Epstein on Valery on politics: politics gets a portion of the contempt it deserves

The intimate abstraction of Paul Valery by Joseph Epstein

Add to this his intellectual contempt for politics, which he felt took on life en masse, or in its coarsest possible form. “I consider politics, political action, all forms of politics, as inferior values and inferior activities of the mind,” he wrote. Politics is the realm of the expedient, the rough guess: “crude, vain, or desperate solutions are indispensable to mankind just as they are to individuals, because they do not know.” In politics, he wrote, “by a trick of inverted lights, friends see each other as enemies, fools look impressive to the intelligent, who in turn see themselves as very tiny indeed.” Politics calls, inevitably, for the polemic, which carries its own peril: “that of losing the power of thinking otherwise than polemically, as if one were facing an audience and in the presence of the enemy.” Valéry could think of nothing in the realm of thought “madder” or more vulgar “than wanting to be right,” which is of course what politics is chiefly about.

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