Wise advice from David Bentley Hart for those of us who find ourselves increasingly cynical during this political season:

“When Aristotle asserted that ‘man is by nature a political animal,’ he did not have in mind what we mean by politics today: a special professional sphere possessed of its own peculiar rules, traditions, strategies, values, means, and ends.  He meant that human nature is essentially communal and is brought to fruition in the cooperative conventions of the polis, with its vital and complex interdependencies of private, familial, and public associations, and that the arts of statecraft should be serviceable to these social goods.  Only in the city, he believed, are we able to discharge all the various but complementary tasks necessary for a life lived in common, and to pursue the virtues appropriate to our stations.  This is neither a sentimental platitude nor a rigid doctrine, but a plain observation regarding the material and social economics that make it possible for us to live in a fully human, rather than bestial, way.

Now, some have suggested that Aristotle saw the Greek city-state as the ideal merely because of a certain pardonable parochialism on his part, and that had he been a Persian instead of a Stagirite he might rather have opined that ‘man is by nature an imperial animal.’  That, though, would be a jarringly odd sentiment under any conditions; on an imperial scale, political power is almost inevitably corrosive of natural human associations, rational loyalties, or cordial attachments.

We ought not so hastily to historicize Aristotle’s language.  He saw human beings as tending to create a number of small and hospitable polities–the household and the city, especially–whose proportions allow a sane balance between collective duty and individual prudence, universal truth and local idiom, society and the citizen.  The polis as he described it was a kind of golden mean between the desolation of barbarism and the monstrous magnificence of empire…

[Aristotle, for all his failures,] at least had a proper sense of the supremacy of culture over policy.  For him, civic life was primarily natural social concourse, and public governance was the craft of preserving the integrity of the institutions that emerge organically from it…So, when we use the phrase ‘political animal’ today, it might be wise to recall that it originally reflected an understanding of civic affairs almost diametrically opposed to our modern obsessive fascination with partisan struggle, polls, campaigning, and the fortunes of a distinct ‘political’ class.  And it is probably always wise to remember that what we call ‘politics’ today is often only the final and superficial manifestation of a profounder and more substantial political reality…Political events, after all, often only confirm cultural decisions that have already been made, in many cases irrevocably…

[It] encourages perseverance in hope and political virtue simply by reminding one that there are eternal harmonies that cannot be silenced by the din of contending interests, and that one is best able to act ‘politically’ in good conscience when one preserves a proper sense of proportion.” (David Bentley Hart, “A Dream For Our Political Season,” First Things April 2012)

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