Politics and Persons

Elshtain, JB The Journal of Religion, Vol. 86, No. 3. (Jul., 2006), pp. 402-411.

The author discusses the role of politics in human activities. She explores several views on politics. She looks at the political interpretations of notable political thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle. She traces the historical origins of the denial of human nature. She stresses that people are beings who can be called to high purpose and claimed by low desire.

From the article: To our ancient, medieval, and early modern forebears, the idea that one might construct a vision of politics without making necessary reference to the subject of politics—the human being in his or her capacity as citizen or subject—would have been a source of amazement. From Plato on, political philosophers linked the well-being and justice of the citizen to the well-being and justice of the state, or, alternatively, they made arguments against such a linkage. Some saw politics as the way human beings (usually the male citizen) completed and fulfilled their natures. Others construed politics as the means whereby certain natural human dispositions and drives were curbed, quelled, or transformed lest human beings descended to, or remained in, a horrible state of nature—portrayed most vividly in the lurid prose of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, chapter 13, published originally in 1651.

In recent years, however, it has become the trendy thing to deny the reality of a human nature altogether. This argument holds that what we call human nature is more or less arbitrary and is specific to a cultural moment. What we call human nature is “constructed,” we are told, and there is nothing “natural” about it for there is nothing “natural” at all. The “natural” no less than the “conventional” or “cultural” is a human invention and a class of names by which we denote certain of our own constructed “realities.” Philosophers would call this radical nominalism. For the purpose of this discussion, we can just note this tendency, remark on how extreme it is and the way it throws out both baby and bathwater where the centuries-old consideration of persons and politics is concerned. Over the course of his brilliant career, Don Browning has moved closer to the classical formulations on “nature” and the centrality of nature to culture.

One reason for repudiating any notion of “the natural” lies in the fact that for us late-moderns (or postmoderns, as some would have it), the world is a vast set of Tinkertoys that we construct as we see fit. We repudiate the notion that anything sets limits or boundaries for us, that anything at all is simply given and cannot be altered, manipulated, or eliminated through acts of human will. Because speaking of human nature suggests givenness—whether “hardwired” or more elastic—we cavil at the very idea. We want to be in full control. What is interesting about all this is that, even as our preoccupation with our constructed selves seems boundless, our interest in, and engagement with, politics is very far down the list of what calls upon our time, attention, and care: or so it is for the vast majority. I am not suggesting that politics should always be primus inter pares among human activities or that we are committing some grave error; rather, I am pointing to the interesting fact that we are drowning in the sea of “self” while politics is high and dry—a terrain that we might jump ashore to visit from time to time but that has nothing significant at all to tell us, to compel us, or to challenge us—whether in the direction of amplifying latent human possibilities and enabling us to know a good in common we cannot know alone or, alternatively, in the direction of curbing and chastening our pridefulness, our anxieties, and our cruelties. Politics is at best a nuisance, but we are the centers of our own quite decidedly unpolitical universes.


(My publication)Posted:Jan 07 2006, 12:00 AM by jelshtain
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