I began this investigation by asking myself what it means to be political. This was, I realized, in essence a double question. I wanted to ask what it means to call an action, a decision, a speech, an institution, a system, an order, a principle, a conflict (etc.) political. But I also wanted to know what meaning those “political” things might have for our living and breathing existence. My question was, thus, in one sense conceptual and in another existential in nature. It concerned in one sense no more than the meaning of a word but in another our entire understanding of politics and its place in our lives.
We are standing today on the edge of a cliff and notice the ground before us falling away: we see an uncontrolled growth of world population, a quickly disintegrating environment, the accumulations of resources in the hands of the few, the cynical transfer of powers from the state to private interests, an unstable shifting of weights from one side of the globe to another, education swamped by ever more ruthless varieties of entertainment, the academy divesting itself of its erstwhile humanism, philosophy abandoned as a luxury we can do without. These and other such signs alert us to the precariousness of our condition – an uncertainty that manifests itself in all walks of life but not least in the political arena.
Human thought possesses for Stanley Cavell both a tragic and a comic dimension. It does so, moreover, inherently and indispensably because thinking is “not required of beings exempt from tragedy and comedy,” as we read in Cavell’s book Pursuits of Happiness. (p. 259) The remark provokes and is meant to do so. There exists indeed an acknowledged link between tragedy and philosophy but the connection between philosophy and comedy seems (to common perception, at least) obscure. Our whole philosophical tradition begins according to Plato with a tragic conflict between the philosopher and the polis. According to Cavell, we need to think also about the comic dimension of our social existence.
What does it mean to say that we are by nature political beings. Critical reflection on Aristotle’s dictum can help us to get a clearer vision of the place of politics in human life.
We need to move in political philosophy from the now dominant normative thinking to a diagnostic practice. Normative theory tends to look at human situations in an abstract and simplifying manner. It seeks to discern in them general patterns that can be regulated by universal norms. The diagnostic practice, on the other hand, considers those situations in their concrete density. It does not isolate moral dilemmas but understands specific individual circumstances as parts of a larger social, historical, and political pattern.
“The time for petty politics is over,” Nietzsche proclaimed in Beyond Good and Evil, his “prelude to a philosophy of the future” The year was 1886. At roughly the same moment his notebook records: “The time is coming when one will have to relearn about politics” – and this because of an incipient “compulsion to great politics.”
When Duccio Trombadori interviewed him in 1978, Foucault described how the Second World War had initially alerted him to the need for a radically different society and how subsequently, under the influence of Nietzsche, he had come to hope for “a world and a society that were not only different but would be an alternative version of ourselves.” Having joined the Communist Party in the 1950’s as a “Nietzschean communist” (!) and having left the Party again a short time later because of its Stalinist tendencies he had ended up, as he put it, with “a degree of speculative skepticism” towards all politics. But his reluctance to concern himself with political matters had dissolved towards the late 1960’s as a result of two and half years of teaching at the University of Tunisia where he came face-to-face with the political activism of his students and was moved by their readiness to expose themselves to the most fearful risks. “It was a real political experience for me,” Foucault told Trombadori.
Plato’s dialogues Protagoras and Politikos (The Statesman) both relate a creation myth and both do so for political ends. In each version the gods are said to have made the cosmos but at some point to have abandoned it to its own devices. In each of them the origin of human politics is traced back to that moment. Both myths proclaim thus that politics belongs to a world in which the gods are absent and we are, in consequence, obliged to take care of ourselves. Each myth also makes clear that we are forced to become political at this point because we are incomplete beings, not well-equipped to survive when left to our own devices and not naturally prepared to live and labor together. Both accounts agree, thus, that politics is grounded in human deficiency.