The Concept of the Political, then and now

The Concept of the Political, then and now

This set of reflections began life as a Twitter thread but has since grown up.

Josiah Ober had a typically thoughtful piece on the meaning of politics in the new journal Antigone a couple days ago, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. Now Prof. Ober has forgotten more about ancient Greece than I’ll ever know, but I think his essay begs certain important questions about the nature and possibilities of political life.

Ober’s piece is a kind of summary of his broader scholarship, which attempts to update and apply Classical teachings to our own situation. His argument here, in nuce, is that the Aristotelian understanding of the relationship between human nature and political life is salutary for us, as citizens of a liberal democracy.

Aristotle’s own argument, to recap, is that we are political animals, not because we are all born in political communities, but because we are (normally) born with such distinctively human faculties as speech and reason, and political life is both an opportunity to exercise those faculties and a training ground for their development such that we can live flourishing human lives.

Now what Aristotle means by “political life” is not something woolly and abstract like “power relations” or “governance,” but rather something that basically comes down to the actual affairs of the Greek city (it is not incidental that politics gets its name from polis). The distinctly Greek (and later Roman) practices of public deliberation and contestation over the most important public matters—think of the body of Spartan citizens debating whether to go to war with Athens, or the (larger) body of Athenian citizens deciding the fate of oligarchic traitors—this is the stuff of politics.

But Aristotle did not mean by this that politics is the zenith of human experience; he is quite explicit in the Nicomachean Ethics about the superiority of the life of the philosopher over the statesman. But the life of the polis might be a sine qua non for the cultivation of our ability to reason well.

Stephen Salkever put it nicely:

We need to live in cities, not as an end in itself or as a perfect expression of our humanness, but because it is generally the case that by living according to reasonable laws and customs we can develop and support our biologically inherited potentiality for living rationally.

Meanwhile, here’s Ober:

Although Aristotle does not lay out the argument in these terms, I believe that collective self-government, “ruling and being ruled over in turns,” should be regarded as best for humans because it provides us with the fullest opportunity to exercise our natural capacities in the fullest way and at the highest level.

It’s a subtle but important difference: Aristotle’s evaluation of political life is instrumental in a way that Ober’s isn’t.

Now Aristotle is not god! And Ober is free to deviate from Aristotle’s teaching and present his own account of what is best in life (pro tip: best read in Conan the Barbarian voice). But elsewhere he is less explicit about what he is up to in updating Aristotle for us moderns. Most importantly, I think, Ober conflates a normative claim— “It is good for us to live political lives”—with a descriptive one— “As citizens of a modern democracy (e.g., America), we are in a position to live political lives.”

What remains of the School of Aristotle

In order to bridge the two, Ober has to make some questionable moves. First, he employs the all-purpose modern word “state”—which Aristotle himself does not use(!)—as a covering term for any form of social organization. Thus, the Greek polis, which was Aristotle’s focus, was a state—but so are territorial kingdoms, empires, modern nation-states, and so on.

By broadening Aristotle’s terminology, Ober can then more directly apply Aristotle’s claims about politics to our own situation. The implicit reasoning being: Aristotle wrote about states, we live in a state, ergo… (you get the idea). But while a discussion of what is and isn’t a state REALLY needs its own place–though see here and here for starters–it must be said that the polis was a distinctive form of community: citizenship was highly restricted, there was no administrative bureaucracy or formal centralized apparatus of power like we have with modern states, all major decisions were made directly rather than through representatives, and so on.[1]

Suffice to say: the word “state” carries a great deal of baggage that other forms of social organization—tribes, empires, the polis, and what have you—often lack. Moreover, Aristotle was well aware of the variety of forms that human social organization could take. He never applies a single term, like “state,” to all of them, and he never suggests that the experience of the Greek polis was necessarily universal, only that the lessons derived from observing the polis might be. In sum, not every community is necessarily political. Not just in the literal sense of not being a Greek polis, but in the larger sense of not exhibiting the practices of public reasoning and argument that characterize politics in Aristotle’s definition.

(True, there is a remarkably “Greek” discussion that takes place in Book Three of Herodotus’ histories, in which after having retaken the reigns of the Persian Empire from the conspiracy of the Magi by um killing them all, Darius and his compatriots basically sit down and debate which regime is best: democracy, oligarchy, or monarchy. But there is no evidence that this discussion ever occurred outside of these pages.)

Here for example is a single but instructive contemporary description of emerging styles of court etiquette under the early Song dynasty:

The older [pre-Song] system provided that, in considering all major acts of governing with the emperor, the Chief Councillors would always be asked to sit for the discussions, and in an atmosphere of unhurried ease would be offered tea to drink before the meeting concluded. From the Tang through the Five Dynasties this form was always observed. But when Fan Zhi and the others became [Song dynasty founder Zhao Kuangyin’s] Chief Councillors…they felt constrained about how to act and also were overawed by the emperor’s overwhelming presence. They therefore requested that they be allowed to prepare brief written summaries of all the matters before them and to submit those in advance as their means of eliciting the emperor’s opinions; their request was granted. From this time onward the courtesies of sitting together to discuss matters were abandoned.

Here we have an account of a shift away from a comparatively relaxed form of despotism, in which the emperor assumed the role of primus inter pares with his trusted counselors, to a more restricted and autocratic form of despotism, in which even the emperor’s closest confidants are overawed by the pomp and majesty of his office. In neither case, however, could we describe this relationship (not to say that between the emperor and his ordinary subjects) as “political” in the Aristotelian sense.

This should not be taken as pejorative! The Voltairean appreciation of imperial China was largely imaginary (not to say kinda sorta Orientalist bullshit), but the imperial system was indeed capable of awesome feats of administration and rule, and featured no small number of virtuous rulers—in both the conventional and the Machiavellian sense of the word.

Indeed, no less than Aristotle would agree. He acknowledges that the polis itself might cease to be “political” when ruled by a tyrant or a king. Under such conditions, decision-making about the most important matters of the city is restricted to a single figure, and the city becomes a kind of extension of his household. Yet Aristotle is so far from valorizing politics on its own terms, that he claims that should the city come under the rule of a monarch of surpassing virtue, this might in fact be the ideal regime.

All of which is to say that Aristotle’s considerations of politics are highly contextual and, like much of his thought, continually qualified by the sheer range of possible outcomes.


I can already hear the chorus of complaints—that all the above expresses undue partiality and cultural chauvinism for the Greek/Roman experience of social life, so let me suggest here another problem that Ober’s treatment elides: there is nothing ipso facto moral about the Greek form of political community. I’ll say it again: coming together as a political community in the true sense should not imply elevated moral status! The jealousy with which the Greeks retained their honors and liberties went hand in hand with severe restrictions on citizenship, a vast system of slavery, and inhuman treatment of defeated cities, among much else.

We talk a lot these days about “privilege”; the Greeks damn well understood that citizenship was a privilege and they fought like hell to retain it. And they didn’t worry overmuch about the distinction between punching up (against, say, the Persian Empire) and punching down (against slaves, defeated colonists, etc.). Euripides put it better than I could: “As free men, we live off slaves.”


To return to the main question: does this mean other forms of social organization—above all modern democracies—cannot be political? Not necessarily! But that’s something that needs to be argued rather than assumed. (This was something I first noticed w/r/t Bernard Yack's Problems of a Political Animal, a book that presents a far more jaundiced picture of what political life really entails than Ober does while still concluding that our own system basically qualifies as political in an Aristotelian sense.)

More than anything else, the structure of the modern state has to be taken into account when considering whether our own institutions and practices can be understood as truly political. The state after all is the Leviathan, the coldest of cold monsters, an engine of domination and control that also satisfies the liberal demand for expansive welfare and individual protections better than just about any other mass form of organization.

The state channels all of our energies (and many of our resources) upward, toward a highly stratified and bureaucratic order that (supposedly) represents our will and our interests. Ober's talk about democracy aside, ours is a form of indirect government: we do not make the most important decisions—these are made by those who claim to represent us. Even the basic obligation of collective defense is handled by a professional military and not by the citizenry.

Again, we should not be overly nostalgic for the polis and its practices; in the right moment, its citizens were capable of awesome acts of courage and magnanimity, but they just as often pursued the opposite course. They put Socrates to death; they endorsed the pointless Sicilian expedition and then recalled the one man who might have pulled it off; they engaged in horrific fratricidal conflicts; they enslaved their neighbors so that they could spend more time training for wars; and so on. The Hobbesian (read: liberal) project of constructing the modern state was partly conceived as a solution to the problems of direct rule.

Nonetheless, this is probably the place where I come closest to agreeing with Ober that there is something inherently attractive about what we might call the true political way of life. I would like to think that we are still political animals, not just in terms of our basic human faculties of speech and reason, but also in terms of the available options to exercise those faculties as citizens. I think Ober is right that there is something limiting—possibly even demeaning—about being denied the opportunity to participate in political life in the truest sense.

But in my heart of hearts, I suspect the Hobbesian divide between then and now is too wide and too deep. And when I look around me and see people left and right, across institution after institution, clamoring for greater control, great authority to rule over them, I know I’m looking at a world that becomes more Hobbesian and less Aristotelian by the day.

[1] The term “state,” was actually introduced by Machiavelli, though he used it to mean something like the authority and rule one holds over other people, rather than an impersonal structure the way we use it.