, make it well worth asking whether or to what extent Rousseau's idea of beneficial
manipulation and the knowledge of the good life for a human being that it presupposes are bound up with a Platonic
understanding of the nature of the soul.
But Grant's main concern is not with first principles. Nor is it with practical applications. Her primary goal
is to invigorate contemporary liberal thought by introducing into its domain questions about the ethics of politics
from which it has tended to avert its eyes. And contemporary liberalism stands to reap considerable benefit from
Grant's calm and collected arguments about the limits of reason in public life. Nevertheless, it must be said that
in the process of coming to its aid Grant does liberalism a certain disservice. For the liberal tradition is not
quite so bereft of appreciation for the power of passion or the necessity of beneficial manipulation as Grant sometimes
implies (as when she occasionally fails to distinguish between a form of liberalism, "Lockean liberalism"
or "procedural liberalism" or "interest-based liberalism," and the liberal tradition as a whole).
In passing, Grant herself points out that in Some Thoughts Concerning Education John Locke elaborated an
education for liberty that sought to restrain dangerous passions by teaching children to tolerate a certain amount
of injustice. Rather than base education on what he referred to as "the true principle and measure of virtue"
Locke instead advised that children be "directed toward justice by being taught to esteem or become dependent
upon the good opinion of others." Examples from within the liberal tradition of the awareness of the need
in political life to settle for less than the rationally best can easily be multiplied. Although in the Metaphysics
of Morals Kant disparaged the "virtues of social intercourse" as "giv[ing] a beautiful illusion
resembling virtue," he immediately added that "affability, sociability, courage, hospitality, and gentleness
(in disagreeing without quarreling) are, indeed, only tokens, yet they promote the feeling for virtue itself by
a striving to bring this illusion as near as possible to the truth." In Considerations on Representative
Government Mill favored publicity in the ballot not because he believed that such a measure would require citizens
to vote on the basis of a reasoned consideration of the public good, but on the less ambitious but more manipulative
ground that the need to justify one's vote to one's fellow citizen might push citizens in the right direction by
forcing them to come up with a public-spirited rationalization of a self-interested act. And Even Rawls's idea
of public reason can be seen as a rational concession to ineradicable elements of irrationality of political life.
All these examples, it bears emphasizing, come from that part of the liberal tradition least adept at dealing with
the passionate and non-rational side of politics. The examples of Hume, Montesquieu, Madison, and Tocqueville show
still more clearly that liberals can enlist the vigorous study of the non-procedural aspects of politics–political
institutions, associational life, virtue, and religion–in the service of the defense of the liberty of the moderns.
If all these thinkers were heroes of reason, it was not least because they were not afraid to train their gaze
upon the forces of unreason.
So Grant goes too far in asserting that the tension between hypocrisy and integrity in politics cannot be understood
from within the tradition of liberal political thought itself. It would be more accurate to say (and better in
keeping with the spirit of her book) that however much it may have neglected or offered superficial thoughts on
hypocrisy and integrity, liberals can find in their tradition the conceptual resources and theoretical flexibility
to remain true to their fundamental premise, the natural freedom and equality of all, while incorporating lessons
about the passions and the ethics of politics that come from beyond the customary boundaries of their thought.
No doubt some hopes will have to be modified and some policies will need to be adjusted. The larger point is that
one does not have to believe that hypocrisy can be purged from politics or that integrity precludes manipulation
to defend liberal democracy and its fundamental premise. Indeed, Grant succeeds admirably in showing that for the
sake of liberal democracy, and to meet the demands of moral and intellectual integrity, it is best that such pious
hopes not be indulged.
Integrity means that the exhortation to see people and politics as they are need not be an invitation to lose sight
of how they ought to be. To be sure, it is no small achievement to keep your feet firmly on the ground without
taking your eyes off the heights in the distance. Such harmony of head and heart is too seldom contemplated and
still more seldom seen. It presupposes a distinction between pragmatic accommodation in the service of principle
and the pusillanimous accommodation of principle to personal pleasure and profit. It depends on accustoming one's
eyes to the shifting shadows and hazy lights of politics where circumstances are ambiguous, motives are mixed,
consequences are unclear, and decisions of grave consequence must constantly be taken. It calls for well-seasoned
and refined judgment to determine when to endure hypocrisy and when to crush it, when to withhold the truth for
a greater good and when to proclaim what is right let the chips fall where they may. It requires the exercise of
self-restraint in the face the nasty necessities of politics, and bold action in response to life's avoidable injustices.
It demands unceasing vigilance against the temptation to confuse the ineradicable imperfections of human existence
with the absolutely unacceptable evils.
The challenge, practically and philosophically, is to give hypocrisy its due without giving it one bit more. This
is an enduring challenge because hypocrisy is a perennial human possibility. Each age produces its characteristic
forms. Every way of life features its ideal types. Liberal democracy in America is no different. It has given rise,
for example, to the lectern liberal. He publicly preaches respect for the rule of law while behind the scenes he
pursues personal advantage through the manipulation of the procedures that have been entrusted to his care. And
there is the despotic democrat. She is all for empowering the people so long as she marches at the head of the
movement and is generously rewarded for her public-spirited labors. But these and other familiar figures no more
discredit liberal democracy than does Tartuffe's calculated treachery discredited religion or Alceste's contempt
for human weakness discredited the appeal to principle in personal conduct. No ideal is so lofty that it cannot
be perverted. But do not misunderstand. Such harsh facts do not mean that integrity is impossible. They mean that
integrity is indispensable.
Peter Berkowitz teaches government at Harvard. He is the author of Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist (Harvard