Politics: Ancient Teachings in Finding Balance

Earlier this week, Rick Santorum swept the Republican primaries in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, renewing talk about the effect his wins will have on the Republican presidential field and, most importantly, on Mitt Romney, the apparent front runner for the Republican nomination. 

Recently, I also watched a CNN interview held by Piers Morgan with Ron Paul. I had never really listened to Ron Paul before so this provided me an opportunity to finally hear, from him, what his views were. In listening to Ron Paul, I often had the impression that he was attempting to maintain an ideological point of view that was incongruent with common sense and he was trying to reconcile the two.

Increasingly, American politics no longer makes my blood pressure rise like it used to. I have experienced periods where I have yelled at the TV vainly trying to impress upon the speaker the error of their thinking. I no longer do this because, in many ways, I feel we have progressed beyond the point where rational, logical debate is possible.

Our political discourse has become an ideological debate of the extremes where centrists are ignored because “they don’t get it.” But, where did the premise of our political debates originate? What, if any, political thinking underpins Western political thought? My reflections sent me searching through the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Specifically, Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics.

Without going into too much detail, Aristotle’s views were shaped by his belief of how humanity should live. Comparable to current events, Greece at the time was going through its own upheavals during the time of his writings. Nevertheless, he believed that people should strive for one ultimate goal, which he believed to be happiness; the one true end in and of itself. The Aristotelian definition of happiness is not akin to our modern day definition of the word and the corresponding emotion. Rather, Aristotle assigned a rational connotation to happiness which was predicated on how people should live their lives. In this way, it represents more a lifestyle, a way of living one’s life.

As is to be expected, the ancient Greeks held some, by modern standards, provocative points of view particularly when compared to our evolved thinking on the roles of men, women, slaves, children, sex, etc. Nevertheless, within the context of the then existing society, Aristotle attempts to assign a logical order to things and, within this constellation, explain how the society should function.

Within the context of this topic, it should be stated that in Aristotle’s view an individual’s happiness could not flourish without his active, positive engagement within the city-state to which he belongs. Meaning, civic engagement and participating in the political discourse of the time was seen as an integral aspect of how people could achieve happiness and fulfillment.

Aristotle differentiates between intellectual and moral virtues by stating that intellectual virtue is learned through schooling in a traditional educational setting and builds the capacity to make consistently good judgments. On the other hand, moral virtue is learned through habit and practice and they drive us towards acting justly and admirably. In both cases, it is stressed the need to find a healthy balance between the two vices of excess and deficiency. Through this lens, all human behaviour falls somewhere along this spectrum. An example being, excess would be characterised by the extreme political violence that is occurring with increasing frequency or, conversely, a deficiency of engagement characterised by political apathy. Not being a blind idealist, Aristotle acknowledges that there is no happy medium that applies to everyone. Each person must find the balance required for them and their work/place in the community.

At the beginning of Ethics and continued in Politics, Aristotle makes clear the view that man is by nature a political animal and that through civic engagement people can realize their true natures and flourish as individuals. However, he realises that a person can be affected and change depending on the regime / government in power and that being a good citizen does not mean that one is a good human. In terms of rulership, Aristotle suggests that the perfect ruler is one that has a perfect balance: a good man and a good citizen. In The Republic, Plato puts forward the concept of “The Philosopher Ruler” but that is a separate topic.

Back to Aristotle, recognising the need to maintain a balance in all affairs asserts the necessity for any government to support the formation of a strong middle class to provide a median between the rich and the poor. Ultimately, with the purpose of negating the disparity between the rich and poor and strengthen the overall bonds of community, thereby, reducing susceptibly to factionalism, self-interest and hatred for other members of the society.

Further, in Politics, Aristotle asserts that for an ideal “city” to maintain its virtuousness, it must have internal goodness and wisdom similar to the qualities required to be a good man. In its pursuit of “happiness,” a “city” requires and must provide certain things such as a capable military, economic stability and health for its citizens.

Aristotle believes that the life of the city and the life of an individual run congruent to one another and that virtue and happiness are the highest goals of both the individual and the city. To maintain this balance, he argues that the people within the society must be educated accordingly. In discussing the individual’s role within the society, Aristotle draws no boundary between the two, the individual and the “state,” as such, there is no clear indication of, at what point the state should or should not impose itself in the lives of its citizens. For Aristotle, since the city is such an integral part of man, the relationship between ethics and politics has a deeply intertwined relationship.

What does any of this have to do with our current day politics?

What is striking to me is how Aristotle (384″“322 BC) and Plato (424/423 BC”“348/347 BC) put forth ideas and concepts that are still applicable today while the goals remain unmet. Quite the opposite, some (perhaps most) would probably say that things are getting worse rather than better.

In particular, in Plato’s The Republic, Socrates characterises democracy as an imperfect society: “”¦democracy originates when the poor win, kill or exile their opponents, and give the rest equal civil rights and opportunities of office, appointment to office being as a rule by lot.” (p. 375, Plato, The Republic) This would correspond to the American revolution when the Patriots violently evicted the British from the 13 original colonies.

He then goes on to say, “Then in democracy, there’s no compulsion either to exercise authority if you are capable of it, or to submit to authority if you don’t want to; you needn’t fight if there’s a war, or you can wage a private war in peacetime if you don’t like peace; and if there’s any law that debars you from political or judicial office, you will none the less take either if they come your way. [“¦] We said that no one who had not exceptional gifts could grow into a good man unless he were brought up from childhood in a good environment and trained in good habits. Democracy with a grandiose gesture sweeps all this away and doesn’t mind what the habits and background of its politicians are; provided they profess themselves the people’s friends, they are duly honoured.” (p. 376, Plato, The Republic).

And here we’ve come full circle.

I recall clearly that in 2004, one of George W. Bush’s positive attributes on the campaign trail was his “Everyman” persona. He was portrayed as someone people felt they could sit down and have a beer and talk with. By contrast, John Kerry was portrayed as stiff, too learned, too educated, too worldly, too knowledgeable. In a world that was becoming increasingly anti-American, having a president that could converse internationally in foreign languages was portrayed as a disadvantage.

As I watch the speeches, read the sound bites, and listen to the candidates earnestly put forth their platform I cannot help but wonder how our politics have gotten so far off base. How is it possible that our politics no longer seems to actually be focused on the needs and the welfare of the citizens. When I listen to most politicians, they couch their words in “we” and “our” but often, they are speaking the language of a narrowly defined group reflected by the rhetorical “I”. In all of the rhetoric I struggle to hear genuine concern for the needs of the broader public. Instead, politicians are increasingly speaking to a narrower and narrower portion of the population who agrees with the words they are saying and, after listening to Ron Paul I am not 100% sure that he is genuine in the words that he is speaking. I have been flabbergasted at the sheer lack of empathy and compassion that politicians have used recently when talking about different segments of our society.

How can we possibly consider electing any official for any elected office when they hold any element of the society they hope to govern in contempt or disdain? It is irrelevant what the genesis of their views may be. If any person is lacking in the wisdom and compassion to look at the problems of society and work towards finding solutions for the betterment and advancement of the whole, they, irrespective of party and/or ideology, should not be entrusted with the publics trust to lead, especially in these troubled times.

As stated by Joseph de Maistre in 1811: “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.“ [Every nation gets the government it deserves.] As such, if we find our country becoming less compassionate and ceasing to address the needs of the society we have to take responsibility for the elected officials we put into office to steward our nation.

3 replies on “Politics: Ancient Teachings in Finding Balance”

I like what you said about Ron Paul. I used to be a libertarian…until I realized that it was an incredibly idealistic way of thinking. Everyone is not a rational actor. This is not a rational world. There is no “invisible hand” of the market. In a perfect world, the libertarian model might work, but in the here and now, it’s a naive way of thinking. After opening up my mind in undergrad and then grad school, I’m a proponent of the welfare state. It’s short sighted to think you won’t need the state. You do. We all do.

Centrists have been ignored precisely because we’ve made the discourse about either being part of one party or another. Left versus right. Party politics is our downfall. The system should be one of proportional representation.

I’m not American (Canadian, in fact) and even though we have the NDP in opposition for the first time ever, we all know that there’s really two parties. Conservatives versus Liberals. The Liberals are technically centrist but the funny thing is, they are perceived as leftist. Precisely because of how the Conservatives try to paint them. “Bleeding heart Liberals”. As if it’s silly or frivolous to want healthcare for all, or to keep our populace educated.

Anti-intellectualism is growing. People want a reflection of themselves in office. Instead of trying to battle ignorance through social awareness, Conservatives are lowering the bar. Pride in mediocrity. And it works. It resonates with people. They don’t have to change, they just have to keep being a cog in the machine. Which keeps everyone exactly where they want them.



I think we can link the sort of simplistic populist pandering we see in modern politics to a growing anti-intellectualism in Western culture. I don’t think the effect of rampant populism-at-all-costs has been as marked here in the UK as it has been in the US, but I definitely see a similar sense that education and qualification are meaningless springing up on both sides of the pond.

I’d argue the effects of this are two-fold negative; firstly, people elect idiots. That seems self-evident, really; there’s a depreciating value assigned to education, and along with that comes a near-sycophantic idolisation of “common sense” over reason or logic. If stuff sounds right, then it must be right – hence the entrenchment of xenophobia and the opposition to minority rights. People can’t for a second look past their initial impression of an issue and think about it for more than five seconds. So they elect whoever agrees with their half-baked idea.

Secondly, and possibly even worse, is that normally intellectual people vote for anyone with any sign of a brain, regardless of whether they’re really all that laudable. Remember all of the sycophantic liberal coverage of Jon Huntsman as if he was any less the right-wing nutjob GOP candidate than the others? If he speaks Chinese, he must be willing to reason! Except that he doesn’t really promise anything beyond slightly less batshit. This liberal seizing of any small-c conservative who seems to have a brain is toxic; it prevents true appraisal of moderate conservatism and real critique of conservatives.

In short, I can do little but agree with you. Political intellectuals like to point at those who vote for conservative candidates and guffaw snobbishly, but they’re just as guilty for following the currently rightward motion of the Overton window to it’s natural conclusion; more and more extreme conservative candidates, and less and less truly liberal liberal candidates.

I’d take this further, and say it’s pretty much symptomatic of US politics over the last twenty years; how else do you explain that the supposedly left-wing Democrat party is closer to a centre-right party in the majority of first-world nations?


There’s definitely an element of suum cuique to our national politics, and I’m afraid that you’re absolutely right: allowing hostile, fearful, and selfish voices to dominate national discourse (and also appeal to those sorts of impulses in voters–the approval of xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, racism, etc.) is going to give us the government that, well, we have coming.

(Although I had to laugh a bit, because from the headline for your article I was getting ready for something on the Stoics and the philosophy of the via media/moderation in all things. Which is also appropriate, I think.)

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