Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

A Primer on Politics

By Jeff Polet. Director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

One of the ironies of our current political conversations is that many people have opinions about politics, but don’t necessarily have a clear understanding of what politics is. It’d be a little like having an opinion as to whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the better basketball player without knowing the rules of the game. Human activities, like all natural activities, have a discernible shape and structure, and thus we can make some inroads into analyzing and assessing those structures. Just as a doctor will know the difference between healthy and unhealthy bodies, so specialists in politics will know the difference between healthy and unhealthy political bodies. Just as in training to become a medical doctor, the apprenticeship in gaining such knowledge is long and arduous. In the end, experience and judgment will count just as much as knowledge. Indeed, the true statesman will seek a wisdom that transcends simply knowing.

Whether one should be a Republican or a Democrat is, at best, a tertiary question. The division between the two parties is not given in the nature of things, although conflict and division is. A more important question would examine whether it’s better to have a democratic or monarchical regime. But that two is a derivative understanding. The key question in politics will always be about how we draw order out of disorder, and how we can identify the forces that tend to draw us back into disorder.

We can hardly find a better guide than Aristotle who, in the Politics, forms his analysis around two main questions: what is the nature of political life, and what are its proper forms? Reflecting on its nature (phusis) draws our attention to questions of structure, authority, rule, and hierarchies of order. The detailed examination of the organization of the household, his controversial defense of slavery, the relationships of man to woman and parents to children, are all predicated upon what things are in their nature; which is to say, their natural activities, structures, functions, and development. For example, the typical structure of a chair is something that has four legs, but we can imagine three-legged chairs or four-legged tables. But we can also discern the difference between a chair and a table because we know that a chair is for sitting on (its function) while a table is for placing things on. Granted, we can place things on a chair, but it’s not its primary function.

Or take an example of a dog. We intuitively know the difference between a dog and a cat, and if asked to explain the difference we will appeal to their typical activities, structures, functions, and development. Like all creatures, dogs and cats move from birth to infancy to young adulthood to adulthood to old age and then to death. Both are (typically) four-legged mammals who reproduce. Dogs are loyal and helpful creatures who will herd sheep, fetch the newspaper, protect the household, and help care for the children. Cats are selfish creatures who will dash out of a burning house, look at you disdainfully if you try to get it to do something, and are indifferent to your emotional needs because they’re too wrapped up in their own. They’re the teenagers of the animal kingdom. All this by way of saying that our intuitions that these are distinct creatures can be explained and raised to a level of a science. And the same is true of politics.

Aristotle was certainly interested in the question of the nature of political life, but he seemed even more interested in the problem of form (eidos). The principles of political action may be found in the often unexamined motivations and interests that we display in our actions, he argued, thus identifying both what is primarily or actually desired in a political community and what is or ought to be properly desired. The latter requires the presence of civilized, mature persons in the polis. The problems of order, particularly as regards the rise of factions, and particularly the split between rich and poor, requires having virtuous persons in positions of authority. Once introduced, the practical problems of politics are in some sense reducible to how you spread the principle of virtue through the polis to those less educated, less good, less properly habituated.

A well ordered polis, then, is identified not so much by its particular structure, which according to Aristotle is variable according to circumstances, but with the existential standards of political life as inculcated in law. Aristotle’s well-known suggestion is that the only standard genuinely worthy of a well-ordered polis is that which aims at a final telos, an ultimate good which transcends all others, which he refers to as eudaimonia, generally translated as happiness, but referring to human well-being or flourishing — a thing becoming its best possible version of itself. There could be, he believed, only one comprehensive existential principle in play (such as eudaimonia), or else the community would devolve into disastrous factionalism. Any emphasis on an excess of worldly goods was, averred Aristotle, contrary to reason, and would necessarily divide the polis into winners and losers. Only a polity directed to the integral development of both itself and its citizens could provide the kind of civic friendship that would allow each, in his or her own capacity, to flourish. Only such a polity could harmonize various labors, classes, and functions into a just order.

As interested as he was in the good and its incarnations in political life, he remained equally fascinated and troubled by its deviations. Much of the Politics revolved around the question of what happens if you replace human flourishing with a different existential standard, typically one that, as he argues in Book 3, excessively focuses on one of the goods of this world. What will happen to a political community if someone offers, for example, a constantly rising standard of living as the central principle of political life? Aristotle argued that a political community could not be sustained under a principle other than that of eudaimonia, and that such a principle required both deliberate choice and an avoidance of excess. Luxury and pleonexia were temptations that destroyed political comity. Both Plato and Aristotle regarded pleonexia – the desire for more, and for having more than one’s fair share — as the main cause that deviated us from justice.

To analyze or current state of politics, then, requires us to look beyond and behind the symptoms we see (hateful rhetoric, a lack of mutual solicitude, ineffective leadership, and so on) to the underlying pathologies. Certainly pleonexia is the dog that continues to hunt. In an age of apparent plenty such as ours we may think we have solved the dogged problem of scarcity and the conflict it generates. But, as Madison observed, the seeds of dissension are sown into the nature of man. We might not be competing for our daily bread, but we are competing for other things — power, goods, status, recognition, for example — that tap deeply into our desire for more. Run on a platform of austerity and see what happens to you, and that as much as anything, except for maybe our ever-increasing debt (both public and private, personal credit card debts in America now totaling over a trillion dollars), indicates that we are being chased by the same old devil. And if you think that pleonexia is what people on the other side suffer from, it may be time both for some introspection and some Aristotle.

  1. What sorts of things do we compete for? How does such competition make us constantly anxious and disoriented?
  2. Wendell Berry once wrote that a well-ordered society is one that “provides a maximum of happiness with a minimum of consumption.” How might less consumption make us happier?
  3. Why was Aristotle so critical of “luxury”? What do you think he meant by it?

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