Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Our Ancient Happy Family

The most striking thing to me in my first serious read-through of Aristotle's Politics comes at the very beginning where Aristotle claims the origin of civil government is the family.  For Aristotle, families are comprised of the rulers and the ruled (just as each individual has within himself an element of ruling and being ruled or sovereignty and submission).  Husbands rule the household and wives obey them (here there may be a fair amount of misogyny in his description of women and wives).  Children are subject to the parents, especially the father.  Slaves are subject to the household manager (whichever parent happens to be holding that role).  He then notes how recognizable governments came to be.  Families grew in the number of children and those children grew into adults and started families of their own.  These families stayed within a fairly close distance, forming a village.  As space came to a premium, villages continued to grow in size until they became a collection of villages--towns and then cities.  Cities achieved what Aristotle considered full political statehood: the polis.  When cities connect themselves together under greater rulers, they became full-fledged nations.  Everything Aristotle writes in books 2-9 of Politics is based on that foundation.  The family is a microcosm of the state, whether we are considering villages, local communities, city-states, or grand empires.

The Old Testament/Hebrew Bible offers a similar account.  As we are reminded at weddings, God's first institution is not the church or the state or the charity or the bridge club but the marriage.  Adam and Eve constitute a divinely-ordained covenant.  Dysfunction going forward in the biblical narrative is often traced back to "sins of the father".  Jacob, Isaac and Rebekkah, Abraham, Noah, and most ultimately Adam are directly or indirectly responsible for contention in the narrative of Genesis (and arguably the rest of the biblical narrative).  So the problems between men both personally and in society are in some fashion a fault of the father.  Aaron's failure to properly train his sons Nadab and Abihu as priests lead to their deaths in one of the few narrative sections of Leviticus.  Another very dramatic example is the story of David.  In the wake of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, God curses him with strife in his family.  And while much ink has been spilled on the lust of David, much less has followed his shocking passivity as Amnon and Absalom commit atrocious sins.  This culminates in an Israelite civil war as Absalom cultivates latent resentment against the king into a war of usurpation.  David's famous lament for his son in 2 Samuel 18 is the culmination of his failures as a general and king, but at least as importantly his failures as a husband and father:

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

The New Testament carries this theme forward.  One of the most scandalous things Jesus does in the Gospels is refer to Yahweh as "Father" and himself as the Son of God.  In some ways this can be seen as a political statement as well as a statement of love, since in Genesis the notion of sovereignty begins with Yahweh's sovereignty over the creation he spoke into being from nothing.  Jesus is often called "lord" or "master" in the Gospels, translated in English Bibles from the Greek κύριος.  In Greek, this word can be used as a polite term for a teacher or social superior.  However, it is also the word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the Hebrew יהוה ("Yahweh", usually rendered in English Bibles as "the LORD").  As Christian writers continue forward, they describe Jesus as "Lord" and attribute to him both the traditional Greek political connotations and the Hebrew divine sense of the term.  Jesus is also identified as the "Christ" or "Messiah", Greek and Hebrew words meaning "anointed one" and used exclusively in reference to reigning kings (thus David and Solomon are rightly understood as lesser "messiahs").  The reign of Jesus as "king of kings" is a political image... and a familial one.

The Apostles are no exception to entwining the family and the community.  Paul instructs families in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians.  Paul also considers government officials as executors of God's will and ruling with divinely-delegated authority in Romans 13.  Peter gives similar instructions in 1 Peter as a part of his general instructions to submit to all authority.  The author of Hebrews compares a Christian's relationship to God as one of a father disciplining his children (just as Jesus does in the Gospels).  The authors of the epistles (particularly John) do not favor the term "Christian" for one another; they (gender-inclusively) use "brothers" or "brethren".  This is a clear and over-ridding use of family language for the much larger institution that is the Church.  In light of this evidence, Jews and Christians alike ought to see something quite familiar and even agreeable in Aristotle's depiction of politics.

In contrast, some of the American Founders, particularly those taking their cues from John Locke like as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, see the state as a necessary evil above all else.  After all, Locke's account for political origins in his Second Treatise seems a bit less cuddly.  Rational, free individuals lived in a state of nature perfect harmony and respect.  Everyone only ever used what they could enjoy.  Resources were limited enough that a free individual's reach could rarely exceed their grasp.  It was only with the introduction of money that things started to get chaotic, developing into a state of war where strife for scarce resources threatened the life, liberty, and property of all.  So the most intelligent and hardworking individuals arranged a contractual system by which all people would surrender some of their individual sovereignty to an authority figure.  They must obey this figure so long as he asked reasonably of them and defended their life, liberty, and property.  So really, government is something we had to invent because "if men were angels, no government would be necessary."  We are not governed nor governors by nature, only by necessity.

Modern attitudes towards politics tend to be informed by this mentality whether or not anyone is cognizant of Locke's myth.  Most Americans are fairly negative in their appraisal of the political process and politicians, more so with each passing year.  We "just know" that every politician is corrupt even if we have zero evidence to substantiate that belief.  Government solutions are either inadequate or too modest in scope.  We don't trust our representatives to tell us the truth.  And while we recognize the necessity of making some individuals unequal in their authority, we also refuse to surrender to their assurances that they know what's best for us.  No one knows what's best for us better than we free individuals!

I am by no means suggesting that politicians need less accountability or that we need more government programs.  I am instead saying that maybe our outright negativity toward politics and government is wrong and destructive, especially if we view our fellow citizens and countrymen as brothers and sisters in a temporary and ever-uncertain life.  Maybe we could learn to appreciate the political process and return to a civic virtue that takes our role as citizens seriously.  Libertarians (who buy Locke almost wholesale) would have us believe that the best bulwark against tyranny is less government.  But I rather agree with Aristotle who said, in light of our family-city, "Man is a political animal."  Politics isn't a nasty thing like excreting or bathing that we do because we have to.  Man is the only animal to arrange himself in a group, to rule and be ruled.  Maybe politics is part of what makes us human.

In fourth-grade I was given a citizenship award by my teacher.  I had no idea what this meant then.  Reflecting back, it's sad that I didn't.  Aristotle's point about genuine concern for our fellowmen--both body and soul--through political action is the very basis of any free republic.  Ignore the economist, the pundit, the cynic who would have you believe that some abstract state always expands into tyranny.  The liberals are right to note that the state only expands where free citizens fail.  Now I understand and am honored by that flimsy piece of paper I lost a long time ago.  The best bulwark against tyranny isn't less government, it's better citizens.  Citizens who care about other citizens, citizens who use what they have to help out others whether through tax dollars or moral oversight or bodies in the army or even out of their own pockets, citizens who are truly "other-centric" are the worst enemy of any potential tyrant.


  1. I like this post.

    Between a few sermons and personal readings, I have begun trying to examine authority not as a matter of superiority (in a qualitative sense), but as a natural structure. After all, God the Father has authority over the Son (evidenced in John chapters 5 and 17, among others), but Jesus does not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped (Philippians 2:6); even in the Divine Godhead, Three in One, there is still a structure and an authority, even though none is qualitatively superior to any other therein.

    So in the same way, a husband is not qualitatively superior to his wife, though he is placed in authority over her as the head of the household (1 Corinthians 7; Ephesians 5; Colossians 3; 1 Peter 3). And in the same way, a political figure is not qualitatively superior to his people (no matter what certain kings might have said about it), but he is placed in authority to rule for the benefit of the people.

    All that said, I completely disagree with Locke: if men were angels, we would still have a hierarchy, just as the angels do (hence the term "archangels," or literally, "beginning-messengers," or more accurately, "leader-messengers"). But then, my disagreeing with Locke is nothing new.

  2. "The best bulwark against tyranny isn't less government, it's better citizens."

    Beautiful, baby! Love it.