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Thursday, 7 June 2018

Politics, Virtue, and Beauty

I am a firm believer in the inseparability of politics and ethics from aesthetics. Virtue and virtuous living are also a matter of living beautifully, for the good and the beautiful are convertible, even if they are different aspects of the same reality. Indeed, one of the many crises of modernity is that politics has been separated from ethics: we no longer look for virtuous men, in choosing those men who will be our leaders, but for clever and cunning men, or perhaps merely assertive and aggressive men, regardless of their virtue. Our politicians glory in their vileness. But another and less noticed aspect of this crisis is that both politics and ethics have been divorced from aesthetics - virtue itself has been divorced from beauty. I believe that this actually corrupts virtue itself, and makes it into a parody of itself. 

What do I mean by this? Everywhere one looks, on the modern political battleground, there is no concern for culture. On the side of the "liberals," culture is an appendage, perhaps a pleasantry to be enjoyed, though not really understood, by the elite who have time for such frivolities, but hardly anything that is substantially relevant to the politics and ideologies to which they are primarily committed. On the side of the "conservatives," concern for finer culture is practically non-existent now; the meaning of conservatism has strangely morphed from the preservation of culture to the defense of "free speech" and a blunt resistance to liberal bullying. The political battles themselves, as has become painfully evident in recent years, have quickly devolved into an ugly contest of vile persons against each other: no longer do the guardians care for virtue, wisdom, or the visible form of these things, which is beauty. Plato would be appalled by such a politics. 

Many will accuse me and my concern for beauty of mere sentimental superficiality: I seem to care not for substance, but merely for image, the external and transitory surface beneath which lies all that really matters. How does one respond to such an accusation? I can only respond that such persons have lost all sense of the integral unity of the fabric of reality. What is political order itself, but a ray of beauty manifested as the pleasing harmony of persons, societies, and institutions? What, indeed, is virtue itself but a form of beauty inhering in the person? What is physical beauty - which these puritans would dismiss as superficial and irrelevant - but another instance of the same perfection, a sister of virtue and social harmony (peace)?

Being is said in many ways; also the Good is said in many ways. The perfection by which Being becomes Good thus manifests itself in all beings capable of goodness. The metaphysically-attuned soul will not attend only to one or two of these many senses of being; being himself about being (dasein) he is about the whole of being. Plato identifies the philosopher as he who loves the whole of wisdom - not some part of it, i.e. a particular art or science. Even ethics is only one part of wisdom; even politics is only one part, though an architectonic part. But to be architectonic, indeed, means that this one part is still relevant to and affected by all the other parts. A metaphysical soul will not be concerned only with metaphysical truths; he will also be concerned with physical truths, since these have a bearing on metaphysics itself. The philosophic soul is not concerned only with being, or only with the good, or only with the truth - he is concerned with all of these together. He is of course therefore concerned also for beauty.

Being is a plurivocal whole - it is a whole, and thus a unity, but a unity with many voices. Discard any of these voices, and one has neglected the whole. To say that everything is connected, and everything is relevant to everything, is to utter something so true that one falls quite short of the very truth expressed in such a saying. The man who sins against prudence, a virtue, since against harmony, a property of beauty, and indeed a perfection of being. Such a sinner has silenced one of the voices of being, namely prudence; but thinking he could do so and go unnoticed, he silenced also the voice of beauty and goodness. Harmony is a property of beauty, and virtue is a good. He has also offended the truth: for prudence is wisdom, and wisdom orders things according to logos, the intelligible truth of being.

The political virtue is prudence, par excellence, practical wisdom - the virtue which puts things in order. Political prudence puts society in order, it is an organizing principle. The only good politician is the prudent man - just as the only virtuous man is the prudent man: the man who judges rightly concerning what it is fitting to do. In consequently doing, a man performs a human act. In doing so well, according to the direction of his prudence, a man acts virtuously; and in ordering other men to each other, as parts of society, putting them into their proper place in relation to the whole, the prudent politician leads other men to act well like him. The political leader's function is to lead others to virtue. There is nothing more obvious than this.

But his role is also to lead men to think rightly concerning beauty, as Plato says in the Republic. Plato is not typically concerned to make sweeping distinctions between when it is appropriate to speak of virtue and when it is appropriate to speak of beauty; or when, indeed, it is appropriate to speak of anything. Nearly all of the Platonic ruminations on questions of metaphysics occur in the context of trying to decipher the meaning of various activities, arts, and virtues - e.g. justice in the Republic, or love in the Symposium. These are also the contexts in which beauty appears as a subject of discussion. In many of these dialogues - Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus - the virtuous man, and/or the philosopher, is revealed as a kind of lover; and he is a lover of beauty itself, just as he is a lover of wisdom. The philosopher-king is concerned with perfecting the city, just as the philosopher is concerned with perfecting his soul - just as any virtuous man is concerned with perfecting the activity which is his, in accordance with the eternal archetypes of perfection which he contemplates by the philosophic act. Although there is certainly a movement of escape from mere images to the really-real, there is also in Plato a sharp movement of making the images themselves, of bringing them closer to their Forms, of making them more perfect. The philosopher is also an artist. He makes things beautiful by bringing them into communion with beauty itself.

The politicians of our day have no such concern; they do not wish to make things beautiful. They wish only to make affairs convenient for the attainment of very limited and individualistic ends - ends which necessarily and arbitrarily impede the ends of other individuals. Politicians have their own ends, and they have all the power; they care only to compete with other holders of power, and to limit the power of their subjects, to manipulate the great mechanism of the State in which persons are merely cogs in the machine. Politics is not a matter of beauty, but of "equilibrium" of powers - and equilibrium that is nonetheless only ever imposed by a power that stands outside that equilibrium, being greater than all other powers. All of this is painted with the colors of "personal autonomy" - it is modern liberalism - when really it dehumanizes persons, rids them of the capacity for virtue, and rather than allowing form to shine as something beautiful in things, merely forces things into a willed order by an act of violence. The modern politician, in other words, is none other than Thrasymachus, the unbridled "spirited man" of the Republic, the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. The modern political landscape is dominated by this figure of Thrasymachus the Leviathan. It matters not whether one looks to the "left" or the "right" of the political spectrum: it is all the same. A politics that is neither virtuous nor beautiful, nor even attempting to aim at these - one begins to doubt whether there is anything of the true finesse of the political art to be found in these times.

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