Some Musings on “American” Politics
October 16, 2013
In Aristotle’s Politics, the books on the various regimes that exist or could exist in the political world are rarely taken as central to Aristotle’s political “science.” But this could be mistaken. What emerges in these books is that the political arena is characterized by multiplicity, not just because there are different regimes, six in all, but also because multiplicity exists within almost any “regime.” That is, all or any regime is actually a multiplicity, containing elements of the six different “regimes” that Aristotle had identified in book 3. This is so much the case that one can ask if “regime” does not disappear in Aristotle.
We today are more “mechanistic.” Hence, we are less aware of the flow, the complex flow of the political arena. We say: In 1789, a constitution was implemented, giving us a certain kind of government, where “government” is viewed mechanistically. And so, today, it is asked often: “Is the government broken?” Or “Is the political machine broken and in need of fixing?”
But what if Aristotle was correct? What if politics or the political arena cannot be understood mechanistically, but is better understood as containing or being a multiplicity, i.e., an arena in which multiple forces contest for advantage, for prominence, continually, with the “balance of forces” changing constantly?
Then how would our situation today appear? It would not be that “the government is broken,” that the political machine is not working. Rather, it would be that various forces are in contention with one another in an arena that is “messy,” and that is in a constant state of flux. And this arena cannot be mechanized or bureaucratized or routinized, no matter how hard we try or how much we might wish it were so. It cannot be rationalized, which is something we try to do over and over and over again. We even try to do this in foreign places, places about which we haven’t really any clues.
Our metaphor should not be a mechanical one but rather, let me say, a musical one, where we seek harmony from a multiplicity. We don’t need mechanics; we need musicians, if we are to prosper. And these musicians need to be constantly seeking the all-too-ephemeral harmonies that might be available.
But isn’t our mechanical conception of politics a reflection of our mechanical conception of the universe? Or is it vice versa? That is, is it how we conceive of politics that determines how we conceive of our universe, our situation, including ourselves? A mechanistic politics points toward – or reflects – a mechanistic psychology. “Aristotle’s politics” then reflects or points toward a non-mechanistic view of our psychology, our human beingness, our souls. For Aristotle, perhaps, our souls are characterized by multiplicity; they are the arenas wherein multiple forces – our passions - contend for prominence.
And we may ask: Just as in the political arena, can these passions be rationalized, routinized, or even commanded by reason? Aristotle seemed to say, “Yes,” but if the soul reflects the political arena, then perhaps this is one of Aristotle’s “noble lies.” The “well-ordered soul” is still a multiplicity and, hence, is still an arena within which multiple forces contend for prominence in a contest that never ends.
Hence, both the indispensability and the limitations of the moral virtues, which for Aristotle were habits. And habits are indispensable insofar as they can order those forces, those multiple forces, within our souls. But then they are habits, i.e., merely habits. And the habitual is ephemeral given the soul’s multiplicity just as political “peace” is ephemeral given the multiplicity that characterizes the political arena. Both personally and politically, “constitutions” are beneficial; but although beneficial they are not decisive, either personally or politically. We might wish it were different but as the old saying goes, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”