Prizes for Second Best

‘Tocqueville made the case for the philosophy of the second-best’

Open Season

I was recently reminded of a remark many years ago by my research assistant, a serious student of philosophy who had the menial task of getting books for me from the library. Handing over the latest batch of books, she commiserated with me on having to read so many second-rate writers while she had the privilege of reading only the Greats. The offending books on this occasion were by the English philosopher T.H. Green. I feebly, almost apologetically, explained that Green was highly respected in his time and played an important part in the subjects I was working on, social philosophy and policy in Victorian England. I even ventured to suggest that he still had a good deal to say to us, more than a century later.

As it happened, Green himself was only once removed from the Greats – a neo-Kantian, he might be called. A generation earlier, Macaulay, presented with a translation of Kant, said that he could not understand a word of it “any more than if it had been written in Sanscrit”. Green made Kantianism intelligible as well as respectable to Englishmen because in Anglicising it, he also liberalised and socialised it – domesticated it, so to speak. That was no small feat. There were other attempts to bring those most formidable of modern Greats, Kant and Hegel, to the attention of the English, but for the most part, the English went their own way. John Stuart Mill, who in his youth had read almost everything worth reading, referred in On Liberty to Plato and Aristotle twice in passing, to Kant once and to Hegel not at all. Mill himself, the most eminent of English philosophers, did not, by the standards of my student, merit the title of greatness. He was more eminent than Green but still of a lesser order of greatness, a second-best order.

I might have reminded my student that the greatest of the Greats had themselves paid tribute to the second-best. Plato himself had made the transition from the best, the ideal city of the Republic, to the second-best, in the Laws. The Athenian Stranger, in the Laws, used that very term when he said that the city should be “ordered in a manner which, if not the best, is the second best”. Aristotle went further in his rejection of the best, sharply criticising the “best constitution” of the Republic as impractical and contrary to human nature and proposing instead, in the Politics, a mixed constitution, in effect, a second-best constitution, that is the best practical constitution. So, too, in the Ethics, he distinguished between “wisdom”, which is universal and eternal, and “prudence”, which is practical and particular – the former intellectually more exalted, and in this sense the best, but the latter, the second-best, the most basic human virtue.

It is said that we need the best as a measure against which to test the second-best, to show us how far we are deviating from the best. In this sense, the best is the ideal to which the second-best aspires. But if the ideal is impractical because inconsonant with human nature, how or why should we aspire to it? The case for the second-best goes beyond practicality. More serious is the fact that the attempt to realise the unrealisable is likely to be pernicious.

Voltaire is credited with the dictum: “The best is the enemy of the good.” What he did write was “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” – “le mieux” translatable as either the better or the best. It is interesting that the French use the same word for concepts that in English are so sharply distinguished: the better and the best. One might almost make this symbolic of the historic differences between the two countries. The unambiguous English version of that dictum makes it clear that it is only the best that is the enemy of the good, and that the better, the second-best, is the friend and ally of the good.

Indeed, the best may be more pernicious still, for it is not only the enemy of the good; it may be an invitation to the worst. The perils of utopianism are by now all too familiar. It was in the name of the best – of so-called “ideals” – that some of the worst tyrannies have been perpetrated and rationalised. Robespierre’s Reign of Terror was instituted in the name of the “Republic of Virtue”, which was a conscious adaptation of Rousseau’s “reign of virtue”.

Leo Strauss once observed that in the 19th century, Germany’s politics were “a mess” while its thinkers were “first-class”. England’s politics, on the other hand, were “fine”, and its thinkers “second-class”. The implication (which Strauss did not have to spell out to his disciples) was clear: there may be an inverse relationship between philosophy and politics. Grand philosophies of the Germanic order – abstract, systematic, comprehensive, engaging all aspects of nature, aspiring to create a whole that would subsume all contingencies and rationally construct (or reconstruct) the world – such philosophies were not only irrelevant to the mundane affairs of social and political life but also fatally distracting and disruptive. Conversely, the modest philosophies favoured by the English (a German philosopher might say of Mill, as Churchill said of Clement Attlee, that he had much to be modest about) were attuned to a culture that was practical and prudent and thus conducive to a polity that was humane and responsible.

Economists have recently elaborated a theory of the second-best, in which the optimum resolution of a problem may involve a strategy of second-best devices. At least one legal philosopher has invoked that model for the discipline of jurisprudence. But it was more than 150 years ago that Alexis de Tocqueville delivered what may still be the last word on the subject. Tocqueville was speaking of America when he extolled its philosophy of “self-interest rightly understood”. But he might have been speaking of England too – the source, after all, of the phrase, “self-interest”. And he was speaking, more broadly, of a moral philosophy (Adam Smith, after all, was a “moral philosopher” by trade, as well as an economist) that went well beyond the economic context of that phrase.

“The principle of self-interest rightly understood [Tocqueville wrote] is not a lofty one, but it is clear and sure. It does not aim at mighty objects, but it attains without excessive exertion all those at which it aims. By its admirable conformity to human weaknesses it easily obtains great dominion…By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous; but it disciplines a number of persons in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self-command…If the principle of interest rightly understood were to sway the whole moral world, extraordinary virtues would doubtless be more rare; but I think that gross depravity would then be less common…[It] perhaps prevents men from rising far above the level of mankind, but great number of other men, who were falling far below it, are caught and restrained by it. Observe some few individuals, they are lowered by it; survey mankind, they are raised. I am not afraid to say that the principle of self-interest rightly understood appears to me the best suited of all philosophic theories to the wants of the men of our time.”

This was the philosophy of the second-best, at its best – “the best suited of all philosophical theories to the wants of men of our time” – and, perhaps, of all time.