Recently, I wondered why Americans (and others) are so eager to believe and support what their government and political elites tell them. Conversely, why are they so offended by criticism of their government and political elites – generally, that is – even to the point of significant anger, even to the point of thinking such criticism criminal or “treasonous.?” Why are they so invested in politics? Because, as Aristotle argued, we humans are “political animals.”
Being political animals means our lives, even our beings, we think, are politically determined. For Aristotle, this was an observation about humans, as assertion of fact, a description, that is. It’s meaning needed to be figured out, as well as its value; i.e., whether being political served human beings well or not. For example, it could be that being political makes humans war-like or, as Plato allegedly said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” And because Aristotle was making an observation about human beings, his Politics is then his working out its meaning. Aristotle didn’t write his Politics to advance an agenda but rather to illuminate the meaning of “the political,” i.e., whether the political life is beneficial, is valuable, is healthy for humans. And because we humans are political, Aristotle’s “analytical” approach will seem, at the very least, controversial. By making our being political questionable, Aristotle adopted a trans-political stance toward human beings.
Blaise Pascal argued that both Plato and Aristotle thought of political life as a madhouse, and therefore wrote about politics ironically. Political life is a drama, but its actors, those who are invested in it, don’t realize the unreality, the real character of what they are doing. For example, political actors are constantly talking about, acting on behalf of justice; but when queried they reveal that they have little idea about justice. In fact, Aristotle claimed that every conception of justice that humans espouse is partial or incomplete. There is, apparently, no complete conception of justice, although humans customarily talk and act as if there were, with democrats embracing democratic justice as complete or oligarchs embracing oligarchic justice as complete, etc., etc. Some conceptions of justice might be “better’ and some “worse,” but no conception of justice is complete, which is why all regimes, all political arrangements are unjust as well as just. And this is why Aristotle argued that a good man cannot be a good citizen without ceasing to be a good man; i.e., without ceasing to be a complete human being. To be “a good democrat” requires that one embrace, defend via punishment, violence, or even war an incomplete form of justice.
In other words, a healthy democracy requires unhealthy or incomplete human beings, and so too for all other forms of political life. All forms of political life promote or require unhealthy or incomplete human beings.
This may be referred to as “the limits of politics,” those limits being illustrated in Plato’s Republic and in Aristotle’s Politics, as both are critiques of what we like to call “political idealism.” Political idealism is both delusional and deadly, as should be obvious to humans by now. And so political life is both delusional and deadly, as reflected by the fact that the greatest political achievements, great empires, have been the most delusional and the deadliest. The pursuit of political greatness is then both delusional and deadly, as the history of the United States may easily be used to illustrate.
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