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.