An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2014

Politics & Eternity

Francis Christopher Oakley
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FRANCIS OAKLEY, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1998, is the Edward Dorr Griffin Professor of the History of Ideas and President Emeritus at Williams College. He is also President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies. His books include Empty Bottles of Gentilism: Kingship and the Divine in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages(2010), The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church, 1300–1870 (2003), and Politics and Eternity: Studies in the History of Medieval and Early-Modern Political Thought(1999).

“The Leviathan is the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language. And the history of our civilization can provide only a few works of similar scope and achievement to set beside it. Consequently, it must be judged by none but the highest standards and must be considered only in the widest context. The masterpiece supplies a standard and a context for the second-rate, which indeed is but a gloss; but the context of the masterpiece itself, the setting in which its meaning is revealed, can in the nature of things be nothing narrower than the history of political philosophy.

“Reflection about political life may take place at a variety of levels. It may remain on the level of the determination of means, or it may strike out for the consideration of ends. Its inspiration may be directly practical, the modification of the arrangements of a political order in accordance with the perception of an immediate benefit; or it may be practical, but less directly so, guided by general ideas. Or again, springing from an experience of political life, it may seek a generalization of that experience in a doctrine. And reflection is apt to flow from one level to another in an unbroken movement, following the mood of the thinker. Political philosophy may be understood to be what occurs when this movement of reflection takes a certain direction and achieves a certain level, its characteristic being the relation of political life, and the values and purposes pertaining to it, to the entire conception of the world that be . . .

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