The Disease of “Politics” (Introduction)

  • Politics:
    • 1:
      • 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
  • Political:
    • 1:
      • a: of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government
      • b: of, relating to, or concerned with the making as distinguished from the administration of governmental policy
    • 2: of, relating to, involving, or involved in politics and especially party politics
  • Politicize: to give a political tone or character to

I begin this post with these definitions from the online Merriam-Webster dictionary because I think that although everyone uses these words all the time, it seems that much confusion arises from the open-endedness of the definitions.

Take politics – all three definitions state that it is an “art or science,” but they immediately diverge as to what kind of art or science it is. Is its subject matter government per se (the things which characterize all governments in the abstract) or a set of practical strategies for guiding or influencing government policy or, far less philosophically, just the ability to win and hold control over a government?

Possibly politics could be all three of these, but the relationships between the latter two and the first would have to be very carefully spelled out in order to take into account the foundational nature of the first. For unless we understand what government per se is, how could we move from abstractions to particulars in order to create specific practical strategies for guiding or influencing our particular government? And how could we discern what would be necessary to win and hold control over our particular government?

Whatever we may think about the latter two definitions, the first one is justly first because it contains the overarching criterion from which all else must flow. If we don’t well understand what an art is and what a science is (are they the same or different?), and what a government is, there’s no way we can hope to understand, let alone act well on the basis of an art or science of government.

Moving on, unless we first well understand what politics is, we’re going to have similar problems grasping and acting on the definitions given for political. For the suffix -al is one of English’s ways of turning a noun into an adjective, that is, turning a thing into a quality describing a thing. The suffix -al takes a noun, say, politics, and transforms it into a descriptive word meaning “of, like, related to, or pertaining to.” That is, -al takes the thing politics and makes us consider what happens to other things – say, speech or rights or groups of people – when we glue an additive onto them.

If you’re with me so far, the key takeaway is that words are potent, and their conceptual and practical meanings, especially as we modify the word forms, can easily “outrun” syntax (the way we put words together to make sentences).

And so we arrive at the third time with which I began: politicize. By now it should be clear that we can’t possibly understand what “to give a political tone or character to” can mean unless we first have settled all the essential questions surrounding the base word, politics and its adjectival form political.

Thus, although we are constantly hearing in the media that this or that thing (really, in our disordered culture, everything) has been “politicized,” and although we may think we know precisely what that means, it’s more than a bit likely that we don’t.

It’s more than a bit likely instead that we’re just hearing some sound patterns we recognize phonetically (“politics,” “political,” etc.), imbuing those patterns with surface-level meanings specific to our own personal “takes” on the world, and concluding that we for sure know stuff that we actually don’t know. (Which is why we then take to Facebook to share all the lopsidedly-humorous “political” memes and the algorithmically-curated (“politicized”) clickbait-outrage stories and engage in “politics” with total strangers on Twitter to whom we feel free to type violently vitriolic things we’d likely never say to their faces.

The Greeks and Romans, intellectually gigantic fountainheads of our Western society, had philosophy and deliberative and judicial rhetoric and historical treatises on the rise and fall of civilizations. We have 280-character Tweetbombs and sports-inspired vulgarity-codewords (“Let’s Go Brandon!”) and simply amazing verbal alchemy that turns highly complex, perennial human questions about disputable matters, like economics and, well, politics, into bogeymen the mere mention of whose scary names are all it takes to end all rational debate before it can even occur.

All this leads to why I am titling this series of posts “The Disease of Politics.”

Words matter because words are what separates us humans from the animals. Yet, for a variety of historical and moral reasons that it would be difficult to summarize in this short space, we’ve just about totally lost in our time the very vocabulary that was for many centuries considered essential to express any kind of meaningful thought about politics.

We don’t have the old, best words to talk about politics properly. Consider these points about today’s intellectual “political” landscape:

  • Who talks about statecraft anymore?
  • Who evaluates political occurrences within the matrix of having thought first about government per se (what it is of itself), not ONLY about types of government that the human mind is able to devise and put into practice (ways both healthy and unhealthy that people can construct systems in order to perform governmental tasks)?
  • Who talks about personal character in terms of Virtue (a mean between extremes) and Vice (a distortion of either excess or deficiency)?
  • Who talks about Justice and Moderation and Courage and Prudence as the objective mainsprings of a human social life aimed at maximizing the natural human end of happiness?
  • Who begins their political thinking with the understanding that humans are naturally gregarious, and so are naturally driven to form societies with other humans?
  • Who moves on from there to treat politics as the delicate art of creating and maintaining friendships with fellow rational creatures who are all driven to pursue the Good but just frequently disagree as to what that is?
  • Who speaks of rhetoric anymore in a positive way, relying upon its careful distinctions between judicial, deliberative, and demonstrative to classify the types of words that can be used for different persuasive purposes with different types of audiences?
  • Who tempers the easy, passionate talk about “rights” with slower, more circumspect prior talk about duties not just to God but to neighbors – and most especially, to the weak and less fortunate than ourselves?
  • Who strives, with whatever time and resources they have available to them, to become not merely informed about the world but formed in order to wisely engage the world?

I could probably go on, but this is enough. If all of this sounds impossibly strange to you, and, as likely the case, not even relevant to “politics,” my point is proved that we in our time have lost the very vocabulary necessary for talking about the thing we seem to want most to talk about.

That vocabulary exists in books that, through the wizardry of several generations of vapid public education and expressivistic personal religion, has come to be thought of as Too High for the ordinary person, the domain only of the Advanced Degree-Holding Specialists who teach in Colleges. Besides, thanks to poor teaching in even poorer schools, most of us have only experienced the study of historical time periods as mere “battles and dates and all that rot” drudgery – best keep authors from the past in the past, safely and cozily dead, irrelevant to we modern sages who bravely chart our own courses by our own lights.

Why read Plato or Aristotle or Cicero or Augustine or Dante (who contain many thoughts quite other than we ourselves consider obvious), when the talking heads on news sites are so much easier to understand, and spend most of their time pleasing us by saying things we already agree with, anyway?

Now, I often hear that such appeals as I am making here are just manifestations of arrogance. What? – do I dare to suggest that there is a real process of serious reading and serious thinking comprising a mental and emotional formation that is necessary for someone to speak well about politics and ethics and culture? Who do I think I am, anyway? Not only is this an ad hominem attack (shifting the ground from criticizing an idea to criticizing the person putting the idea forward), but it rebounds on the one making it.

Consider the charge flipped around: Is it really “arrogant” to consult a wide variety of voices spanning thousands of years of history, trying to see if oneself may have missed some important consideration or angle of thinking and action on some issue? Rather, isn’t the true arrogance found in the mind that will not consult others, but, dismissing all that has come before as irrelevant, considers itself self-sufficient? The question nearly answers itself. There is no arrogance like the “humility” of the common man who won’t be bothered to read and engage with his betters from other times and other places than his own.

But to return to the main point- because most of us never get to (or don’t even want to!) read the old books, our God-given capacity for speech fails us when it’s time to talk well about that which speech, that miracle that makes us not-animals, creates, namely, true politics and the true political life. And so it is that lacking the right words to say, what we have in our modern world by and large rather than true politics is a kind of anti-politics, a disease masquerading (quite successfully, as it turns out!) as health.

Many of us feel this malaise deep in our bones, believing there just must be more to the political life than endless, increasingly acerbic culture-warring aimed, on all sides, at Absolute, No Holds Barred and No Compromise Ideological Victory. Indeed one of the hottest current debates among politically active Christians concerns the prospects, and maybe the perils, too, of trying to locate and living in terms of “third ways” between radically polarized extremes.

But politics, true politics, because it springs from within our very nature as human beings, is far too important a topic to leave on the level of feelings. I hope you’ll stay with this series as I flesh out some of the more important aspects of the modern “disease of politics” and also offer some ways to move back towards health.

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