Recovering Aristotelian Civic Virtue

Recovering Aristotelian Civic Virtue

There are two essential ways in which one can approach political discourse: the individualistic way as propagated by the Enlightenment philosophers, and the communitarian way as propagated by Aristotle.

For the Enlightenment philosophers, discourse is not so much an activity of the community as it is an activity of the individual. For these philosophers, the self is what one might call a rational atom; that is to say, it reasons apart from its community. Take this selection from Immanuel Kant’s famous essay What is Enlightenment?:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of  understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!” –that is the motto of enlightenment.

For Kant, reason is exercised over and against the influence of society. Discourse, then, takes on a kind of competitive character. It is not an activity which benefits the community, but a contest between individuals, each of whom believes the other to be unenlightened. One person is wrong, either due to a lack of education or simple laziness, and the other is right, due to his courageous resistance against an intellectual authority that would have him believe nonsense. Discourse is the struggle between these two poles.

 Portrait of German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  (Portrait in the public domain.)

Portrait of German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). (Portrait in the public domain.)

For Aristotle on the other hand, discourse is an elevating activity essential to maximizing our faculties as humans. Contrary to the Enlightenment philosophers, Aristotle views the individual not as a rational atom, but as a part of a wider community which forms the basis for personal identity. For Aristotle the community is not, as Kant argues, a domineering and authoritarian force of ignorance seeking to cow the individual into meek submission. Rather, the community is the setting for a robust, ongoing discussion about the good life. Aristotle too believes in the rational individual, but rationality cannot be exercised in total isolation from other rational beings. The ability to make arguments necessarily implies discourse, for how can we even make an argument without making it to someone else who might understand it? For this reason, community is of pivotal importance for Aristotle. In Politics, he writes that a man who is incapable of living with others is “no part of a city, and so is either a beast or a god.” He even goes so far as to describe the individual separated from his community as similar to a disembodied hand devoid of its function.

In the modern Western world, which is in many ways the product of the Enlightenment, we tend to operate on the former conception of discourse. I think we would do well to move toward the latter.

Before I continue, allow me to inject the observation that we have the Enlightenment to thank for many of the best features of modern life. Modern Westerners have the highest standard of living the world has ever known. We do not contend with many of the ills that have plagued the vast majority of humankind throughout the ages. Modern science has cured plagues and greatly reduced infant mortality; political liberalism has effectively eliminated interdenominational religious violence in Europe and the United States; Enlightenment-style humanism played a major role in the abolition of slavery. These are all genuinely good aspects of the Enlightenment’s legacy.

That being said, the Enlightenment’s influence on modern society is not without its pitfalls. The anti-traditionalism of the Enlightenment has manifested itself in the near wholesale rejection of the classical philosophers (Aristotle included). In neglecting these thinkers, we tend to overlook the aspects of their philosophy that may still hold relevance for us today. With particular regard to Aristotle, by neglecting his political philosophy, we lose the ability to have a respectful discourse.

Stated succinctly, the problem with the Enlightenment philosophers’ way of approaching discourse is this: the conception of the human person as a rational atom destroys our ability to treat each other with respect in our discourse. On the Enlightenment view, there can be no legitimate differences of opinion; that is to say, disagreements always result from a disparity in knowledge between the disputants. Therefore, if the disagreement is not immediately resolved, the disputants cannot help but view each other as lazy, set in their ways, or in some other way close-minded. The “other” transforms into an inexplicably irrational object, and therefore becomes hateable. The view of the self as a rational atom lends itself both to the tendency to view our opponents as irrational and the tendency to hate irrationality.

Should we be surprised, then, when such a view results in a discourse like our own, a discourse in which opponents routinely castigate one another as unqualified idiots over the smallest of trifles?

An Aristotelian discourse is free from such harsh dualism because it allows disputants to view each other as rational people who nonetheless are in disagreement. When we treat discourse as a mutually elevating, communal activity, we build a community oriented toward Truth. We no longer see those with whom we disagree as dehumanized, irrational beings, but as partners on the same journey. This community-based view of discourse makes the kind of discourse we all want — one that is respectful, civil, and beneficial to all participants — possible.

The more we see those who disagree with us as fellow human beings from whom we can learn, the more our discourse will flourish, and the easier we will find it to cultivate wisdom within ourselves. But the more we do the opposite and view discourse as a contest between the forces of rationality and irrationality (and I fear that this is more the rule now than the exception), the more we obstruct ourselves in the cultivation of wisdom. True wisdom is sought in concert, not competition, with others. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we will find ourselves on the road to a rehabilitated discourse. Despite what our current President might contend, then and only then will we make America truly great again.

(Overhead picture: Getty Images. A statue of Aristotle.)

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