The Relevance of Philosophy to Political Change

[1]3,526 words

Translations: French [2], Polish [3], Spanish [4]

The title of this essay is somewhat misleading, since I am going to argue that philosophy is relevant to all human endeavors, not just politics.[1] Philosophy is not just metapolitical, but meta-everything.[2] But I know you are interested in political change, so that was my hook to get you reading. Furthermore, I will argue that philosophy is more than just relevant to life, but of paramount importance.

Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, and wisdom is necessary for success in every realm of life, including politics. Wisdom, I will argue, is unconditionally good. You can never be too wise. All the other goods we pursue, however, are good for us only on the condition that they are used wisely. Thus we need to pursue wisdom as well, so that all of our other pursuits add up to a good life, which is what all of us ultimately want.

The Quest for the Good Life

The first premise of my argument is: “All human beings are pursuing the good life, as we see it.”

When people are given choices, they choose the option that seems better to them at the time. Even if they have to choose between evils, they choose what appears at the time to be the lesser of two evils. This preference for the apparent good throughout the course of one’s life is what I mean by “pursuing the good life as we see it.”

The phrase “as we see it” is important, because it indicates that my premise is first and foremost a psychological claim about the choice of apparent goods. We choose what seems best to us at the time, even if we later learn that we were calamitously mistaken.

The use of the phrase “as we see it” does not, however, imply that all goods are subjective, i.e., that are no objective goods.

A subjective good is something that is good because we want it. An objective good is something that is good in and of itself. It is, therefore, something that we should want, whether we want it or not.

A common synonym for the claim that values are subjective is relativism. A common synonym for the idea of objective values is absolutism. No objectivist or absolutist seriously argues that all goods are objective or absolute. But there are subjectivists who maintain that all goods are subjective or relative. 

Against Relativism

There is a simple argument for the existence of objective goods, hence the falsehood of complete subjectivism. All human beings are pursuing the good life as we see it. Yet most people are not happy with their lives. Moral subjectivism or relativism cannot explain this fact.

The moral relativist basically claims that the good life is whatever we define it to be. But if I get to define the good life for myself, I have no excuse for not having a good life. Moral relativism is basically the view that, in the game of life, we get to make up the rules as we go along. But if you get to make up the rules, you have no excuse if you do not win. Even if you suffer terrible misfortune, the relativist would claim that it is within your power simply to define it as good.

So why, if we are all pursuing the good life as we see it, are so many of us unhappy with our lives? The best explanation is that there are objective conditions for a good life, and many of us do not meet them.

There are two basic ways that we can fail to meet these conditions. First, there are factors that are outside of our control, which I will call fortune, good or ill. Second, there are factors that are in our control, such as our thoughts and actions. Even the most intrepid pursuit of the good life will fail if we lack good fortune or if we think or act wrongly.

Another term that is often used as a synonym for the good life is “happiness.” There are two senses of happiness: subjective and objective. Subjective happiness is a feeling, namely feeling well. Objective happiness is a state of being, namely being well or wellbeing. The good life can be identified with happiness in the sense of wellbeing. And, ideally, wellbeing should be crowned with happiness in the subjective sense.

Everybody would rather feel happy than unhappy. But subjective happiness is not the highest good. Sometimes people have better things to do with their lives. Life often forces us to choose between subjective happiness and greater goods. Some people, for instance, choose duty over happiness. They would rather be noble than feel good. But in such cases, one can say that people are sacrificing subjective happiness to objective wellbeing.

Conditional vs. Unconditional Goods

The second premise of my argument is a distinction between conditional and unconditional goods:

Conditional goods are those things that are good under some conditions and bad under other conditions.

Unconditional goods are those things that are good under any condition, goods that can never become detrimental.

Conditional goods can become bad due to circumstances, e.g., the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong degree, or the wrong priority or balance in relation to other goods. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. But you can never have too much of an unconditional good. They are good regardless of time, place, degree, and other circumstances.

The Components of a Good Life

To enjoy a good life, we must gain and keep the particular goods that are components of a good life. These components include, from the most basic to the more rarefied:

Are these goods conditional or unconditional? I wish to argue that they are all conditional, because it is possible to imagine situations in which they can become bad. One can have too much water, too much food, too much exercise, too much rest, too much sex, too much entertainment, etc. One can be too rich and too good-looking.

Can one be too healthy? Perhaps not, as physical and spiritual health are core components of wellbeing. But one can, at least, be too concerned with one’s health, to the point that one neglects other goods.

One can surely have too much self-esteem; one can be too popular; one can be too focused on achievement. One can also know too damn much or be too damn smart for one’s own good.

Even though the components of a good life can sometimes be bad, the good life itself is always and unconditionally good. The great problem of the good life, therefore, is how to create an unconditional good out of conditional goods, how to pursue the unconditional good by conditionally good means.

There are no circumstances under which we would not want to live a good life. But not every life is a good life. Life as such is not unconditionally good. Only a good life is. Thus if a particular life is not worth continuing, ending it is not a rejection of the value of the good life but rather an affirmation of it. The good life, in short, can also include a good death.

Getting the Components of a Good Life

There are two basic sources of the components of a good life: fortune and work. Fortune is capricious and unfair. Some people are born healthy, beautiful, intelligent, and talented. Some are born to wealth and privilege. Some have happy, loving families. Some are born in civilized, peaceful, prosperous societies. The rest fall along every gradation to the opposite extremes. Work is one of the ways that we try to correct the inequities of fortune.

Both fortune and work are themselves conditional goods. One can be too lucky, since misfortune is one of the ways we build strength and character—although if one is really lucky, one’s weakness will never be tested. And one can work too much or give work too much importance in one’s life.

The Question of Use

Work and fortune are the two ways that we come to possess goods. But to live well, it is not enough merely to possess goods. We also have to use them. And since conditional goods can also turn bad, it is not enough merely to use them. We have to use them well; we have to make right use of all things.

Wisdom is the ability to make right use of all things. The opposite of wisdom is folly, a penchant for making bad use of all things.

Without wisdom, none of the things we possess are necessarily good for us. Fortune showers gifts upon some people: health, beauty, status, wealth, etc. But if one lacks wisdom, the greater the gifts, the greater one’s potential for disaster. A classic example is Diana, Princess of Wales, who had every advantage of fortune, yet she still failed to lead a good life, largely because she made foolish choices. Great gifts combined with great folly lead to terrible consequences. In fact, foolish people are better off with fewer gifts, since they have fewer ways of harming themselves and others.

With wisdom, however, you can live a good and happy life, even if fortune deals you few advantages and many disadvantages. Fate deals us all a hand. Some get good cards and some get bad ones. But people who play good hands foolishly can end up losing, while people who play bad hands wisely can win. Thus wisdom is a great equalizer. Wisdom allows us to push back against bad fortune and create our own good luck.

Conditional goods contribute to a good life only if they are used wisely. Without wisdom, none of the conditional goods accrued by good fortune or hard work will necessarily add up to a happy life. Wisdom is the sine qua non of a good life—the essential condition without which it cannot exist.

Thus wisdom, like the good life itself, is an unconditional good. There are no conditions under which one is better off being foolish than wise. One can be too rich, smart, or beautiful for one’s own good. But one can never be too wise for one’s own good. Wisdom is aligned unswervingly with the good life. It never strays from the good, and because it never loses sight of the good, it can direct all other things toward the good. Thus wisdom is the most important component of the good life, second in importance only to the good life itself.

If we are serious about the good life, then the pursuit of wisdom, namely philosophy, should be our first and foremost concern, prior even to the pursuit of conditional goods. For the more goods we accumulate without the wisdom to use them, the greater the danger to our wellbeing.

Is Wisdom Always Necessary for the Good Life?

I have argued that wisdom is necessary for the good life. But is it always necessary? Is it at least possible that a person who is indifferent to wisdom, even a complete fool, might still lead a good life? The world is filled with happy-go-lucky people who give no thought to tomorrow; people who trust in the kindness of strangers, God, or Mother Nature; people whose retirement plans consist of winning the lottery; stoners who think “it’s all good,” etc.

It is at least conceivable that some of these people really could luck out. Not only could fortune deal them certain gifts, but it could do so at the right time, in the right place, and in the right degree, so they are never challenged to make right use of anything. This lucky streak could, moreover, continue their whole lives long. It is, of course, not very likely.

Enjoying the good life through sheer luck could be called a fool’s paradise. But only a fool would count on it. The beginning of wisdom is to decide not to depend on luck but instead to create some of one’s own. (Even Forrest Gump did not depend entirely on good luck. He also had the good sense to listen to what his momma said.)

Is Wisdom Sufficient for the Good Life?

The idea that wisdom alone is sufficient for a good life is equivalent to the claim that the good life depends entirely on things that we can control, thus we can lead good lives without the goods of fortune, indeed in the midst of the greatest misfortune. The Roman Stoics Seneca and Epictetus argued that wisdom is sufficient for the good life, thus the wise man is immune to misfortune.

Although this in not the place to argue the point, I believe the Stoic view is appealing but false. I follow Aristotle, who claims that the good life requires more than just virtue. It also requires external goods, which we must obtain through fortune and work. External goods, however, are not entirely under our control. Thus the good life is not immune to misfortune.

If forced to choose between external goods and the goods of the soul, we should always choose the goods of the soul. But then we are no longer talking about the good life but merely the least bad life. Socrates argued that a righteous man who was persecuted, condemned, and martyred by society is better off than a corrupt man who enjoys all the gifts of good fortune. But that is not the same thing as saying that a virtuous man on the rack is living a good life.

Theoretical vs. Practical Wisdom

The kind of wisdom I am discussing is usually called moral or practical wisdom, as distinguished from theoretical wisdom.

Philosophy is often divided into five fields: metaphysics, which deals with being and man’s place in the cosmos, including such topics as the existence of a God or gods and the freedom and immortality of the soul; epistemology, which deals with knowledge and truth; aesthetics, which deals with the beautiful; ethics or moral philosophy, which deals with the good life; and political philosophy, which deals with the good life together. Moral and political philosophy cannot really be separated, since man is a social animal, thus the good life is pursued in society, and it must be pursued collectively as well as individually.

Metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics are the theoretical branches of philosophy. Their discoveries are not, in themselves, practical, but they are certainly relevant to practical philosophy.

For instance, metaphysical debates about whether the soul is mortal or immortal, whether a God or gods exist, whether we are free or determined, etc. all have implications for moral philosophy.

Epistemological debates on faith and reason, reason and sense experience, science and common sense, etc. all have practical implications. Every serious inquiry, moreover, uses the tools of logic.

Even aesthetics has practical implications. Aesthetics deals with beauty as such, not just art, and beauty often serves as a guide to determining what is real, true, and good. Furthermore, the appreciation of beauty, which can be systematically cultivated, is one of the components of the good life.

Thus even if practical wisdom is our primary concern, theoretical wisdom is not merely theoretical.

Does theoretical wisdom have to be subordinated to practical wisdom? To answer this, we have to ask if theoretical wisdom is unconditionally good. Are metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic speculation good under every condition? I would argue that they are not. Even true theories can be bad if pursued in excess or without regard to context and consequences. Thus theoretical wisdom must be guided by practical wisdom, even as practical wisdom is informed by theoretical wisdom.

But this does not imply that all theoretical activity must be bent toward producing practical effects. Beautiful and useless things—pursued as ends in themselves—are part of every good life, whether they are games, hobbies, adventures, exploration, aesthetic experience, scientific investigation, or metaphysical speculation.

Not everything that is consistent with the good life has to produce good effects. Indeed, some things that we pursue as ends in themselves are actual components of the good life, which is also an end in itself. Thus they do not need to produce good effects to contribute to the good life; they have a closer relationship to the good life than cause and effect, because they are already parts of the good life.

Practical Wisdom vs. Practical Knowledge

Theory is about understanding the world. Practice is about changing it. What is the difference, then, between practical wisdom and practical knowledge, such as arts and technical skills?

Both practical knowledge and practical wisdom are about changing the world. Both cannot be reduced to statements of fact or abstract principles and rules. Both involve the perception of unique, concrete, changing situations and insight into the applicability of facts and abstract principles to concrete circumstances.

The crucial difference is that practical knowledge is morally neutral, thus it can be used for good or evil ends, whereas practical wisdom is always directed at the good and is thus intrinsically moral.

For example, surgeons make the best torturers, because the same skills that can relieve pain can also be used to inflict it. The difference between a surgeon and a torturer is not, therefore, a matter of knowledge but of ethics, of moral wisdom which insures that right use is made of knowledge. (A profession is a combination of a body of morally neutral theoretical and practical knowledge with a supervening ethical code that applies that knowledge to good ends.)


I have argued that all human beings are pursuing the good life, which is unconditionally good. But the main components of the good life are good for us only on the condition that they are used wisely. Thus wisdom is the most important component of the good life, because without it, all the gifts of fortune and the products of our hard work can turn against us and become sources of misery rather than wellbeing. Wisdom, however, is unconditionally good, just like the good life itself, so it will never turn on you.

Philosophy, which is the pursuit of wisdom, is the most important activity for anyone who is serious about the good life. Philosophy is the only discipline that aims at attaining unconditionally good things: wisdom and the good life itself.

Keep this in mind when you are weighing your options: Philosophy first—or biology? Philosophy—or a trip to the gym? Philosophy—or television? Philosophy—or overtime at work?

In each case, philosophy should come first, because knowledge of biology, fitness, relaxation, and money are all good things, but they are not unconditionally good things. And they can actually be as treacherous as rattlesnakes unless you are able to use them wisely.

If philosophy is of paramount importance for all of life, then a fortiori it is of paramount importance for political change as well. Metapolitics is not entirely a matter of philosophy, but the core metapolitical questions about morality, destiny, and political institutions are philosophical.

Thus if you are serious about pursuing the good life not just for yourself, but for our people as a whole, wisdom is an unconditional good, and philosophy is an indispensable study.

Where to Start

This essay is based on the first lecture (conducted as a Socratic discussion) that I would give in undergraduate Introduction to Philosophy classes. I had a whole course of study mapped out to follow it. But where should my readers start? The answer is with Socrates.

The central argument of this essay comes from Socrates. In Plato’s dialogue Euthydemus [5], Socrates accepts the challenge of persuading the dumbest jock in the gym, Clinias, of the importance of studying philosophy (278d–282d). If the argument worked on Clinias, then surely it has worked on you.

Note on Further Reading

There is no substitute for reading Plato’s dialogues and other Socratic writings, but just as one needs swimming lessons before jumping in the deep end, so one needs some basic background before studying Socrates. I would recommend beginning with A. E. Taylor’s Socrates: The Man and His Thought [6] (1933), the work of an honest, unpretentious, old school English philosopher. For a more subtle but still highly accessible discussion of Socrates, see Leo Strauss’s lecture course “The Problem of Socrates: Five Lectures,” in Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss [7], ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989). Strauss, of course, is a treacherous figure with his own agenda, so use him wisely, i.e., as a point of departure, and don’t get lost in his intellectual labyrinth.


1. The most recent previous incarnation of this essay was a talk in Seattle on October 14, 2012. I wish to thank everyone who was present for a stimulating discussion. The original incarnation was the opening lecture of undergraduate Introduction to Philosophy classes that I taught in the 1990s.

2. Philosophy is an important part of metapolitics, but it is not the whole of metapolitics, which encompasses other intellectual disciplines as well as the media for their propagation and the communities that they engender.