Emerging from the National State
and Restoring Political Theory

The wars and revolutions of the twentieth century bring to its end a period that begins with the consolidation of the Western national states in the fifteenth century. An upheaval of such magnitude, convulsing the whole of a civilization, affects not the institutions only but also the sentiments and beliefs that went into their building, the verities that they represent, and the body of ideas and symbols used for denoting, justifying, and interpreting them. Political philosophy today is concerned with sifting the debris, with testing in the light of contemporary experience the validity of problems and symbols still taken for granted a generation ago, and with repairing the edifice of critical theory that has become badly dilapidated in the course of the so-called modern centuries. . . .

A theory that insists on discussing politics in terms of Anglo-Saxon democracy cannot deal adequately even with the Western national states, and not at all with the political organization, e.g., of Asiatic civilizations.  It will, therefore, be a second problem of political philosophy to separate the essential from the historically contingent and to break with the habit of treating the institutions of a particular national state at a particular time as if they truly manifested the nature of man.

The rise of the national state was accompanied, furthermore, by the Reformation.  From the resulting conflicts and civil wars, governments could extricate themselves only by transforming temporal power into secular statehood, leaving the spiritual life and its organized expression free to develop in whatever direction it chose. The result was a development in the direction of immanentist creed movements,such as nationalism, progressivism, liberalism, positivism, and ultimately Communism and National Socialism.

A political theory that takes it uncritically for granted that the secular national state is the one and true object of inquiry will run into difficulties flowing from this further source. The theorist will have to interpret phenomena of the adumbrated type as movements on the level of secular power politics, which they are not.

He will be blind to the fact that his own secular state is not quite so secular as he believes it is, but that civil rights and democratic recognition of equality derive from an idea of man that has grown in the shelter of Stoic cosmology and Christian faith, and hence does not make sense to men who do not live in this cultural tradition. And he will perhaps engage in democratic propaganda and "re-education," an endeavor that can only arouse the scorn of gnostic sectarians who have dedicated their lives to exorcising the devil by means of revolutionary action. The contemporary phenomena compel . . . . a critical examination of the compact symbolism that has grown in the period of the secular state, and its replacement by a considerably more differentiated body of concepts.

The rise of the national state as well as of the immanentist creed movements was accompanied, finally, by the destruction of classic and medieval philosophical culture;  in particular philosophical anthropology was destroyed so thoroughly that we have not recovered from the blow to this day.

The just mentioned differentiated critical concepts, however, can be developed only by penetrating to principles; and the principles of politics are not to be found on the level of a debate about the rights of man or what institutions are best, but, as established by Plato and Aristotle, in philosophical anthropology.

The recovery and further development of a critical theory of man is the fourth, and systematically most important, task of philosophy at the present juncture when we emerge from the national state with its comparative safety, simplicity, and homeliness onto a wider, uncharted, and more dangerous scene.

CW VOL 11,
The Oxford Political Philosophers, pp 24-26.