Vocation in politics
© Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen 2013
Politics as a vocation
Over the years I have studied a famous essay by the great German sociologist Max Weber, entitled “Politics as a vocation”. Weber spoke of the politician as one who proceeds from conviction of a world view. For Weber himself there was an inherent relativism about world views. He found no mooring in religious tradition, describing himself as religiously “unmusical” (tone-deaf). So there is something relativistic and even a little nihilistic about his view of the “polytheism” of warring or colliding world views amongst which the politician found his or her own personal conviction. Having written a book about universal ethics, which I believe is at the root of the world cultures and world religions, I disagree with his relativism. Since Weber could not find any truth criterion for a particular world-view at the very least he required of the politician a strong sense of responsibility for the consequences of acceptance of a particular world-view in politics. What I am taken by in Weber his concept of politics as a vocation, as a profound and earnest calling. Indeed I believe that the most important arena of ideas is the political arena. John Maynard Keynes said that every statesman is the slave of a defunct economist, i.e. that academic ideas do filter through and influence politics. Still I would prefer that ideas be alive and fresh and conscious in politics. It is above all the realm of action, ideals within reach of actualization. So as one who is more academic than a politician, I have sought to arouse and inject ideas, which are living, vital and universal, rather than allow the input to remain that of a defunct academic! Here are some thoughts from the ringside of politics about what constitutes real vocation in politics.
The first quality of a politician for whom politics is a vocation is idealism, or a commitment to goals. I believe that a genuine idealism must recognize the whole person of the individuals who make up society, namely people who are a composite of body, mind and soul. One of the appalling features of modernity has been the eclipse of the human soul. Its denial seems to me as absurd as the denial that one has a body. The exclusion of the reality and experience of the spiritual, which is one of the most natural human experiences, is denial in every sense of the word: intellectual and emotional denial. It is irrational, though paradoxically it parades as rationality.
Action for true goals
My observation and engagements of the last few years, which produced much of the material of this work – though the theoretical chapters in the middle precede this by a number of years – confirms the importance and necessity for action in politics. We not only have to know what is right, but also do it. Not be afraid of political correctness, disfavour and ridicule but to think, say and above all to do the right thing. It means saying and following (i.e. loving) truth. I thought that the following phrase came from Jewish tradition, but find also that Isaac Newton said (something like) it: it goes “Love Plato, love Aristotle, but love the truth more”. One of the hallmarks of truth is that one is ready to put oneself on the line in action.
Not to be bedevilled by inconsistency
Speaking about truth – about thinking, saying and doing it – does not mean that I present myself as a paragon of truth and virtue and that if I am not I am afraid to say the truth. I am all too aware of my shortcomings. But here comes another piece of advice from our tradition, which I am sure will be welcomed by everyone: it is “accept the truth from the person who says it”, not because the person has a perfectly virtuous unchequered past, but because right now what he or she is saying is true. In other words have the humility to accept truth, and to be wary of one’s prejudices which might lead one to dismiss it or fears which keep one from affirming it. Humility and acknowledgment is also a hallmark of truth.
Honesty is another hallmark of truth. We may believe what we believe, but we have to acknowledge what we do not know. Bertrand Russell was such a person. He was a professed non-religious person, with many values which I reject, but he acknowledged what he did not know, and what the limits of his own understanding were. This in fact is the entrance to self-transcendence: to recognize not only the foibles of our character but also the limits of our intellect. This opens the door to the soul and its qualitatively different knowledge.
Regard for another human being
Love of one’s fellow human is essential to a true political vocation – recognition of diversity, freedom and creativity – but all within the perimeter of universal ethics and with respect for Divine image of the human being. As mentioned in the book, within the compass of universal ethics there can be diversity, Liberal and Labor, but we must know what the boundaries are, where the compass points lie, what lines we cannot cross, and which basic shared values we are bound to affirm. I don’t want a conflict of religious vs anti- or non-religious. Every human being is made in the image of G-d, every human being has a soul. Some are more activated than others, and those which are not so activated, are not to be blamed even from a religious standpoint, since we live in a culture of spiritual deactivation. With the famous psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, all I would ask is that we all make an effort to transcend ourselves, that is to say to rise above our perceived desires and wants and our limited grasp of reality and ask ourselves why are we here, what is asked of us and how we can make the world a better place. That is already the route to our own intrinsic spirituality, without asking anyone to make any religious affirmation. In that we will find our common spirituality and humanity. And other word from Viktor Frankl: the true meaning of tolerance is not moral relativism – that I will tolerate another’s view, since who knows where the truth is. Rather tolerance has to do with love and regard for another. It is not suspension of belief and adherence to that which is true and universal.
Politics is a sphere in which we engage to change our lives and the lives of others. This makes it the most responsible, the most earnest of all realms of human conduct. Thank you all for being an audience for Politics and Universal Ethics, and I bless you all in the fulfilment of your life missions, whether inside or outside politics.