A politics of virtue?

3 06 2010

It is clear from this view that the best form of government is self-government, and that such government involves the citizen in taking command of his or her own inner life, developing the personal strength to control, direct and restrain their own appetites while bringing their soul under the rule of wisdom or reason…

For Plato, democracy as described by him is a dangerous and delicate form of government amounting at its worst to little more than mob rule based on the primacy of pleasure-loving appetites in the souls of the citizens. When this becomes dominant in the majority of citizens, the very foundations of participatory forms of government are destroyed as fewer and fewer people develop in themselves the virtues necessary for the governments of themselves or of states.

-Ian Mason, in When Philosophers Rule: Ficino on Plato’s Republic, Laws, & Epinomis

As the fate of the political-economic world becomes more and more uncertain, I can stand talk of politics less and less. At least in more prosperous times, people can feign pretending to care about virtue. Now, all political talk has descended into absolute demagoguery. While pundits tend to speak about the future of the modern republic, they care little if that future is just or not. As long as the masses have what they feel is entitled to them, they could care less about other people, even if they are citizens who live in the same city or even next door.

Which is why I have said in the past that that politics is the obsession of weak minds. It is an addiction just as Internet porn or gambling is an addiction. It gives one the feeling of interaction and control where there is none; it gives one the sense of involvement even though one is merely stewing in one’s own juices, or spinning wheels in a mire of corruption. All the while, a man can barely govern his own life; he can barely navigate his way through the complexities of modern society. He makes up for this by pretending to determine the fate of the nation.

The genius of the thought cited at the beginning of this reflection is that the divine Plato forces us to turn our forces inward, to the very soul that transcends even the state in its splendor. Corruption in the state is merely a reflection of corruption in the heart: the malaise of the soul. If only people would speak of that, instead of spewing selfish rhetoric that is on par with a three year old’s cry of “gimme!” We can pretend that being selfish is the best way to take care of our neighbor, as if Adam Smith’s invisible hand was the hand of God. But that does nothing to help us in the struggle for virtue.

So I will say again with Borges that democracy is a curious abuse of statistics, and since we are stuck with it, we have to do the best we can.

Some parting words from Gomez Davila:

Democratic parliaments are not places where debate occurs but where popular absolutism registers its edicts.

An individual declares himself a member of some group or other with the goal of demanding in its name what he is ashamed to claim in his own name.

The more serious its problems, the greater the number of inept men democracy calls forth to solve them.

Found here and here


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13 responses

4 06 2010
Dauvit Balfour

I should try to find the exact quote. That strikes me as a bastardization of what he would have actually said. It’s been a while since I read The Federalist Papers.

Also, my reply was not advocating a philosopher-king, but rather pointing out that since all men are flawed, all government will inherently tend toward corruption and oppression, so using the non-angelic nature of man as an excuse for government is absurd.

3 06 2010
Manuel

That would be Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist.
I still wouldn’t want philosophers to rule though. Can you imagine being ruled by the philosophy faculty of your local university?
Of course I also know that much of what they do is hardly a philosophy as Plato understood it.

3 06 2010
Dauvit Balfour

“If men were angels, we would not need government.” – Someone

And so I reply that allowing non-angels to select other non-angels to have power of life and death over all men is an absurd solution.

3 06 2010
Jason C.

This strikes me as helplessly romantic. Certainly the founders enjoyed a degree of education and were among the elite in the society. About the only founder that enjoyed real international acclaim was Benjamin Franklin. Many of the founders didn’t enjoy acclaim even within the colonies.

I don’t think “international acclaim” is really necessary in order to inspire your own people.

The Founders were competent, in the widest sense, to be politicians. If, as you argue, they did not have any real acclaim during their lifetime, then that only bolsters my point. Their competence did not depend on “acclaim,” but on their competence as thinkers and participants in life.

My main point about the Founders is that they represent something that modern politicians lack. They represent a politics that is more than a professionalized role. Politics for the Founders was a human endeavor. I’d love to sit down and have a philosophical discussion with Washington or Jefferson or Franklin. I know I’d be edified. I can’t say there are many modern politicians who I could have a similar experience with.

I am greatly annoyed when politicians try to claim solidarity with “the middle class” or “working folks.” The Founders represent a group of men who were extraordinary. They represent something for young people to aspire to…to aspire to be well versed in the human experience. Modern politicians may be well-versed in politics or law…but that doesn’t make for interesting men who can inspire other Americans to take the lead in their country. It makes for people who are competent to fill the professionalized role of “politician.”

Modern politicians are so concerned with convincing The Average Joe that they’re on his side, that the “politician as extraordinary and interesting man” is completely lost.

3 06 2010
M.Z.

This strikes me as helplessly romantic. Certainly the founders enjoyed a degree of education and were among the elite in the society. About the only founder that enjoyed real international acclaim was Benjamin Franklin. Many of the founders didn’t enjoy acclaim even within the colonies.

Obama has had several prestigious milestones. As far as int’l acclaim, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize regardless of one’s feelings of his merits. He edited the most prestigious law journal in the country. Clinton was a Rhode’s Scholar. Bush was a product of the elites. McCain was likewise. Kerry is an elite.

3 06 2010
Stephen

“History clearly demonstrates that governing is a task beyond man’s capacity.”

“La historia claramente demuestra que gobernar es tarea que excede la capacidad del hombre.”

–Nicolás Gómez Dávila

3 06 2010
Jason C.

Compare modern politicians with the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers were interesting men…they could comment intelligently on a wide variety of subjects, from law to philosophy to theology. Modern politicians serve in a professionalized role. They are generally not interesting men whose politics arise out of their wide range of interests and capabilities. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin…these are seen as icons because they were interesting men. They inspire precisely because they were interesting men. What do modern politicians have to inspire young people to become interesting people? Obama “inspired” a lot of young people…but to what? Is there anything more absurd than Obama responding to Rick Warren’s question about the point at which a baby gets human rights by saying that the question is “above [his] pay grade”? I have to laugh when the Right in America tries to paint Obama as a dictator. Dictators at least know what they are about, and they go about it. Do you think Hitler would ever have responded that something is “above his paygrade”?

If these are our politicians, then it’s no surprise that the general public isn’t any better prepared for politics. We have nobody to really inspire us.

Paul Goodman has a useful chapter on patriotism in his book “Growing Up Absurd,” where he talks about the issue I raised here.

3 06 2010
Agostino

Not sure that I have anything intelligent to add to this, since I’m too much in agreement, but it did give cause for a little bit of self-examination (I hope I’m not the only one).

I think the “virtue” card is on that’s selectively played by most people on any side of the fence, though. One side calls out Clintion’s marital infidelity, another calls out Bush’s initiation of the so-called “War on Terror,” and so on; in modern politics, “virtue” seems little more than a sledge hammer for beating the other side(s) ont he head while screaming, like a three year-old, “I’m better than you are! Now gimme!”

And that’s about all of the not-so-intelligent commentary that I have to offer.

3 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I think it was either Ficino or Plato who said that political offices should be given only to those who do not want them. They should be skilled in practical matters, but they shouldn’t lust after power.

3 06 2010
Louis aka The Scylding

Exactly. Time and again, one finds the same disturbing trends in oneself.

An aside: As a Monarchist, I find it amusing that you publish this on the Coronation Anniverary of Elizabeth II….

3 06 2010
sortacatholic

Arturo: Which is why I have said in the past that that politics is the obsession of weak minds. It is an addiction just as Internet porn or gambling is an addiction.

If politics resembles an addiction, then there should be an addictive property. Is is fair to set up an analogy such as “weak mind:virtue::addiction:self-mastery” so far as the weak mind relies on addictive and enervating gratification while the strong mind relies on the cultivation of virtue? Such an analogy inadequately reflects the reality that all of us fail at some point to cultivate virtue (or, conversely, engage in addiction.) What is the drug?

Arturo: It [politics] gives one the feeling of interaction and control where there is none […] All the while, a man can barely govern his own life; he can barely navigate his way through the complexities of modern society. He makes up for this by pretending to determine the fate of the nation.

Voting in a “democratic” election is the narcotic: punching chads reinforces the addiction mechanism. Would election to office cultivate virtue? Politicians engage in another form of addiction and gratification through capitulation to the temptations of power and control. Who strengthens virtue in the political economy? No one. The virtuous state exists only within the minds of those who strengthen their virtue through philosophy. Yet even the most virtuous inevitably confront civic participation and its deleterious effects on virtue.

3 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

The key to a successful critique is to cast a net so wide that you are included in it.

3 06 2010
Michael Liccione

Arturo,

I largely agree with this. Please explain how it is not moralism.

Best,
Mike

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