The philosophy that I consider important is based on the work of freethinkers, individuals who tried to think independently as opposed to being mere imitators within a collective whole. Human beings tend to behave like sheep, and they act frightened like lambs abandoned in a forest if they are not surrounded by fellow human beings. Many become fervent in their criticisms when they know others feel the same way. However, few are willing to think for themselves in solitary paths without extra support. These solitary thinkers are beacons of intellectual progress for humanity; everything else is echoes and silence. University departments, political parties, religious sects, etc. are nothing but mafias organized by vested interests. Valuable ideas have been born in a few restless and self-absorbed minds that observe the rest (perhaps mine is not one of these, I admit). The rest is market noise. It is in the awakened reader’s best interest to separate the wheat from the chaff when deciding what to read.
Regarding social issues, we are invaded by the opinions of many columnists in various media who try to get the political party they defend to their own advantage. For instance, we have seen this in recent months with coverage on COVID-19. The media have become more polarized than usual as some people promote government propaganda and others fiercely criticize everything the government does. While such criticism is based on the current state of affairs, there is very little idealistic vision among those who shriek like boors in a struggle for the power of their party.
By definition, the freethinker is not attached to the ideas of any particular political party. While philosophy touches upon social issues, it is not a form of politics —at the very least it is above the mundane level of confrontation known as “politicking”. Freethinkers contemplate human societies from above, place them in their historical contexts, and raise utopias, but they do not discuss vulgar and mundane issues. Not even Marx, who advocated making philosophy practical, left the theoretical field.
In Spain, political parties —such as Unidas [sic] Podemos, PSOE, Ciudadanos, PP, VOX, nationalist (or perhaps it is better to say regionalist) parties, alongside other minor ones— are essentially companies that engage in constant competition for votes, and are dedicated to the hunt for positions and perks. Any philosopher worthy of being called such should not trouble himself/herself with such businesses. The struggle for power does not belong anywhere near the yearning for knowledge. On the other hand, if somebody takes thought seriously, then he/she must have his/her hands free. Meanwhile, the thoughts of anyone who goes along with populist proposals are restricted to mass lemmas that contravene the pursuit of virtues. Only thinking from the heights for few people is highly valuable, which contrasts the thought process of political pseudo-thinkers who try to reach as many potential voters as possible.
Any society in any epoch has social problems related to organization, the creation and distribution of goods, the balance between the social and the individual, and so on. Whatever the problem is its solutions need to be well thought out. When the mood surrounding the course of events in our community tells us that we have deviated from a state of beauty, noble spirits have the task of changing things for the better.
Are we to dispose of everything, to renounce all spirit, all eagerness, all humanity, to let ambition and money continue to triumph and await further mobilization with a glass of beer in our hands? (Hermann Hesse, “Der Steppenwolf ”)
No, of course we are not going to dispose of it. We recognize that the beauty of humanity has suffered countless attacks during our lifetime. Making politics is necessary. We must think independently and fight against the tide that drags the world ever closer to fatality. But changing the world is not the responsibility of those who feel a need nor is blaming politicians a constructive way to deal with problems. The moment someone says “this government...” he/she descends from the level of theoretical abstractions (which are part of the philosopher’s task) to politicking.
Regarding national politics across countries, we have to respond the same way when asked if we are followers of a soccer team. Some of us are not fans of any team because we do not like soccer. Moreover, for example, even if we did like soccer, what does it mean to be a supporter of Madrid as opposed to Barcelona? It means nothing. Both teams are nothing more than two big companies that invest money in buying players. As such, supporting one team over all others has little to do with belonging to a city or with the spirit of the sport.
The same reasoning applies to the politics of a democratic country. If a politician defends one idea or another, it is only to ensure the approval of people the party has bet on or invested in as a company. If they defend the interests of the Catholic Church, it is because they want the vote of the Catholics. If they approve of homosexual marriage, it is to win the votes of homosexuals. If they promote the Catalan language, it is to win the votes of the most nationalist Catalans. If an increase in retirement salaries is defended (even to the absurd point that the elderly are paid on average more for doing nothing than most young people who work all day long), it is to ensure the vote of millions of retirees. That is simply the way it is.
The ideals of justice and of making a government guided by great principles are absent. There is a degree of ideological passion comparable to the loving passion that prostitutes have in their work. Of course, neither prostitutes nor professional politicians without ideals are guilty of their own existence as such. They exist because they have clients —for politicians it is the majority of the population— who lack ideals and simply favor whoever promises them the most personal benefits. If a politician does or says anything that suggests he or she has principles, it is because the tradition of the party motivates favoring one sector of the population over another. It is in the best interest of the party if the politician appears to have an air of coherence. However, if it becomes profitable to change this strategy, then it is changed since votes are more important than principles.
In Spain (or in any other democratic country) there are not two movements, the right-wing and the left-wing. There is only one ideal: the eagerness to prosper. Either the right or left can be progressive or reactionary, depending on what is more convenient at any given time, and both can promote social rights or the liberalization of the economy. The position of each party on any issue depends on cold calculations based on what will garner votes rather than on a passionate ideology. Indeed, few politicians are interested in religious groups or the idea of a country or justice. The primary interest of the politician is his or her own rise to power. This is the authentic ideology of the parties, anything else is a silly word intended to entertain voters who are eager to see a circus.
I wish I could say the same thing Goethe said in his self-biography, From My Life: Poetry and Truth:
My inner circle and I did not devote our time to newspapers and news. What mattered to us was knowing the man. As for men in the plural, we let them do as they liked.
I also appreciate the sentiment of Balzac, who once, after having been talking about politics and world events, said something like “And now let us return to serious things” (referring to his novels).
Many men of culture think it best to stay away from politics. However, there are also many intellectuals and artists who try to improve their status by serving as the shadow of powerful people. In my opinion, a noble soul should be selfless. Staying away from politics is a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for ennobling the spirit.
The selfless condition of worthy men in politics has produced rulers of mediocre character, especially in the present era. Those with noble souls want nothing to do with democratic politics.
Whoever seeks the salvation of his soul and that of others should not seek it by the path of politics, whose various tasks can be fulfilled only by force (Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”).
Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage (Ambrose Bierce, “The Devil’s Dictionary”).
The politician, as someone who exercises governments made up of human groups, has no ideals for the world. Politicians are pragmatic decadent people: those of rotten spirit, the merchants of peoples, gravitate toward politics.
There is another way to understand the world: under the protection of the wisdom of philosophy. Philosophers are interested in expressions of politics that are based on the will of mankind. They ask what mankind should do. They are interested in political thought, in the ideology behind great political systems. They ponder not only what the ruler of the day does (or should do) but what all individuals in the collective should do. It is politics in a broader context than is commonly understood.
The problem is the world, its miseries and its disorders. Understanding the world and thinking about what it should be have always been noble tasks. To live in the world of ideas, to think about the utopias that will feed and inspire future revolutions is the work of the thinker. The bureaucracy of the state administration and the struggle for power are not the business of the philosopher but of the clerks and merchants of the world.
(Translated by the author from the Spanish version “Desdén de la filosofía hacia la politiquería”, 2020, June 13th)