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The Preface

To

REWRITING CONTEMPORARY POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY WITH PLATO AND ARISTOTLE: AN ESSAY ON EUDAIMONIC POLITICS

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By Paul Schollmeier

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The Montréal Review, October 2020

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With this volume I offer an apology for political philosophy.  Who among us, philosopher or no, could not be aware that political philosophy in our day has gone awry?  Contemporary philosophers who theorize about politics have become little more than mouthpieces for the status quo.  They preoccupy themselves with developing and explicating theories to justify political societies of the kind that we presently inhabit. 

But we live in political societies considerably less than just, I dare say.  Our societies consist of both prosperity and poverty in the extreme.  Some people succeed in amassing fortunes beyond fantastic, and some people struggle to get by on less than a pittance.  Is a distribution of wealth so disproportionate likely to be just?  Today one percent of the adult population owns one half of the household wealth in the world.1 

That some more fortunate persons among us are philanthropic souls who use their wealth to do well by others, I would not deny.  But I would also ask, Should those less fortunate among us have to depend on kindnesses? 

I propose to discourse more on how one might restore to political philosophy her proper dignity and less on how she might have fallen into her present plight.  My intention is to develop a philosophy of what a political society in our era ought to be rather than another theory of what a society happens to be.  My hope is that the philosophy proposed will inspire my colleagues and companions with a new purpose for their political inquiries and endeavors and ultimately alleviate the disparities of privilege and privation so evident today. 

I shall advance a novel principle for my instauration of political philosophy.  Actually, the principle only appears novel to us.  I could hardly pretend to have invented a principle entirely new for an endeavor as longstanding and as enduring as politics.  Unfortunately, political philosophers have recently subverted this principle if they have not ignored it altogether.  They exhibit a distinct tendency to subordinate the principle to other, less worthy, principles. 

My principle is happiness.  This principle will appear novel to many because I wish to take this concept in its ancient sense––albeit with appropriate modifications.  I shall advocate political happiness in the sense of a rational activity and not in the sense of an emotional passivity.  We are happy, I shall argue, when we engage in a rational activity primarily for the sake of itself and not primarily for the sake of something else, usually our profit or pleasure.  I defer to Plato and Aristotle for an exposition and defense of this definition (see esp. Ethics 1. 7.).  

I would thus ask you to entertain a simple and, I should think, evident hypothesis, that each and every human being who wishes to be happy, and who does not, ought to have an opportunity to be happy.  Each and every one!  I do not say, nor can I say, that every human being who wishes to be happy ought to be happy.  No, happiness we can no more grant to one another than we can grant one another wisdom or virtue.   

 Happiness in the classical sense requires that we not only wish to be happy, but that we also choose to take the appropriate measures to become happy.  If we are happy, we are performing an action for its own sake and acting from virtue, which is simply a good habit.  If we are to become happy, we must accordingly choose to perform an appropriate action, we must choose to perform our action for its own sake, and we must choose to perform our action repeatedly until it becomes habitual.

But we cannot act without resources.  These resources include, at a minimum, a function to fulfill within a society, an education appropriate for a function, and the material means requisite for its fulfillment.  No one can provide another with the aspiration or the dedication to take proper advantage of the necessary resources.  But one can offer others who possess the desire and the ability an opportunity to avail themselves of these resources.  Surely, one ought not to hamper or to hinder another by denying them an opportunity of this kind.

Please take note that this volume concerns happiness in a political sense and not in a personal sense.  I shall mention personal happiness only by contrast.  We too often neglect to consider our happiness within political society.  Our society can, paradoxically no doubt to a contemporary ear, be an end in itself and not a mere means.  Happiness in a political form consists of participating in a political society––participating, I mean, for its own intrinsic public value and not for private instrumental value.  

What is at stake is the very idea of a political community.  We human beings can find happiness by participating in a community, I shall argue.  One might think of political society as if it were a choreography of human activities in which we can participate and enjoy as an end in itself.  We ought also to afford our companions an opportunity to participate.  Why disregard their potential?  When we give others an opportunity, we are likely to make our society the better for it and to enable others to make themselves the better.  

I wish to argue, then, that contemporary political philosophers overlook an important human good when they fail to give due consideration to our political happiness.  Indeed, they overlook, I shall claim, the most important political good of all.  With my endeavor I shall question the most basic assumptions of contemporary political thought.  My contention shall be that a political society ought itself to be a moral end and not a moral constraint, so-called, on private ends. 

Our contemporaries for the most part gussy up current economic theory in an attempt to make it seem moral.  They apparently deem economic considerations paramount.  We live in what we euphemistically call a consumer society.  We preoccupy ourselves with producing and consuming material goods.  But do we not have all the devices and appliances that we could possibly want?  Indeed, we are throwing away gadgets and gizmos at such an alarming rate that their disposal presents serious problems. 

I wish to suggest that we have burdened ourselves with fallacious thinking of an embarrassingly elementary sort.  We appear to be of the opinion that the more material resources we possess the better persons we will become.  Good persons do require resources, but resources do not make a good person.  Not even a good producer or a good consumer.

 I would that I could also advocate specific policies for the attainment of our political happiness.  But I am, alas, a humble philosopher and not a politician.  This fact is not laudable, I admit.  Even Plato and Aristotle lament the fact that theory and practice were far more often than not separated from each other.   They thought that anyone who might be possessed of both philosophical acumen and political ability would be nothing less than a godsend. 

I shall not, then, make any pretense to go beyond a formulation and a defense of principle.  What I set out in theory I can only hope that others more experienced than I might deem worthy to pursue in practice.  Indeed, what little experience I have gleaned in matters political suggests that policy matters ought best to be specific to a given situation.  Those more versed in their own circumstances would be best suited to develop and to implement policy. 

My hypothesis about our happiness rests on a prior assumption that we ought to be cognizant of our humanity.  Our humanity, I assume, provides a foundation for our happiness.  What is a human being?  A rational animal, I should think.  I hope that this answer is unproblematic.  What is our rationality?  This answer might be problematic.  We shall see that our rationality, when we exercise it, is our happiness.  Even when we exercise it in a political arena.  

We deny our rational nature if we exercise it not for its own sake but for the sake of something else.  A rationality exercised for something else would most likely be employed ultimately to procure satisfaction for our desire.  Our happiness, so-called, would no longer be a rational activity but an emotional passivity, and we would not be rational but passional animals.  We would be less than fully human.  We would be human beings in potentiality only and not in actuality.2 

I would also ask, What is a human being if not a political animal?  Our humanity can find an expression within a political society.  We best exercise our political nature when we engage in political activity for its own sake though we tend to forget this fundamental fact.  We can be happy, in a word, when we participate together with others in political activity without an ulterior motive.  Not to engage in political activity of this kind would also be to deny our nature. 

I intend, then, to draw attention to our political functions and roles though I would not deny private roles and functions.  If we are political animals, we ought to perform a political function.  Or else we forsake our happiness and our nature.  At least, in part we do.  The political, I shall argue, is a res publica to be held in common not a res privata to be held in contention.  We are surely less than happy and less than human when we utilize our political activity for private ends.  We live without a community though we live within a society.  

My antagonists in this endeavor are, as always for a eudaimonist, if I may use the term, the sophists.  We live in an age of sophistry, I make bold to say, and we are now reaping its rewards.  I do not speak of intellectual sophistry, though it, too, is surely present.  I speak rather of moral sophistry, and in particular I speak of its political variety.  The moral sophists seek happiness not in a rational but in a passional sense. 

Sophistry we usually think to be fallacious reasoning.  We can see why one might so think if we ask why anyone would indulge in fallacies.  The most likely explanation is that we permit ourselves to rationalize about our conduct when we seek to indulge our appetites.  Our rationalization takes for its principle whatever notion might seem to justify our indulgence.  A rationalization of this sort can obviously pervade political theory and economic theory as well.  

Protagoras is probably the most famous exponent in the ancient world of sophistry in the intellectual sense.  Man is the measure of all things, he declares.  Though less well known for it, he also expounds sophistry in a moral sense.  Man is apparently the measure of all things moral, too.  Ironically, Socrates with a theory of deferred gratification best explicates this sophistical position for us and apparently for Protagoras himself.  At least, Plato so argues in an eponymous dialogue. 

Plato also portrays other ancient sophists in his dialogues.  Perhaps Callicles and Thrasymachus are the most famous of these.  Callicles argues brashly that those with political ability ought to be manly enough and brave enough to satisfy all their desires, and that they ought to make their desires as many and as strong as possible.  Thrasymachus bluntly contends that those who have political ability ought to use others solely for their own satisfaction. 

These poor souls and their ilk Plato imprisons for all eternity in the lower class of his ideal political society.  This class comprises the artisans and the farmers and herders.  A guardian class, he argues, must control these persons with external constraints because they lack any ability to control themselves.  These unfortunates are at the beck and call of their desires, he avers. 

Modern sophists usually advance their cause under another banner.  They prefer to call themselves utilitarians.  Among these sophists we may number most prominently Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.  Their motto is the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  They would thus appeal to a principle of happiness.  But their principle is also a passional happiness.  They think human goodness to be desire satisfaction. 

I shall focus on utilitarians in their contemporary guise.  Philosophers theorizing about politics today may seem to stand in opposition to utilitarianism.  John Rawls and Robert Nozick provide conspicuous examples.  Rawls and Nozick both protest explicitly against the utilitarian theory.  They agree that utilitarianism would in principle permit us to sacrifice the interests of a few persons for the benefit of the many.3  

But neither Rawls nor Nozick can quite escape utilitarianism and its allure.  Though their means differ, their ends are essentially utilitarian.  They both agree that our highest good is to fulfill a plan of life.  But what is the purpose of a plan of this kind?  A plan of life has the purpose of satisfying our desire, they argue.  If we have a plan, we can the better satisfy our desires by organizing them and by avoiding conflicts among them. 

Rawls and Nozick, in other words, offer similar theories of deferred gratification though they offer dissimilar concepts for deferring gratification.  They both agree that our happiness ought not to make others less happy.  Rawls argues in effect that those who are more happy ought to benefit from institutions that make more happy those who are less happy.  Nozick in effect argues that those who are less happy ought not to benefit from institutions that make less happy those who are more happy. 

Whether modern or contemporary, the utilitarians, then, lack a principle of political happiness in the sense of a rational activity of value for its own sake.  They advocate happiness only in the sense of satisfying our desire.  They would thus subordinate political activity, eudaimonic or not, to personal happiness, and personal happiness they conceive in a passional sense.4

My purpose, then, shall be to delineate differences both salient and significant between a eudaimonic philosophy of politics and a sophistic political philosophy.  I wish to perform a philosophical experiment, one might say.  With the political philosophy of the classical era I shall analyze and critique two contemporary political philosophies of no little import and influence.  My focus will be on the overarching theme of eudaimonic politics and not on the minutiae of scholarly commentary. 

In my discussion I intend to glean general concepts of importance for my experiment from the Platonic and Aristotelian political philosophies and from their epistemologies and ontologies.  I shall take these ancient theories for granted and avoid undue exegetical complications.  I do devote some discussion to contemporary commentary.  But I limit my discussion to commentary that might help clarify the classical concepts for my reader. 

I shall also focus on the commonalities to be found in the Rawlsian liberal theory and the Nozickian libertarian theory.  I shall forbear to indulge in an analysis of their more specific differences and of their sectarian controversies.  I take the Rawlsian and Nozickian theories for granted as well.  I assume for the sake of my critique that their arguments are sufficiently successful, and I critique them as they stand.  No doubt their theories do have their imperfections, but my concern is not to improve upon their specifics.5  

But my reader may wonder, How can we make use of a principle of happiness in a political society?  How can we employ a concept of eudaimonic activity to organize a society?  I propose to borrow another idea from the ancient Greeks.  I wish to suggest that we ought to rest our political philosophy on a concept of polity.  We would seem to forgo any consideration of polity today though nearly everyone lives in a polity of a sort.  We do so because usually we think a polity to be a democracy or perhaps an oligarchy.  Hence, a concept of polity proper remains inarticulate. 

I shall take into account polities of two species.  These species are what I would call a eudaimonic polity and an expedient polity.  I obviously wish to advocate a eudaimonic polity.  A polity of this kind is a political society that takes for its end an activity of happiness attainable by most people.  This feasible activity I take to be what I shall call artisanal happiness.  My assumption is that anyone who is able to engage successfully in an artisanal activity for its own sake is happy. 

What is an artisanal activity?  An activity of this kind is what one might more commonly call a productive activity.  I would suggest that we can be happy when we are making things, in other words.  We can recognize that a productive activity itself has value as an end, and we can give priority to its value as an end.  I would hardy deny that a productive activity has a value as a means.  But I would argue that its intrinsic value ought to be primary and its instrumental value secondary. 

The concept of a productive activity as an end starkly contrasts with a concept of production as a means.  We can all too easily degrade production and its intrinsic value if we give priority to its instrumental value.  The consequence is a productive activity that denies us our humanity for the sake of ever greater output.  We can no longer express our rational nature in production.  Production, especially on an assembly line, can become banausic in a most pejorative sense. 

A polity of expediency is less than eudaimonic.   A polity of this kind rests on a mixture of principles.  It assumes not a concept of eudaimonic happiness but a concept of hedonic happiness.  Its end is none other than the gratification of desire.  This polity accordingly rests on ancillary principles needed for our gratification.  These principles are concepts of liberty and property. 

A polity of this mixed variety is today most likely a utilitarian society.  It plainly recognizes that we need both liberty and property to satisfy our desire.  A society of this kind thus becomes a compromise between a democratic party, which would take the expression of liberty to its extreme, and an oligarchic party, which would take the possession of property to its extreme. 

Any polity, whether eudaimonic or expedient, ought rightly to favor the middle class.  That the middle class should be the focus of political theory and practice, is part of contemporary culture though its consideration is falling out of favor.  The middle class tends to lend more stability to a political society than either the rich or the poor class do.  The rich or the poor too often carry their principles to an extreme, which can occasion conflict.  Even in antiquity Aristotle and Plato took note this political fact. 

Who are the middle class?  A eudaimonic polity would define the middle class to be those who have the ability and the desire to pursue rational happiness.  I am advocating an artisanal happiness, which, I would think, most people can attain.  But an expedient polity would focus on those who pursue passional happiness.  Happiness of this kind one can find in a consumer society.  Democrats advocate liberty for consumption, and oligarchs advocate property for production. 

My theory, then, constitutes a challenge to ancient political theory.  The ancient Greek philosophers in their political theories do not think that productive activities can be eudaimonic.  They think that production cannot have intrinsic value, but that it can have only instrumental value.  Both Plato and Aristotle explicitly hold that the arts and crafts and their activities are inimical even to virtue and to happiness. 

I would argue that the question is one of purpose.  Can we not engage in productive activities with the purpose of performing them primary for their own sake?  Or must we invariably engage in them solely for the sake of their output alone?  Though most do not, some corporations today recognize that even industrial production is a human activity that has both intrinsic and instrumental value.  Many cottage industries also exist in which artists and artisans engage in productive activity for its own sake as well as for its results. 

My theory is also a challenge to modern political theory.  Contemporary philosophers do not appear to advocate eudaimonic happiness of any kind.  Rawls and Nozick clearly do not.  They prefer happiness of the hedonic variety, and they think that all rational activities are primarily of instrumental value.  The upshot is that everyone is an artisan in the banausic sense. 

The reader may find that he or she can read this work in more ways than one.  Permit me to mention three ways more salient and, I think, more significant.  One reading is to take the political philosophy contained herein to be a new theory of democracy.  “Democracy” is an ambiguous term.  We tend not infrequently to think a contemporary polity to be a democracy.  We thus may, with a nod to this usage, take democracy to promote our eudaimonic happiness.  This eudaimonic goal I wish to make explicit. 

More often we think an expedient polity a democracy, however.  We especially do so if a mixed polity claims to give priority to its principle of liberty.  But we think a polity of this kind an oligarchy if its principle of property is a priority.  My goal is to argue that we ought to make a principle of happiness the end of liberty and of property in our society.  We would thus transform into a eudaimonic polity a polity of the mixed variety. 

I also wish to extend the franchise, so to speak.  Political functions include more than what we today call citizenship.  To vote and to hold office are important functions, but they define citizenship only in a rather narrow sense.  In a wider sense citizenship would include intellectual activities, martial activities, and artisanal activities.  My focus, again, shall be on artisanal activities, and my assumption that most persons can happily pursue these activities, either in industry or in agriculture. 

A eudaimonic polity, then, has practical advantages.  Eudaimonic happiness defines a finite end for our activity, but hedonic happiness does not.  Our pursuit of a profession or an occupation has a limit in its activity, but our desire for wealth or pleasure has an end with no limit.  A eudaimonic polity would thus be especially pragmatic in a world of resources decidedly finite.  People who are happy do not require excessive liberty or property.  But people who are not happy often become licentious or greedy. 

I must point out, however, that persons can pursue eudaimonic happiness in more than one specific variety.  My purpose is to argue in support of a general principle of happiness and to place this general principle within a theoretical framework.  But happiness, including artisanal happiness, can be of different kinds.  Different societies may pursue different productive activities, and different persons within a society obviously pursue different activities.  The particular species sought vary both by culture and by nature.

Another way to read this work would be to view my thoughts on political philosophy as an analysis of American democracy.  The Declaration of Independence explicitly enshrines three inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Life and liberty political philosophers have surely given due, if at times misguided, attention.  But the pursuit of happiness has given them rather scant concern.  Yet life and liberty are only ancillary to happiness.  

I have in fact often had American democracy in mind as I write.  I do so in part because I am not unacquainted with the democracy in which I have resided almost my entire life.  I also must perforce write with my own democracy in mind because of considerable ignorance on my part.  I simply am neither well informed about nor well acquainted with other democracies that have existed in the past or exist in the present. 

I hope that I do not seem jingoistic.  In my defense I would say that America is often recognized for being the first democracy in the modern era, and she is, deservedly or not, in the eyes of many taken to a paradigm of democracy.  I do not make these assertions because of any arrogance, I assure you.  I am well aware of the missteps and shortcomings of my political society.  Indeed, my purpose is in part to offer considerations for renovating and reinvigorating the democracy in which I happen to live. 

Other philosophers before me have taken American democracy for a modern paradigm.  Perhaps Alexis de Tocqueville is the one who did the most to burnish her reputation in the world.  Only his insights exceed his praises for this new democracy.  He surely recognized that in America democracy was at its foundation a polity though he does not use the term.  He sees this democracy as a society in which most persons are of the middle class and enjoy its comforts. 

Unfortunately, Tocqueville offers an analysis that would have us believe that American democracy can be a polity not of a eudaimonic variety but only of an expedient sort.  But he is well aware of the dangers of hedonic happiness, especially its instability.  Persons in the middle class, he argues, have enough to be comfortable but not enough to be content.  The wealthy class fear to have fewer comforts, and the poor desire to have more. 

Yet I would like to think that, had he but thought of it, Tocqueville would likely approve of my analysis of American democracy.  Polity in the true sense is an expression of our better nature.   He would hopefully agree that, if we choose to act eudaimonically, we can act from what he terms a virtue of beauty and not from a virtue of utility. 

One might, finally, read these reflections on polity as presenting a paradigm for what many people proclaim to be a new global society.  I shall say nothing of this political phenomenon beyond these few words.  My ignorance of global affairs exceeds my ignorance of democracies other than my own. 

What little experience I do have yields the impression that those who are today acting on a global scale are those who also concern themselves less with eudaimonic prosperity than with passional and material prosperity.  Why should one expect that they would not model their global endeavors on their local ones? 

I would aver that we ought to ask, What kind of globalization would we have?  Is globalization inevitable?  Perhaps.  Is globalization inevitably sophistic?  Perhaps not.  At the very least, we ought to ask the question.  Would we prefer to live a global society that is eudaimonic, or would we prefer life a world that is hedonic or pleonectic?   

Unfortunately, these broader questions, important though they assuredly are, I had best leave for another occasion.  Or for another author. 

Our forebears bequeathed to us a political society.  They handed down a society of the best kind they no doubt could.  But the fact that our society is a gift does not mean that we cannot improve upon it.  We especially ought to make changes when society appears less than just.  If my arguments do not, perhaps the plain facts of the matter may prove sufficiently persuasive.  Can you deny that many persons today live in ignorance, fear, and hunger, not to say degradation?  

Too often in our preoccupation with our private lives we forget to ask ourselves, What kind of political society ought we to inhabit?  Or even, What kind of political society do we inhabit?  We can, if we so wish, create a society of worth for its own sake as an end in itself and not as a mere means for the sake of private interests.  But we also can, if we do not so wish, accept by tacit consent the status quo. 

I would ask, Ought we not to exercise and to enjoy our rational and political nature?  Our humanity is truly a gift god-given to mortals such as we be.  And pleasure and property?  Are they not but paltry things? 

Our humble humanity, then, I shall evoke for my instauration of a new paradigm for political philosophy in our era. 

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Paul Schollmeier is Barrick Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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1Conversely, one half of the adult population owns less than one percent of the household wealth (Shorrocks, Anthony, et al.,Global Wealth 2017, p. 9 <https://www.credit-suisse.com/corporate/en/research/research-institute/global-wealth-report.html>). 

2 Happiness studies has become a burgeoning field of inquiry today.  Despite obvious sophistication, its research programs and its policy recommendations would, however, appear to rest unquestioningly on a passional definition (see, e.g., Helliwell, John, et al., World Happiness Report 2018 <http://worldhappiness.report/>). 

3 That a utilitarian might sacrifice the interests of the many for the benefit of a few, Rawls and Nozick do not, curiously enough, appear to give due consideration. 

4 Because I wish to focus on my contemporaries, I am obliged to omit any extended discussion the utilitarians of the Scottish Enlightenment.  Adam Smith and David Hume, for example, with a principle of sympathy offer a more refined concept of deferred gratification.  Nonetheless, one could show, mutatis mutandis, that a similar analysis and critique would apply to their political philosophies. 

5 I would note that, when he later offers some emendations, Rawls himself informs us that he leaves his initial theory unchanged in its essentials. 

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