Going about Suffolk County, mainly, according to my own commitment as a citizen, i am reminded every day that politics thrives because people use it and accept its gifts. Equally I find confirmation that politics still seeks the good.
^ Thucydides : whose observations of politics still govern good citizenship
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To do politics, you ought remember what Rabbi Gamaliel taught, in Judea, some 2050 years ago : ‘whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to your fellow man.” (Jesus of Nazareth, so the gospels tell us, took up Gamaliel’s saying in the form “do unto others as you would do to yourselves.”) This is the moral ground of politics in our nation; its ethics..
The second fundamental of politics comes to us from 4th century BC Greece, Aristotle inventing the word “politics” (from the Greek word “polis” meaning “city”). Aristotle’s politics was the art and system by which cities ruled themsleves. Citizens — the “demos,” from the word “deme” meaning tribe or extended clan, met “democratically” in public assembly to choose a city’s leader and to decide public questionas. The process by which all this took place was “politics,” which I can readily translate as “city-ism.”
Aristotle did not limit his analysis of politics to city-ism. His treatise describes several other systems of governing, weighs their worth, critiques their failings — he critiqued city-ism too. Even today, city-ism requires a constant vigilance and much criticizing.
We who engage in politics seek the good; but we know when to settle. Plutarch tells this story of the pre-Aristotelian city manager Solon (yes, that’s what the Greek word “tyrannos” meant. not despot or sultan but “city manager.”) who, in exile far from Athens after being ousted, was asked by the king, “did you give the Athenians the best laws ?” replied “No, I gave them the best laws they would accept.” The late Ted kennedy said much the same : “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”
Let’s opine about that saying of Kennedy’s. “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In it we read everything that Augustine had in mind when he saw that men do evil because they want to — because they substitute their will to that of God (who for Augustine was the good). We who engage in politics can adviocate ideal solutions, annd we proably should; but we must always be ready to see that an ideal solution may leave out a lot of people live other means or modes. And doesn’t become any more just because we advocate it.
The city-ism that Aristotle described was full of argument and discussion, difference of opinion and, sometimes, the wron g outcome. There was no guarantee at all in Aristotle’s city-ism that the process would make life better. And as we read Thucydides, who preceded Aristotle by a century, we measure the misjudgments made by Athenian politics, the selfishness, the petty piques, and the manipulations, just as we see the bbrilliant oratory and debate. Still, no one who wrote about Athenian politics had any doubt that it was the best way to do good.
Nobody who reads Thucydides’s narrative should have any doubt that the offended temper tantrums of Alcibiades are not beneficial to the state; nor that the cynical scandal-mongering and backstage maneuvers of Cleon helped the Athenians to focus on the war they had decided to engage in. Thucydides — who personally participated in the history he wrote about — wrote after the fact; still, he wrote, so he tells us in his magnificent prologue, in order that future politcians might avoid the mistakes and conflicts that voided the Athenians’ policies. Today, we who engage in politics have no excuse. We have Thucydides’s book and his admonitions looking over shoulder, telling us to do better, and about what; to be circumspect even as we fight for reform; to not think ourselves possessed of ultimate wisdom about people, nor to seek our own power at all costs, or tasked to make the world wholly right all at once.
This year we see an ocean of tantrums flooding our politics. we see the usual maneuvering by cynical power-seekers. We see it and we usually recognie them as such and as evil — because there is no guarantee, in politics, that the decisions will go as you want them to. Oten they do not; because no one is always right or able to persuade a majority of his cause. When that happens, the citizen (a Latin word meaning “inhabitant of a civis, a city) doesn’t become a bomb tosser. He or she accepts the decision and works patently to alter or change it.
Thus politics meets the moral precept of Gamaliel.
i am conident that most Amrricans desire the good and trust that citizenship politics is the best way to bring the good about. i am confidht that the tantrum tossers and cynical subverters will be seen for what they are about and will be rejected. We in America do have moral leaders and just. I ve confidence that in the end, the vast majority of us will recognize them and vote them to office.
But I do have one last illustrative story. it comes from Plutarch, who wrote about Aristides, an Athenian politician of the generation preceding that of Thucydides. A move was started to vote Atistides into banishment (which was often how Athenians voted leaders out of office). One day an illiterate man came up to Aristides in the street (not recognizing him) and said, “I want Aristides bansished. Will you please write his name on this tablet ?” To which Aristides answered, “Has he wronged you ?” The man said, “No, and I do not even know him, but it irritates me to hear him everywhere called the just.”
At which point Aristides wrote his name on the man’s tablet.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere