Holding One's Time in Thought:
The Political Philosophy of W. J. Stankiewicz

by Bogdan Czaykowski, Samuel V. LeSelva, Samuel V. LaSelva,
410 pages,
ISBN: 0921870515

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Outing the Barbarians
by Robert Sibley

The lives of philosophers are usually quite dull, at least compared to those of rock stars and libidinous presidents. Immanuel Kant, for one, never left the German town of Königsberg where he was born. And his life was so regimented that the townspeople set their watches by his daily walks.

Kant disconcerted his neighbours only once. One afternoon, the story goes, he became so absorbed in a book by the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that he skipped his daily stroll.

The point, of course, is that what is important about a thinker is what goes on in his mind. We are interested in a philosopher's life only to the degree that it illuminates his ideas.

The editors of the collection of essays honouring political philosopher W.J. Stankiewicz have kept this principle firmly in view. Holding One's Time in Thought is the result of a 1995 colloquium on Stankiewicz, who retired in 1987 after teaching political science at the University of British Columbia for thirty years.

Anybody who's ever attended one of these conferences knows they can be embarrassing affairs. Everyone is on his or her best behaviour, having left the scalpels and skewers of normal intellectual discourse back in the departmental pantry. The result is often a Hallmark version of scholarship, and a book that ends up on the dustiest shelf in the library.

This collection doesn't deserve to gather dust. Stankiewicz may not be well-known outside Canadian academic circles, but this book is evidence that he should be. By all accounts, he was admired by students and colleagues for his depth of knowledge, his dedication to scholarship, and his allegiance to the ideal of the spectateur engagé, the engaged intellectual. If the sixteen essays accomplish anything, it will be to win his ideas a wider audience.

To be sure, we encounter Stankiewicz's "external" life. But the editors do not let this overshadow considerations of his thought. In fact, their skill in linking the externals of Stankiewicz's life to his ideas gives the book a certain emotional resonance. In this light, the outward aspects can be quickly summarized. Stankiewicz fled his native Poland at the age of seventeen when German troops invaded in 1939. He ended up in Britain, where he combined an undergraduate degree at St. Andrews College in Scotland (under the tutelage of the eminent Hegel scholar, T.M. Knox) with training as a soldier in the 1st Polish Armoured Division. He served with his unit during the invasion of Europe in 1944. After being demobilized in 1946, he attended the London School of Economics, obtaining his doctorate in 1952. A few stints at universities in the United States led to an appointment in 1957 in U.B.C.'s Political Science Department.

Over the next three decades, Stankiewicz published more than a dozen books in political philosophy, exploring concepts as diverse as democracy, ideology, authority, and sovereignty. His magnum opus is a three-volume series, published between 1976 and 1993: Aspects of Political Theory; Approaches to Democracy; In Search of a Political Philosophy. He was also a respected authority on the British and American constitutions and lectured at universities around the world. In 1978, he was part of the team of international observers in the first multi-racial elections in Namibia.

If there's an abiding concern reverberating throughout his work, an idea that links his life's experience and the "life of the mind", it is the question of human freedom. As several essays make clear, at the core of Stankiewicz's thought was the desire to protect this most fundamental concept in the Western philosophical tradition against those who, in some fit of failed intellectual courage, undermined it by surrendering human agency and philosophical reflection to deterministic assumptions-whether the historical materialism of Marxism or the biological determinism of liberal social engineers.

In this regard, several essayists observe that Stankiewicz's intellectual flag is firmly planted in the camp of those other "exiled" thinkers-Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Hannah Arendt, for example-who had direct knowledge of fascist or communist totalitariansim, and, as a result, saw the necessity of defending the Western tradition against the barbarians of behaviourism and relativism.

For instance, in perhaps the collection's best essay, Jean Bethke Elshtain considers the similarities between Stankiewicz and Arendt in their thinking on authority. She points out that, according to Arendt, Western society is undergoing a crisis of authority due, in part, to a kind of extremist individualism that sees people as utterly autonomous and, therefore, able to assert their own values irrespective of historic or cultural circumstances. This has resulted in a relativist attitude that erodes loyalties and bonds to anything beyond the individual, including family, friends, and the wider political community. For Arendt, any restoration of a legitimate authority that could sustain society as a whole required recognizing the interdependence of the individual and the community, and admitting that legitimate authority is a condition of freedom, rather than a restraint on it.

Elshtain detects this concern residing at the heart of Stankiewicz's thinking too. She points out how, in his 1993 book, In Search of a Political Philosophy, Stankiewicz traces the crisis of authority back to John Stuart Mill's idea of the "sovereign individual". For Mill, only unattached and skeptical individuals would develop a better society. Hence, any submission to authority must be voluntary if it is to be legitimate. Stankiewicz, however, makes an essentially Hegelian response, arguing that by locating sovereignty in the unfettered and skeptical individual, authority and freedom are, wrongly, set in opposition. The notion of authority as a condition of freedom, and even of legitimate authority as itself bounded, is swept away. The consequence, though, is sovereign individuals who are unable to admit the necessity of authority and end up losing their freedom-"a society without rules is a society that cannot be free", in Elshtain's words. In effect, people lose the capacity to distinguish between authority and tyranny and, as Stankiewicz concludes, the skeptics and the relativists "become true authoritarians", imposing a tyranny in the name of some utopian ideal.

Another contributor, Edwin Black, ties this crisis of authority to another of Stankiewicz's key concerns: the maintenance of democracy. People everywhere complain that government does not meet their needs or desires, Black writes. What's gone wrong? Drawing on Stankiewicz, he explains that the culprits are relativism, egalitarianism, and crude determinism. Contemporary democracies are the victims of their own values: extremist notions of equality and rights promote a pervasive relativism about societal norms that undermines the authority of democratic governments and hinders their ability to deal with the irrational forces that threaten society. As Black writes, summarizing Stankiewicz's arguments: "As everybody's wishes must be judged equal in normative terms, the demands for citizen participation in public decisions grows to the point where they endanger the very possibility of that sovereignty or authority which alone separates civilized life from the jungle of tooth and claw."

Perhaps, though, if the collection could be boiled down to one statement, it would be this: Stankiewicz is no modern liberal. Ideologically, he sees conservatism as the most intelligible of the democratic ideologies because it possesses a "theory of man"-a philosophical anthropology-that asserts the reality of free will. As the book's editors write, Stankiewicz "regards conservatism as the most workable ideology of democracy, because only conservatism demonstrates a sustained concern for individual responsibility, and opposes the determinist view of human nature that is at the roots of both liberalism and socialism".

Such a philosophic stance was born, as this collection demonstrates, out of a lifetime of experience and thought. Stankiewicz clearly understood that we reap in our daily lives what we sow in thought.

Considering the horrors committed in this century in the name of utopian ideologies, it's hard to refute Stankiewicz's judgment. And in the end, that's what makes this collection worthwhile: We are introduced to a man who was very much alive to the world, not lost to it. 

Robert Sibley, an editorial writer with The Ottawa Citizen, is currently working on a doctoral thesis in Political Science at Carleton University.


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