Part of my college essays series: This is one of the essays I wrote during the political theory general exam for my PhD. The exam was an approximately 15-hour marathon session, involving 6 out of 12 essay questions, for a final total of 33 double-spaced pages written without access to any notes or sources. In this one, I threw my Voegelinian professor Ellis Sandoz a few bones. I no longer have the original exam questions to which I responded below, so bear with me through the beginning of the essay.
Questions one and three seem strongly related but have a somewhat different focus. Both interest me but I will attempt to focus on the former while nevertheless attempting to answer the latter at least in part, owing to the last element of the first question having to do with the subject of poet philosophers. Hence, I will write a critical essay on the following quotation:
Euripides shows us that our self-creation as political beings is not irreversible. The political, existing by and in nomos, can also cease to hold us. The human being, as a social being, lives suspended between beast and god, defined against both of these self-sufficient creatures by its open and vulnerable nature, the relational character of its most basic concerns. But if being human is a matter of the character of one’s trust and commitment, rather than an immutable matter of natural fact, then the human being is also the being that can most easily cease to be itself — either by moving (Platonically) upwards towards the self-sufficiency of the divine, or by slipping downward towards the self-sufficiency of doggishness.
I will attempt to address this quotation in light of the questions raised and with regard to my own research interests in the possibility of transcending the liberal/communitarian debate with a form of Aristotelian liberalism.
Civilization is susceptible to rigidification and decay on the one hand and disintegration on the other, with the latter usually as a result of the former. The modern state-of-nature theorizing of the Enlightenment-liberal social-contract tradition provides an interesting case study of a philosophical anthropology built upon Enlightenment metaphysics and epistemology, particularly atomism, materialism, mechanism, and hypostatized rationalism and empiricism. In this worldview, man in the state of nature is a beast, the worst of them, Locke’s unrealistically benign version notwithstanding. Ethical and political philosophy built upon these foundations, particularly when ethical language and action is impoverished by a single-minded focus on the proliferation of rights (with the result of trivializing them), is bound to produce impoverished human beings, the sort of atomistic individuals communitarians have accused liberalism of necessarily producing. The heirs of the Enlightenment (even Nietzsche) have sometimes lapsed into holding up this beast as if he were a god to be universally emulated.
On the other hand, communitarians have been just as prone to confuse convention (nomos) with nature (kosmos) and dogmatize or hypostatize a particular set of cultural values and institutions as the Good from which they themselves and others have no natural or conventional right to deviate. Deviation is labeled atomistic individualism, immorality, the mark of the beast. It is overlooked or forgotten that while man’s telos [end] is eudaimonia [well-being, flourishing] and his telos involves social and political life, this telos does not have one unitary and universal form for everyone and must be freely chosen. Moreover, and in any case, man is not a god possessed of omnipotence, omniscience, and infallibility. The communitarian impulse is always in danger of falling into paternalism and totalitarianism.
Both the atomistic god-beast and the communitarian god-automaton cease to be human. Indeed, are the two really so very different? Both are capable of the most inhuman atrocities.
Freedom or community is a false alternative — for there is another option: freedom in community — but, for the most part, neither side has yet to formulate an adequate conception of it in my estimation. I do not mean to suggest that there is any final solution or utopia that can be reached, however. Human existence in the metaxy — our open and vulnerable … our rational, individual and social nature — make this a tension and a struggle that each of us must face within ourselves and together every day of our lives, and every generation.
Some illustrative examples of this tension in Euripedes’ Hecuba and Aeschylus’ Oresteia are in order.
Hecuba is set after the Trojan war, with the victorious Greek army on its long journey home but stranded for lack of wind for their sails and haunted by the ghost of Achilles demanding a sacrifice. Hecuba, the Trojan queen, and her daughter, Polyxena, have been taken captive by Agamemnon; and Hecuba’s son, Polydorus, had before the war been sent to the safety of a friend’s home, the Thracian king Polymestor. Polymestor tragically takes advantage of Hecuba’s misfortune to slay Polydorus and keep for himself the great wealth that had been sent with Polydorus from Troy for safekeeping. Polymestor chose to break with his moral and traditional responsibilities as host and friend, forsaking convention.
Agamemnon chooses to give up Polyxena as a sacrifice to appease Achilles, acceding to the demands of the soldiers who were instigated by the demagoguery of the wily Odysseus. Here we see the misuse of convention and the tyranny of the community over the individual in the name of the alleged “prudential” necessity of achieving the supposed common good at the expense of an individual’s good. Hecuba unfortunately takes out her revenge against Polymestor on his sons, but in defending the justness of her actions appeals to a higher law and leaves her fate up to reason and her ability to persuade.
Fast forwarding a bit, the Oresteia is set during and after Agamemnon’s return home. The Trojan war was tragically begun ostensibly for honor and to reclaim a wayward or stolen bride (Helen). Agamemnon has been away at war for some ten years and has brought back a mistress, the prophetess Cassandra. In the meantime, his wife has grown estranged and resentful and has taken up with another man who has a familial obligation, or so he perceives, to slay Agamemnon. Agamemnon is slain by his wife and her new lover, who are both in turn slain by Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, driven by bloodlust and his own perceived familial obligation for revenge (and, admittedly, at the instigation of Apollo). For the sin of slaying his own mother, Orestes is hounded by the Furies (or his own guilt?) and flees to Athens where Athena presides over a trial in which Orestes is found innocent of wrongdoing and the Furies are appeased with a place in Athenian, democratic society.
While admittedly not ideal examples, the plays Hecuba and Oresteia both movingly portray trajedies that could have been avoided, highlight the dangers of renouncing one’s humanity in favor of either pole of our tensional existence, of renouncing either freedom or community, while at the same time providing a ray of hope that reason, persuasion, and a respect for difference can help us avoid further tragedy by stopping the cycle of violence. And, in the worst case scenario, surely it is more Greek and Christian (and less modern!) to die human rather than by our own actions to live an inhuman life. The nature of human existence is such that neither freedom nor community can ever be completely eradicated from the hearts and minds of men.
With regard to the alleged conflict between poetry and philosophy, and the question of the poet philosopher, I think this conflict is an illusory one and both the poet and the philosopher have value, especially the poet philosopher. Ever since I was twelve years old I have had a deep and abiding fascination with and interest in fiction, particularly fantasy and science fiction, graphic novels, and comic books. It is my belief that the best of these writers, even of popular fiction, are as good if not better observers and critics of the world than most philosophers and social scientists and at worst it is difficult to tell which is the more pernicious. Indeed, one can argue that the best poets1 are at least to some degree philosophers. But, if taken separately both poetry and philosophy have value, then surely their combination is all the more valuable. In isolation philosophers have a dreadful tendency to become detached from the world and poets can become lost in the meaningless, trivial, or pernicious dramatization of concretes.
There is no guarantee a poet philosopher will not philosophize and dramatize error, but the combination could help to mitigate the countervailing tendencies and keep, so to speak, one’s philosophical side down to earth and one’s poetic side mindful of the philosophical import of his work. With this in mind and in light of the foregoing, Plato’s Republic appears to me to be a philosophical tragedy, for despite being a poet philosopher, Plato’s ambivalence toward politics and poetry perhaps led him to too single-minded a focus on the transcendent and a detachment from the immanent. Plato’s philosopher tragically removes himself from the polis for want of a realistic standard for political and social action.2
- I’m using “poetry” very broadly here to mean artist, particularly those who craft their art in words, including prose and what we today consider poetry. [↩]
- See, e.g., Claes G. Ryn, “The Politics of Transcendence: The Pretentious Passivity of Platonic Idealism,” Humanitas, Volume XII, No. 2, 1999. [↩]