Political Essays

Here are two questions that strike me as worth thinking about.

Say you wanted to teach a liberal arts-style freshman seminar that introduced students to the idea of reflecting on politics and society, but you didn’t want to turn it into yet another Applied Ethics or Introduction to Political Philosophy class that crammed in all the essential philosophical problems and texts: Capital Punishment, the Duty to Obey the Law, Abortion, Euthanasia, etc., on the one hand, and Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Mill, etc., on the other. Instead, you’d much rather just use plain old essays — well-crafted, accessible, insightful, evocative, memorable essays — written by people who may or may not be academics or part of the academic tradition.

The kind of essay I’m thinking of would be one that didn’t so much need to be explained as experienced, that presents a viewpoint that seizes your imagination in some way, rather than an argument or conceptual apparatus that needs to be taken apart, dusted a little by a qualified technician, and then put back together in sound working order. These would be essays that have a force that can’t really be conveyed to someone who has not read them, and that become part of the background framework of your way of thinking about the political and social world and the stuff in it that matters. They would ideally be long enough to be a substantial read, worth assigning as a text, but not too long to be a task that requires the threat of academic sanctions to be completed. Above all, they must not be difficult to read or boring to think about. They should be the sort of thing people mean when they talk about the art of the essay.

The most obvious examples would be Swift’s “Modest Proposal” and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I suppose Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” would insist on going alongside King, although that’s lacking in originality. Another I would want to include would be Orwell’s “How the Poor Die,” presumably along with a few of his other essays. Something or other from Montaigne would be a good candidate too. I’m tempted by Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” but that’s theoretically tricky, despite the vividness of the central Angelus Novus image. Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate” is rhetorically powerful, but a little short (perhaps alongside something else?). I would want Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa” to be there. I would also like to find some rationale for Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” although I have no idea what that would be. (In principle, short stories are fine, but I wouldn’t want to go overboard on fictional narratives.) I would not include Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus.” Maybe something from Bertrand Russell, such as “In Praise of Idleness,” although I can’t say I particularly warm to the idea.

There’s a premium here on including essays that students would not otherwise be familiar with (which is a strike against Swift, King, and Thoreau, but that aside) and that are likely to remain in their minds for some time. But they shouldn’t be short introductions to the thought of A Major Thinker, in any way that invites expert clarification from the resident qualified technician, apart from some historical context perhaps. (This would be a reason against using something from Marx or Hume.) Instead, they should show something about the social world that a student may not otherwise have sensed. They should be difficult to categorise. The seminar should have no overt theme to it, apart from the use of the essay as a format. They should be the sort of essay that can spark an hour or so of discussion, although you would have very little idea beforehand where to steer it or what points you would like to make. It should be a little difficult to articulate what an astute reader should learn from the essay, although there should be a good sense that something inside has changed. I leave aside all consideration of how on earth the students in the course should be assessed, whether by weekly reaction papers, or a longer essay of their own on some topic, or whatever.

So the first question is, what essays would be good to include in such a course? If you find it difficult to explain why a particular essay should be included, and it just seems like it should, that’s an indication it’s a good candidate. Philosophers are fine, as long as they are writing in a big-picture sort of way. Something from Michael Walzer or Bernard Williams perhaps, but nothing from Rawls. Possibly Shklar’s “Liberalism of Fear,” [or perhaps “Putting Cruelty First”] alongside Montaigne, but then we begin to stray a little into the theoretical.

The second question is, shouldn’t this all be a little easier than it is? I can’t help thinking that we (or I) ought to retain a better grasp of those examples of (mainly) non-fiction, other than the standard texts in the philosophical canon, that have shaped or articulated the way we (or I) think philosophically. We’re very aware of the books and papers we think about and work on now, but we lose touch with the essays for our eighteen year old selves.

(I intend this to be a thread that I’ll return to years from now, so if you come across it at some distant point in the future when it seems dead and forgotten, please add your thoughts nonetheless.)

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About Simon Cabulea May

Simon Cabulea May is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He received his PhD from Stanford University. His present research project generally concerns conflicts of moral convictions in public deliberation.
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13 Responses to Political Essays

  1. Tom Smith says:

    I assume you’ve seen this similar post on Crooked Timber – there’s some overlap with your request, though there’s more theory than you want:


    Is the Wainana essay that thing from Granta about big sunsets? That’s a terrific essay. I just finished Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa” which is two hundred pages of exactly those images.

  2. [Having now added links …]

    The Wainaina piece is the one I mean Tom. It’s a great short essay in a number of ways (especially ways that well-meaning freshmen might otherwise miss).

    The CT post includes a number of fine articles, but they are definitely within academic philosophy. The sort of essay I’d be interested in is one lying outside academic philosophy that might make a difference in a young person’s thinking about the world, whether or not they continued with philosophy as a way to make sense of it all.

  3. Derek Bowman says:

    I recommend the Frederick Douglass speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July(alt) (I’m pretty sure both links have the full text).

    It may not be what you have in mind, but I also like Paul Boghossian’s, “What the Sokal Hoax Ought to Teach Us” as a quick primer on the self-defeatingness of relativism about truth and justification.

    Also, unless you’re absolutely committed against using the canon, I’d give Mill a second look. On Liberty and The Subjection of Women are both quite good just taken on their own terms, though you may want to limit yourself to selections or just a specific chapter for your length considerations.

    Reflecting on Mill also provides a partial answer to your second question. Most of these texts are part of the canon for good reasons, and those reasons include many of the desiderata you list.

  4. Might Nagel’s ‘Concealment and Exposure‘ fit the bill? Thought-provoking stuff (especially for younger students grappling with issues of ‘authenticity’ and self-presentation), but it doesn’t read like traditional academic philosophy.

  5. Matt Lister says:

    For short stories I might consider Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”. It’s quite a powerful story, and less well known than some others covering similar themes. Another that might be worth considering, if people haven’t read it, would be the “grand inquisitor” section from _The Brothers Karamazov_.

    For essays, I really like Matthew Arnold’s essays “Democracy” and “Equality” (both in the Cambridge edition of Culture and Anarchy and other writings, but it might be a lot of work to make freshmen see why they are interesting. But, they really are nice essays on the subjects, as opposed to political philosophy. The same might be true of Tom Paine’s nice essays, “The Age of Reason” and “Agrarian Justice”, but they might see the historical import there, at least. Some of Kropotkin’s essays would likely be good choices. “An Appeal to the Young” and “Anarchism” (originally in the Encyclopedia Britanica, I think) would be good choices, among others.

    I might also suggest some of the essays from various collections by Slavenka Drakulic- “Cafe Europa”, from the volume of the same name, and also “Bosnia, or what Europe Means to Us” or “Buying a Vacuum Cleaner”, or from _How we Survived Communism and Even Laughed_, “On Doing Laundry”, “Make-up and Other Crucial Questions” or “Some Doubts about Fur Coats” are all nice. (These are all fairly short, though- 10 pages about.)

  6. Enzo Rossi says:

    Hume’s ‘Of Parties in General’ is a great essay on politics and doesn’t read like an introduction to Hume’s moral and political thought. And the title is ambiguous, which for some students will be a plus.

    By the way, great post, Simon.

  7. Andrew Jason Cohen says:

    James Michener, “On Wasting Time” (Readers Digest 105, no. 631, October 1974: 193-200). Perhaps broadens your original topic somewhat, but its worthwhile, I think.

    This could be a great idea for an edited volume by the way. If you left out the academic stuff, you could call it *Philosophy of the Good Life for and by NonPhilosophers.*

  8. Andrew Sabl says:

    I’ve been thinking about a seminar on the political essay myself, so the post and comments have been fascinating. You could do worse than assigning twenty essays by Orwell. It’s hard to exclude any. “How the Poor Die” is a terrific choice, but “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray” is a neglected gem. It’s short, perfect, and to my mind more political than it seems. One could even assign it and “How the Poor Die” for the same session to spark discussion: how could the same person write both?

    Walzer’s “Political Ethics: The Problem of Dirty Hands” is one of the few classics of applied ethics that would pass muster as fine essay-writing. Though Nagel’s “Concealment and Exposure” is a great work, it might actually be a little less accessible, I think—though I could be wrong.

    James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Mary McCarthy’s On the Contrary both contain many excellent candidates. McCarthy’s essay about her stay in Salazar’s Portugal sticks particularly in my head. So does the piece in which she congratulates Trotsky for being un-Marxist enough to admit that the accident of his having gotten sick while duck-hunting might have affected the course of the Russian Revolution.

    While I agree with Enzo Rossi that you shoudln’t rule out Hume as automatically too abstruse, I do worry that “Of Parties in General” might strike students as dated. I’d suggest instead “The Sceptic,” “Of Polygamy and Divorces,” and “Of Suicide.” I’ve assigned the latter two for a freshman seminar, and they still have the ability to stimulate and shock. So would, though I haven’t tried it, “A Dialogue,” the piece usually printed at the end of the second Enquiry. From Montaigne, a random suggestion would be “Of the inequality that is between us.” Alan Levine, who knows everything about Montaigne, tells me the Frame translation is best.

    If you can stand his politics, which sneak up on you slowly in this piece—though there’s no expressed racism—the reactionary Southerner Andrew Nelson Lytle’s “The Hind Tit” is a masterpiece. It’s in Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand, and reprinted in Lytle’s collected essays From Eden to Babylon.

    As far as fiction, Hernando Téllez’s “Just Lather, That’s All” is a profound reflection in about seven short pages: I’ve successfully assigned it as in-class reading in an introductory class. It’s in a collection called Bad Behavior, ed. Mary Higgins Clark, and I believe this may be the full text as well: http://www2.ups.edu/faculty/velez/LAS100/tellez.htm

    In answer to your last reflection, Simon: I think we become alienated from essays because careful analytic argument is the opposite of good essay-writing. None of the essays that you and the rest of us like—including those by professional philosophers whose forays into essay-writing are basically considered slumming—would get a passing grade in an introductory philosophy class. (Walzer’s “Dirty Hands” is often assigned as an example of philosophical incoherence and what not to do.) Conversely, the best written piece in Ethics wouldn’t make it off the slush pile at Raritan. If we want more communication with the world of essays and essayists, we’ll have to admit that careful argument is not the only philosophic virtue and inconsistency not the only philosophic vice.

  9. Thanks all, these are great suggestions. I’m dwelling on your last comment, Andrew S. We seem to be at ease with virtue pluralism when it comes to fiction and philosophy. I’d find it quite easy to list various works of fiction that have had a significant influence on me, but not so much with the essays. I suppose novels are just in their nature going to be more memorable than short non-fiction, being grand narratives with compelling characters and riveting drama (and big sunsets). But then again, you’d think that a professional academic would find the lucid presentation of an interesting idea quite a riveting thing too. This may just be my bad memory or failure to read widely enough, but I don’t think I’m unusually parochial. I suspect part of the problem may be that we’re every day inundated with petty opination from newspapers and blogs, so it may all just begin to blur together, and we tend not to notice or more than glance at the pieces that deserve reflection. In contrast, I tend to be choosier about the novels I read, since I don’t get to read very many. So the problem may be that the Tom Friedmans and Christopher Hitchens of the world have made the essay in general appear trite, formulaic, mundane, banal, insipid, pompous, predictable, and dull. My eyes have glazed over, and I no longer look for lilt and verve, or something new.

  10. I think Italo Calvino’s short story “The Black Sheep.” Granta, Winter 1994, 253 – 254 is a terrific piece. (Apparently available here http://users.ipfw.edu/ruflethe/blacksheep.htm). I often use it when teaching on Kant’s universalization tests to point out that, for instance, a prohibition on stealing presupposes a going social system of personal property. But is also a great story for thinking about unintended consequences and knock-on effects in established systems of social relations.

    Great thread–I look forward to coming back in the summer to fill my reading list.

  11. Jacob Levy says:

    I think there are plenty of Hume’s essays that could qualify– they’re mostly freestanding, and it’s not as though he has a magnum opus of political philosophy lurking in the background that the essays could be short introductions *to* (unless– right, Andy?– we count the History).

    I’m surprised not to have seen Lord Acton or Isaiah Berlin yet– for both, the essay was their genre, and you could just take your pick of their writings. (I guess “two concepts” isn’t the right kind of thing, but “The Hedgehog and the Fox” or “The Pursuit of the Ideal” or “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life” or “The Originality of Machiavelli” would all surely qualify, even for students who had never read Mill or Machiavelli.) But I’m past surprised, almost shocked, not to have seen Emerson. Again, pick anything. Self-Reliance is probably the quasi-canonical answer, though I might choose among Man the Reformer, The Conservative, and Napoleon.

  12. Maybe some science fiction could also be a way to introduce renewed and refreshing perspectives. An example: http://yannickrumpala.wordpress.com/category/science-fiction-and-political-theory/

  13. I highly recommend Machiavelli’s short play, “Mandragola” (The Mandrake Root). Students either love it or love to hate it. Either way, it makes for a good discussion on the ethics of public decision-making.

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