THE RETREAT FROM POLITICS
R. J. Rowan
Delivered to the Vancouver Institute – January 31, 1970
I am far from supposing that I’m the first or will be the last to suffer the special embarrassment which I presently feel. Putting it simply, I’m suffering from the syndrome which one might call “being stuck with a title”. Titles are things which ought always to be settled after the sentences have been written, and I freely offer that bit of advice to all who have the sense to heed it. I speak of the matter because titles are constraining things, and the one which I chose, months ago, has placed a bit more constraint on my thinking than I wanted or anticipated. Some of that may show. It may also mislead, since in talking of the retreat from politics I don’t want to create the impression that little else goes on in the world, or that the retreat outweighs in importance other developments. Neither plainly is the case: much else goes on in the world, including lately what seems to be a strong motion towards politics, at least on our part of the globe.
But in registering this discomfort I don’t want to give up on the title either. Thinking of the retreat, if there is one, and its forms, if it has any, might provide perspective. It might allow us to get a somewhat better picture of the pervasive, yet confusing, range of public activity in which we are, willy-nilly, caught up, seldom with any clear intention, and apparently with only very limited control. But more than that, much is wrongly claimed to be political, or to be engagement in politics. Nor have all the retreats from it been recent. Not at all. Some are very old and still well received, though often not recognized for what they are. There may even be some forms of activity which, while appearing to constitute retreat, in fact do not. I can think of at least one such possible case, that of Socrates, but of him, more later.
What is to be viewed as retreat from politics or as engagement in it will, of course, be largely determined by how we understand politics itself. If, for example, it is seen as the complex range of activities by which is determined “who gets what, where, when, how”, as has been seriously suggested and widely entertained, then there can be little retreat from it of any kind. Because “getting”, taken at its most primitive, is just not the kind of thing that human animals can avoid doing. The process is inescapable and ubiquitous. Engagement in that process, now called “politics”, will take countless forms and all will be engaged in it in their way and degree, though no doubt some pervasive patterns of getting will be more worth noting that others. Matters will be determined by a combination of factors, varying constantly: accident, energy, aspiration or the lack of it, intelligence, articulateness, and so forth.
That kind of formulation implicitly assumes that the ends of politics are largely independent of it, they lie in front of it or beyond it, and these ends are given by the kinds of getting which, for whatever reasons, humans are actually engaged in, and by whatever means. On this view then, politics is but the grandest level of the process of acquisition, and reduces itself finally to the problem of instruments, of tools or means, taken in the broadest sense.
Now I’ll bet that most of you already suspect that I am not satisfied with such a formulation. And you’re right. I think it inadequate, no matter how much it is refined or qualified. And I therefore suggest that we shift gears radically, from forward into reverse, or from reverse into forward, depending on which direction one thinks we’re already traveling. In either case there will be a jolt, but I hope that the shift I propose is from reverse into forward. However, I shan’t stop here to argue the point, since it’s the proposed shift itself which I’m asking us to consider.
Therefore, I will suggest we think along these lines for a moment: that, to a very significant degree, retreat from politics is only the highest form of our common resistance to maturity, to adulthood. Such resistance can be seen in each of us as individuals to some degree, and is apparent in varying degrees in all forms of our public life. It could be viewed as resistance to maturity if we were to acknowledge that politics is not centrally concerned with happiness at all, in the normal sense of the term. Yet a consuming concern with happiness and the acquisition of whatever things are claimed to produce it, a regular pre-occupation with one’s position on the ladder of felicity, is, altogether naturally, a mark of childhood, or of the childlike if mainly persisted in beyond the expected years of immaturity. On this view, politics would not mainly be defended or understood in terms of the process of acquisition, and would not be reduced or reducible to the problem of instruments, tools or means.
Now there certainly are many things worse than happiness. Surprisingly, however, unhappiness is not necessarily one of those things. Oh, of course, if all other things were equal then unhappiness would indeed be worse than happiness. But other things are so seldom equal as scarcely to be worth our attention. Therefore, the things that are steadily worse than unhappiness just are of the sort that Socrates long ago tried to get us to recognize: injustice, intemperance, cowardice, folly, ignorance, and the like. Those are traits of all of us to some degree, but more specifically and habitually they are the traits of those of us who refuse to grow up. And politics, on this account, would then be only the general name for those habits and dispositions, those rules and procedures, and those values which, in embracing institutional form, both promote and express the collective intention towards human adulthood.
To put it mildly, this account is somewhat strange. It is opposed to what we have led ourselves to believe about politics. The common view is not unlike the earlier one rejected. We see politics, political life and activity, the state itself, as but a necessary evil in a world already too-full of necessity, and whenever we can get by with less of it the world is both spiritually, and probably materially, better off. The state, so we believe, is an instrumental good, a means to further ends, a not-easily-managed, and not-highly-satisfactory tool in the service of other, more immediate and more substantial values. If we could attain the objects we want without politics, we would be glad to abandon it. Thus we largely view even our own politics, to say nothing of the worse politics of others, with frustration and distaste, with suspicion and varying degrees of disrespect.
In holding this attitude we seriously short-change ourselves, I think, since we thereby fail to note that politics, itself, constitutes perhaps the supreme achievement of man….at any rate, it surely stands on a par with, say, art and reason as unique fulfillments of human potential. I realize this is strong talk, but I don’t want to back away from it. I would, however, like to guard against some possible misinterpretations of what I’ve said. One possible misinterpretation would be that I’m against human happiness and that I don’t see political organization as having an immense contribution to make to it. That is very far from my mind, since, as a matter of fact, I have a healthy respect for happiness, including my own, and am deeply impressed, if not in actual awe, when I find a mature person who has achieved or seems on the way to achieving it. Without cynicism I must say, unhappily, that those occasions have been rare.
More than that, I have long believed that the organization of human energy, morality and intelligence under the unique authority of the laws, tribunals and deliberative forms of civil politics, far outstrips all other modes in its potential to deal efficiently with the general problems which produce the normal varieties of human misery. In short, I believe in something like the welfare state and all that makes it possible. I also believe in all that it requires to make it work, but I shan’t here go into the conditions which we would attach to that statement.
Having, I hope, guarded against that misinterpretation, I would like to return to the theme of maturity and happiness, and the retreat from politics. What I’m trying to bring out is that we inevitably and necessarily retreat if we understand the value of politics as being exclusively or even mainly instrumental to happiness. For we then fail to comprehend its own unique virtues which are precious independently of any other good things they make possible. Those virtues are expressed by terms like “civility”, “lawful”, “reasonable”, “deliberative”, “justice”, “public good”, “equal protection of the law”, “statesmanlike”, “citizen”, “due process”, “fairness”, and even “loyalty”. These are the virtues and values of humans as political, fulfilling another facet of their nature, not because it leads to any other acquisition or to any other goal; and not even because it makes them happy in any ordinary sense of the term, but simply because to do it is to express what it is to be truly human, and because it is one of the prime ways of being truly humane.
In our tradition, at least, the Greeks receive credit for coming to understand this first, though even they lost sight of it. It has been lost and rediscovered countless times since. It represents an achievement, a high and precious form of self-consciousness, which need not be constantly in the center of one’s attention, but which should be readily available in the service of judgment, shaping and giving meaning to a citizen’s identity.
I said this form of political self-consciousness is constantly being lost and re-discovered, though I also think that our understanding of other valuable human activities, with their intellectual and moral virtues, also gets lost and has to be re-discovered. There is similarity in the pattern. For example, art and its creation can come to be viewed in instrumental, even grossly instrumental terms. I suppose financial considerations, on the one hand, and sectarian or partisan obsessions, on the other, are most likely to obscure the intrinsic virtues in the realm of art for us, to blind us to its values, taken simply and ultimately for themselves. And also to render us unconscious of the fact that responding to these things in their own appropriate terms, and heeding the standards of discipline which their creation demands is, in itself, a mark of humanity, and of maturity in that realm of human nature.
So, likewise, with the life of “reason”, taken now in a restricted sense. The natural sciences or mathematics might be taken as among our most impressive achievements, and clearly exhibit the power of human reason in high degree. These disciplines rest on, but also elicit and nurture, intellectual and moral capacities of the most valuable kind. More apt to be celebrated, however, is their ability to allow us to drain the swamps, cure disease, and to build remarkable machines. In short, they give us enormous power.
The temptations of power are well-known: so well-known, in fact, that we pay little heed to them, individually or collectively. Nowhere is that temptation more regularly succumbed to these days than in the realm of the natural sciences, where we have positively enshrined the god of power – technical mastery – driving from the temple as we did so humbler but not less worthy gods.
But those who seek and assert power solely or mainly suffer a special kind of corruption, as Lord Acton observed; and rarely is the corruption confined to them alone. Further, I would claim that the powers conferred upon us by natural scientific and mathematical virtuosity, though not merely incidental, are still not the essence of the life of reason. Neither natural science nor mathematics are wisely appreciated, understood, or engaged in primarily for their instrumental values. They are, as art is, and politics will always be, basic ways of being, of living, of creating and bestowing distinctly human meaning on life – on the activities of the otherwise poor, bare, forked creatures that we are. It is a mark of civilization, of human maturity to see them in that light. And the same can be said, in general, of many other characteristic human activities.
There is something else about politics that make disrespect for it and retreat from it easy. It is that we don’t truly appreciate how difficult are the tasks it faces, how complex the relationships with which it deals, and how recalcitrant to order and rule the materials with which it works. On the whole, it does not naturally enlist and discipline the myriad energies and interests with which it has to deal, or to put it the other way, humans do not easily or constantly enlist their energies and interests under its banner. Politics is, it seems to me – to maintain the comparison – far less “natural” to the species than are even the natural sciences, mathematics or art. As testimony to that fact, men have regularly acknowledged something conventional, artificial and contrived in political organization, and in the habits of mind and traits of character which are demanded and must be subordinated to its demands. That can be said despite Aristotle’s oft-quoted but oft-misunderstood words that “man is by nature a political animal”. What he means, I think, is not that men are equipped by nature with the habits, inclinations, dispositions and disciplines which political life requires, but rather that if man is to achieve or fulfill his nature, is fully to realize himself, then he must become political, and live within a set of authoritative civil institutions which he has made his own.
Now to create and assert mere relationships of power, one man over another, is natural enough. Or to turn civil authority to private, exploitive and oppressive ends is also natural enough. All that is only natural. It is, if you will, merely to continue to wage war using other and more complex instruments; the basic disposition is the same. Man’s disposition towards war and his capacity to wage it may be extended, refined and harnessed, but it need not be created. It is, again if you will, given.
Thus when we talk about politics, we shouldn’t merely mean the creation and distribution of power. We should mean civil authority directed to something like the common good. Creating that authority and directing it with fair consistency to something resembling the common good calls upon a body of citizens, rulers and ruled alike, who possess a special, and specially nurtured, set of habits, capacities and values. These are so much the product of artifice, convention and contrivance that the most we can ever hope to claim forthem is that they are oursecond nature.
This second nature cannot be altogether opposed – but is nonetheless sufficiently opposed – to our first nature as to make the measure of our political success forever and always marginal. As Freud describes us, we are always doomed to be in a state of profound tension which allows us, even in the best of our times, only an uneasy equilibrium. Moreover, the task of eliciting and nurturing this second nature starts over anew each day, since we adults are all notorious backsliders, and the steady stream of new generations is always there requiring initiation into this cultural enterprise. The task of civilization, in short, is never complete, never completed, and of nothing in civilization does that hold with greater force than this business of being political.
That can be said, and should be said, even if on other counts of civilization we were, miraculously, to achieve something like total success…..even if our art were to become consummate, and we were to drain every swamp, cure every disease, and build any remarkable machine we need or desire. Which is, perhaps, only a cumbersome way of saying that politics consists in the effort of humans to live with and govern themselves. Entering into the project of governing ourselves together with others does not come naturally or easily to us. One fervently hopes that the project will not necessitate unhappiness, but to avoid it because of that possibility is to retreat from the challenge. The other challenges – draining the swamps, carrying on the pursuit of knowledge, creating art, and all the rest – are but the natural occasions allowing, indeed requiring the political enterprise. Deliberation, justice, fairness and wisdom, to name only the most obvious, are the unique qualities which may or may not attend those occasions. They are, together with other traits, those which convert them into the political, and should provide the ultimate standards by which political success is judged. Our capacity to steadily seek and be guided by those standards is the measure of our maturity as civilized beings. If or when we retreat from politics we should not hide from ourselves or others just what it is we are forsaking, and what it represents. We would not merely be reducing the focus of our aspiration for happiness, or the things related to it, or be merely seeking it in another direction. We would be, in no small measure, turning our backs on a unique range of human experience and achievement, which if not appreciated on its own, non-ulterior, terms, is not really appreciated at all; and in which, not paradoxically, participation is a condition for its full appreciation.
This is all very heavy. Are there to be no political holidays? Times when we can relax from this serious business and our consciousness of it? Times when we can be carefree and harmlessly irresponsible? Times when we can put off our public role, as citizens, and take easy satisfaction in things, and in our private lives and happiness? Of course there are; and of course there should be. But those do not make up retreat; they are rests or holidays. And they will be most valuable and enjoyable just in case they do not turn into retreat from public life. More than that, they will be most successful just in case the quality of our public life is good. If it is not, then our investment in the private realm will be usually forced out of all proportion. It will tend to take on such significance that the burden will strain and break down the capacity of the private realm to provide what it should.
Holidays are, properly considered, something that occurs against a background of productive work.
“Well then, could you tell us about the retreat from politics more specifically? Could you describe some of its specific forms?” I can try. Some of them are at least implicit in what I’ve already said. For example, there can be a retreat from politics into art. Seeking and creating beauty is a fine thing and needs no justification, only encouragement. But to begin to believe that beauty is the center and its standard is exhaustive is to retreat from the public realm. And the temptation for many to begin to do that is very great. Beauty is no substitute for justice, and the gallery, theater or concert hall is no substitute for the parliament.
The pursuit of knowledge, good in itself, can nonetheless be a retreat from politics, for the true or even the real is not the same as the wise or the just. Natural law is not the same as human law: one is an object of natural law, but one is a subject of human law. The laboratory or library is no substitute for the court, neither in the short nor the long run. Social science research into human behavior is no substitute for human deliberation. Citizens must choose or decide what they are going to do and why. They will have given up the political endeavor altogether the moment they confuse deciding with predicting.
The seeking and utilization of power can be a retreat from politics. Thus, in our day, technology and even more so technocracy offer great temptations. We even hear “human engineering” offered as the way out of our tangle, but those who offer it confuse manipulation with governing, power with authority, education with indoctrination, and cause with reason.
The list, on that not altogether academic level, might be expanded; but there is not great mileage to be gained in doing so. There is, however, another, more immediate or obvious level, on which we can discern the retreat from politics. Consider the retreat as it appears dramatically in some of the youth. I said “some of the youth”. With regard to them, the word “retreat” is a bit too strong, since for quite sufficient reasons they have never been fully engaged, indeed it hasn’t been a real option. Their appreciation and understanding of that which they claim to reject is bound in the nature of things to be based largely on hearsay, and an incapacity, unavoidable in the youth, to see things steadily and see them whole. They are by no means alone on that score as I shall try to establish in a moment. Nonetheless, what we see in some of the youth is worth noting, if for no other reason than to help us avoid imitating it. There is, for example, a disturbing disposition to view society, even a comparatively mild one like ours, as a kind of battlefield, to which are appropriate the traits of war, if not yet its actions. Thus one meets a deep and indiscriminate hostility, a truculent righteousness, a militant, impatient, and thoughtless insistence on goals which neither evidence nor argument indicate are quickly achievable under any circumstances. Less warlike, but not less dramatic and disturbing, is simple rudeness, sometimes an intentional flouting of even the most minimal respect for authority and the uses of civility, and an astonishing, breathtaking self-centeredness, as though the world, its ways and reasons, had no place or right….that it all began or is going to begin, by god, with them, from scratch if necessary.
All this belies deep disrespect for the opinion and condition of others who disagree with them, and it is still disrespect no matter in what language of high moral purpose it is masked. It is a mindless form of action which is not basically political at all. And it leads to enmity inescapably, which in its turn leads to the strangest alliances. Thus we see a puzzling, growing sense of fraternity between some of the youth and an indiscriminate assortment of the plainly anti-social and violent, ordinary criminals or prisoners. Now I am aware of the old and almost respectable North American adulation of gangsters, but I don’t think this recent phenomenon should be confused with that. America’s love affair with gangsters might be explained by some combination of romanticism and cynicism, but this one seems to require for its explanation a warped sense of individual integrity and freedom, and a perverse sense of shared purpose and value. The childishness of that sense of fraternity, and the pathetic but dangerous concept of identity which it reveals must be labeled for what it is, even if we acknowledge, as I am largely prepared to do, that in some real sense those anti-social and violent elements are victims, evidence of our public failure. That they are, themselves, now prepared to victimize in their turn, changes nothing in that admission of our failure or in our collective responsibility for it. It provides only its sad, but predictable, last chapter. There may be some political prisoners in our society, and there may have been some genuine political crimes, (there may be more of both), but no indiscriminate assortment of the anti-social and violent should be confused with them. Nor should anyone mistake the victim for the cure, or bemuse himself that in the victims vices can be seen a higher form of virtue after all.
Now there are times when militancy and even certain kinds of disrespect are necessary; times when society and law have become so sluggish and oppressive they can only be destroyed. But those times and attitudes mark the limit of politics, they are not merely other political forms, and we should make no mistake about that. Negotiation is not the same as deliberation, and confrontation is not the same as gathering in a forum, since there is no shared purpose and usually not even a shared value. The delivering of ultimata is not the framing of legislation. Such phenomena can never serve well for long, thus even the militant will be faced with rediscovering the lessons so often lost, of which I have spoken, and faced also with the heartbreaking, frustrating task of creating the same old institutions of civility which any society worth living in must shortly display. They will have to re-discover politics, and it will be a shock to them when they do so.
Then there is a pacific wing of the retreat from politics, again most evident in some of the youth, but never confined to them alone, then or now. In this wing one usually finds a gentle, a sentimental anarchism. The rule of “live and let live” is often there taken as something like the highest attainable form of wisdom and morality. The retreat can be literal as in the case of the rural or wilderness enclaves. Drugs, too, are or may be a form of the retreat, especially when they are naively taken to be capable of providing the cornerstone of a way of life, as providing a substitute for reason and deliberation, and as magically creating unity out of diversity. But we have all heard so much about drugs that I certainly want to say no more about them. I suggest, in fact, that we all mutually agree to a one-year vow of silence on the subject.
There is one contemporary feature of life, most notable perhaps in many of the youth, that is worth special comment. It is the generally hospitable attitude towards religion, whether in its historically recognized major forms or otherwise. That is not only interesting, it is, in degree at least, new. One suspects that even a few years ago, say 25 years ago, many of these same youth would not have been so open to religion. Many would have been mainly and genuinely indifferent to it, and others would have flatly rejected its claims to meaning and utility.
As it stands, much of this religious turn is little more than a sentimental search for personal salvation. Or so it seems to me. And if I’m correct, then it has to be viewed as retreat from the public and politics to a world that is basically private. I will hazard the guess, however, that that direction and mode is only temporary. It may only be a phase. Perhaps intuition must sometimes serve as guide; the only guide we have sometimes. And perhaps the intuition of those who move in these directions is accurate finally. For it is plausible to argue that in rejecting so much of the culture they normally inherit, including its political life, they have almost instinctively turned to that other great, public, source of human community…religion. Religion has, almost nowhere, ever been essentially a private affair. It has traditionally bound men together in a public realm, a realm of shared purpose and meaning, and one would be rather surprised if the impulse towards it were not again quickly converted from the mere quest for personal salvation into that powerful social bond. When that happens, if it happens, civil life and appreciation of it is probably not far behind. For though we would all support and defend the principle of separation of church and state, a total separation of religion and politics is more easily maintained and understood in the letter of the law than its deeper, public spirit.
Saving the worst for the last, I want to turn now to the more clearly adult retreat from politics. What I will say here is sure to be controversial, and to be that whether understood or misunderstood. For I am talking about US, and I will have failed if we don’t recognize ourselves in the description. Our retreat, is, in fact, “established”, and it’s the only use of the term which has more than merely rhetorical significance. For we adults have convinced ourselves and taught the youth that politics is only a special way of carrying on “business as usual”; as though it were not, at its heart, an extraordinary and arduous challenge to convert ourselves and the usual business with which we are occupied into something most unusual indeed. We have tried to persuade ourselves that politics is merely a special condition, in which we provide an umpire to insure that what we see and accept as the steady competition in a life given to acquisition does not turn into outright war. Our “getting’s” have become clever, and we call that politics.
We have turned respect for the rights of individuals into a silly and shallow cult of individualism. We have turned the forum into a marketplace where men bargain and compromise over their private interests, while claiming that they are reasoning and deliberating on the public good. That should come as no surprise to a people who see the public good as merely some distribution of private goods. What else can one do with the conflict in competition for private goods, except bargain and compromise? We have fouled our own nest, by turning politics into pressure, and law into privilege. No wonder that youthful exuberance and inexperience should harness those devices to a hasty moral fervor and take them to their ugliest extremes. They have had good teachers and sufficient examples of the principle that if you want something then you must go after it, and if what you want is also morally good then what should legitimately stand in your way?
We have used the cries for “law and order” and “respect for authority” far too much to rally the smug, the prejudiced, the selfish, the frightened, the privileged and the insensitive to ignore the screaming outrages which we have either created or which we refuse to use the powerful instruments of public authority to correct. The call for law and order and respect for authority can be an honorable summons: none more so. It reminds us that we have an enormous stake in our state, and that we must solve our problems within some civil structure and by the appropriate and intelligent use of its institutions, or we won’t solve them at all. But few of us have been wholehearted in our civic commitment. We have shied from its meaning and implications. We, too, know how to retreat from its full requirements, we have our own ways. And the devilishness of our retreat is almost marvelous, since we have rationalized it in the concept and language of engagement. If you aren’t getting yours, join a club. If there is no club, form one. That’s the beauty and simplicity of democracy, after all, that’s what it’s all about.
We have turned the media of communications and their potential for education, understanding and community, to say nothing of their potential for genuine entertainment, into mere devices, privately administered for the most part and for private profit, which they reap by catering to, and creating a need for private distraction. We allow them steadily to corrupt the quality of the public mind, and defend our doing so by a mockery of the language of freedom. We claim to be showing respect for the integrity of individuals, while we treat the whole social fabric as but another field for our private exploitation. And, finally, we systematically debase the root coin of the mind, language, by turning it also into but another instrument in the service of whatever it is we happen to be about. Words lose meaning, and not accidentally, since we use them steadily in the service of mere persuasion, to milk, bilk, cajole, deceive and manipulate. We are such masters of the art of making the worse appear the better, that we can no longer believe anyone, not even ourselves. And when that happens we are in a fix, for as Aristotle pointed out: “when water chokes, what’s to wash it down?”
All this is a strong and perhaps upsetting indictment. No doubt, it’s somewhat excessive, at least in tone. In the main, however, I think it’s both true and relevant. It is the form of our retreat. But I’d like to conclude on a rather different note.
I mentioned Socrates earlier on, and suggested that his is an interesting and maybe puzzling case. Socrates was a public man, a man of the city, a political man in the deepest yet unusual sense. Yet he was also an individual, a maddening and powerful source of creativity, spontaneity, single-mindedness, intelligence and scope. And the magic of him is in the way in which he combined these and the devotion with which he did so.
He lived at a bad time. Athens was in dire trouble from which it never recovered. Its will, its unity, and the vitality of its public life and political institutions was not strong or steady. In fact, it was suffering from a deep corruption, a failure of nerve, and a loss of purpose. The temptations to retreat from it were immense. All kinds of distractions could be found and were. It was a time not altogether unlike our own, and for many of the same reasons.
Socrates was quite aware of this. Indeed, he probably understood it, and its causes, better than many of his time. But he refused to retreat from it, not even when it meant that a confused and hasty use, and also a vicious, partisan use, of its legal machinery would sentence him to die, in the mistaken belief that he was Athens’ betrayer. He maintained, physically and spiritually, in his words and by his person, that retreat from the life of our city is retreat from our maturity – retreat from our human adulthood.
Few men have the gifts that Socrates had. It is unusual to meet such an integrated combination of ideas and character, of intelligence and presence, as he managed somehow to create in himself. We would be fools to try to take on ourselves anything like the large role which only a person of that stature could fulfill. But we lesser ones can at least understand what he was about, and while scaling down the model to the appropriate size, keep it in the back of our minds as we go about our main business, the business of governing ourselves together.
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