Politics Rightly Conceived

Politics. Love it, hate it, or neither, we all think we know what it is. I’ll wager that when you hear this word politics associations like these, spelled out by the online Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, readily come to mind:

  • a: the art or science of government
  • b: the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy
  • c: the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government

Or if it’s not verbal definitions that come to your mind when you hear the word politics, perhaps it’s images like these:

These are some of our images, and they carry with them whole developed stories, some aspects of which we never imagine we should question – after all, aren’t these things just “The Way Things Are”? Why should we look any deeper? Don’t symbols interpret themselves for those who live in the world they create?

Perhaps not. While it is true that symbols and definitions matter to real politics, it is precisely the stories they tell that from time to time need to be reexamined. Republics don’t last just because freedom. Republics, rather, have to be actively maintained from generation to generation by people who care enough to evaluate present circumstances in the light of more fundamental originating and guiding principles. 

So what, then, is “politics”? In what follows I’m going to be quoting a lot from the Greek thinker Aristotle because I think the things he says are quite easily understandable, and offer us a rich and humane understanding of “politics.” 

Let’s get started with the opening phrase of Aristotle’s book The Politics, written almost 2,500 years ago, but just as common-sensically relevant today as it was then:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. 

Aristotle, Politics 1252a1

Here, in a nutshell, is the most fundamental axiom of that which is truly politics: it begins as part of a quintessentially human search, in community with other humans, for that which they think good

Several things are stated by or follow from this axiom.

One is that a state is a community. This equation may seem counter-intuitive to us, because to us the word “state” brings up images and connotations of a vast, clanking, usually grid-locked machine which exists outside of the people and is always interfering in some way or other with their freedom.  “The state” for many of us today who confuse the role of active citizen with that of perpetual carping critic isn’t itself a community, but really the antithesis of a community – just a bunch of self-interested individual power-hungry administrators always trying to “pull one over” on We the Free People.

But simply put, on the terms of Aristotle’s words above, this modern idea of state held by many of us is disordered and actually anti-political because it imagines the governing authority as an external force more or less arbitrarily constituted and having no intrinsic right to, well, govern us.  On the contrary, for those who gave us most of our very vocabulary of “politics,” the Greeks of the classical era, the state is the organic expression of the natural human desire to congregate with other humans and seek an orderly, good-oriented life together. 

Here is a crucial point: the state can take a variety of outward forms – monarchies, aristocracies, democracies, and so on – but it is not in its most fundamental, inner self something arbitrarily imposing itself from outside on the people. The state rather is the community because it is the highest expression of human cooperative living. It always involves a good bit of administrative interaction with the citizens, but unless it is a tyranny simpliciter (more on that in a future post), the state is really and truly the public and civil outworking of a particular group of people who are seeking a common end.

To try again in other words, the state and the people are actually one thing – which is why Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine so readily argued that a people always has the kind of government that reflects its own (the people’s) character (City of God V.19). To try to position oneself ethically and socially and administratively outside the state that is the reflection of the larger body of people of which oneself is a part is, again, anti-political.

I’m sure you can see how radical this understanding of state is, but if we reject it, we really will have nothing but a brute external force arbitrarily imposing itself on a bunch of isolated individuals – which means we will have no actual society, no community, and no true politics. (It’s worth noting that later in the same chapter I’ve quoted from, Aristotle says that someone who isn’t part of a state so defined is either a brute animal or a god – but not a human being.)

This raises a second implication of Aristotle’s words, namely, that true politics is never a solitary affair, but consists in actions taken as part of a community. “Mankind,” plural, “always act to obtain that which “they,” again plural, think good. Thus, any activity that gets labeled “political” but which concerns only an individual self – such as very strong claims of “personal rights” that supposedly trump all other concerns – is fundamentally not political, but an indication that oneself is either below the level of humanity or above it. For only animals and gods (classically conceived) don’t need or seek communitarian relationships, but follow only their own internal desires.

A third implication of this opening remark by Aristotle is that regardless of disagreements, it remains true that those others are seeking something which they think good.  No matter what political party we belong to, no matter how vehement debates may get, we’re all at the beginning, middle, and end in the same boat of seeking something which we think good.  As both classical philosophy and Christian theology in its classical mode maintain, no one seeks something evil, because evil is not a thing and so can’t be sought. All objects of desire, being real things in the world that the good God made and called good, are good in themselves – evil comes in how they are sought, which a question of the will, not the material (Augustine, Confessions VII.12; Enchiridion 3-4).

It’s when people who inhabit the same civic boat think differently about good that the process we immediately associate with the word “politics,” controversy and debate, begin to take center stage.  Disagreements about what is good are the material of the political (justice-seeking) process, but the crucial point remains that the grasping after and the achieving of mere power is not politics proper, but only the manifestation of the political impulse to live with others seeking the good. 

Disagreements about the good will always happen as people, Aristotle’s “political animals,” seek to live well with each other. That is why true politics has, over the millennia of Western culture, developed quite sophisticated concepts and practical tools aimed at helping civic bodies navigate internal disagreement about the good.

What’s happened in the Modern world – the world that has fundamentally shaped us all in ways of which we often aren’t even self-consciously aware – is that we’ve largely forgotten the organic, natural fundamentals of sociality that Aristotle explained above, and so we have come instead to characterize politics as just another species of that most terrible of artificial human actions, war.

But real politics is not war, and so war is not “the continuation of politics by other means.” War is neither the means nor the end of the political process; peace through the achievement of justice is. Contrary to what seems to be popular wisdom today, even among many Christians more in tune with modern anti-philosophy than with classical philosophy, war occurs when, as Cicero put it, human beings cease to act like human beings and instead begin to act like beasts (De Officiis 1.34).

When war occurs, it is because true politics – the art of persuasion by reason – has failed. By implication, then, those who seek and practice warfare in such a manner and attitude as to make such conflict simply a synonym of the word “politics” reveal that they are beasts masquerading as humans.

1 thought on “Politics Rightly Conceived

  1. Jonathan Kenigson

    This is an excellent reflection! Even Aristotle, though, conceives virtue as a mean, and at that capable of rational and experiential perfection with ultimate teleology.

    I thought that the pandemic would awaken us from the slumber of failure to conceive what political life embodies. Instead, people would rather use their specialized expertise to organize Saturnalia and deplete stocks of excess penicillin. Doctrina Christiana is absolutely right about the state of man. He collects antibodies instead of wisdom and whinges about degradation of his freedoms when he was always a slave to his own passions, but could not, or would not admit it. The nature of the body politic is best illustrated by how the state responds to treachery: Jugurthine War by Sallust, for instance, or Gulag Archipelago. In most instance, orgy of torture and murder because the magistrate is yet more wicked than even the men he governs.

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