Socratic observations — Politics are part of the human condition
“How could recognizing the equal right of Dave and Don to marry possibly harm your traditional marriage?”
“The time has come to get government out of the business of marriage altogether.”
These are two arguments often offered in debates on the legal definition of marriage. They represent increasingly common, perhaps dominant, liberal and libertarian opinions. Liberals consider their question an unanswerable deal-sealer, which is supposed to leave defenders of traditional marriage speechless. Too often, it does. Libertarians imagine they are bravely wielding pure reason to dispel ancient prejudices in favor of government interference for the “common good.”
Our new lifestyle liberals and liberated libertarians have this in common: They both in effect wish politics would go away. In fact, they believe the fundamental moral responsibility of politics can be wished away. The Socratic observations I propose to share here will range in contemporary topics and in philosophical, religious and literary sources, but they will all spring from this considered conviction: Politics will not go away, and it is worse than idle to try to wish it away. And by politics I refer not so much the daily noise of electoral ambition and the self-interested manipulation of democratic institutions, but the fact that politics — our need for communities governmened by morally recognized authority — is part of our human nature.
Aristotle knew what he was talking about when he described humans as political beings, and we need to relearn from him and from his teachers (Socrates and Plato), as well as his students and rivals (Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Tocqueville) that to think clearly about the individual in relation to society, we must always remember that political order is part of the human condition.
Human beings are essentially — and not exclusively — political beings, because we necessarily live within and are fundamentally shaped by our communities. Politics is a game of power-seeking; it can also be a tool for securing our individual rights. But it is more than that. The very meaning of “the individual” and definition of “rights” depend upon a community’s agreement on basic truths.
That proposition will sound a bit shocking, I imagine, and not only to liberals and libertarians. Many traditional conservatives will be moved to respond immediately, echoing Thomas Jefferson or John Adams, that our rights will never be secure unless we understand their source to be divine and not any mere human convention. Wherever Jefferson and Adams agree, it is unwise to dismiss their shared wisdom. I whole-heartedly agree with our Founders that no mere human dictate, whether issued by a single ruler or by a collective body, can provide an adequate foundation to laws and constitutions. The most fundamental truths that inform our political community, that make it possible for us to live and reason together, must in fact have a source beyond mere human will.
As Tocqueville wrote: “There is hardly any human action, however private it may be, which does not result from some very general conception men have of God, of His relations with the human race, of the nature of their soul, and of their duties to their fellows. Nothing can prevent such ideas from being the common spring from which all else originates” (“Democracy in America,” Vol. 2 Part 1 ch. 5).
But this does not contradict the classical insight into the inescapability of politics. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” — certain truths may indeed be in some way self-evident, though not evident to every individual. But it is still important that we so hold them, that we as a people assent to and share an understanding of these truths.
We human beings have to reach or be brought to a political consensus concerning such transcendent truths and their practical implications. Politics in the most fundamental sense is the work of interpreting transcendent truths and connecting them with the actual needs and aspirations of our communities.
This need to connect law and policy with truth is what both the new liberals and libertarians ignore. Liberals suppose we can do without transcendent truths, or that each individual can make up one’s own — and “government” can pay the inevitable bills. Libertarians may grant the possibility of transcendent moral truth, but they ignore the need for publicly accepted truth — and the political necessity of cleaning up the mess left over from the failure of public virtue. Both are wrong to imagine so fundamental an institution as marriage — and the virtues associated with it — can be removed from the community’s political responsibility.
As to be seen in future columns, Socrates and his students saw clearly what both left and right seem now to ignore: Virtuous individuals depend upon good laws, and good laws, whether we wish it or not, depend upon politics.
Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.