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Must Politics be Petty?

If given the option, Aristotle would have been a “West Wing” and not a “House of Cards” kind of guy. He had a high view of politics. Aristotle would also be confused by the subjects—so obsessed over by our modern-day pundits—that we label “political”: welfare, taxes, foreign policy, etc. For Aristotle, statecraft was only a very narrow (and far from the most exciting) aspect of political work.

Aristotle thought of politics as the highest art: that which pertains to the greatest good of man. A political community, furthermore, he defined as a people united by a common conception and pursuit of the good life for man. And what was that good? This is the subject of his famous Nicomachean Ethics: the formation of men in the moral and the intellectual virtues. Everything else is ancillary to this chief end, or telos.

For Aristotle politics is the art of making men good. But is such an idyllic view tenable in a society such as ours that lacks agreement on the biggest questions of human life? I will argue that it is; but not in the way that you might expect. If we are to preserve politics as high art we will be required to return to an older understanding of politics by way of expanding our current one.

On any survey posing the question “what is the most important issue facing America today,” Aristotle would check the box for education. Education is the vehicle by which men are taught to discern good from evil, and community cannot exist without an agreed-upon moral standard. Aristotle is unforgiving in his prognosis: without a common vision of the good, faction and war are inevitable. With some sense of urgency, then, we should ask: what are we to do in a profoundly pluralistic society such as our own?

[pq] The good life of the citizen is the natural purpose of political association, politics becomes a bad art—it becomes unjust—when it fails to promote that good. [/pq]

One option, the one proposed by Machiavelli and Hobbes, is to coercively impose a unified vision. Both ontologically and pragmatically this is a failed solution; it can and should be quickly dismissed. Dignitatus Humanae (from the Second Vatican Council) taught us that coercion is a violation of the good of man. Locke taught us that coercion leads only to more violence. Coercion cannot succeed in a society such as ours that cherishes liberty.

If the absence of commonality produces faction and violence, and the act of imposing commonality where it does not already exist has the same effect, how are we to sustain healthy political community characterized by diversity? Voltaire proposes yet another solution. In contrast to the tactics of hard despotism proposed by Hobbes and Machiavelli, Voltaire advocates what de Tocqueville would later call the “soft despotism” of democratic liberalism. While we may not be able to agree on the highest good for man, Voltaire reasons, we are able to find a common interest in commerce.

This extremely thin point of commonality, the pursuit of material gain, what Voltaire calls the “eternal link between men,” would, he hoped, replace the role of religion in political life. By creating a new consensus around the pursuit of wealth, individuals are incentivized by the profit motive to engage in peaceful transaction. While religious enthusiasm made men dangerous, the market would make them docile. Whereas religion is often accompanied by a call to struggle and suffering, wealth is made most secure in peacetime. In order to secure peace, then, Voltaire recommended that the pursuit of wealth be elevated above all other goods and established as the highest shared political telos.

Voltaire’s new consensus and the virtues of the market may make pluralism possible, but it does so only by devaluing the pursuit of higher goods and exalting the art of wealth acquisition above its proper place. If our communities are formed around a low state of being, such as wealth-acquisition for its own sake, the citizen may even be demeaned by shared life: de Tocqueville warns of the enervated spirit that began to appear in early America (the move from the American values celebrated in the West Wing to the American character celebrated in House of Cards may testify to de Tocqueville’s prophetic potency).

Voltaire treats war and pain as if it is the worst thing that could befall a man, but he is wrong. There is worse: purposelessness. At least in war one is able to live for something—an idea or a community—beyond oneself. At least in war one is given the opportunity to transcend one’s current state by developing virtues like courage, prudence, and sacrifice. In Voltaire’s scheme, by contrast, there is no transcendent. There is only the immanent. For the Aristotelian, and the Christian, pain is not the greatest evil that there is in the world, nor is it always an obstacle to flourishing. The kind of commodious life and middling view of the human person that Voltaire advocates likely is.

Where are we to turn, then, if we wish to preserve politics as a high art? I would offer a third solution. We can salvage politics as an art aimed at the greatest good of man if we construe politics more broadly to encompass the entire sphere of human intercourse. For Aristotle, politics was both statecraft and soulcraft, with the emphasis being placed on the latter. While government cannot and should not impose any particular vision of the human good on a diverse group of people, it can intentionally leave room, even facilitate, the ability of communities to seek the good. The system of free-enterprise affords the members of society with a space and a legal framework within which to discover what is constitutive of happiness.

Free-enterprise provides bounds for our everyday decision-making and larger teleological search. The general conditions of the market define the way that we may relate to each other. They ensure that one’s pursuit of flourishing does not hinder another’s.

However, freedom on its own is only the skeleton of politics as high art. If we want to do politics well, we must put some meat on the bones of the human experience. We must engage in community life aimed at the highest things. If we want to return politics to a high art, we will need other institutions of human interaction to step in and do the work of making men good.

[pq] We should strive for a culture that forms its identity around the pursuit of the greatest good for man, a culture that is oriented and motivated by the quest for true human fulfillment. [/pq]

To anticipate an obvious objection, the free-market need not be built on radical individualism, the practice of which, to put it in the haunting words of William Ernest Henley, is being “the captain of [one’s] fate” and “the master of [one’s] soul.” Under an Aristotelian and Christian view of man, such an existence would sabotage human flourishing. As political animals, human beings need to exist as part of a larger community in order to flourish. True freedom is not found in the debilitating vacuum of one’s own self-will, but within a larger body and as part of a larger cause. Politics as a high art must be preserved within private communities with a shared life oriented by the greatest good of man.

If a political association is a school, the government holds a janitorial position. It is responsible for maintaining the environment within which the work of real import is done. People spend too much time talking about politics. We are inordinately focused on the state of the bathrooms, when we should really be getting about the work of edification. Life is robbed of that which is best and most meaningful when our every-day conversation is filled with talk of Capitol Hill. We should be more concerned with the goings-on of the little chapel down the street. After all, that is where the real art of politics takes place.

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