Space Odysseys

Political theory proposes a kind of 'journey' in search of political knowledge, one in which students immerse themselves briefly in the vibrant, imperialistic, slave-holding Athenian democracy of the 5th century BCE, or the violent, charismatic, northern Italian city-state republics of the 15th century CE.  The theorist as observer (the theorist as voyeur, we might worry), gathering dangerous accounts of alternative political orders against which to test the limits of our own political imagination. Perhaps we see ourselves as Mustapha Mond, or the Magnesians' nocturnal council, carefully sifting the useful from the harmful to preserve the stability of the political society or the virtue of its citizens.  Or, as Odysseus, or Lauren Olamina, disguising ourselves in order to create our identity, in search of a home whose time does not seem out of joint.

We risk mere intellectual tourism, of course, a safe contemplation that ushers in no new judgments, no demands on our time or conscience; a cable channel packaging of difference for our amusement and entertainment. But as Sheldon Wolin suggested, the purpose of the journey is neither antiquarian nor diversionary. We hope to emerge with a sharpened sense of judgment, an expanded and more discriminating moral sensibility, a deeper and more profound appreciation of the limits of political thought, both to make sense of the world around us and to inform our political action within (or against) it.

So is the journey from Athens to Rome sufficient to the task? Do we trouble our theoretical commitments more, do we learn more, if we also visit Linzi or Bukhara?  No way to know unless we make the journey.  But at the very least, our geographical coordinates shift, the center of gravity in our mental map of the world moves further east, and we can imagine alternative journeys across this new landscape, one that reaches, provisionally, from Qi to Andalus. Rather than Ithaca and Odysseus, for example, we might start from Uruk and follow Gilgamesh, the first recorded theorist in the sense I am discussing here. As Wolin would expect, we'll encounter familiar problems: the limits of political authority, the hubris of political leaders, and so on.  But does the Epic reveal anything about the origin, structure, and purpose of organized political life, in its original heartland and seen through its founding mythology, that can't be observed from Athens two thousand years later?

Further reading:

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower

Roxanne Euben, Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge

Homer, Odyssey

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Plato, The Laws

Sheldon Wolin, "Politics Theory as a Vocation"

Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought