The Nature of the Political . The Ancient Perspective. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
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“Next, then,” I said, “make an image of our nature in its education and want of education, likening it to a condition of the following kind. See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their heads all the way around. Their light is from a fire burning far above and behind them. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a road above, along which see a wall, built like the partitions puppet-handlers set in front of the human beings and over which they show the puppets.” “I see,” he said. “Then also see along this wall human beings carrying all sorts of artifacts, which project above the wall, and statues of men an other animals wrought from stone, wood, and every kind of material; as is to be expected, some of the carriers utter sounds while others are silent.”
“Such men [the cave prisoners] would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.”
The point: our understanding of the world is inescapably conditioned by the political regime in which we live. What we take to be true is conditioned by what we have seen displayed on the “walls” in front of us throughout our lives and what we have heard echoed within our cave.
Unlike the Matrix, however, the argument of Plato’s analogy is that we can only achieve understanding by reflecting upon those things we have taken to be true and attempting to determine if they really are true. In other words, to escape the cave, we must study the cave.
The analogy speaks of human beings who “carrying all sorts of artifacts” in front of the fire to cast the shadows for the prisoners to see. What kinds of people does Socrates have in mind?
Founders of any given regime. In the case of the Greeks, someone like Homer fits the description. In our case, it would be the founding fathers. What “artifacts” did the founders put on the wall in front of us?
In chapter 1 of the Politics, Aristotle writes: “The partnership that is most authoritative of all and embraces all the others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city or the political partnership.”
In Chapter 2 of the Ethics, Aristotle writes: “And it would seem to belong to the one that is most governing and most a master art, and politics appears to be of this sort, since it prescribes which kinds of knowledge ought to be in the cities, and what sorts each person ought to learn and to what extent…Since this capacity makes use of the rest of the kinds of knowledge, and also lays down the law about what one ought to do and from what one ought to refrain, the end of this capacity should include the ends of the other pursuits, so that this end would be the human good.”
Like Plato, Aristotle thinks, as human beings, we can only achieve knowledge of the world by beginning from and taking our bearings within the political world.
This is because, as human beings seeking to know, most importantly, what is good for us, we are confronted immediately by an authoritative claim regarding what is good for us: the political claim.
Unlike other mere opinions about what is good for us, politics implicitly claims to know what is good for us when it prescribes and proscribes certain activities within what Aristotle always refers to as “the city.” This is not to say that it actually knows what’s good for us; but it implicitly claims such when the city uses its authority to prescribe and proscribe. This is what makes it, as Aristotle says, “most a master art.”
To achieve knowledge of the actual human good, Aristotle argues, we do best to start from the city’s implicit claims in its laws to have such knowledge
From Aristotle’s Politics Book 1, Chap 2: “The partnership arising from [the union of] several villages that is complete is the city. It reaches a level of full self-sufficiency, so to speak; and while coming into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of living well.” What does it mean?
So, in the first place, Aristotle claims that, while human beings might first come together solely out of a concern for survival, after coming together, they seek something more from the city. They come to think that the city exists for the sake of “living well.” In other words, it doesn’t merely keep them safe; it exists so as to provide them with a good life. Politics, especially political authority, can teach us how to live well. Part of this “teaching” involves power that is more than merely instructional. By enforcing its prescriptions and proscriptions through punishment and rewards, the city hopes to guide us toward the good life.
“From these things it is evident, then, that the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal… That man is much more a political animal than any kind of bee or any herd animal is clear. For, as we assert, nature does nothing in vain; and man alone among the animals has speech… Speech serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust. For it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort]; and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city.”
This is a strong claim and one of the “take-home” quotations from Aristotle’s Politics. While what he means by it is not entirely clear in the context, it means at least this: man naturally creates political regimes and naturally uses the political regime to seek the “good life” for which Aristotle says the political regime exists. Politics, with all of its authoritative statements about what we should and should not do, comes naturally to us. Our natures are directed at it. We could exist without a city but such a man “is either a mean sort or superior to man.” That is, a man without a city is either a beast or a god. Because we’re not beasts and want to improve ourselves, we need the city for guidance. Because we’re not gods and need help to become better, we need the city for guidance.
But this is not quite right because other animals are able to indicate to each other the “painful and the pleasant.” What is truly distinctive about man is his ability to perceive and indicate through speech the good and bad and the just and the unjust.
Are the good and the bad the same as the just and the unjust?
Justice sets limits upon our pursuits, saying we can do certain things and cannot do others. And in setting limits upon our pursuits, justice claims to be good for us. It is partially because we can articulate limits upon ourselves that we are different than the animals, “he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust.”
That we can perceive what is good and bad and just and unjust means, Aristotle claims, that “when completed” “man is the best of the animals.” But, “when separated from law and adjudication he is the worst of all.” That is, without the city’s laws as guidance, or without the virtue they aim at, man “is the most unholy and the most savage, and the worst with regard to sex and food.”
Why might this be?
Because we’re above the beasts but below the gods, and, as such, potentially viciously savage, we need the city’s guidance to make us virtuous.
We return once again to the point from which we began. Having seen the need for political guidance, the question, for the ancients, then became which type of regime best guides human beings. And, in their investigations, they were immediately confronted by the following truism:
“The things that are beautiful and just, about which politics investigates, involve great disagreement and inconsistency, so that they are thought to belong only to convention and not to nature.”