(Aesthetic Political Theory) Inside the Platonic Cave of the Liberal Social Spheres (Michael Walzer)


It’s an old book which I got to because we recently hosted at SU its author, Michael Walzer. Really, I should have come to this much sooner, as Walzer is my kind of liberal-social democrat. His classic Spheres of Justice is dedicated to the careful delineating of social spheres –economic, political, familial, religious—assuming that in a just society the goods specific to each sphere are not monopolized but rather distributed into a system defined by a form of “complex equality.” This, I’m sure has earned Walzer enmity from the left-left, and one can see why. It’s probably impossible to control and distributed goods without controlling persons, and you probably can’t control society without the kinds of domination that Walzer rejects. On the other hand, I’m not sure what alternative there is to the careful proceduralistic working out and sifting through spheres, even if their borders are tentatively drawn and always require re-drawing, as Walzer himself notes.

Frankly, I’m sure there is no sorting out of these political questions. What strikes me more  about Walzer is the aesthetic quality to his thinking. As he himself notes in the preface of Spheres of Justice, there is no way to escape the Platonic cave for the kind of universal sought by more radical political philosophers like Badiou or Zizek (p.xiv). What this means, then, is that Walzer’s version of liberal theory is deeply enmeshed in the worlds of images, and these images are always historical and tradition-based, particular and even parochial.

This commitment to the Platonic cave is perhaps why an open form of social membership is the first good in Walzer’s system, citizenship being the crowning good. As a Religion scholar and student of Jewish philosophy, I better understand now  Walzer’s ongoing fascination with religious communities; like the Puritans in his book on The Revolution of the Saints, as well as the Hebrew Bible in Exodus and Revolution and In God’s Shadow. Add to this his recent talk at SU on “Ideas of Peace in the Hebrew Bible,” which might have been re-titled “Images of Peace…” in that each of the ideas took on, in Walzer’s presentation, a bright, luminous, and crystallized quality.

To me what this means is a theory of liberalism that takes seriously the work of the imagination in sifting through complex political models. Rather than resist representation and systems of representation, in his biblical hermeneutic, Walzer seeks to commit liberal political theory to a basic form of picture thinking.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply