Politics and Natural Order
Progressives want progress, of course; that is, adaptations to changing circumstances, to newly arrived circumstances.
To say there is a natural order is to say that some issues are eternal or permanent. One such issue is the political nature of human beings. What does this mean? Usually, it is assumed that Aristotle, who is famous for saying that human are political animals, saw this as a positive thing because as political animals humans could create arrangements that would benefit human beings. But the more or the deeper one looks into Aristotle’s political teaching – as happens with other thinkers, e.g., Tocqueville – the more it looks like man’s political nature isn’t an unalloyed good. In fact, it begins to look like politics points toward imperialism (war) and tyranny (despotism). Insofar as this is true, then there is or should be a permanent agenda, viz., how to prevent political life from eventuating in imperialism and/or tyranny, from destroying or dehumanizing human life.
The progressives may be said to focus on other issues, most especially on tangential issues such as drugs, poverty, or even racism. They assume that the resolution of such issues is obtainable if governments are rendered powerful enough, are active enough, are rational enough in addressing them. That they are concerned with peripheral issues does not occur to progressives because they do not think of political life as revolving around certain permanent issues or choices. Were they to think in terms of permanent issues, permanent choices, they would see that progressivism disguises or distorts the human condition.
Political philosophy is then the attempt to illuminate political life, to illuminate the permanent political issues, the permanent human issues. For example, Plato’s Republic has been said to abstract from eros, which was Plato’s way of illuminating one of the most basic aspects of political life, viz., its depreciation of the erotic, of eros. Plato’s Republic calls attention to the limits of political life or, in other words, to the fundamentally flawed character of political life. More generally, Plato’s Socrates illuminates the fundamentally flawed character of Athens, where Athens represents one of the best available regimes or political orders. And those flaws are illuminated by the fact that Athens has Socrates tried, convicted, and put to death as a subversive. Athens’s relative superiority to other regimes is attested to by the fact that Socrates was allowed to live for some seventy years before he was executed. Maybe that “as good as it gets.”
How does a progressive see the fate of Socrates? Not as evidence of a fundamental conflict between philosophy and political life, not as a conflict that cannot be transcended. For a progressive, that conflict can be manipulated by means of, say, “the freedom of speech,” or “the freedom of conscience,” means that promise to protect both the philosopher and the city. To the extent that such manipulations fail, the progressive sees such failures as “mistakes” due to failures of intelligence, of empathy, or of the existence of character flaws. From the progressive point of view, we need not be overly troubled by Socrates’ fate or by our own “mistakes” because both are little more than ephemeral phenomena that do not illuminate crucial aspects of the human condition. With better organization and rational decision making, the progressive thinks we can successfully navigate the human condition and arrive, eventually, at “the end of history.” It is a comforting way of thinking. It would be more comforting if it were true.