Politics and the Peril of Truth

In chapter 17 of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Baruch Spinoza remarks: “Those who administer a state or hold power inevitably try to lend any wrong they do the appearance of right and try to persuade the people that they acted honourably.” Seemingly trite and obvious perhaps, at first, but on reflection, a shrewd observation about the deep roots of corruption that seem almost inescapable in the business of politics. The perpetual peril of the truth and the seeming inevitability of corruption in politics are the theme (or one of the themes) of the remarkable recent film, The Ides of March (don’t worry, I’ll avoid spoilers).

The uncomfortable insight of this movie is that political corruption does not come about simply because all politicians are self-interested bastards (though they are often that), but is, on the contrary, something into which many find themselves sliding almost by accident, despite the best intentions. The truth, it turns out, is too dangerous a thing for the business of politics, and to succeed, you must learn to hide it. As Spinoza realized, it is fatal for any leader, no matter how good a leader he may otherwise be, no matter how wise his policies, to show signs of moral weakness. Image is everything, and character is essential to image. The masses, and nowadays, the media, are hungrily waiting for any misstep, any chink in the armor of apparent virtue, and they will pounce without mercy. When this happens, penitence is no use, it is too late. The people do not want to see in a leader a man like them, someone with many faults, but sincerely regretful for them–they want to see a pillar of virtue. So the only choice for a politician who wishes to succeed is to conceal any faults, to lend to any wrong the appearance of right and try to persuade the people that he has always acted honourably. This, at any rate, is the common wisdom, and this is the tragic dilemma that The Ides of March explores. Read More