Aristotle and Plato: Teachers Not Politicians
I finally get it. That is, I get what political philosophy is. Politics, looked at philosophically, provides access to the permanent human questions and to human nature itself. It’s in the political arena that human beings reveal themselves, that their souls are revealed in all their complexity. And that complexity is reflected in the political world where there seem to be almost countless possibilities from among which humans choose how they wish to live.
As such, political philosophy, as understood by Plato and Aristotle at least, does not culminate in a political agenda, in a recommendation for or a defense of a particular political order. So understood, political philosophy is a kind of contemplation, and it can be a most beneficial kind of contemplation insofar as human beings are political animals. Those who understand political philosophy as something like a practical endeavor, as an endeavor that points toward an embrace of a particular political agenda or a particular political order misunderstand what political philosophy, at its best, is. And this is the meaning of Pascal’s assertion – as well as of others – that Aristotle, for example, didn’t have a politics. Aristotle’s Politics is his contemplation about the political world, not a defense of this or that kind of political agenda or political order. To be an “Aristotelian,” if that is taken to me a partisan of a particular kind of politics or political order, misunderstands what Aristotle was about. In other words, Aristotle would not be “an Aristotelian,” just as Plato would not be “a Platonist.” For the Aristotelians and the Platonists have turned Aristotle’s and Plato’s philosophizing into politics and have turned these philosophers into politicians of a high order but still into politicians. Aristotle and Plato were teachers, not politicians.