Category Archives: Personal Ethics

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.

Volo, Ergo Sum (“I Want, Therefore I Am”)

A problem with identity politics is that Christians are supposed to find our most fundamental identity in the unchanging Christ, not in entirely contingent circumstances of our personal desires and wills.

Yet every last one of us has been shaped all of our lives by our culture of consumption, which is based on the assumption that all desires – even ones created in us by incessant advertising for things we neither need nor are going to be reasonably enriched by – are good and just do deserve to be satisfied as such.

Why should we not be able to get a hot, juicy hamburger just the way we personally want it at practically any time of day or night? ‘”The customer is always right,” we readily chant when something we want seems obstructed by a factor or force outside ourselves. Do we ever stop to wonder whether such utterly self-centered reasoning might not be incompatible with natural human virtue, let alone with Christian ethics?

A result of being incessantly formed by the culture of consumption is that even though we are Christians we just are oriented toward defining ourselves in terms of our desires rather than in terms of Christ and His Gospel. Moreover, even though we are Christians we just are already disposed toward taking the aggregate of our desires as our “identity.” And our “identity,” being too inwardly-curved and jaded a thing to realize that self-satisfaction is not a good per se, at all moments strives to order our social and political and even our religious thoughts and actions in directions most calculated to avoid deprivation of our wants.

Ironically, then, given so much of the superficial “Christian worldview” talk that is the bread-and-butter of purported thought leaders among us, it seems that identity politics isn’t just something “Liberals” do. An obsession with “identity” and the disordered political thought that follows in its wake goes right down deep into the bone marrow of every self-styled “Conservative,” too. Why doesn’t this give us pause?

Because we’re so unreflective about desire itself, especially in terms of its relationship to human nature and hierarchy of goods, it all seems pretty harmless when we’re standing in the coffee shop line anticipating ordering in just such a way that the drink will be just super satisfying in the half-dozen highly-refined ways we’ve come to expect as if it were some divine birthright.

Which of us goes to the store philosophically wondering why we just ought to be able to obtain a pen that is super comfortable for our very own unique hand to hold and use? (And which of us philosophically wonders, when we can’t find that exactly right pen why we’re actually irked by the store’s failure to provide use with immediate and acceptably affordable satisfaction?)

And of course, there is our “need” to have a phone of just the right style, color, and make that we won’t ever ask ourselves why it is that we pick it up 85 times a day or why we even “needed” a doohickey that incorporates the function of 50 devices into 1, instead of a lesser model that only replaces only 32 devices – a horror of a deficiency that would make our lives so much less convenient.

But with all of our very selves already unconsciously defined in a thousand ways by the expectation that the world owes us the satisfaction of our desires, however trivial or important, it can then look pretty normal to church-hop in pursuit of just that right kind of service that will “meet my needs.”

It can look pretty unobjectionable for parents to break a financial contract with a Christian school because, while in a fit of self-centered pious introspection of the deliciously comfortable (and just obviously right) insides of their own “consciences” they decide that, well, darn it and I’m sorry, but the curriculum “just doesn’t work for our family.”

The problem with all of this seems to be less that we don’t know the Bible – because the Bible is pretty clear about our duty to cultivate virtues like self-denial and contentment with what has been provided for us. The problem, rather, seems to be that we have for too long failed to cultivate the proper kind of conceptual apparatus and language to talk meaningfully and persuasively about fundamental issues of our loves and their accompanying desires.

Thus, even when we are speaking to other Christians whom we find disagree with us on such matters as the ones mentioned (and many others, including education), we are already fighting an uphill battle of persuasion because neither they nor we ourselves have a habit of thinking about desire itself in terms of the fixity of human nature and a corresponding hierarchy of goods that to varying degrees either cause that nature to flourish or weaken.

The bitter truth of the matter is that we all have “identities” that we have personally, privately constructed for ourselves on the basis of reasoning which might be described in Latin as volo, ergo sum – “I want, therefore I am.” Any arguments we make for or against ideas – theological, political, economic, educational, whatever – are automatically perceived by others in just the same manner as assertions about whether Burger King is better than Arby’s or Apple than Microsoft or the original Star Wars movies than the prequels.

This is an enormous problem precisely because while everyone else evaluates our ideas as “opinions,” we invariably take our ideas as simple “facts.” One result of the superficial dichotomy turns out to be that even the perpetual Conservative appeal to “Objective Truth” has not escaped a much more fundamental subjectivizing that is extremely difficult to spot, let alone to combat. Everyone likes to quote Weaver’s phrase, “Ideas have consequences,” but few of us attain to the realization that ideas are already intrinsically wrapped up in loves and accompanying wants that, since we’re all consumers at heart, we don’t readily expose to rigorous self-critique.

Think about that the next time you hear a “classical” educator opining that something he grandiosely titles “The Christian Worldview” must be absolutely opposed to tattoos, skinny jeans, particular modes of taxation, public schools per se, “weird” dietary principles, political and economic theories that don’t elevate individual rights to a maximally comfortable level, or any other issues that, upon close inspection, belong not to any intelligible concept of adaptable human nature but only to a particularly narrow concept of nurture.

Volo, ergo sum in such cases transmogrifies itself into the very ugly, and very unclassical confusion of tribal identity with cosmopolis – the very thing the entire great philosophical tradition of the West almost constantly warns us of – the constancy of the warning being required because each generation seems to start all over again with the same obtuse hearing trouble as the one before.

Thanks to our culture of consumption having formed us all into mostly uncritical pursuers of desires we take to be good simply because they are ours, we are all fundamentally subjectivists in a way that ought to alarm us and drive us out of ourselves and back into the texts of our great tradition, determined to read them and meditate on them anew with fresh eyes and minds willing to consider whether or not things we take as absolutely fundamental to our “identities” actually do inflect truth well or merely blind us with sophistry and illusion.