A former student recently asked me to recommend a classical text that he might read during the current political season, in order to sustain him through the bleak, bitter months that still lie ahead, and to prepare him to vote with some measure of equanimity and “long perspective.” After a few moments’ reflection, I made my suggestion; but first I took issue with his use of the phrase political season. These days, I argued, an elected official is no sooner installed than the campaign for reelection or succession begins. The machinery of political persuasion and campaign finance has achieved a kind of perpetual motion, and we never escape the shrill whining of its gears. To this he merely replied that we are, after all, “political animals.” I reproached him for wanton abuse of a venerable maxim.
When Aristotle asserted that “man is by nature a political animal,” he did not have in mind what we mean by politics today: a special professional sphere possessed of its own peculiar rules, traditions, strategies, values, means, and ends. He meant that human nature is essentially communal and is brought to fruition in the cooperative conventions of the polis, with its vital and complex interdependencies of private, familial, and public associations, and that the arts of statecraft should be in service to these social goods. Only in the city, he believed, are we able to discharge all the various but complementary tasks necessary for a life lived in common, and to pursue the virtues appropriate to our stations. This is neither a sentimental platitude nor a rigid doctrine, but a plain observation regarding the material and social economies that make it possible for us to live in a fully human, rather than bestial, way.
Now, some have suggested that Aristotle saw the Greek city-state as the ideal merely because of a certain pardonable parochialism on his part, and that had he been a Persian instead of a Stagirite he might rather have opined that “man is by nature an imperial animal.” That, though, would be a jarringly odd sentiment under any conditions; on an imperial scale, political power is almost inevitably corrosive of natural human associations, rational loyalties, or cordial attachments.
We ought not so hastily to historicize Aristotle’s language. He saw human beings as tending to create a number of small and hospitable polities—the household and the city, especially—whose proportions allow a sane balance between collective duty and individual prudence, universal truth and local idiom, society and the citizen. The polis as he described it was a kind of golden mean between the desolation of barbarism and the monstrous magnificence of empire.
Not that he himself can be claimed as a plausible champion of the “small is beautiful” approach to government. He reconciled himself well enough to the eclipse of the Greek polis under the rule of the Macedonian kings he served, and he vigorously encouraged Alexander’s eastern conquests. And, needless to say, his vision of the polis consecrated any number of inequities as decrees not of despots, but of nature itself.
Still, all that granted, he at least had a proper sense of the supremacy of culture over policy. For him, civic life was primarily natural social concourse, and public governance was the craft of preserving the integrity of the institutions that emerge organically from it. Where he erred was in failing to distinguish cultural artifacts (like slavery) from natural necessities, but certainly not in underestimating the importance of “politicians.”
So, when we use the phrase “political animal” today, it might be wise to recall that it originally reflected an understanding of civic affairs almost diametrically opposed to our modern obsessive fascination with partisan struggle, polls, campaigning, and the fortunes of a distinct “political” class. And it is probably always wise to remember that what we call “politics” today is often only the final and superficial manifestation of a profounder and more substantial political reality—a sort of glittering epiphenomenal effervescence on the surface of culture, obscuring the far vaster motions in its depths. Then, at least, we can approach the business of the elections without allowing ourselves to be made frantic by all the glare and clamor of the spectacle and without too many unreasonable expectations of the sequel. Political events, after all, often only confirm cultural decisions that have already been made, in many cases irrevocably.
All this having been said, one might think that my recommendation to my former student was Aristotle’s Politics. In fact, however, apart from a few, easily extractable sagacities, it is not really very good “devotional” reading. I chose instead a much shorter, more charming, and more universally applicable text: “The Dream of Scipio” (Somnium Scipionis), the wonderful Pythagorean-Platonic-Aristotelian-Stoic fable that concludes the sixth book of Cicero’s De re publica. If you have never read it, I encourage you to do so forthwith. It will require no more than twelve minutes or so of your time, and then only if you read very deliberately; but it may bear your spirits up long thereafter.
The story concerns the famous general Scipio Aemilianus and is set at the time of his arrival in North Africa, two years before armies under his command would destroy Carthage (146 b.c.). After a late night of being regaled with stories of his grandfather (by way of adoption) Scipio Africanus—the general who defeated Hannibal at Zama—Aemilianus falls into a deep sleep and dreams that the spirit of Africanus has visited him and raised him to a place high up among the brightly shining stars, from which he may look down on Carthage. Africanus foretells the younger Scipio’s career, as a general and a statesman and, ultimately, reformer of the Roman constitution, and then assures his grandson that God loves the laws that bind human beings together in cities, and that in heaven there is a sure abode of immortal beatitude for all who guard and serve their homelands.
Scipio asks whether his own father Paulus, son of Africanus, dwells in that place, and Africanus affirms that he does; and no sooner is this said than Paulus himself appears, and Scipio is overcome with emotion and declares that he wishes he could ascend even now to join his father in eternity. Paulus, however, replies that the way to that final rest is closed until God himself should release the soul from the body and allow it to return to the sidereal fires from which it was fashioned; until then, none must desert the post to which God has assigned him; but if Scipio continuously pursues justice and piety in this life, he will certainly enter into that realm of light—the Milky Way, as it happens—and into that blessed company.
Scipio then marvels at the sheer immensity of the stars, and sees also that the earth is now very far away, and that the whole of the Roman Empire appears to be no more than a minuscule point upon its surface. Africanus replies by holding forth on the natures of the various heavens, beginning with the sphere of the fixed stars and proceeding to each of the planetary spheres in descending order, until he comes to our sublunary region of mutability. At that moment, Scipio becomes aware of a sweet sound filling his ears, and Africanus informs him that it is the music of the spheres, the octave of tones created by the spinning of the heavens, which binds the cosmos together but to which human ears are usually deaf.
Scipio turns his eyes back to the earth, and Africanus exhorts him to see how insignificant worldly glory is in comparison to the celestial realms, or even to the vast uninhabitable regions of the globe, or to the unimaginable immensity of the Great Year of the cosmic aeon, and then tells him to fix his mind always on heavenly things, to ignore earthly rewards and earthly censure alike, and to be guided only by virtue. Scipio promises that he will. Africanus then tells Scipio that he is a god, insofar as he is an immortal soul moving and giving life to a frail physical body, just as God is the soul that moves and gives life to the universe; knowing the soul to be eternal, then, Scipio must exercise it in noble pursuits, such as caring for the welfare of his country, and not become like those lawless spirits who after death must wander the earth for many ages before finding their way back home. Africanus then departs and Scipio awakes.
In any event, I am omitting all the loveliest metaphysical and pictorial details, so better just to read it. My reason for recommending it has nothing to do with any ideology implicit in it. I simply think it might provide a moment’s healthy respite from the tumultuous urgency and banality of this or any electoral cycle because, in its general and fabulous way, it encourages perseverance in hope and political virtue simply by reminding one that there are eternal harmonies that cannot be silenced by the din of contending interests, and that one is best able to act “politically” in good conscience when one preserves a proper sense of proportion.
David Bentley Hart is an editor at large for First Things. His most recent book is The Devil and Pierre Gernet.