The Details Matter -- But Even More Important Is the Long View of History
We will be hearing all manner of opinion about the particulars of the recently brokered deal with Iran. In the midst of them, we should remember that behind the nuances of current strategy lies an important philosophical question that has hounded political theorists for a long time: that is the relationship between "might" and "right" and what may happen when allegedly less evolved civilizations gain access to technology that allows them to threaten other nations.
Among the philosophers who have dealt with this question, Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) deserves particular attention. Vico's life was a case-study in perseverance. His day-to-day existence was full of trials. He fell off a ladder in his youth and had severe learning problems. Bookish and serious, he studied law, Latin, and rhetoric. At various points in his career he was so poor he wrote eulogies to supplement his income. He aspired to be a law professor, but that faculty snubbed him, so he toiled at a much less prestigious post in rhetoric at the University of Naples, Italy. All the while, he puzzled about some of the most complex problems in politics and philosophy and penned a number of major volumes. Mostly ignored during his lifetime, he gained popularity after his death, and is rightly remembered today for his magnum opus, Principj di una scienza nuova intorno alla natura delle nazioni, or New Science, as it is rendered in English translation, as well as earlier works of philosophy and history that attempted to offer a comprehensive explanation of the rise and fall of nations.
Reading the pages of Vico's early 18th century writings makes the Iran debates seem like a deja-vu. In the three centuries prior to Vico's time, the Ottoman Empire had secured a wide sphere of influence, and had posed an ongoing threat to the Christian West. Commentators had been in a quandary about how to interpret this. The Ottomans were generally considered retrograde, and their civilization deemed less moral. Yet, they had managed to acquire and develop military technology that made them a threat.
Reflecting on this period of history, one of Vico's conclusions was that the Ottoman's success was in part the result of Christian traitors -- advisers who were selling their military wisdom to enemies of the state. But what is most important about Vico's thinking is that he correctly came to the conclusion that beyond the nuances of any particular moment in history, technological mastery and military superiority were ultimately linked to the long-term quality of a country's cultural investments. Supremacy in military power, he thought, was the result of the superior flourishing of the arts and letters -- in other words, those habits of mind that lead to robust curiosity, free debate, and restless searching, scientific and otherwise. Given these virtues and ongoing investments, he believed a nation's military superiority and ability to defend itself could be preserved over time.
While pursuing a spirited debate about if and how to engage with Iran is important, even more significant to the long term health and vitality of the United States is to remember, along with Vico, that first and foremost we must continue to support those habits of culture that have made the United States strong in the first place. This means sustaining large investments in basic and applied science, in education at every level, in the arts and letters -- all areas that will ensure robust inquiry and the country's long-term vitality. If we persevere with these investments, we may continue to wield influence in world affairs in the decades to come. We will also give ourselves reason to continue being proud of the values we seek to defend.
This perspective has an added benefit. It points the way towards a nuanced stance that embraces patriotic support for the values and aspirations embedded in the American experience while recognizing that global leadership is not about manifest destiny, providence, a once-and-for-all position of rightness vis-à-vis the rest of the world, or any other such wishful thinking. It's about an ongoing attention to the values and investments that make us strong, and noble, over the long term.
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