Political Theory IV: The People?

This one’s gonna be episodic — like Indiana Jones, I make it up as I go along — but please stick with me as we veer wildly across time and place….

Last time, we said that social contract theory doesn’t work.  Social contract theory rests on two assumptions, both false:

  1. that “society” is a collection of physically-proximate individuals; and
  2. individuals are rational actors.

There are actually several things wrong with these statements, but let’s focus on “individual.”  Humans aren’t built for individuality.  They just aren’t.  I know, I know, most people squirm a little in their seats when they read that — what, after all, are red-blooded ‘Murricans if not rugged individualists? — but this is why I say I’m the only guy I know who really believes in evolution.  Humans are monkeys; monkeys have the most elaborate, rigid social hierarchy in the animal kingdom.

Please note what I’m not saying: That there are no individuals in human society.  Society is, in fact, full of individuals.  What I am saying is: That’s a problem.  A serious problem.  “Politics,” on my view, is little more than the process of threading the needle between a group of too few individuals (a “mob”), and too many.*

Individuality is one of the great problems of prosperity.  You don’t have to worry about differences of opinion when you’re on the ragged edge of survival.  This is the origin of the myth of the “noble savage” — as every 19th century anthropologist remarked, primitives seem deliriously happy, because their lives are filled with purpose.  For them, every meal is a real achievement; a day without serious physical pain is a minor miracle.  Primitives are primitive, quite simply, because they lack the free time to be anything else.

Higher forms of social organization involve a dangerous tradeoff.  Greater food-security (via agriculture) means lesser physical security.  Now you’re not only a target for those with less food, but, more insidiously, greater food-security means that more individuals have time to develop.  “What should we do with the excess food?” is a serious question, with life-threatening consequences.  If we’re not on the same page with our answer, we may not be able to pull together in time when the barbarians come over the hill… which means our city gets sacked, we get killed, and our women and children sold into slavery.

Hence Greek political theory.  Aristotle maintained that the purpose of “the State” is to attain “the good.”  That sounds utilitarian to modern ears — we hear “the greatest good for the greatest number,” which in turn means something like “maximizing the happiness of each individual.”  But that’s not what Aristotle meant.  He meant something like “increasing the total amount of virtue in the city,” which doesn’t make sense to us — “virtue” and “happiness” being, in the parlance of our times, almost complete opposites.  But it makes perfect sense in the “sacked-city, women-and-children-enslaved” kind of world Aristotle inhabited — Aristotle, you’ll recall, was the personal tutor to Alexander the Great, whose father, Philip II, brutalized most of Greece (and was gearing up to invade the Persian Empire when he was assassinated).

Philip II of Macedon was an individual if ever there was one, and so was Demosthenes.  The latter kept the Athenians from getting on the same page when the former came over the hill.  In case your Greek history is a little rusty, that didn’t work out so well for Athens.  Had the Athenians been virtuous in Aristotle’s sense — had they pulled together, assessed the situation calmly and rationally, and presented a united front, instead of letting themselves be swayed by a demagogue — they would’ve found themselves in a much better position, with lots of their young men still alive….

Let’s backtrack a bit (I told y’all I make this up as I go along).  You’ll recall that Aristotle was Plato’s student.  You’ll also recall that Plato’s Republic is a seminal work of political theory.  But what most people don’t remember is that the Republic wasn’t written to answer the question “What’s the best way to organize a state?”  Rather, it was to answer the question “What is Justice?”  All that famous stuff they glossed over in Western Civ I — the allegory of the cave, etc. — was in service to that question: What is Justice?  Whatever the answer actually was — consult a Western Civ text written before about 1960 — the end result, the ideal form of government that brings “Justice” to all, was, for all intents and purposes, Stalinism.

No, seriously.  The “republic” of the Republic is a classless society where all property is held in common, ruled by philosopher-kings who alone have access to the truth.  The “guardians” (of the famous “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?“) are to “guard” the people for the people’s own good; the guardians themselves don’t need to be guarded because of the pristine condition of their souls.  Felix Dzerzhinsky (whose dream in life was to be a schoolteacher!) couldn’t have said it better.

The point is that Plato’s “republic,” like Aristotle’s “virtue,” drastically reduces the number of individuals in a polity.  We all know that Aristotle dismissed women, children, and slaves as irrational, and therefore unworthy of consideration in political life.  But he dismissed pretty much everyone else, too.  Again, this man was Plato’s student and Alexander the Great’s teacher.  Aristotle lived through Alexander’s entire reign.  He saw Philip II up close and personal while Philip was terrorizing Greece.  If he, Aristotle, had a problem with any of that, he certainly never said so.  What “good,” one wonders, was Alexander’s state (such as it was) organized to achieve?  Plundering Persia?  That would be a perfectly acceptable answer in the ancient world, but it doesn’t have anything to do with “virtue,” let alone “the good,” for any individual other than Alexander….

to be continued.




*Don’t take it from me.  Social- and evo-psych people have probably written on this in depth, but since this is the Internet, I’ll quote Dune: “A leader, you see, is one of the things that distinguishes a mob from a people. He maintains the level of individuals. Too few individuals, and a people reverts to a mob.”
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5 thoughts on “Political Theory IV: The People?

  1. Pingback: The People, Reconsidered | Rotten Chestnuts

  2. MBlanc46

    That’s quite a tiptoe through the philosophical tulips (with us). It’s going to be a bit of a chore to drag late 20th and early 21st century chaps (and it is almost entirely chaps, I imagine) back before Hobbes and modernity. There is a serious shortcoming with the Greeks, viz., they simply took the Greek worldview for granted. They had little (peaceful) contact with anyone except barbarians, and rumors about such as the Egyptians from such as Herodotus. So, their thinking amounts to a very close “unpacking” of that worldview. There is little “interrogation” of foundations. And interrogating foundations is the central enterprise of us moderns. But you’re really on a tear, so keep at it and see how much you can awaken us from our dogmatic slumbers.

  3. Joseph Moore

    In purely political terms, the traditional Christian ‘solution’ works well, as history (I think – my Master’s is in International Business. High-end Vo-Tech.) shows: on the one hand, each of us is a child of God, and therefore infinitely valuable in ourselves. On the other – and it’s a both/and, not an either/or – we are all members of one Body, in which we are realized as individuals in our relationships with everybody else. “When did I see you hungry, and did not feed you” etc. – that’s the standard by which we are to be judged. It is in fulfilling our *obligations* that we become fully human, in which we find fulfillment as individuals. If you can get enough people on board with this idea, especially ‘individuals’ as you are putting it, a society might have some chance…

    It hardly needs to be said that this has only been roughly approximated in practice, now and then.

    So, it’s again that inability or unwillingness to keep 2 ideas in our heads at once: that I’m an individual of infinite value (the current dominant idea) AND I can only find full expression as an individual within a group of people to whom I have duties, whether I like those duties or even those people or not. If you pick one – radical individualism or ‘everything’s a social construct, man’* you end up with a meaningless life. And your thrashing about as you slowly die makes life messy for the rest of us.

    * consistency or even coherence having been dismissed, the true believer simply shifts from one position to another as the situation warrants.

  4. Maus

    OK, just a quick fan boi gush. You draw upon Aristotle, one of my favorite philosophers (referred to as The Philosopher in classical Arabic), you name yourself after Gene Wolfe’s greatest protagonist, and you quote Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. We read the same great books. THIS is how the individual transcends himself. By joining other great minds and reading the canon with deep comprehension. You may be peripatetic (in both senses) in your writing style; but I will continue to follow you avidly.

  5. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 07/21/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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