Scientific Man vs. Power Politics by Hans Morgenthau

I’m not generally a superstitious person, but when I saw Hans J. Morgenthau’s ‘Scientific Man vs. Power Politics’ at a second-hand bookstore for $5, when it currently sells for $342 online, I knew I had to read it. And I am glad that I did. It’s hard to characterise a book that is part political theory, part polemic, part intellectual history, and part theology. But it is precisely this intellectual eclecticism that makes Morgenthau’s ideas stand the test of time.

If you’ve never heard of Morgenthau before, I can’t really blame you. He is not extremely well-known outside of academic international relations. Even amongst international relations scholars, Morgenthau is often over-looked in favour of ‘structural’ realists such as Kenneth Waltz and the now infamous John Mearsheimer. While Waltz and Mearsheimer blame the recurrence of war on the ‘structure’ of the international system (anarchy), Morgenthau locates the problem squarely within human nature itself. This difference in the unit of analysis is what separates classical realists like Morgenthau from structural realists such as Waltz and Mearsheimer.   

So what’s so bad about human nature that we cannot but periodically tear each other to shreds? Everyone, according to Morgenthau, has a lust for power – the animus dominandi. Every social interaction, no matter how trivial, contains an element of us trying to “maintain, extend, or demonstrate” the range of our person vis-a-vis another. It is worth quoting Morgenthau directly here, for his eloquence no doubt contributes to his persuasiveness:

“…there is no social action which would not contain at least a trace of this desire to make one’s own person prevail against others. It is this ubiquity of the desire for power which…constitutes the ubiquity of evil in human action. Here is the element of corruption and of sin which injects even into the best of intentions at least a drop of evil and thus spoils it.”

Notice the use of religious language. This is why I described Morgenthau’s work as “part theology”. One cannot really understand the lust for power unless it is treated as a theological concept. Morgenthau is very clearly drawing on Saint Augustine, who wrote about the pleasures of sin. In his Confessions, Augustine writes about stealing a bunch of pears as a teenager (pretty mild I know, but such is Catholic guilt). It turns out that Augustine didn’t even like pears, so why did he steal them? “My pleasure”, he confesses, “was in the crime itself”. Breaking taboos, asserting ourselves against the mores of society, this is part of what it means to be human. Sin is not some aberration, it is not the absence of good or the absence of knowledge, it is part of us. We are fallen creatures.

As inherently sinful creatures, Morgenthau is deeply sceptical about all human action. Even the most well-intentioned action is open to corruption. The consequences of this for political action is profound, for political action by its very nature affects other people. Morgenthau quotes Pascal, who wrote: “Man is neither angel nor beast, and unhappily whoever wants to act the angel, acts the beast.” A good politician is therefore circumspect, knowing that politics is always about discerning the lesser of two evils. “Political ethics is indeed the ethics of doing evil”, in Morgenthau’s own words. Those who reject politics in favour of moral purity simply destroy their ability to discriminate between different evils and ultimately “the perfectionist thus becomes a source of greater evil”. I am reminded of Gough Whitlam who quipped that “only the impotent are pure”.

Reading Scientific Man vs. Power Politics was a vindicating experience. Most of the book is dedicated to demonstrating why rationalism – the belief that social problems can be solved by the ever-greater accumulation and application of ‘objective knowledge’ – is fallacious and harmful. Political problems are immutable and must be solved anew each generation by political means. Bill Gates’ book on technology won’t solve climate change – political action will. Insofar as Morgenthau stresses that politics is a distinct sphere of human activity, I am onboard. But he overstates his case when declaring that everyone in every social action is infected with a lust for power. Animus dominandi is ultimately a metaphysical-cum-theological concept; its existence is impossible to prove or disprove. Morgenthau suggests that there are “universal laws of human nature” which do not change. On this I am unsure. In the long-running debate between agency versus structure, I lean towards structure. If you want to understand human behaviour, first pay attention first to circumstance, then to human nature. You will find that the former changes the latter.

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