Aristotle and the Seriousness of Politics

What does a politician “do”? Some would have it that he does not do much of anything. Others think that whatever it is that he does, he usually makes things worse. Politicians certainly talk a lot. Their speeches sometimes move our souls or save our civilization like those of Pericles, Cicero, Henry V, Lincoln, or Churchill. The talk of politicians reveals the souls of both the politician and those who listen to him and respond.

In a world that includes many refugees and immigrants, everyone seeks a country to call his own, a country wherein he can be cared for, and take care of himself. We seek to live in a land congenial to our thoughts about how best to live as we ought. Politics cannot avoid the question of how we should live when we are free to live as we choose. Some ways of living ought to be disdained. Defining what these deviant ways are, dealing with them, is also a political task.

Man is said by Aristotle, no less, to be by nature a political being. He meant it as an exact description of human reality at its best, even though few have described human corruption or human mediocrity better than Aristotle did. To know the best includes knowing the worst and all the things in between. We may wonder how someone who lived some 2,500 years ago could still teach us something.

It is unwise to imagine that everything we need to know was produced yesterday afternoon in our neighborhood. It is even more unwise to ignore something we need to know just because it was originally spoken or written in a language we do not know. The few passing years when we ourselves are alive and politically active do not encompass the totality of what we can know and need to know about ourselves and how we act. But the fact is that few, if any, have addressed the meaning of politics better than this wise and ancient Greek. Human nature abides, endures over time with new names and new places, but usually with old, recurring problems. Aristotle knew that politics is a matter of life and death; the arena in which justice and friendship, and their opposites, are manifested, where they come to light.

As a rule of thumb, we are often convinced by what we see of it, that politics is a “dirty” business. It certainly can be. The very fact that we recognize that politics may be messy indicates that we implicitly have some sense that it ought not be so. But politics is not a “business” or  species of economics. Its purpose is not to make money by making or improving things, though these latter enterprises are a needed and valued aspect of human life.

Aristotle maintained that the purpose of politics was to make man “good.” But it is not some abstraction called “politics” that makes man good. Politics merely provides the space and opportunity for a person to make himself good through the proper use of his mind and will, through the control of his desires. We can never be good or bad, moreover, except through our own agency. Politics has its place, but things beyond politics serve to put politics in perspective.

Beyond Power Politics

Often politics is defined in terms of power—the power to do what we wish through coercion or deceit. A successful politician, under this definition, was simply one who gained and stayed in power, however he managed to do so. Aristotle recognized that this view of politics was common enough, and he was not opposed to power. But the sharp edges of political power are mostly necessary precisely when politics is not working as it should.

Aristotle made a good deal of the fact that we speak, that we do not just grunt and make weird sounds. Politics is the place where we decide public things of greater and lesser importance by our speaking and persuading one another in a civilized manner. Indeed, the word “civilized” simply means that we go about deciding what we ought to do by reasonable discourse and debate. Men can legitimately resort to arms when they no longer adhere to civilized consultation with one another.

Today the world has something like 200 different nation-states. While some agitation is found for a one-world government with universal citizenship, universal police and armies, Aristotle was rightly skeptical of such notions. He thought that it would take the divinity itself to rule such diversity. If we tried to operate as if this world-ruling divinity existed, the result would be a massive tyranny. All experience suggests that he was right on this score. That leaves us with a world filled with nation-states as the locus for human action, something that French philosophers like Pierre Manent are making clear these days.

Politics is the highest of the practical or ethical “sciences” or knowledges. When Aristotle said that man is a political animal or being by nature, he did not mean that the political or civic model of rule under which man was to decide how he was to live was ready-made. It must be composed, put together, and understood. This endeavor takes time, experience, and wisdom. Aristotle also made distinctions of quality: While some political societies are better than others, any of them can change their internal configurations, and Aristotle described how this or that nation-state organized itself to make decisions as a constitution—a term he meant much more broadly than we usually intend by it.

Aristotle carefully distinguished the family from the polity. The family is the place where we come into being, live, and die. It is the locus of daily life, of love and kindness. The family’s purpose is the nurturing of life itself, and when family bonds break down, civilization itself is threatened by the effects that spill into civil society and the purview of government. The polis is where we deal with one another, with people we know or do not know. It is the sphere of justice in all its forms. It is where things that we can only do with others are made real. It is our way of living together, the sphere of law and custom, of civic memory. Individuals come into being and leave it in the family. The polis, however, lasts more than a given lifetime. It is designed to be permanent, with reasonable provisions to deal with what is new and what has passed away.

The Permanence of Politics

The polity, Aristotle tells us, is where we do more than just stay alive. We are to live well, even nobly. We want things of beauty and nobility to appear among us. But we are free to live contrary to what is best in us. The civil society is where we display our virtues and vices, where we deal with the consequences of our living well or ill. Aristotle’s discussion of the virtues and the vices, of how we rule or do not rule ourselves, realistically noted (along with Plato) that we form our city after the manner in which we form our souls.

While he would not have known the specific doctrine of original sin, Aristotle did recognize an abiding disorder that we could easily fall into. Our political institutions must be realistic about this. We need a certain steady moderation from our politicians and our regime. Tyrants and fools are not only possible in the public order, they appear rather more frequently than we might anticipate. They too have to be dealt with in a reasonable way.

Aristotle said that if man were the highest being in the universe, politics would be the highest science, rather than merely the highest “practical” one. But man is not the highest being in the universe. Politics also exists so that things beyond politics could come forth. Aristotle thought that we would be most prepared to deal with what he called the contemplative order precisely when our souls were well-ordered, when we controlled our desires and understood our limitations. If we insist, as many do, that we are subject to no law or reason but our own, we claim a freedom to do whatever we will. We conceive ourselves to be free enough to change what we are by nature. When we do this, we become unrecognizable to ourselves and to others of our kind. In claiming to be what we ought not to be, we turn our politics into a science and a practice that, in effect, make what is distinctive about man disappear.

So what does a politician “do”? He either seeks to make man “good” or he allows him to become what he is not and ought not to be. The political life is a noble and dangerous thing to deal with. Politics confronts the souls of our kind while they are citizens in the actual polities, in the nation-states of this world. The politician does not govern our individual souls. We do that. But as Plato argued, our lives are not complete until we are judged in the polities, good or bad, in which we find ourselves living during our personal sojourns in this world. Who is the most dangerous member of our kind? Ironically it is not the politician even if he be a tyrant. The most dangerous member of our human race is he who formulates the ideas that the politician uses to explain his rule, because if these ideas do not correspond to what man is, they can cause incalculable harm. The statesman, the one who gets it right, stands as a blessing to his polity and often even to polities not his own.