Wolin remains after fifty years of teaching the pre-eminent political
theorist of his time. His books, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds and Politics
and Vision, are the classics in their subjects. When he spoke in Willits,
shortly after the American invasion of Iraq, he was eighty years old.
White-haired and spare, he physically resembled Ezra Pound and spoke with
the lucidity and speed of a much younger man. I had been his student in
political theory during 1966-7, a turbulent era of student and faculty
life at Cal as elsewhere during the Vietnam War. His essay in The Nation,
"Inverted Totalitarianism", (May 19, 2003), was the first scholarly essay
to charge the George W. Bush administration with systematic constitutional
violation. It was the talk of Washington elites. Wolin could not be smeared.
He acceded to my request to speak in Willits and drove South from his summer
cabin in Briceland with his wife, Emily Purvis Wolin. One personal reason
I invited them was that two of their classmates at Oberlin in 1940 were
now respected elders in Willits: Gordon and Catherine Wagenet. The two
college couples were reunited after sixty-three years, living most of that
time only 70 miles apart.
This is a very happy moment for me, because one of my most admired teachers
has visited us with his wife--it's a beneficence really--he's actually
returning to small town America, (we call it Willits), de Tocqueville's
subject, and by reference Dr. Wolin's: the archaic basis for democracy.
It is my wish and hope that a renewed insight through these small towns
will bring wholesome health to America.
Now to our speaker. Sheldon Wolin is incomparably qualified to speak on
his subject tonight. He is a scholar and a thinker; in him that is not
an oxymoron. He is master of his vocation, first among equals in the guild,
having contributed language, imagination, and insight into political philosophy
across two generations, influencing the most political thinkers most profoundly.
I am one of those. He has educated and exhorted students by thousands to
apply their education to be full citizens, to exercise their understanding
as human beings. Like Hobbes he has lived a long life and his contributions
to knowledge can no longer be ignored.
All of which begs the question, who and what is a political theorist? The
political theorist differs in no way from the Shaman, the Pathfinder, the
Wise Man, Elder, and Seer. They are all concerned with mankind and the
matter of how to best live. From the beginning of the race we have had
the same need for understanding the almost inexpressibly powerful aspirations
for justice, community, and harmony, so as to survive and thrive and be
one with the natural balance and order. The political is simply the manifested
aspect of that great mountain of human wisdom.
By the same token, universal understanding is necessary to detect folly
and corruption and despotism and avoid their destructive effects. We have
a case in point today, the current political model: the utilitarian concept
of man which conditions for obedience, subordination, direct and indirect
control, mindless repetition, and especially mindless self-sacrifice, all
primarily conducive to a given elite's selfish purposes.
The expansive concept of who and what the human is, which I understand
as implicit in Dr. Wolin's work, leads inevitably to a concept of the political
wherein lasting societies and governments harbor and protect the individual
soul as a microcosm of creation, a glory of Nature, a special gift embedded
in its mystery. And this brings us to the devotion of the political theorist.
Why is he devoted to his own society and increasingly to humanity, with
the sense that we are one flower, one seed that blossoms and withers as
one? To use the Greek root for theory, Theoria, it means to behold from
a distance. Many theorists become enthralled with their own visions and
constructions after returning from the distance. Few return with the wisdom.
But our guest is a constant citizen as well as a universal mind. The work
will go on into posterity, but the citizen is with us tonight in a troubled
time, the estimable Sheldon Wolin.
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