Political Pluralism / Polytheism

In a comment on Doug Wilson’s blog, a “Mister Ed” cited Gary North’s book The Myth of Pluralism in response to another commenter’s questions about the Founding Fathers in relation to contemporary American political thought. I haven’t read the North book, but according to the commenter, North “argues the shrewd (and relatively unexplored) thesis that the founders…were NOT the same group of worthies as were the framers (of the constitution.) Whereas the founders took Christo-centrism for granted, the framers explicitly left it out, thereby setting the stage for the political polytheism that besets us today. The foundational error made by the framers is the belief that pluralism in a culture is sustainable. It is not. The more pluralistic our society becomes, the more difficult it becomes to prop up the myth of neutrality.”

This is simply a fascinating comment. Let me explain why.

In Ancient political thought, a constitution was not, as it is for us, a written document standing above and beyond an abstract “system of government,” a mechanism, which is thought to be self-contained, neutral with respect to ideology, and unrelated to the personal views of the people who fill its offices. In Ancient political thought, a constitution was, rather, a whole mode of life encompassing morality, economics, the arts, and a concept of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful at which the society was supposed to aim and for the attainment of which it was supposed to train its citizens. In this connection, at least two of Plutarch’s Lives, Lycurgus and Marcus Cato, take time to chronicle their subjects’ views that if a city allows foreign influences to freely enter it, the pluralism of viewpoints that results from exposing the citizens to new and different ideas than the ones advocated by their own constitution will undermine and probably even destroy the city. To this end, Lycurgus absolutely forbade his Spartans to allow foreigners into Sparta, and Plutarch says the resulting purity of political vision is one reason why Sparta’s republic lasted 900 years. Similarly, Marcus Cato vehemently protested the influx of Greek philosophy and rhetoric into Rome, believing that in time it would utterly destroy the Republic.

In the Ancient world, to change a set of rulers simply entailed changing the whole constitution of a city. Think of this in terms of the three good forms of government which Ancient political thinkers recognized. A democratic leader would necessarily set the city on a democratic constitutional path.:”(For those concerned with mere accuracy, I am aware that “democracy” for the Ancients was actually the corruption of “polity.” For ease of comprehension of readers who haven’t studied Ancient politics, I have chosen to use the word “democracy” to describe what is really called, at least by Aristotle, by the unfamiliar word “polity.”)”: An aristocratic party would necessarily set the city on an aristocratic constitutional path. A monarchical leader would necessarily set the city on a monarchical constitutional path. Each of these constitutions addressed different parts of the soul: democracy addressed the Many (the appetites), aristocracy addressed the Few (the desire for Virtue), and monarchy addressed the One (reason). Further, each of these constitutions had a particular corruption into which it might fall: democracy tended toward lawless mob rule, aristocracy tended toward a selfish oligarchy, and monarchy tended toward crude tyranny.

Furthermore, for Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch, the maintenance of a given constitution (again, a whole way of life) necessarily implied a particular form of publicly-sponsored education for the citizens. Plutarch says that Numa Pompilius, the second legendary king of Rome before the Republic was founded, was the very fulfillment of Plato’s ideal of “the philosopher king,” but Numa’s peaceful program for Rome did not outlast his death because he left education to individual families’ private preferences, thus producing a welter of conflicting viewpoints within the city. The Romans could only come together as a true unity in times of emergency, when everyone was threatened by a common enemy. In all normal times there was immense discord within the city because, thanks to disunified education, the citizens labored against each other in accord with their numerous competing concepts of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

The message of the Ancient concept of politics seems to be exactly what “Mister Ed” stated in reference to North’s Myth of Pluralism: “The foundational error made by the framers is the belief that pluralism in a culture is sustainable. It is not. The more pluralistic our society becomes, the more difficult it becomes to prop up the myth of neutrality.” In other words, the more competing visions of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful which a society tolerates living side by side, the more fragmented it becomes. But since fragmentation of a society is undesirable (it means the destruction of unity), the only way to stave off recognition of the fragmentation is to try all the harder to prop up the myth of a more fundamental unity. The more “diverse” America becomes, the less unified it is, and yet the one thing everyone must believe, as is hammered home in public schools by the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, is that America is “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” America is, we are taught in the public schools and in our entertainment outlets, neutral with respect to morality and religion. What matters more than everything else is “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and, of course, “justice for all.”

But to bring the wisdom of the Ancients to bear on our Modern problems, what exactly are these things called “liberty” and “justice” and “life” and “the pursuit of happiness”? America has no common vision of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, but rather a welter of visions about these things. Morality and religion are relative to what goes on inside the four walls of your church or inside your own personal heart, based on “what works for you.” Americans are all over the map on abortion, women’s rights, racial equality, homosexuality, economics, religion, and, yes, even politics. America is supposed to be a “melting pot” of diverse ideas, the place where “out of Many come One” (e pluribus unum) and yet as we increasingly see in our day – especially in such things as the current presidential election and the conflict in California over homosexual marriage – the “melt” has somehow failed to produce a coherent, well-blended and unified product.

The great “myth of neutrality” is, as “Mister Ed” said, getting harder and harder to prop up, because the fundamental fragmentation of our society is increasingly tending toward the exaltation of the hopelessly conflicting mass of private goods to the status of public truth. That is, there is no single public truth for which we are all striving, unless it is the public truth that public truth is whatever I and my group think it should be. So to come back to the application of Ancient wisdom, “politics” is for us is a mere instrument, a mere machine with buttons and levers and knobs and switches, equally amenable to the hands of anyone who happens to get into office, regardless of race, religion, moral views, or character. The true “Constitution” that we follow isn’t the written document we are all taught in public school to revere, but rather the peculiar vision of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful that is summed up by the phrase “pluralism” – a vision in which those things, supposedly unified entities, are actually fragmented and incoherent.

On the Ancient understanding of politics, our constitution actually changes with every change of leadership, and the only way in which we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” is in a sense in which all of the key terms are open to as many definitions as there are individual citizens. The confused, mish-mash of conflicting political visions seems to be but tenuously held together by the force of an increasingly weakening cultural inertia, and the myth of “neutrality” gets harder and harder to maintain in direct proportion to the emphasis on “diversity.” I am reminded of a point that Orson Scott Card made in his novel Empire, about the cleverly-engineered transformation (by a Caesar-like figure) of the American Republic into the American Empire. Card said that he has become distressed to notice that political rhetoric in America increasingly seems to be the verbal equivalent of physical civil war. It makes sense, really – the more a society stresses that its unity is really endless diversity, the less it can handle internal dissent and the more it finds itself troubled by serious fault lines and warnings of approaching quake.

The question all of this immediately raises is, of course, if we ought not to have plural visions, what one vision should we follow?


This entry was posted in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Christianity and Classical Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Political Pluralism / Polytheism

  1. The Scylding says:

    Excellent commentary, Tim. The other question though is – how big does that one vision need to be – ie, will it be holistic, or a “core vision”, or something in between? I guess you will elimante the “core vision” possibility. But how far would such a vision go in prescribing the preferences of the society? For example:

    Is it (a) Christian, but tolerant, or (b) just Christian? If (b), is it (a) Orthodox, (b) Catholic or (c) Protestant, or (d) General?
    If (c), is it (a) Calvinist, (b) Lutheran etc etc.

    You get my drift…

  2. kepha says:

    Can the Church even give an answer? She herself is fractured.

    I think that America will find a way to survive by realizing that morality and Christianity have to go. I’m reminded of Oprah’s prophecy that we are currently in a state of evolution regarding marriage. There will be a time, she proudly proclaimed, when there is no such thing as marriage. It’s worth mentioning that Oprah gets a reported 20 million viewers a day. Another example: one of the most striking things to me about the polygamist camp that was raided earlier in the year was the reponse of my co-workers. They thought having several wives was great, as long as they were all “hot.” In short, imagine an generation of Americans were there is no such thing as morality. I’m also reminded of Dr. Phil’s interview with heavy metal superstar Ozzy Osbourne and his family. At one point Dr. Phil asked Ozzy’s daughter is she wanted to be normal, to which she responded: “What is normal? Normality is an absurdity.”

    Maybe amoral Americans will focus entirely on making sure the machine works, making sure it continues to dish out stuff.

  3. Tim Enloe says:

    Scylding, yeah, what sort of unitary vision is the question, indeed. I’m not sure I have an answer right now, except that generally speaking I don’t think the Reformation traditions as they are generally thought of by their contemporary adherents are strong enough or have enough resources to create and maintain a stable society.

    Kepha, don’t Americans already focus entirely on making sure the machine works, making sure it continues to dish out stuff? Isn’t that why “the economy” has been THE issue of pretty much every election for the last several decades?

  4. Ah, the old the-one-versus-the many problem, only this time embodied in the Body Politic.

    America is an abstraction. I think it was meant to be an abstraction by the Framers. As abstractions get more “abstract”, they carry less information about how to deal wisely and correctly with any real man living in any concrete circumstances.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>