Elections can make you wonder about where you live. It can be frightening to share so little in common with neighbors and fellow-citizens. Especially when they elect people to rule over you.
A speech in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War comes to mind:
… and we know that there can never be a firm friendship between man and man or a real community between different states unless there is a conviction of honesty on both sides and a certain like-mindedness in other respects; for if people think differently they will act divergently.
This is part of a speech by Mytilenians seeking an alliance with Sparta. Their conviction raises a very difficult issue, a thorny and uncomfortable problem: how to live with people with whom we disagree on basic issues of human life.
It is not a matter of chocolate and vanilla. Difference in taste can add spice to life. But difference about fundamental realities is a hindrance to living in community—and to friendship. No amount of wishing it weren’t so, or of well-intentioned efforts to overlook differences, can change the hard truth captured by the Mytilenians. The proof is all around us. If people think differently they will act differently. And community and friendship are about living together, sharing a common life.
The point is not that we need lock-step unity. Rather, we need to share fundamental principles. The question of just what principles must be shared is as difficult as it is crucial.
The problem is that a basic tenet of classical liberalism—a tenet generally accepted in the Western world by “liberals,” as well as by many “conservatives”—is that differences regarding fundamental principles of human nature and morality are not a threat to social and political life. Such differences are to be not only accepted but celebrated and even cultivated.
There will indeed always be differences. And a crucial aspect of living together is knowing how to live with and respect these differences. I will not address here the importance of such respect, nor the various issues of the rights or obligations of those with majority or minority views.
My interest is an implication of the point so simply laid out by the Mytilenian ambassadors. To the extent that we have fundamental differences with our neighbors, co-workers, fellow-parishioners, citizens, etc., to that extent will we be hindered from sharing a life with them. To live in a human community is to share a life of common commitments and pursuits.
But not just any pursuits, at least according to Aristotle. In his Politics he writes:
It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families and aggregations of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life.
Commitment to economic growth does not a polity make. Elsewhere Aristotle puts it very succinctly: “Whence it may be further inferred that virtue must be the care of a state which is truly so called, and not merely enjoys the name: for without this end the community becomes a mere alliance…”
Aristotle envisions a common commitment to the virtuous life—or in any case a common conception of what the virtuous life is—as at the heart of political society.
But even if one grants Aristotle’s point in the abstract, does it have any relevance today?
I will not argue here that classical liberalism is wrong on this matter—though I think it is. I want rather to emphasize that if we are going to work for the renewal of our polity and local communities, we need to grapple with the fact that real human community requires more unanimity of thought and practice than we have realized.
The question then is what to do. Aristotle offers a very practical approach in his Nicomachean Ethics for a situation like our own:
Now it is best that there should be a public and proper care for such matters; but if they are neglected by the [political] community it would seem right for each man to help his children and friends toward virtue. [emphasis added]
Aristotle’s position combines a clear conception of the ideal with a practical perception of what to do when the ideal is not realized. When the broader political community is not what it should be, then a man reasonably focuses his attention closer to home. Taken for granted here is that family and friends share a conviction that living virtuously is the only truly good human life, and that we need friendship and social solidarity in pursuing that great good.
This approach might appear at first a formula for simply receding from a political environment that one does not find “friendly.” Closer consideration, however, reveals a more subtle approach. At work here is a simple principle: Focus your energy where it can be most fruitful—on the common good.
Regardless of the broader climate, we can seek with family and friends to forge a fully human life —though in an unfriendly political environment it will be especially arduous. At least in these smaller communities we can try to put first things first, and thus all things in their proper place. In such communities we experience the kind of solidarity requisite for achieving human excellence in virtue.
Such attention to friendship, family, and local community does not entail an abandonment of the broader political process. On the contrary, building such cells of excellence is a fundamental requirement for the renewal of the broader polity. Smaller communities with shared vision and practices are healthy, and thus they tend to grow and divide. Since they are vibrant cells, they are also cells that can share a vision—the very vision that can unite and animate the broader community.
The nobility and primacy of virtue—in other words, the realities at the foundation of a traditional way of life—are best learned through experience. And they are best experienced in friendships and communities that, though always imperfect, are intentional expressions of a shared pursuit of virtue.
And so vibrant local communities are perhaps also the last, best chance for the broader society to learn basic truths of natural law by seeing them enacted in the flesh. Especially for people growing increasingly impervious to the admonitions of rational argument, there is no witness to the truth of family life, for instance, like families that are living that truth. In a sense, when it comes to the human good, seeing is believing.
John Cuddeback is chairman of the philosophy department at Christendom College.