The politics of truth: A manifesto

We live in undeniably dark times. News headlines of death and despair abound. In such a climate, politics is hardly seen as our salvation. Indeed, politics is seen by many as the problem. One reason given for the decay of our political institutions is that politicians lie. The phrase ‘fake news’ also abounds news headlines (with no small dose of irony), and politics is seen as the root and stem of this fakery. The words ‘politics’ and ‘truth’ are rarely seen together. Instead of diagnosing the true ills of our time, which I have gestured towards previously, I would like to detail a positive alternative to the politics of false knowledge. I would like to give you a manifesto for a new kind of politics: the politics of truth. Here goes.

The ancient philosopher Socrates, Plato’s teacher, who died for the cause of bringing truth to politics. (La Mort de Socrate, painted by Jacques-Louis David)

There are three definitions of politics that I would like to consider. One definition is given by English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes; the other two are given by ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. I’d like to consider each definition in turn, before showing how the three definitions can be put together.

For Hobbes, politics is about one simple aim: survival. Human beings have brittle, breakable bodies. We are subject not just to disease and age but also to the potential violence inflicted on us by other animals – including other people, other human beings (who Aristotle called ‘political animals’). Hobbes doesn’t have an answer to the problems of disease and ageing, but he does have an answer to the problem of violence among people. Hobbes’ answer is politics. Hobbesian politics is about building a state powerful enough to keep people from killing each other. The state does this by possessing, as sociologist Max Weber put it, a ‘monopoly’ over the means of ‘legitimate violence’. That means that the state possesses enough weapons, in a way that is acceptable to citizens, to threaten any citizen who wrongfully injures or kills another citizen with some form of corporeal punishment, from prison to (as is still allowed in some countries) the death penalty.

The state, that is to say, minimises deaths by threatening death – or, at least, minimises violence among citizens by threatening any citizen that commits violence against another citizen with some level of violence, or physical punishment (arguably, imprisoning someone is a limited form of violence, insofar as it restricts bodily movement to a given radius, albeit legitimate violence if it is done to protect other citizens, who accept this punishment as legitimate). Hobbesian politics is about survival. Politics helps more of us survive than would be able to survive without politics. The survival imperative is the one political truth that Hobbes unerringly accepts. To protect survival, Hobbes demands a politics of order built around the modern state.

For Plato, politics is not primarily about survival but rather about the pursuit of ‘the Good’. The Good, for Plato, is that towards which we all ought to aim. The Good applies differently to different situations. A good painter behaves differently from a good politician. But both must take the Good as their aim, rather than some more particular aim like money, or status. For Plato, the philosopher, who possesses wisdom, is best-placed to orient their lives to the pursuit of the Good. To make politics good, philosophers must go into politics, or else political leaders must become philosophers. Politics, for Plato, is about doing what is good. Because the Good applies to all people and all situations, a politics of goodness is a politics for all. The good of all is the aim of Plato’s politics.

Therefore, Plato suggests that a good state attends to the needs of all the different ‘classes’ within it, of which Plato names three: producers, auxiliaries, and guardians – or, in modern parlance: workers, soldiers, and philosophers. Guardians or philosophers must rule, for Plato, since only they possess the wisdom needed to take into account everyone’s needs. Plato, like Hobbes, thinks the state should be quite centralised. The reason is that Plato takes politics to be about one aim in particular. Hobbes’ aim—survival—is very concrete. Plato’s aim—goodness—is very abstract. Both aims are, nonetheless, quite particular. They demand an orientation of politics to an end outside of itself. They don’t want politics to be, well, politics. They want to subject politics to either material needs, as in Hobbes’s case, or moral imperatives, as in Plato’s case. Plato does, however, suggest that the material needs of workers and soldiers must be balanced by the ruling philosophers oriented towards the good of all. Plato therefore hints at a third condition of politics, besides survival and goodness: balance.

Plato’s student, Aristotle, developed this intuition further than Plato did. Aristotle first agreed with Plato on the imperative to balance the needs of all the classes in the city—which for Aristotle included the poor, the rich, and the ‘middling sort’. (Sadly, Aristotle thought a slave class needed to underpin the whole edifice more-or-less in perpetuity—an argument we modern people, quite rightly, reject outright. We do this thanks in part to the role industrial technology plays in substituting for labour in the modern world, and also due to the fact that Aristotle’s argument for slavery makes no logical or moral sense whatsoever.) But Aristotle thought the way this had to work was through allowing all citizens, not just philosophers, to participate in political decision-making. Plato rejected democracy outright because of his subjection of politics to the pursuit of the Good, which only those educated in philosophy could reliably access. Aristotle thought Plato’s philosophical aristocracy, led by a monarchical ‘philosopher-king’, had to be combined with democracy. Aristotle therefore embraced a more balanced constitution than either Plato or Hobbes were willing to accept.

For Aristotle, politics must be oriented towards the ‘golden mean’ – a kind of balance between extremes of excess and deficiency. So, Aristotle thought neither the rich nor the poor should rule, but the middling sort, in coalition with the other classes. Aristotle, while agreeing with Plato that a benevolent philosophical monarchy is the best constitution, also argued that monarchy can be the worst constitution when the monarch becomes a tyrant who looks after their own needs. Plato, as it happens, also thought tyranny to be the worst regime, and both Aristotle and Plato recommend philosophical training to orient rulers towards the good of all—which is closest to Plato’s Good than the good of the particular individual or class which happens to be ruling.

But Aristotle added another condition, besides goodness, to the ideal of politics: balance. Aristocracy, monarchy, and democracy must not only be oriented towards goodness but also balanced with one another, in a ‘mixed constitution’. This prevents any one class from taking over the state and tying the welfare of the state to the welfare of a handful of individuals. Balance is a pragmatic way of spreading risks, as well as a moral way of unifying the city around the good of all. 

Aristotle argued that a further balance must be struck between survival, on the one hand, and goodness, on the other hand. While a state comes into being for the sake of ‘bare life’, Aristotle argued, it persists in order to sustain the good life. Balance permeated Aristotle’s thought, since balance is necessary not just to help the city survive but also to allow citizens to live a good life. Aristotle defined virtue as moderation, finding the ‘golden mean’ between the vices of excess and deficiency. If Plato thought contemplation of the Good was the key to politics, Aristotle thought moderation in action and thought was key. Perhaps there is a further, deeper balance to be struck: between the conceptions of politics in Hobbes, Plato, and Aristotle – between, in other words, the political aims of survival, goodness, and balance.

Politics is too often subordinated to one of these three aims, or a pale imitation of them. People can easily confuse survival with the futile search for vengeance, or perhaps confuse goodness with what people happen to like rather than what is actually right. We might also confuse balance with endless compromise and a failure to make decisions at the right time. One remedy to this confusion is to clarify the meaning of the terms ‘survival’, ‘balance’, and ‘goodness’, as I have tried to do in this piece. A further remedy to the unbalanced politics of falsity is to develop a balanced politics of truth. When we unify the aims of survival, balance, and goodness with one another, we develop a vision of politics that is more truthful to what politics should be than what it currently, sadly, has sunken to. Here’s an alternative:

The politics of truth (politics for all):

  1. Survival (Hobbes);
  2. Goodness (Plato); and
  3. Balance (Aristotle).

To elevate politics to the level of truth, we need to balance right with might: we need, in other words, to balance the pursuit of survival with the pursuit of goodness, as well as different people’s conceptions of what counts as ‘good’ and what we need to do to survive. False politics attends to either false visions of survival, balance, and goodness – or, else, pursues one of these aims instead of all of them. True politics means unifying the state around the aims of survival, balance, and goodness. In this piece, I have tried to argue for a deep balance among the politics aims of survival, balance, and goodness. A deep politics of unity and balance is a politics of truth – politics for all. Let us begin. 

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