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Power and The Professors

August 12, 2011

Brian C. Anderson in WSJ Book Review:

As Aristotle noted long ago, two very different and sometimes incompatible ways of life—the political and the philosophical—exert a powerful pull on the ambitious and talented members of any society. Mary Ann Glendon, who teaches at Harvard Law School, says that she sees this double attraction in her students. Some go into politics, but many turn away, fearful of the compromises and corruptions of power. Such students may go on to become teachers and scholars, but they never quite give up on the idea of “making a difference” in the wider, public world, even if they aren’t quite sure how to do it. Ms. Glendon’s “The Forum and the Tower” profiles 12 figures in Western history who struggled—not always successfully—with the conflict between an active life and a contemplative one, between “life in the public forum and life in the ivory tower.”

Ms. Glendon begins with Plato, whose efforts to bring philosophy to the city—that is, to thepolis or city-state—fell on the less successful side of the ledger. Two spells advising Syracusan tyrants ended in disaster: Plato’s counsel was ignored, and he almost lost his head. He had originally agreed with his teacher, Socrates, that good men had to get involved politically to avoid rule by the evil or weak. Now he felt that there could be circumstances so awful that the wise man should just “keep quiet and offer up prayers for his own welfare and for that of his country.” [More]

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