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We live with a complex conceptual inheritance that draws equally on the thought of classical Greece, Christianity, and the Enlightenment. Oversimplifying greatly, we can say that the Greeks formulated the ambition to subject the soul and the state to the order of reason; the Christians turned from reason to a will informed by grace; and the Enlightenment turned both reason and will toward a new appreciation of the ordinary as the object of interest and the limit of experience. All of these elements continue to inform our experience of the political. Each frames political time differently. The perspective of reason is that of timeless principle: politics is measured against principles of justice derived from argument, not experience. The perspective of will is that of history: politics is measured against a past that is understood as a kind of sacred self-revelation of the community. The perspective of interest is that of the present: politics is measured by markets. The confusion over the temporal character of our political life results from theorists and practitioners taking one perspective as the “truth,” and viewing the others as mere fictions or confusions. In fact, we live within multiple incommensurable symbolic frameworks. In different contexts, we are likely to appeal to different frameworks—principle, history, or interest. Theorists may be uncomfortable with the inability to give a single account of our political lives, but citizens of the modern state usually live comfortably within these multiple worlds. They can speak of a universal order of justice, of the patriotic virtues, and of the satisfaction of interests. Each of these normative frameworks supports a different conception of the international: a global order of human rights, a competition between sovereign nation-states, and global markets.

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