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The Michael Walzer Interview

January 27, 2010

Michael Walzer talks to In Character:

The political philosopher Michael Walzer is a self-described man of the left, but he has often found himself at odds with his ideological allies. In recent years, he has been an especially interesting and independent voice on questions related to terrorism and to strife in the Middle East, drawing on arguments first advanced in his now classic book Just and Unjust Wars (1977).

In the chaos of war, is it possible to strike a balance between general principles and wisdom on the ground?

I have to begin by wondering what you mean by wisdom. It sounds as if you have in mind some combination of intelligence and morality. I have a different set of meanings in my mind, which come from the ancient world, and particularly from the Bible, where wisdom was identified with the counse lors of the king. Those were the wise men. They were men of experience and prudence, and they were contrasted, in ancient Israel, with the religious or moral leaders of the community. The prophets repeatedly denounce the wise. The wise are the people who think that everything can be solved by clever policies. The wise are those who don’t have a proper respect for God’s law or for human justice. The wise are people who make alliances with Egypt and enlarge the army. They fortify the walls and prepare for a siege — which is indeed the wise thing to do if you’re facing an Assyrian onslaught.

But this was not what the prophets thought. That is a powerful contrast. It still lives in contemporary America. When the newspapers use a phrase like “the wise men,” they usually mean former secretaries of state who have a lot of experience in government and know how to talk to the Russians or the Iranians, or whomever. They don’t necessarily think of the wise as those who are going to do the right thing in deciding to go to war or in deciding about how to fight a war. The wise, I think, are for most Americans “the best and the brightest,” even if they turn out not to have much wisdom, even about prudence and policy.

Obviously, there is another view of wisdom, which associates it with justice and righteousness. But the contrast of these two views — prudence and policy versus justice — may be more interesting than the alliance. [More]

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