Political Wisdom–Aristotle and Politics Today

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I am very hesitant to say anything about the confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the supreme court, especially regarding the allegations against him or anything, for that matter, that is going on in Washington right now. I have seen it reported that very few people expected anyone to change their minds because of them. I suspect that things will calm down after the elections in November.

But I am teaching the history of political theory this semester, and our readings may have something to say. Reflecting on current controversies is one way to see the implications or importance of what we are teaching, studying and learning.

One of the works we read emphasizes that politics is always and irrevocably partisan. We see that in the hearings and Washington right now. We recognize our own interests and these conflict with others’ interests.  We are sensitive to questions of justice and disagree about what is just in particular cases.  When personal, economic, familial, regional or cultural interests are involved, and when justice is at stake we are bound to conflict and we become partisans, and often passionately engaged partisans. But this is not all that is involved, if that were not enough. How do we make it through the partisan conflicts that are a permanent part of politics to produce just laws and a good social order? And how does one provide for a stable political order so that interest doesn’t simply override interest, and some approximation of justice is provided for all?

For the last couple weeks, we have spent some time in class with Aristotle’s Politics. This week we will turn to an Aristotelian, one of the most prominent and wise of Aristotelians, St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274).  Aristotle argues that the good political leader is characterized by “practical wisdom,” and “political wisdom.” Practical wisdom is experiential and rational knowledge of how to lead and achieve a successful and good life. Political wisdom is practical wisdom applied to the complexities of the larger political world. Aristotle’s own work is an example of such political wisdom, as is the work of his followers like St. Thomas.

In book V, section 8 of the Politics in a section discussing “methods of preserving a constitution,” Aristotle says this about wise leadership: “An endeavor should also be made, by legislation as well as by personal action, to guard against quarrels and factions amongst the notables; and watch should also be kept in advance on those who are not yet involved, before they too get caught in the spirit of rivalry. Ordinary people cannot see the beginnings of troubles ahead; that requires the genuine statesman.”

Our senators, it seems to me are supposed to be our statesmen and women, and can be described as “notables.” They look out for the good of the nation as a whole, and for the long term as the writers of The Federalist explained (see numbers 62-63). They are insulated from elections every two years, from the passions of the day, unlike members of the House of Representatives. They confirm supreme court nominees and treaties—actions with long-term implications for the welfare of the United States, its citizens, and all who live within its borders, and in some cases for the world. What might happen, we should ask, when the “spirit of rivalry” and “quarrels and factions” are evident “amongst the notables?” Might we not expect more “troubles ahead?”

I suppose we cannot expect news reporters, or social media posts to reflect practical or political wisdom. (Aristotle himself was not optimistic about the stability of democracies, and thought they degenerated into tyrannies through demagoguery.) But even among good but imperfect systems of governance, we might hope for some measure of practical and political wisdom. We might hope to see, occasionally, the wisdom of a “genuine statesman” or stateswoman. Aristotle implies that without this it is difficult to preserve a constitution. He implies as well that our notables have a personal responsibility to guard against the rivalries and factions that are so powerfully evident right now.

Aristotle illustrates the importance of reading works that reflect with depth on our experience, and of pursuing wisdom, especially in an age that glorifies passionate engagement. I hope that through our teaching our students are encouraged and inspired to look for leaders of practical and political wisdom and to become those kinds of leaders themselves as they enter the public arena. “Wisdom” is one of the qualities that we say reflects an FPU education (along with faithfulness and service).

Perhaps one day, when we are engaged in yet another crucial appointment, caught up in passionate interests and sure of the justice of the position we take, one or two FPU grads will remember something about a class, or a reading, and recall that there may be something more to consider. We professors have no special wisdom that stands above the political conflicts of the day. We do not have special knowledge to solve the problems or resolve all the conflicts we witness in political life. But sometimes those old books we read might offer some insight into our present troubles.

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