Relocations: Rethinking the meaning of politics

Image of a town square in Belgium by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay.
September 22, 2022

What is essential for a political community is to foster the good life for everyone in it

“Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics — this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”

Pericles’ address to the Athenians in Thucydides, “The Peloponnesian War” (trans. Rex Warner)

By Herbert Rothschild

A frequent emphasis of my columns has been the importance of public life and our participation in it. Public participation isn’t confined to electoral politics— running for office and voting. It isn’t even confined to what we call the affairs of government, a word that has prevented us from understanding what is essential about a political community — namely, fostering the good life for everyone in it.

Herbert Rothschild

As soon as we say government, two thoughts usually occur. One is that we think of an apparatus apart from us: the bureaucratic state. The other is that we understand and value that apparatus according to whatever ideology we grew up with. And almost everyone in the U.S. has grown up with varying degrees of what in the 19th century was called liberalism but is now called libertarianism. The extreme version of that ideology is Henry David Thoreau’s “That government is best which governs least.” A moderate version is that government should only provide what individuals can’t provide for themselves, such as public safety.

Importantly, when people are asked about government, they usually think of the federal government, which in most of its functions seems distant and yet interventionary (regulations, taxation) and thus difficult to regard as integrated with our lives. For most of us, local government seems less that way. It not only provides services that are indisputably beneficial to daily life, such as streetlights, drainage, and safe drinking water. It also makes possible activities we feel a part of, such as outdoor recreation, farmers markets, festivals and — above all — education. Close to home, political life feels like civic life, and civic life, not government, is what the ancient Greeks meant by politics.

But even our understanding of civic life falls short of what their city-state, their polis, meant for the Greeks. They distinguished it from the other human organization they knew, the household, and their distinction was what each can provide. As Aristotle put it, the household is for life, the polis is for the good life.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the household was the site of work. Mostly people were family farmers, and craft work was located in the home. Also included in work was childbearing and nursing, cooking and cleaning. In sum, the household could meet the first three of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs — nutrition, security and belonging. But it was, and still is, the rare household that has the wherewithal to assure that its members flourish in distinctively human ways.

The Greeks thought, rightly, that a level of human organization more inclusive and complex than the family was required to help individuals develop their potentials — intellectual, artistic, athletic, moral. That last may elicit cries of protest, but I’m rather sure that the Greeks would respond that if children learn proper morality at home, it’s because their parents learned it from the state. Morality in the family tends toward subjectivity and partiality. Life in the state tends toward objectivity and equity. Thus, families respond to perceived offenses by exacting vengeance. States respond first by weighing responsibility and then by administering justice.

One way to think of civic life is that its aim is justice. By justice here I mean a condition in which every member of the political community has a reasonable chance to flourish as a distinctively human being. The implication of that understanding is that, when we exercise our realized potentials, we are participating politically. Artistic and athletic performance, scientific inquiry, stimulating the curiosity of children in the classroom, working through common problems, and, yes, publishing Ashland.news are all political activities because they enhance our shared lives.

The enemy of this way of thinking about political life is capitalism. Its necessary premise is that long after we have what we need to live, we’ll continue to seek material goods as if therein lies the good life. Thus, the economy (from oikos, Greek for the household), not the polity, has primacy. As much wealth as possible should be left in private hands to enable the satisfaction of private desires.

Compare this famous statement by Calvin Coolidge with the one I began with:The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.”

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at herbertrothschild6839@gmail.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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