Talking Politics

Talking about politics can be a fraught exercise for teachers. When people in our culture hear the word “politics,” they usually think of electoral politics with robocalls and endless online and television ads (usually demeaning in tone and content), or of the latest stories of corruption out of town hall or Washington, or of their neighbor down the street with yard signs for candidates and causes they find at least odd and possibly dangerous. They may think of hearing that someone lost a promotion unfairly as a result of office “politics.” In our day, the word “politics” evokes mostly negative impressions and, especially, an impression of division and discord.

To start a good discussion on politics, a teacher might ask what politics is about, expecting some of these typical answers. But Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, provides a different answer: the art of politics is, he says, about bringing souls into good condition, the way a doctor uses the medical art to bring a patient’s body into good condition. Politics is about being fully human. With all that we see of day-to-day politics, how could this possibly be? Was Socrates living in some kind of utopian Athens? No, far from it. Athens knew more than its share of political strife and conflict, even civil war. What was he talking about?

It helps to begin with the word itself. “Politics” is derived from polis, the Greek word for city. “Polis” was not a political slogan or the name of a candidate. It was the first form of political community to receive serious and systematic study from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

What do we mean by political community? In the Politics (really a collection of notes from his students and his lectures), Aristotle describes the political community he was most familiar with, the Greek city, as the outcome of a series of relationships that come into being by nature, and he repeats the “by nature” over and over again to emphasize it. Looking around Athens, Aristotle sees first the natural relationship of husband and wife that exists for procreation. From this relationship develops the natural household, the community that is self-sufficient for daily life. A few households come together to form a village, and villages come together in a city. This community of the polis or city is self-sufficient for the life of its people over time.

When he says that the city exists by nature, Aristotle means that the city comes into being according to an order of things that is more than just the result of human choice. Humans are rational animals. Unique among animals, we have logos, or reasoned speech; and we are, by nature, political animals. We have to be engaged in politics, in a city or political community, in order to be what we are meant to be by nature, to be fully human.

Politics is not robocalls or bumper stickers; those are just tools of persuasion (and annoyance) used by some in our day. Politics is the effort of the community to achieve the common good of that community. The common good includes the good of each member of the community, but it’s much more than the sum of individual goods. It captures the larger good of the community as a whole. And because each member of the community must be engaged in politics, or the drive for the common good, in order to fulfill his nature as a political animal, the good of each individual demands participation in politics both as someone who rules the city and is ruled by it.

The end, or the fulfillment of the city as a natural being in its telos, is not just to live or survive, but to live well or finely. The good political community permits its citizens to enjoy leisure, yet another fraught word these days. Leisure for the Greeks was not a round of golf or binge-watching Netflix; such activities are recreation, necessary to get us ready to return to work and the daily grind but not the fine or noble living that fulfilled the city’s natural end. Leisure is the active contemplation of the highest things, the activity of the soul in virtue and using reason that, in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes as the happiness that is the natural end or telos of humans. It is the final good that we all seek; everything else we may want or think we want is only something that we think might give us happiness, but real happiness is the active contemplation of the divine things.

But as Aristotle looked around, he saw that most of us lack the time or inclination for such a noble leisure; it seems that it must be too divine for most people. So the best available life for most of us is a life of virtue in politics, in the push for the common good of our political community, which may give us glimpses of the divine on occasion and accord with our own nature and the nature of the political association. Few students would look at what passes for politics today and see anything related to the divine or even the truly human. But such was the classical understanding of politics.

That understanding hinged upon the notion that there was a moral nature to things beyond the physical nature that we sense and explore and that we should seek and love the good that the moral nature holds and discloses. Aristotle and other classical thinkers understood well enough that cities often fell into tyranny where the interests of the rulers prevailed over the common good. But such failings, as common as they were, were contrary to nature, to the proper order of things. That kind of activity with no common good in sight was not really politics and it fulfilled no one’s nature. Even friendship is not really possible under tyranny.

The fathers of modern political philosophy, Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, looked around at their own political circumstances in the 16th and 17th centuries much as Aristotle had looked at Athens. But they saw nothing noble, only a mess that carried great dangers. They parted ways with the classical tradition, blaming it for refusing to see politics as it really is. They emphasized politics not as a search for some common good according to a moral nature but as the use of human reason and power to flee the dangers of common life and achieve security and safety through force. The operative motive was not civic friendship and love of the good according to nature,but flight from fear and from a nature that seemed more threatening than good.

The American founders drew from both classical sources and from modern thinkers such as John Locke, who rested the legitimacy of government on the consent of the governed. The politics the American founders envisioned included a notion of the common good that is best seen in the preamble to the Constitution: domestic tranquility, common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty. Much of that common good was to be realized in private associations such as families, churches, and other community organizations whose members would thrive when their rights such as free speech and assembly were protected. They understood the necessity of government as well and constructed the Constitution of a republic to prevent as best they could the dangers of factions, discussed by Aristotle, and especially factions composed of a numerical majority — what Aristotle called “democracy” — who would use governmental powers against the common good. 

In Athens in 400 BC or in America today, politics involves conflict and argument, and it carries the constant risk of division and even violence. Students might want to consider why this risk is always present, as well as which is more important: the love of the good according to nature in a political community or escaping the fear that those around us may hurt us. These are enduring questions that any political community must consider. Aristotle would tell us that, without a hard-argued but decisive common understanding of a common good, we cannot have politics at all, only some form of tyranny. A good classroom discussion will leave behind the noise of campaigns and headlines and think about what politics is in its fundamental ends and purposes and how politics is really about being human.

Joseph Wood is a research and seminar Fellow at Cana Academy. He teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.

Header image by Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman. All rights reserved.