The Professor and the Politician

Historians in the News
tags: sociology, Political theory, Max Weber

The professor and the politician are a dyad of perpetual myth. In one myth, they are locked in conflict, sparring over the claims of reason and the imperative of power. Think Socrates and Athens, or Noam Chomsky and the American state. In another myth, they are reconciled, even fused. The professor becomes a politician, saving the polity from corruption and ignorance, demagoguery and vice. Think Plato’s philosopher-king, or Aaron Sorkin’s Jed Bartlet. The nobility of ideas is preserved, and transmuted, slowly, into the stuff of action.

The sociologist Max Weber spent much of his life seduced by this second fable. A scholar of hot temper and volcanic energy, Weber longed to be a politician of cold focus and hard reason. Across three decades of a scholarly career, in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany, he made repeated and often failed incursions into the public sphere—to give advice, stand for office, form a party, negotiate a treaty, and write a constitution. His “secret love,” he confessed to a friend, was “the political.” Even in the delirium of his final days, he could be heard declaiming on behalf of the German people, jousting with their enemies in several of the many languages he knew. “If one is lucky” in politics, he observed, a “genius appears just once every few hundred years.” That left the door wide open for him.

On the page, Weber told a different story. In the last years of his life, which ended in 1920, he delivered two lectures in Munich, one on the vocation of the scholar and the other on the vocation of the politician. The lectures were published in 1919 and have now been reissued, in a brisk translation by Damion Searls, as “Charisma and Disenchantment: The Vocation Lectures.” In Weber’s hands, the professor and the politician are not figures to be joined. Each remains a lonely hero of heavy burden, sent to ride against his particular foe: the overly structured institution of the modern mind, the overly structured institution of the modern state. (Weber assumed both of his protagonists were male.) Neither has much probability of success; in part because of that improbability, each is possessed by a great determination to prevail.

Students of these lectures often miss the likeness that Weber draws between the professor and the politician because they’re misled by the distinction he makes, at the end of his second lecture, between “an ethics of personal conviction” and “an ethics of responsibility.” In conventional readings, the first ethic is associated with the purist, who codes as a professor or intellectual, and who cares more about his good intentions than the consequences of his actions. The second ethic is associated with the realist, who codes as a savvy pol and cares about results. The realist understands that not everyone shares his goals, that the highest ends require the lowest means, and that, if he acts in the world, he must take responsibility for the foreseeable consequences he creates in the world.

Making the distinction in this way seems to stack the deck against the purist. He’s selfish and solipsistic, concerned only with his clean hands and a clear soul. The realist is responsive and responsible; he cares for the world. The simplicity of the distinction may be why it is so beloved of pundits and politicos (or older activists giving instruction to younger ones). The fact that it is so simple, the choice between the two ethics so clear-cut as to be no choice at all, should tell us that Weber had other things in mind.

Education and government, said Freud, are two of the world’s “impossible professions.” Weber had a theory as to why. Every effort of the professor and the politician is haunted by the spectre of its disappearance. As a scholar, the professor wagers his soul on getting “this specific conjecture exactly right about this particular point in this particular manuscript.” The smaller the question, the larger the devotion—a “strange intoxication,” Weber concedes, “mocked by all who do not share it.” That is the poignancy of the scholar’s vocation: to demonstrate his worth by taking on a task that no one believes is worth doing, and in which “success is by no means guaranteed.” Even if he is successful, the scholar must face the fact that his work will produce new questions. Those can be answered only by new scholarship, which, one day, will surpass his. It is the “destiny,” and even the “point,” of the scholar’s work to be “left behind.”


Read entire article at The New Yorker

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