This is all over the place: it ties together, but doesn’t address exactly what’s wrong with how we’re talking about the issues – something about our talk feels alien. It will need to be expanded upon later, and made much more nuanced.
[Critobulus:] “But if one who is wicked is unable to acquire gentlemanly (noble and good) friends, then I have the following concern: whether one who has become a gentleman can readily become friends with gentlemen.”
[Socrates:] “What disturbs you, Critobulus, is that frequently you see men who perform noble actions and refrain from what is shameful, instead of being friends, engaged in factious strife against one another and dealing with one another more harshly than would human beings of no worth.”
“Yes,” said Critobulus, “and not only do private individuals do this but also the cities that are most attentive to the noble things and least admit the shameful are frequently in a state of hostility with one another.”
– Xenophon, Memorabilia II: 6, 16-18 trans. Amy L. Bonnette
So no one can be friends or allies with anyone, since a “noble” declaration would be a declaration of value and competing values, which all good people have, create a state of war. Not every saint agrees as to the nature of God; Dante points out St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis as having less than compatible visions of how God’s goodness is manifest. Only in heaven, under the pretext of there will be peace here no matter what is their “reconciliation” possible, it seems.
For the rest of us, a very large problem looms: it seems like the more we know, the more hostile we get towards each other over the things we hold dearest. A cynic could say the only thing holding those of us who care for higher things together is annoyance with and fear of those who don’t care to know at all. I prefer to believe that knowledge is a form of love, that appreciation of others is true knowledge, but any claim to wisdom means that I have to refrain from preaching that and commit instead to exploring it.
Politics can start well, though, from the factious state of affairs outlined in the quote. The “noble” can be an attempt to apprehend the beautiful for those who are higher in society, those who have founded and preserve society. And thus the “noble” isn’t just being a good politician: it means being courageous in battle, just towards the poor and the gods, moderate in one’s desires and even learning when one can. The “noble” goes pretty far in life, and what’s funny about it is that one’s attachment to it need not be rational or even erotic. All one needs to do to be noble is compete for what is beautiful, perhaps even ruthlessly shoving other competitors in one’s city aside to attain it.
If it seems unclear how such a conception of the noble creates civic peace, look at our Founders. Hamilton and Jefferson didn’t like each other at all. Look at British history, at Disraeli and Gladstone. Hear what Karl Rove says about most people he shakes hands with, hear what they have to say about him. The noble creates rules within which competition can take place relatively peacefully – no one wants to hurt another if one doesn’t have to; followers and converts are much preferable to enemies (Memorabilia I: 2, 10-11).
I haven’t been shy about talking about how this is always doomed to fall apart, though. A martial metaphor underlying the whole setup will mean that the second the setup can break down, it will. The question is what we should be looking for as a sign of the breaking.
Machiavelli held that up until Caesar, the Roman Senate took care of distribution of land/wealth issues well. They would delay instituting the reform the plebians wanted, but would eventually concede, passing something that had exactly what the plebs wanted but on their own terms, in a different statement than the plebians wanted. Dr. Parens’ lectures on Rousseau (I’m skipping his class as I write this) aren’t shy about citing property as what drives man away from some sort of natural nobility.
For us, then: Is all this talk about subprimes and trade agreements the sign that we are decadent? It’s like there’s no sense of value or tradition whatsoever in the way things are discussed. The candidates’ rhetoric about equality seems similarly empty: they’re tied to proposals that redistribute wealth and mention higher ends in passing, but don’t address what sort of citizens we would like to be ultimately. The proposals don’t offer a sense of “we, as Americans, are there for each other;” rather, it’s more there’s a “problem,” and there are “solutions,” just as a Sudoku puzzle has solutions.
We, of course, don’t want the government getting too nosy, prying into every area of our lives, and constantly calling us to civic duties that are extraordinary. Jury duty is annoying enough as is. But the distance we want the government to have we want on principle: since government is composed of each of us, we want each of us to be aware and respectful of our privacy. If we just say “I don’t care why government bother me, just that it doesn’t bother me,” then Saddam’s Iraq will do for us – its main concern was that it alone survived, and it literally didn’t care for its own people.
I’ve “answered” my own question in setting it up: economic issues matter. They matter immensely. But the principle that underlies them is what is crucial, because only the “noble” can allowed to be where competition happens politically. When people are using politics to compete for wealth only, then politics is nothing but class warfare with no sense of how society can preserve itself. It isn’t “having everything” that’s the definition of tyranny; what is tyranny is thinking that “having everything” and everyone else having nothing and basking in one’s splendor is a good thing. To remind us yet again: at a very base level, wealth isn’t beautiful, nor are the things it buys necessarily.