Sheldon Wolin On Totalitarian America
May 29, 2003

Sheldon Wolin remains after fifty years of teaching the pre-eminent political theorist of his time. His books, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds and Politics and Vision, are the classics in their subjects. When he spoke in Willits, shortly after the American invasion of Iraq, he was eighty years old. White-haired and spare, he physically resembled Ezra Pound and spoke with the lucidity and speed of a much younger man. I had been his student in political theory during 1966-7, a turbulent era of student and faculty life at Cal as elsewhere during the Vietnam War. His essay in The Nation, "Inverted Totalitarianism", (May 19, 2003), was the first scholarly essay to charge the George W. Bush administration with systematic constitutional violation. It was the talk of Washington elites. Wolin could not be smeared. He acceded to my request to speak in Willits and drove South from his summer cabin in Briceland with his wife, Emily Purvis Wolin. One personal reason I invited them was that two of their classmates at Oberlin in 1940 were now respected elders in Willits: Gordon and Catherine Wagenet. The two college couples were reunited after sixty-three years, living most of that time only 70 miles apart.


This is a very happy moment for me, because one of my most admired teachers has visited us with his wife--it's a beneficence really--he's actually returning to small town America, (we call it Willits), de Tocqueville's subject, and by reference Dr. Wolin's: the archaic basis for democracy. It is my wish and hope that a renewed insight through these small towns will bring wholesome health to America.

Now to our speaker. Sheldon Wolin is incomparably qualified to speak on his subject tonight. He is a scholar and a thinker; in him that is not an oxymoron. He is master of his vocation, first among equals in the guild, having contributed language, imagination, and insight into political philosophy across two generations, influencing the most political thinkers most profoundly. I am one of those. He has educated and exhorted students by thousands to apply their education to be full citizens, to exercise their understanding as human beings. Like Hobbes he has lived a long life and his contributions to knowledge can no longer be ignored.

All of which begs the question, who and what is a political theorist? The political theorist differs in no way from the Shaman, the Pathfinder, the Wise Man, Elder, and Seer. They are all concerned with mankind and the matter of how to best live. From the beginning of the race we have had the same need for understanding the almost inexpressibly powerful aspirations for justice, community, and harmony, so as to survive and thrive and be one with the natural balance and order. The political is simply the manifested aspect of that great mountain of human wisdom.

By the same token, universal understanding is necessary to detect folly and corruption and despotism and avoid their destructive effects. We have a case in point today, the current political model: the utilitarian concept of man which conditions for obedience, subordination, direct and indirect control, mindless repetition, and especially mindless self-sacrifice, all primarily conducive to a given elite's selfish purposes.

The expansive concept of who and what the human is, which I understand as implicit in Dr. Wolin's work, leads inevitably to a concept of the political wherein lasting societies and governments harbor and protect the individual soul as a microcosm of creation, a glory of Nature, a special gift embedded in its mystery. And this brings us to the devotion of the political theorist.

Why is he devoted to his own society and increasingly to humanity, with the sense that we are one flower, one seed that blossoms and withers as one? To use the Greek root for theory, Theoria, it means to behold from a distance. Many theorists become enthralled with their own visions and constructions after returning from the distance. Few return with the wisdom. But our guest is a constant citizen as well as a universal mind. The work will go on into posterity, but the citizen is with us tonight in a troubled time, the estimable Sheldon Wolin.

WJ Ray

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