The Care of the Common

April 14, 2010

The Care of the Common

Hans Sluga



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.


Conceptions, concepts, and formulas

There is a common though mostly unformulated view according to which there are many different conceptions of politics (liberal, socialist, authoritarian, revolutionary, conservative, and what have you) but only one concept of the political. The assumption is that politics is, of course, nothing else than government of the state and everything connected with this but that thus understood it has many different incarnations. It is also said that Plato and Aristotle were the first to pin down that singular concept when they spoke of politics as rule of the polis. But we are not going to get far in trying to reflect on what it means to be political if we stick to the idea that there is and can only be one single concept of the political. Plato’s and Aristotle’s characterization of politics has, no doubt left a lasting imprint on our political thinking, but I want to argue that far from having provided us with a singular concept of the political they have, in fact, only constructed a conceptual framework in which a number of different concepts of the political have since then found their place. They have, we may say, provided us with a formula under which different concepts of the political can be subsumed. But this formula has been sufficient to distract political theorists from realizing that concepts of the political in fact fluctuate widely. No one can doubt that the political experience of a civis of Imperial Rome was quite different from that of an Athenian polites. It is equally evident that the medieval peasant, burgher, cleric, or liege lord conceived of politics once again in a different way and we understand that the political experience of the modern liberal bourgeois is once more different from all these. Behind these different experiences lie in fact different concepts of the political.

I take note of the variability in our concept of the political because But it also appears from developments over the course of the last hundred years that our conceptions of politics have become increasingly volatile, that they have, indeed, begun to unravel, and that we are increasingly left with mere shreds of any such conception. While we can continue to employ the concept of the political in the old manner, we are feeling increasingly alienated from government and the identity of the state (as well as our identification with it) have become increasingly uncertain. In this situation politics can persist as a dreary reality but not as something carrying positive significance for us. We need then, it seems, a new conception of politics but this, we now realize, may require us first of all to come up with a new and more viable concept of the political. We need to ask then precisely the double question from which I started or rather we need to ask in this double sense what being political can mean for us today and under current conditions. We need, in other words, to relativize our initial question because (it turns out) politics has no unchanging essence, our conceptions of politics change, and even our formal concept of the political can vary.

At least this is what a number of political philosophers have concluded in the course of the twentieth century, most prominent among them Carl Schmitt in his indispensable essay on “The Concept of the Political” and subsequently Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault. Dissatisfied with the classical, Platonic-Aristotelian formula, each of those three endeavored to spell out a new and more adequate concept of the political. To this purpose Schmitt sought to show that all our political terms are constructed on a friend-enemy schema, Arendt that the concept of the political coincides with that of free action, and Foucault that politics is to be grasped as a system of circulating power-relations. Each one of these endeavors brings its own illumination to the political domain, but it must be said that none of them generates a viable concept of the political. Schmitt’s formula fails to provide a positive meaning to the interactions of those who are political friends and thus share a form of life. Arendt separates free action so sharply from the satisfaction of need that politics appears to lose all its content and threatens to turn into a strange luxury. Foucault, finally, sees human beings so entirely in the grip of power that the space for political action is reduced to the unexplained hope that power always permits resistance. It seems then that we cannot attain a satisfactory concept of the political along the lines suggested by these three thinkers. We must, instead, dig deeper than they have done.

I propose, for that reason, to go back to an earlier and almost forgotten notion according to which politics is the care of the common. Plato himself cites the sophist Protagoras as its source but he was probably, in turn, expressing a still older understanding of politics, one that may have originated during the rise of democracy in ancient Greece. This places the notion historically before philosophy attained its classical shape and I call it therefore pre-philosophical in contrast to the Platonic-Aristotelian concept which is a deliberate philosophical construct. That construction proves, however, not to have been independent of the old notion. Plato and Aristotle came to their concept of the political, in fact, by arguing that politics is indeed the care of the common but that such care necessarily takes the form of ruling a polis or, in modern terms, of governing the state. It is that move which is now problematic and this gives us reasons, I think, for going back to the old formula. I realize, however, that this proposal will initially seem eccentric. How can we hope to solve our twenty-first century problems by returning to an almost forgotten idea? But am I wrong in assuming that many apparently practical problems have their roots in the categories in which we think? The Platonic-Aristotelian way of conceiving politics certainly still dominates our thinking, despite its apparent fragility, and that may be, indeed, what prevents us from resolving the most pressing uncertainties of the political moment. Freeing ourselves from the entanglements of the classical and thus philosophical concept of the political may, in turn, however require that we unearth first the roots from which it has sprung.

Still more important is this: It appears from Plato’s and Aristotle’s appropriation that the old formula of politics as the care of the common may be taken in two quite different ways, once in the way that Protagoras and the pre-philosophical Greeks employed it, that is, as characterizing a specific, participatory form of politics and once as a generic characterization of politics that can be used in constructing various concepts of the political. We can accordingly speak of a Protagorean and a generic interpretation of our formula. According to the first the formula proposes a quite determinate structure of politics and thus, in other words, a determinate understanding of care and the common whereas the second, generic reading treats the notions of care and the common as being wide open to interpretation. Thus, Protagoras and the pre-philosophical Greeks understood care in the care of the common as being specifically a participatory activity while Plato and Aristotle understood it as the rule of the best. But care may also be conceived in the forms of traditional rulership, or messianic dictatorship, bureaucratic administration, or even as corporate governance. Seen as generic, the formula also accommodates itself to different understandings of the common. It is compatible with the Greek understanding – on which Protagoras, Plato, and Aristotle agreed – that the common must be the polis, but it also allows for the conception of the common as fiefdom, state, empire, federation, union, or more loosely as community, group, or tribe.

The formula of the care of the common when taken in the Protagorean sense is of interest to us, then for three reasons. We can see it first of all as the root of the still dominant Platonic-Aristotelian concept of politics. As such it may also be seen as providing a historical model to which we can compare our own political reality. Or we may even look at it as an ideal to which we may want to aspire in our own political practice. In this version the formula can thus serve a three-fold purpose: as a historical source, as a point of comparison, and as a normative standard. When we treat it as generic formula, on the other hand, three other uses come to mind. In this understanding the formula may help us to reveal characteristics of politics that the still dominant Platonic-Aristotelian concept of the political obscures; it may thus help to bring out deep and pervasive features of all human politics; and it may finally also serve as a template for constructing a concept of the political that is fully adequate for our time.


The generic notion

            The idea of politics as the care of the common appeared historically first in the guise of its Protagorean interpretation. As such it was formulated at a particular historical moment, was upheld for a while, and then set aside for the concept of politics as rule of the polis. The old formula was, however, no capricious invention; it could draw, rather, on a wider insight into pervasive features of our political and human existence and thus give voice to an illuminating generic account of politics. We will find it useful to consider first the basis of this generic notion and this will help us, in turn, to appreciate the historical appearance of the specific, Protagorean interpretation of politics as the care of the common.

It is, indeed, one of the most pervasive characteristics of human life that we extend care. Thus, in all cultures and at all times human beings care for babies and children; we care also for the sick and we care for the old and dying. We certainly care for those who are near to us; but we care also (at least, occasionally) for strangers as, for instance, those who have suffered spectacular misfortune or the strikingly disadvantaged. We care equally for animals (particularly our own) and nurture (our own) plants. We should not forget that we also do care for ourselves or fail to do so. These observations are not meant to suggest that we are often and characteristically in a caring state of mind with respect to others, to ourselves, to animals, and plants, that we feel concern towards … ,  or sympathy, or compassion, or even love. What matters is, rather, that we engage frequently and normally in acts of care-taking. How we feel bears, no doubt, on what we do. When we are in a caring state of mind we may be more inclined to engage in acts of care-taking. But the feeling is not the essential thing – certainly not in the context of politics. The crucial thing is rather the practice of care-taking itself.[1]

These observations are intended to state something that is in a way obvious and they are not, in any case, meant to advance a philosophical thesis. I am certainly not saying here that care-taking is essential to being human or that it is an aspect of human nature. Nor am I saying that we should exercise care or have an obligation to do so. I am neither in the business of determining essences or natures nor in that of making moral prescriptions. I am merely recording that caring is pervasive and normal in human life as we know it. Something more can be noted without trying to score heavy philosophical points.  It is that we are who we are only through caring. I would probably not be alive, if it were not for my mother’s nurturing. I would surely not have my present life without the care that my parents and teachers extended to my education.  Looking further a field, I see that I depend on various services that others extend to me just as they depend on services I extend to them. I take care of my pupils, students, patients, clients, or customers and I am or become and times a pupil, a student, a patient, a client, or a customer. It is, in effect, not too much to conclude that human culture is pervasively a structure of care.

That care-structure has not drawn much attention so far of our philosophers and I do not plan to make up for that shortcoming here.[2] I will consider, instead, only one of the features of the care-structure that is of particular interest for thinking about politics. It is that human care comes in significantly different forms and that we can usefully distinguish between simple care, guiding, and attending. There is, first of all, then the simple care we exercise when we concern ourselves with the life and (physical) wellbeing of someone or something. This is the kind of care we extend to babies, the sick, and the old. Babies and children need simple care because they are as yet immature, they are weak, and they are unable to exercise rights. They would therefore most probably not survive for long on their own and would surely also not flourish on their own. The sick need care because they are handicapped by their disease, perhaps even bound to their bed, because they require therapy, and because they have all kinds of special needs. Without care their survival and health would once again be uncertain. The old and dying need care because they are worn out, perhaps even mentally confused, and because they are easily taken advantage off. Once again their survival (whatever it is) and certainly their well-being depends on simple care. We can recognize the same in the way we treat animals and plants. The farmer who takes care of his animals and plants as well as the city-dweller who cares for her pet and nurtures her house-plants are concerned with assuring their life and well-being. Taking care of oneself is also in the first instance that that simple care in which we seek to assure our own life and health.

There is, however, in addition a second sort of care, one which is distinct in being directed at actions rather than bodies and their well-being. A mother who takes care of her baby directs her action, of course, at the baby and more precisely at the baby’s physical life and wellbeing. But when she teaches her child to speak, or to eat properly, or to be polite, the object of her caring becomes the child’s behavior, its actions. We can speak of the latter kind of care as action-guiding or simply as guiding. Guiding is similar to simple care in that it is a form of action; but it differs from simple care in being action directed at other actions. We can speak accordingly here of higher and lower levels of action in order to distinguish the action directed at another action from the action at which that action is directed. We can say therefore also that guiding is specifically a higher form of action. I will try to illustrate the point. Consider then the blow of a hammer crushing a vase. In this action the vase itself or, if you wish, the destruction of the vase is the object, i.e., that which the action aims at. But now consider that I stay the hand that is about to come down on the vase or, alternatively, that I show how to wield the hammer more effectively. My action has here the character of trying to prevent or enhance another action. My act is an act of guiding and thus of higher level than the act at which it is directed, that is in this case the blow of the hammer. I have indicated already that we engage in simple care for a whole variety of reasons and the same thing is true for guiding but our reasons for guiding are different from those that motivate the extending of simple care. One reason why we engage in guiding is that almost all human action requires skills that have to be learned. (I leave it open whether all action is of this kind.) This learning may be occasionally self-administered – I still remember how I taught myself reading – but more generally it requires instruction from someone who already possesses the appropriate skills. Such instruction may, in turn, include the demonstrating of the action to be learned and sometimes also the verbal description and explanation of the action, but it will also typically include the learner’s repeated and supervised practice; it will certainly often involve that the learner be provided with encouragement and motivation and on some occasions it requires that he be disciplined and controlled, it may even on the direct and indirect forms of force or violence.  Human actions are, moreover, often so complicated that they need planning, regulating, supervising, as well as reviewing and assessing. Some actions are, in addition, difficult to execute or dangerous and thus call specifically for exhortation and spurning on, while other actions so detrimental that they call for restraining, controlling, prohibiting, or resisting. That we guide ourselves and others is due then to the features of action in which engage, want to engage, or want others to engage in. Guiding involves, moreover, many different activities; guiding is a multi-form thing.

The most important kind guiding is that which relates to human interactions. This kind of guidance has a character of its own and deserves therefore to be given a separate name. I will speak of it as tending or also as attending. Human beings need tending or attending for some of the same reasons why they need guiding. Human interaction is after all a form of human action and is thus, like any other action, in need of guiding. We will engage in tending then for the same reasons for which we engage in guiding and tending will include all the activities that fall under the heading of guiding. Tending is thus at least as multiform as guiding. We engage in tending however also for a number of additional and more specific reasons and tending finds characteristic expression also in a number of additional and distinctive activities. Interaction differs from plain action in that it directly engages more than one person. But different human beings, different agents are always on different trajectories, they are embarked on different courses of life. Interaction occurs only when these trajectory intersect. The resulting outcome may, however, have been intended by neither party in this interaction. It is a product, rather, of its parallelogram of forces. For each of the participants the interaction may constitute something different, may have a different and a different purpose. Interactions are for that reason more problematic, more haunted by failure that simple actions. They call therefore also for more intensive and prolonged form of guiding. These include the establishing and maintaining of dialogue, negotiating, coordinating, conducting, reconciling, the formulating terms of agreement and difference, producing of compromises or alternatives,  the drafting of agreements and contracts, the telling of stories that can unite the different parties, enticing and threatening, the breaking of resistance, the enforcement of actions, etc. etc. In order to interact effectively must have some understanding of their own needs, desires, and interests but also of the needs, desires, and interests of others. The participants must learn top move and speak appropriately, they need to understand signs, gestures, customs, rules, and laws. To interact means to act in concert but such action, particularly at a large scale, calls for constant correlation, coordination, and conducting.

Tending can have three very different kinds of objects. It can be directed towards one’s own interactions with others. It can be directed at the interactions of individual others, and it can equally be directed at the interactions of whole groups and communities. Thus, (1) a man may be said to attend to his own interactions with others when he endeavors to become more patient, more understanding, or more forgiving in his relations to them, (2) a mother may be said to tend her child’s interactions with others, when she participates as an adult in their games, when she encourages or constrains her children’s interplay, and (3) the state can be said to attend to the interactions of its  citizens when it makes laws to circumscribe their commercial, social, and political behavior. These forms of tending must not be confused with each other. The first of these is what the Greeks called the care of the self (epimeleia heautou). The second concerns the care of others and was known to the Greeks above all in the form of paideia, that is the process by which human beings are formed in their coexistence. The third is the care of the common of which politics is an instance. The care of the self takes the forms of exercise and discipline, of controlling one’s own needs, potentials, and limitations.  The care of others involves encouraging and deterring, nurturing and educating, and more specifically holding fast and letting go, praising and reprimanding, rewarding and punishing but may also have the more egalitarian character of various kinds of cooperative and mutual endeavor. The care of the common, finally, displays all the variety of action that we find in politics. The three kinds of tending are neither the same nor inevitably linked together. The care of the self may go hand in hand with a neglect of others and the care of others with carelessness towards oneself. Both differ, in turn, from the kind of care that is political in character. The care for oneself or that for a few select others may overcome the wish to partake in the care of the common.[3]

Simple care, guiding, and attending (the three types of care-taking I have here distinguished) are all types of action and specifically of interaction. They have all the characteristic features of such interaction and are, therefore, also always subject to possible failure. Our attempts to provide care, guidance, or attending prove in many cases just as fragile as other types of interaction. We often fail, indeed, to take care of ourselves. Parents often fail to take care of their children. The state often fails to take care of its citizens. Someone or something may need care but the care that is offered may also be flawed or weak, ineffective, unreliable, or irrelevant; it may prove wrong-headed, perverse, and even destructive; care that is actually extended may also be unneeded, unwanted, dictatorial, or oppressive. The notion of care does not, in other words, single out a morally admirable class of actions since there exists both genuine and false care, both benevolent and malignant care as well as care that is neutral between the two.[4] Because every act of care-taking (whether of simple caring, or guiding, or attending) may always fail it may therefore also call, in turn, for new acts of caring. Our caring itself needs care-taking; our guiding needs guidance, our attending needs attendance. A  government may, for instance, adopt a law but its citizens may resent and resists it and turn to the courts to have it reviewed. The court action is here an action directed at the government’s action which in turn sought to regulate the action of citizens. In this way, the levels of care may multiply. There will, of course, be every time an end to this process – not a logical but a factual end. There will always be acts of care which will not themselves be subjected to caring, acts of guiding that have nothing to guide, acts of tendance that are left on their own without further tending. And the caring, the guiding, the tending that terminates that process will always itself once again be problematic and fragile and fallible like all other human interaction and as all other caring, guiding, and tending. It may be true that care is the only response we have to the uncertainty of the human condition, but no kind of care can fully relieve that uncertainty. No politics can relieve us from our political uncertainties.

Politics, I have said, can be generically understood as the care of the common. But I have not yet said whether all such care should be considered political or whether political care is a distinctive subclass of the care of the common. I have not yet determined whether tending as such is political. It appears certain from what I have already said, that tending includes many of the activities that are characteristic of the political field. Political tending includes a wide range of activities: from forms of participatory consultation to the most imperious forms of command passing through all the conceivable varieties of political organization; from ad hoc interventions aimed at specific and momentary interactions to systems of regulations that seek prescribe general patterns of interaction; from the production of symbolic representations as patterns, templates, reference points or rules for interaction to the erection of physical boundaries that constrain the forms of possible interaction. But many of these occur also in domains where we are less used to speak of politics (such as the family, or church, or a modern corporation). Political action is certainly always action-guiding and it is, in particular, a tending of interactions. But what is required for such tending to be considered political? Is tending political only when it takes place in an institutional order? But what are we to say of those acts of tending by which we constitute ourselves as a group so as to establish a state? Are they not also to be considered political? And is tending political in any kind of institutional system? Is the politics of a fraternal society, for instance, genuine politics? Or does the institution have to have a distinctive political character? But here we are thrown back again to our initial question on how to understand the political? It is surely that tending is political when it takes place in a political order, for then we are back to the question of what makes and order or an action political.

We must grant that there is more than one way to employ the word “political.”  Like all ancient terms it has wider and narrower uses. There is most clearly the kind of political tending that occurs in a formally instituted community. We can speak here of organized politics. But there is also a tending in temporary and informal communities. That allows us to recognize a communal politics. Even the interactions between individuals and small temporary associations of them call for tending that may on some broader view be conceived as political. There is, for instance, such a thing as a politics of the family or a politics of friendship and even of love. And we can speak of a tending that an individual exercise on and himself or herself political in a residual fashion. The idea that of a person may be relating politically to him- or herself is surely not beyond our capacity of understanding. It might be useful at some point to distinguish the latter two cases by calling them proto-political in contrast to the former which might be considered political in the stricter sense. And it is in this narrower sense that we can perhaps understand the generic characterization of politics as the care of the common.


Politics before philosophy

I turn my attention now to Protagoras and his take on the formula that politics is the care of the common but must, right away, alert myself and the reader to the difficulties ahead in that undertaking. Protagoras was the author of numerous writings which have, however, all disappeared. The loss may have been due to neglect or suppression but it indicates that in the period after Plato the Protagorean insights into politics were no longer widely appreciated. Why the Protagorean concept of politics should have come to be so completely forgotten is a question to which we still need an answer. I will try to provide one in the course of my consideration of the Platonic-Aristotelian revision of our understanding of politics.

In trying to make sense of Protagoras’ thought we are, in any case, forced to rely on second-hand information about him and on evidence derived from the milieu in which he operated. Our richest source of information about him is (ironically) Plato, his archrival, who refers to him in ten of his dialogues and discusses his views at length in the Theaetetus and The Statesman. Plato is, however, a dangerous source to rely on and that for two distinct reasons. The first is his well-known hostility towards the sophistic tradition of which Protagoras may be considered the founder. The second reason is that Plato’s dialogues were never intended to give documentary evidence for historical events and circumstances. Plato serves invariably as “producer, stage-manager and script-writer” of his material and freely adapts it to his own purposes. For all that, we cannot entirely dismiss what he tells us about Protagoras.[5] For the great sophist was still well remembered at the time when Plato wrote of him and his writings were easily accessible and it would therefore have been devastating to Plato’s anti-sophistic argumentation had he criticized views utterly unrelated to the ones he ascribed to Protagoras. We can see, moreover, easily that Plato entertained a grudging respect for Protagoras despite his general dislike of the sophists. He was, moreover, not entirely unsympathetic to Protagoras’ political views as will also come to be clear in our examination. He went, indeed, so far as to appropriate some Protagorean ideas, reworking them, of course, to his own ends. This was so well understood at the time that Plato’s opponents could charge that he had plagiarized portions of his Republic from Protagoras’s political writings.[6]  This accusation is surely unfair but testifies to the respect in which Protagoras was still held during Plato’s time and possibly even by Plato himself.

This does not mean, of course, that Plato’s account of Protagorean thought is entirely trustworthy. For the reasons already given that is unlikely. Plato’s account has, rather, in the first instance all the reliability of a polemical but serious treatment. It tells us things that are undoubtedly correct but transforms them in a hostile direction. We must, for this reason, be particularly cautious where Plato ascribes to Protagoras views that are either patently absurd or that agree overly with Plato’s own ideas. In each case he may have been motivated more by interest than by the demands of truthfulness. The historical Protagoras would certainly not have been ready to agree – as Plato makes him do in his dialogue – that virtue (areté) cannot be taught if, it is not knowledge (epistéme) and that virtue is a single whole. Both claims conflict directly with Protagoras’ crucial distinction between technical and political skills and would expose him to being either inconsistent or unsteady in his views. That was, indeed Plato’s polemical aim: to expose Protagoras as an unreliable and even unworthy teacher. But we must be equally cautious when Plato suggests that according to Protagoras politics comes in the end to “ruling and being ruled by law.” Plato may be suggesting in this way that Protagoras is, in the end, forced to agree with the genuinely Platonic notion that politics is rule or arché. We are thus advised to ask ourselves at every point to what extent Plato gives us a reliable account of the Protagorean understanding of politics.

Given such uncertainties we are wise to consider first the moment at which the Protagorean interpretation of politics came about. And the initial thing to note here is that this moment lay well before the beginnings of what we now call philosophy. The Pre-Socratic thinker – from the Ionian nature theorist to the Athenian sophist – was of a substantially different quality from the figure of a Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle. He was first and foremost a man of practical affairs. While he appeared sometimes as magus, prophet, or singer he was more commonly a public expert, an astronomer and mapmaker, an inventor of gadgets and institutions, and certainly all in all a political presence. Protagoras called himself, accordingly, not a philosopher but a sophist, that is, a man of experience, a worldly thinker, and a political intellectual of the sort that Plato was afterwards to malign as idle, unserious, and corrupt. Nothing characterizes Protagoras’s style of thought more directly than his hands on role in the founding of the city of Thurii. Pericles had organized this new colony in order to relieve population pressure at home and he intended to make it a model city. To that end he employed Hippodamos of Miletus as city-planner (the man who invented the urban grid) and invited the historian Herodotus to officiate at its opening ceremonies. He also requested Protagoras to design the new, democratic constitution for this colonial foundation. This practical engagement contrasts to Plato’s speculative designs for an authoritarian city and his subsequent wholly implausible attempt to realize them with the help of the notorious tyrants of Syracuse. Protagoras may not have been intellectually, morally, or politically more gifted than Plato, but he had surely a greater sense for the political realities. Plato’s lack of political realism foreshadows, on the other hand, the coming alienation of philosophy from politics.

The pre-Socratic thinker exemplified in the figure of Protagoras was, in a way, a transitional character, mediating between the more specialized roles of the shaman or priest of old – who was, of course, always directly engaged in his community – and the newly emerging and more isolated figure of the expert in logical argumentation whom we know today under the name philosopher. The pre-Socratic thinker reflected, in fact, his own age which was also transitional in character – transitional, that is, in its relations to the outside world, in its own culture, and in its political reality. The Greeks of post-Homeric times had cut themselves off from the outside world. For many centuries they had remained ignorant of what was happening in the great empires of Egypt and Babylon and had largely forgotten the ancient worlds of Crete and Mycenae. But as the Pre-Socratic thinker appeared on the scene, the Greeks were catching up with the experience, the knowledge, and the achievements of the surrounding world. As traders of horses, olive oil, wine, and ceramic goods they renewed contact with their neighbors in the Eastern Mediterranean region. The resulting affluence produced, in turn, increasing populations which again led to emigration and new settlements to the East and the West. In consequence of their links to Babylonia the Greeks became belatedly literate, learned mathematics and astronomy, and the practice of law. They saw themselves of a sudden, moreover, confronted with a variety of cultures, from the venerable traditions of Egypt and the military prowess of neighboring Persia to the wisdom of a distant and half-known India. Their own old traditions and beliefs appeared to them, accordingly, to be of a diminished and merely relative value. But they responded to this discovery not by abandoning themselves to one of the superior cultures around them; they re-affirmed, instead, their own uniqueness and independence.

In this they succeeded by refusing from now on to rely on the language of their old myths. They sought to explain the world, instead, as a domain of brute attractions and equally brute repulsions, as built on anonymous principles like water, or air, or the indefinite, as composed from such faceless material as the hot and the cold, the dry and the moist. They would no longer think of their gods – and some had doubts that those  existed at all – as autonomous agents but believed them to be under the sway of inexorable natural necessities. Human life could, in consequence, no longer be seen as lived in their shadow and under their protection. Unable to believe any longer in the power of their old incantations, the Greeks concluded that they had, instead, to take care of themselves.[7] They began to see that the human condition was deeply uncertain and that only by acting in consort could human beings assure their survival. But they recognized also that the means available for that purpose were never fully reliable. Political actions and political institutions might help to mitigate human uncertainty but they could never remove it altogether. Politics was, thus, a fallible, a precarious, and a potentially tragic business but it also provided the only recourse available. The Greeks were alerted to all this because their political independence was threatened by the Persians from across the ocean; at home their old monarchical and aristocratic systems were giving way to populist tyrannies; their religious values were under fire; trade and colonization forced upon them new ways of thinking and organizing; contact with other civilizations made them perceive the relativity of their own. Growing populations and colonization all over the Mediterranean world necessitated again and again decisions about what kind of political order to institute. With the spread of literacy came a new stress on writing, on written contracts and published law (nomos) and, hence, finally on the idea of the anonymous application of these written instruments (isonomia). From this emerged in due course the speculative ideal of a general political equality which was hailed by some as an advance of the common man and contested by others as destructive of every order. It was in this context, this turmoil, this that the Greeks came to identify the political and the human,  that human life came to be understood as inherently political, and that the formula that man is by nature a political animal came first to be conceived. The people of Homeric Greece had been subjects of ancient kings, the Greek peasants of the dark interregnum had been under the rule of their local lords. Neither of them could have thought of themselves as inherently political animals. But two generations before Plato, in the midst of the democratic revolution of fifth century, the Greeks could all of a sudden assert with confidence that everyone possesses a capacity for politics.

The pre-philosophical age came in this way upon the idea and the ideal of a new politics. It captured this new understanding in the formula that politics is “the care of the common,” the “epimeleia tou koinou” or more commonly the “epimeleia koinonias.” The pre-philosophical Greeks understood that, in a sense, every form of political order, whether monarchic, oligarchic, tyrannical, or democratic is part of a common endeavor, that all forms of political order and all concepts of the political share common features. Any form of political organization and any understanding of what it is to be political exemplify the human need for a care of the common even though not every form of such care is an exercise undertaken in common. In speaking of politics as the care of the common they captured, in other words, a generic concept and understanding of the nature of politics, one that encompasses all forms of political order and all the specific conceptions connected to any such order. But they also thought that democracy was more truly and more fully political and not just one among other forms of political organization. It was crucial, in other words, to their thinking that in their formula the term “koinonias” can serve as both subject and object. The realization of the inherent uncertainty of the human condition led them not only to understand the need for a care of the common but to conclude also that this care had to be achieved through common endeavor. The pre-philosophical Greeks thought, in a word, that politics must be taken to be both a care directed towards the community and one exercised by it.

We call this new conception “democracy” and fail to realize that this term was, in fact, an invention of the opponents of the new kind of politics and that the term obscures as much as it illuminates what was happening at the time. The opponents said that this new politics amounted, in fact, to a tyranny of the masses, the exercise of might (kratos) by inferior folks (demos). The Periclean state was one, as we know, in which every qualified male was expected to participate in the regular meetings of the public assembly, in which a complex division of the city into districts and tribes was meant to assure that everyone had a share in public decision making,  in which a deliberative council and individual officers were selected annually by lot rather than vote so as to prevent the domination of a majority view, in which the officers of state were held responsible for their official actions and could be punished with fines, exile, or even death. At first sight, this democracy might look “as though this is the finest or most beautiful of the constitutions, for, like a coat embroidered with every kind of ornament, this city, embroidered with every kind of character type, would seem to be the most beautiful,” as  Plato, the inveterate enemy of this kind of state, was to put it but he was sure that it would look so only to women and children. (Republic, 557c) It was a city, he wrote, which, in fact, “distributes a sort of equality to both equals and unequals alike.” (558c) A city of “extreme permissiveness,” of “excessive action,” and of “extreme freedom” which was bound to turn into tyranny and “the most severe and cruel slavery.” (563d-564a) This is not what the pre-philosophical Greeks expected. They sought rather to replace might and rule with cooperation, obedience and subjection with civic friendship, the political power of the few with a system of participation. They created thus an entirely new form of political organization with which we today still identify – even though our political reality differs radically from what the pre-philosophical Greeks had in mind. We only see dimly now, moreover, that the invention of this new form of politics went hand-in-hand with the creation of a new concept of the political and that it was this conception that gave life to the new politics.

What generated the need for this new politics and this new concept of the political were, first of all, the uncertainties of the historical moment in which the pre-philosophical Greeks found themselves. But they realized quickly that the new institutions would only modify those uncertainties and not remove them and that they might always fail and thus return existence to its initial uncertain state. No wonder that they saw terror inherent in politics and also the possibility of tragic failure. They gave expression to this insight in their tragic plays whose performance, we must not forget, had always a political meaning.[8]  But we must not forget that a man like Sophocles was deeply embroiled in the politics of his time, that he was a friend of both Pericles and Protagoras and that the mythical Thebes that appears in his plays is not that distant from his own Athens. If we are to look to the Periclean state, on the one hand, to fill out our picture of the Protagorean understanding of politics, we must, on the other hand, also look to the Sophoclean drama to do so. Given the paucity of our sources we can, in fact, get a picture of Protagoras’ view of politics only by triangulating between Protagoras, Pericles, and Sophocles.


Politics and tragedy

One can read a play like Sophocles’ Antigone in more than one way, but the play is surely also, among other things, a warning against arbitrary monarchical power, a picture of the destructiveness of fratricidal strife, a reminder of the laws of the Earth that are older than those of the gods, a hymn to Dionysian freedom as the true foundation of the polis, and above all an acknowledgment of the precariousness of city life, of the fundamental uncertainty of everything human and everything political.  In the Sophoclean drama, man emerges from the dark into a moment of civic existence only to be forced back again into the darkness. Oedipus who was an abandoned child and was brought up in exile, becomes through a twist of fate the ruler of his native Thebes and the husband of his own mother, only to be discovered, dishonored, cursed, blinded, and outcast until he finds peace at Kolonos – Sophocles’s own birthplace on the edge of contemporary Athens. One lesson stands out in all tragic stories: “The power of fate is awesome; neither wealth nor military force nor a wall nor black ships in the roaring sea can escape it.” (Antigone, 951ff.)[9] Sophocles himself calls that power “deinos” – a word that shimmers with radically contrasting associations, suggesting fear, terror, disaster but also wonder, power, and awe. Deinos characterizes for Sophocles also the human essence. “Many things are awesome (deinos),” his chorus sings in Antigone, “but none more awesome than man.” (332) In his awesome power man subjects the earth and its riches, acquires speech and thought and the capacity for political life. His condition is nevertheless one of ultimate helplessness (amechania). Despite the contrivances of his skills (to mechanoen technas) and his ability to heal his diseases he cannot escape death nor the inevitable cycle of noble achievement and destruction.[10]

Antigone gives us a particularly fully articulated picture of this condition. Its action takes place against the shaky political background of the mythical city of Thebes (standing here in a sense for Athens herself). As the play begins the city has just come through the destructive quarrel of Eteocles and Polynices, the two sons of Oedipus. Eteocles had taken possession of Thebes after Oedipus’s desertion, while Polynices had gone to Argos to gather an army against his own brother and city. In the ensuing strife, both brothers had fallen. But new threats, new insecurities are already on the horizon, set in motion by the conflicting demands of traditional familial obligations (“the laws of the earth”), divine law, kingly power, and the need of the city to survive.

It appears in Antigone that human beings are left to sort out their own problems for the gods are silent and seem, indeed, to have withdrawn from the world. They certainly do not intervene in human affairs as they once did in the Homeric age. Only one thing is certain in this new dispensation – that “fortune (tyche) makes straight and fortune brings down at all times the fortunate man as well as the unfortunate one; no prophet can tell mortals what is ordained.” (1158f.) Thrown to fate and fortune, uncertain of the consequences of their own actions, ignorant or blinded by illusion men are bound to play their murderous game. Strife is inevitable under such stars; and the fronts between friends and enemies are continuously reversed. The city knows at the same time that it can survive only if its citizens learn to act together. Still, there is no fixed prescription; no reliable formula then can bring relief from the suffering. All human judgment proves fallible in these matters since “all men are liable to make mistakes” (1023f.) and “second thoughts prove one’s judgment wrong.” (388f)  Under these circumstances, “the best of all possessions is good counsel,” (1050) the voicing of differences, the weighing of opinions, the striking of compromises, the making of decisions based on cautious deliberation. Not that these prove infallible means for overcoming the uncertainties of human condition.

Antigone also teaches us that the city can persist through its uncertainties. Neither the suffering of Oedipus, nor the quarrels of his two sons, nor Antigone’s confrontation with Kreon bring Thebes down. For “there is no city that belongs to a single man” (737) and the destiny of the rulers is not necessarily that of the people. The citizens must, for that reason, never tie their fate too closely to that of their masters, for “Zeus detests the boast of a proud tongue” (127f.) and “rulers tend to corruption.” (1056) Their great words will eventually be struck down with equally great blows and they will be forced to learn good sense in old age. (1350ff.) The city is justified to cleanse itself, then, of the leaders who have failed. Kreon is forced to leave the city just as Oedipus had been made to leave before him. Passive, short-sighted, long-suffering as the citizens are, they can still ultimately celebrate their city’s survival in the midst of its suffering, strife, and uncertainty. As the play ends and Kreon has finally decided to settle his quarrel with Antigone (but too late, as it turns out), the citizens turn their thoughts once again to celebrating Dionysos, the god who is also the patron of democratic Athens. “Hail, leader of the dance of the stars breathing fire,” they sing, “master of the voices of the night, son of Zeus, come forth, Lord, with your attendant Thyiads dancing frenzied all night to Iacchos, the great giver.” (1146f.) Dionysus, the god dismembered and reborn, proves the appropriate god for the city – Dionysos who disrupts the sobrieties of everyday life, who breaks all conventions and ties, who injects the uncertainties of his frenzy into the implacable necessities of reason. Dionysos is the one who subverts, undermines, disturbs the established order, he is, in short, uncertainty embodied in the form of a god but he  also embodies the vital, productive force of this uncertainty. It is for this reason that Euripides will call him “the god who truly is the kindest and the cruelest of all to mankind.” (Bacchae, 27f.) and to whom his chorus of citizens can sing in praise: “Once I was bound here like an alien slave. Now, I’m free of my chains.” (Ibid., 1017f.)

For the pre-philosophical Greeks it was dangerous to ignore the power of the divine Dionysos and the uncertainty he brings with him. For this uncertainty holds the promise of exceptional benefits even though it can also destroy us. As the kindest and cruelest force Dionysos needs our worship, respect, recognition. We moderns tend to see politics by contrast as means for relieving us of our uncertainties and we are for that reason inevitable tied to the model of the security state. Terror is for us only something to wage war against. The pre-philosophical Greeks thought of it as necessary for being human. The readiness to maintain and accept and live in uncertainty is really at the heart of what we call freedom. Freedom is not the ability to do what is right nor is it the ability to do what one wants. Neither the concept of positive nor that of negative freedom is sufficient to capture its character since both of these are possible only under secure conditions. What we now call freedom is in fact generally nothing but the lack freedom. We want to be able do what we want without fear of being stopped, to live, move, buy and sell without being interrupted. But real freedom savors uncertainty, recognizes risk, celebrates disruption, acknowledged danger and the possibility of failure. Freedom is the capacity to face the uncertain and to make it and our knowledge of it productive.  In the pursuit of a rational, “Apollinian,” order we are like the citizens of ancient Thebes who have forgotten the magic power of Dionysian uncertainty. It is only by renewing the Dionysian spell that we can hope to escape the destructive power of this uncertainty and turn it to vital ends.

These are, no doubt, heady considerations, but they go hand in hand with the inception of the Protagorean concept of the political, and the historical foundation of Greek democracy. They certainly reveal how far we have moved from the pre-philosophical view of politics. But reminding ourselves of them may prove unexpectedly helpful in our own precarious political situation. We find ourselves today in a situation not unlike the Greeks of that age. We have come to see once again that there is no metaphysical ground under our feet and that we cannot hope for a miraculous deliverance from our evils. We, too, see old institutions dissolving and we also see a new and as yet uncomprehended social order appearing before us. In one sense we are even worse off than the pre-philosophical Greeks. They were hopeful about the powers of politics; whereas we are no longer certain that political actions and institutions can relieve us of our evils. Where they were gaining a new concept of the political, we are, so it appears, losing ours. The question for us is then whether and from where to recapture an understanding of politics. And in asking that question we may find it useful to reflect on the ideas that guided those pre-philosophical Greeks in constructing their own political  order when they came to see that politics is most fruitfully conceived not in terms of friends and enemies, not in terms of violence and subjection, not in terms of economic interest and the market, not in terms of an unsecured liberty and a spurious autonomy, not as an overweening will to power or the endless rotation of power relations, but simply as care of the common, that is, as recognition that uncertainty is the constitutive moment of  politics, that human life calls for care, that everyone has a share in being political, that to be political and to be human are in some ways one, that politics can never guarantee security, that human uncertainty remains after all human effort and should be celebrated as the true foundation of freedom, that our  politics is tragic like life itself, behind the facades a constant conjunction of necessity and disaster.


Protagorean politics

The most vivid reflection on the pre-philosophical understanding of politics comes to us from the sophist Protagoras. It was Protagoras who, as far as we know, first elaborated the concept of politics as the care of the common. At that time Plato had still to invent the word, the concept, and, indeed, the reality of what we now know as philosophy.

In contrast to Plato, Protagoras was deeply engaged in the world and he did not assume that we can justify our political order by appealing to ultimate, metaphysical or theological grounds. He was, indeed, skeptical of the usual attempts to do so. He began one of his books accordingly with the words: “Concerning the gods I cannot say either that they exist or that they do not, or what they are like in form; for there are many obstacles to knowledge: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.” And by this he did not simply mean to declare himself an agnostic. He sought, rather, to strip the world of its metaphysical grounding and to leave it as such uncertain, contingent, and political. He extended this sense of uncertainty, in particular, to human knowledge, declaring that “man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, and of those that are not that they are not.” Each individual he held to have his own particular grasp of the world to which that individual was fully entitled even though not everyone is equally healthy and, hence, not everyone equally justified in his truth. This general picture of the human condition had for him significant political implications. Since human beings cannot rely divine guidance in their affairs and can have no absolutely certainty in their beliefs they must take care of themselves as best as they can in their civil existence. They are forced to pursue the care of the common without the help of absolute truths, proceeding instead from fallible assumptions, seeking to establish and maintain bonds of friendship and justice through their own constant effort.

In the Platonic Protagoras this understanding of politics is cast in the form of a myth put in the mouth of Protagoras. In this myth the gods created the world but abandoned the project well before the task was completed. The heroes Prometheus and Epimetheus (“Forethought” and “Afterthought”) were thus left to finish the job but botched it. In equipping the animals, Epimetheus, “not a particular clever person,” thoughtlessly lavished all his resources on the non-human creatures and as a result man was left “naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed.” (321c) [11] In desperation, Prometheus stole fire and technical skills from the gods and bestowed them on men so that they could create language, build houses, make clothes, shoes, and bedding, and obtain food from the earth. But this proved insufficient for their survival since “there were no cities” and men were, in consequence, devoured by wild beasts. They were in every respect weaker than those beasts “and their technical skill, though a sufficient aid to their nurture, did not extend to making war on the beasts, for they had not the art of politics, of which the art of war is a part.” (322b) Perceiving this, Zeus eventually took pity and decided to provide human beings with a sense of respect and fairness “so as to bring order in our cities and create bonds of friendship and union.” (322c) When Hermes, who was to deliver these goods, asked how he was to distribute them Zeus replied: “Let all have their share. There could never be cities if only a few shared in these virtues, as in the arts.” (322d)

One must stop at this point in the story to weigh its astonishing implications. Protagoras, so it appears, has three basic political insights. The first is that human beings are forced to engage in politics because the gods do not take care of them and they must, therefore, take care of themselves. In the Protagorean myth the gods have, in fact, forsaken the world even before its completion and politics is thus, so to speak, a godless business; it is work in a god-forsaken world Shocking as this thought may be, it is still an essential ingredient in our political thinking. It is explicitly present in the thinking of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Schmitt, and Arendt and lies behind all distinctions between the secular sphere and the domain of religion. Anyone genuinely convinced that god takes care of each hair on his head will hardly find reasons for engaging in politics. Whatever happens will be for him a sign of god’s will. How could human machination hope to improve on god’s design? Of course, both believers engage in politics but both must in some ways subscribe to the Protagorean thought that god does not fully take care of human life and that human beings are therefore forced to do so themselves. There is a second and equally important insight contained in the Protagorean story. According to it, human beings are forced to be political because they are under-endowed by nature. They can, therefore, be described only in negative terms as “naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed.” The remark foreshadows Hobbes and his observation that human life under natural, a-political conditions will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Human beings are, in other words, for both Protagoras and Hobbes essentially creatures of need and they are so more profoundly than any animal. Nature does certainly not supply to them abundantly and freely. They must, rather, achieve their survival through their own effort. In contrast to the animals, human beings do not even possess the natural means to cater for their own needs. If they want to survive, they must create their own human world, make up language, produce clothes, build houses, and obtain food. They are not natural beings but creatures of artifice, forced to be clever, and thus the true children of Prometheus. To this Protagoras adds as a third insight that there exists no natural political order and hence no naturally established political hierarchy. Human beings are, rather, naturally unqualified and awkward in their relations with each other. When they first  attempt to make cities they fail and their civic order falls quickly into disarray. They are not even naturally capable of waging war, since warfare is part of the art of politics and it is precisely this that they naturally lack. Thus, human politics, when it finally comes into being, is preceded by anarchic conditions and it may always lapse back into those. What Protagoras says comes then to this: politics is a godless business; politics is an “unnatural” business; politics is grounded in anarchy.

For Protagoras it is evident that human beings will need two kinds of skill to survive. The first are technical skills. Men must have the capacity to compensate for their natural shortcomings and to satisfy their basic needs. But Protagoras is convinced that these Promethean skills are divided unevenly among human beings and that from this has arisen a natural division of labor. But technical skills alone are insufficient to guarantee human survival. Humans must also know how to live together, how to cooperate, how to form communities and cities. In other words, they must also have political skills. And these must be had by all. Asking himself “is there or is there not some one thing in which all citizens must share, if a polis is to exist at all?” (324e), Protagoras replies that “a man cannot be without some share of fairness, or he would not be human.” (323c) Therefore, “when the subject is political competence,… everyone must share in this kind of virtue; otherwise the state could not exist.” (322e-323a) He adds, moreover, that the Athenians agree with him on this point. They defer to experts when faced with technical questions because they believe that technical skills are distributed unevenly, “but when the subject of their debate involves political wisdom, … they listen to every man’s opinion.” (323a) Athenian democracy is, thus, justified in giving everyone a voice in political matters. Protagoras does not mean by this, however, that all opinions are to count as equal. While all voices must be heard and respected and everyone is entitled to his own view of the world, not all opinions are equally justified. He allows that everyone must have a share in the political skills but he is not committed to the idea that everyone has an equal proportion of such skills. Challenged to explain why the sons of Pericles seem less politically adept than their father, he readily admits that in politics, too, bad sons may be  born to good fathers and good sons to bad fathers. Everyone can nevertheless still nurture and develop the basic political skills they have and thereby, to some extent, make up for the low degree of his natural political endowment. As a result, even “the most unjust person ever reared among human laws and among humans is a just man and a craftsman of justice” in “comparison with people who lacked education and law courts and laws and any constant compulsion to the pursuit of virtue.” (327c-d)

In this assessment Protagoras is seriously at odds with Plato. The latter certainly rejects the egalitarian and democratic implications of Protagoras’s view and he justifies this rejection by ultimately refusing to distinguish between technical and political skills. Every skill is for Plato a form of competence (areté) and all competence is of one kind. There is indeed, in a sense, only one single areté and it is to be considered a kind of knowledge (episteme) and as such, like all knowledge, unevenly distributed among human beings. Only a few, in other words, are likely to have political skills in Plato’s picture and if politics is needed for human survival than these few must be put in charge. Hence, the profoundly anti-democratic tone of Platonic politics.

The contrast between Protagoras and Plato is, however, less extreme than it appears at first sight. While Protagoras assumes that political competence is something that everyone must have as a divine gift  – or, let us say, as a natural endowment -, this competence is to begin with only as a basic, raw, undeveloped capacity. A fully realized political competence is, by contrast, “not by nature or of spontaneous growth, but in whomsoever it is present the result of teaching and practice.” (323c) Only through care (epimeleia) can men develop respect for each other, a sense of fairness or justice; only through care can they learn to form bonds of friendship, and thus, in short, acquire political competence. Politics is, in fact, embodied in all those acts of care that develop, nurture, and maintain the distinctively political qualities. Care is, thus, on Protagoras’s view not merely the precondition of politics but constitutes its content and essence. We can even say in reverse that all teaching is political in character in that it is a nurturing of political skills. Thus child-rearing is for Protagoras part of that care which develops political competence. “As soon as a child can understand what is said to him, nurse, mother, tutor and the father himself vie with each other to make him as good as possible, instructing him through everything he does or says, pointing out: ‘this is right, and that is wrong, this honorable and that disgraceful, this holy, that impious: do this, don’t do that.’ If he is obedient, well and good. If not, they straighten him with threats and beatings, like a warped and twisted plank.” (325d) Protagoras evidently conceives of politics here in broader terms than we are used to. Child-rearing is for us part of the child’s “socialization” and not part of any specifically political training. But we must recall here that Protagoras and the Greeks lacked altogether our concept of the social. This does not mean that they used the word “politikós” indiscriminately to refer to “political” and “social” things in the modern sense of these words. It is, rather, that for the Greeks all everything we call social was political in roughly our modern sense of that word. Thus, religious practices, athletic games, and theatrical performances, for example, were for the Greeks political events. They were part of the life of the polis, financed through public funds, politically controlled, and directly intertwined with other aspects of polis life that even we would recognize as genuinely political. The Greeks did therefore not think of politics as a particular kind of “social” phenomenon and of political institutions as a subclass of “social” institutions. It is thus also that Protagoras could conceive of what we would call the child’s socialization as a paradigmatically political process.[12] The crucial point for him was that human beings can assure their survival only by working together and that this requires constant nurture or care. Nurture or care is, thus, of the essence of politics. Politics is, indeed, the care of the common, the epimeleia koinonias and with this we have found the term that more than any other one encapsulates the Protagorean conception of politics.

We can call this conception a pedagogical one. At the heart of politics lies, on this view, a cultivation of the individual that will make him a suitable member of the polis. Politics is, in other words, not understood as primarily focused on questions of economics, or conflict, or even rule. Protagoras has, in fact, nothing to say about economic matters, or warfare, or even the detailed forms of political organization which so often constitute the subject-matter of political theorizing. At the heart of the Protagorean understanding of politics lies rather the ideal of Greek “paideia.” This becomes more apparent as Protagoras elaborates on the idea of politics as a care of the common. After child-rearing conceived as part of such care comes for him the inculcating of manners in school, instruction in writing, the reading of good poets, and the learning of inspirational poems – all of which are to be conceived in political terms. Protagoras declares even instruction in music to have a political function insofar as it teaches a student self-control and because knowledge of rhythms and harmonies makes him more civil, more cultivated “for to be more rhythmic and more harmonious is essential to speaking and acting.” (326b) The same holds for physical training; it, too, has a political purpose for Protagoras since it is essential “that a good mind may have a good body to serve it.” (326b) At a further and third stage in the process of political education the city compels boys to learn the laws and to use them as patterns for their own lives. “The city sets up laws devised by good lawgivers of the past, and compels citizens to rule and be ruled in accordance with them. Whoever strays outside the lines, it punishes.” (326e)

This is, however, by no means the end of the story. While Plato stops his account of Protagoras’ view of politics at this point, the story calls clearly for continuation. According to his own declarations, Protagoras believes himself capable of further enhancing the political skills of his students. Asked what he offers to his students, he answers: “The proper counsel in his personal affairs, so that he may best manage his household, and also the state’s affairs, so as to become a real power in the city, both as a speaker and a man of action.” (318e) The Protagorean art thus goes beyond the pedagogical care that parents, schoolteachers, and even the city in general offer. He means to train students in being effective speakers who can put forward persuasive arguments, influence and sway the public assembly, make and enforce laws and these additional skills are as much part of politics, and instruction in them part of political training, as the skills developed in the earlier stages of education.

Protagoras qualifies and modifies in this way his initially egalitarian conception of politics. While he assumes that everyone has a share in the political capacities (though, perhaps, to varying degrees), he is fully aware that not everyone has an equal chance to develop them. Parents, teachers, and the community at large will help to develop these capacities to some degree, but only the affluent can afford to have their offspring coached in athletics, schooled in the arts, and educated in the law. “That is what people do who are most powerful; and the most powerful are the wealthiest. Their sons begin school at the earliest age, and are freed from it at the latest.” (326c) It is from this class, also, that Protagoras draws his students. If sophistical teaching actually succeeds in its goals, its graduates will have indisputable advantages in political life and particularly so in a “democracy” where verbal skills are decisive. Protagoras’ pedagogic conception of politics allows thus for an elitist and ultimately anti-democratic twist. This will become more obvious when Plato and Aristotle adopt Protagoras’ pedagogical model of politics. For both of them education is at the heart of politics, just as it had been for Protagoras. But Plato believes that only the few have the necessary capacities to benefit from such a political pedagogy, and Aristotle thinks that only the few will have the opportunity to do so. They take the Protagorean conception of politics, in other words, and shift it further in the elitist direction.

Protagoras, by contrast, understands his formula to imply the validity of the democratic organization of politics. But this commitment to this ideal is marred since he so readily accepts that not everyone will have a chance to profit from the process of political pedagogy. The powerful and rich will have a decisive advantage and their political skills will, for that reason, be more finely honed than those of other citizens. In conceiving the care of the common as a pedagogic process, Protagoras, furthermore, accepts the idea of an inherent inequality between those in authority (nurse, parent, trainer, the law) and those under their guidance. As a result, the original picture of an egalitarian politics begins to give way to the idea of the rule of the properly trained and that, in turn, suggests the idea of the rule of the trainers. Protagoras’ pedagogical version of politics turns, thus, easily, into the rule of pedagogues and Plato’s philosopher-guardians are waiting in the wings. Such assumptions have become problematic for us and can certainly not form the base of our understanding of politics. Protagoras’ understanding of the care of the common can therefore not be our own.

We can mitigate this shortcoming in the Protagorean conception by understanding pedagogy in a somewhat different fashion, not, that is, as the unequal relation between a master and a pupil, but allowing for the possibility that these roles can change and that he who is master in one discipline may well be a pupil in another, that teaching can, indeed, be mutual and learning shared. This picture does not do away with all expertise, but it allows for the possibility that in politics, at least, the weights are not as permanently and as clearly divided as the Platonic conception of politics might suggest. It may be possible in this way to save Protagoras from himself or, at least, from being embraced by the Platonist. It is possible, indeed, I am here sketching the intentions of the real, historical Protagoras and that the other picture is one that is of Plato’s making

There is, however, a difficult we must admit with the Protagorean interpretation of the care of the common. He takes his formula, indubitably, to mean quite specifically that politics is the care of community and that this community is the polis. That is presumably why he speaks mostly of the epimeleia koinonias rather than the epimeleia tou koinou. But we are no longer sure that we can take community for granted. This is perhaps, once again, not irreconcilable with Protagoras’ intentions. He appears, indeed, to be thinking that the human community is not naturally given but that we must strive to establish, define, and preserve it through the acts that constitute the care of the common. This would agree with our sentiment that if there is to be community for us we first need make it. But Protagoras appears at the same time convinced that this community will naturally turn out to be the polis. In this he is once again in agreement with the Platonic-Aristotelian conception of politics. But we no longer live in a polis; our cities are not politically self-contained entities. In seeing politics in terms of the polis Protagoras finds himself, on the other hand, confined by the historical conditions of the polis as it more or less was in his time, that is, with its inherent inequalities, its gulf between rich and poor, its assignment of an inferior status to women, its political exclusion of slaves. For all these reasons we find ourselves somewhat removed from Protagorean conception of the political and forced to raise the question anew what it could mean for us to engage in the care of the common.

To summarize then the Protagorean outlook: we are forced to be political because neither god nor nature takes care of us. We must, instead, take care of ourselves but can do so only by living and acting together. Human life is possible only as life in the common, but in order to live such a life we must have a shared sense of the common and this means that we must the develop the virtues of friendship, fairness, and mutual respect. While every normal human being possesses the capacity to do so, these virtues are merely rudimentary in their natural state and require constant attendance. Politics is the unfolding of our capacity for living and acting together and it is therefore in essence a pedagogic undertaking.. Politics is literally speaking the care of the common. As such it is not a second best and not something we should hope one day to outlive. It is, rather, the means by which we make ourselves fully human. Man is for this reason a genuinely political being.

For all its possible flaws, this is still a profound and illuminating way to think about politics. It is, in any case, one that we need to attend, if we want to answer the question what it could mean for us today to be political. But we should not think that we can simply adopt the Protagorean formula. The solution to our own political dilemmas is not to be found by going back to the past. Protagoras and his understanding of politics are of interest to us, first of all, because they precede our whole philosophical tradition and they are thus not yet burdened by its assumptions about politics – assumptions which we now find increasingly problematic. The Protagorean formula useful also in that it alerts us to the generic understanding that underlies it. That understanding permits a still wider and still more productive range of interpretations and may be able to help us in this way in finding a suitable concept of the political for our own moment. We may conclude then that the words of the Protagorean formula are still useful to us but that we may have to fill them with new and perhaps more radical meanings.


Plato’s invention of philosophy

Philosophy as we know it today was invented by Plato who cast his teacher Socrates in the role of being the first philosopher. This figure was meant to replace that of the Pre-Socratic thinker in all his variations. Plato succeeded in this remarkable undertaking because he managed to change “the idiom of the Greek tongue.”[13] To this end, Plato’s writings deployed, first of all, a new, more highly articulated syntax than the Pre-Socratic thinkers had ever used as well a new vocabulary and a new style of discourse. Plato increased the use of words like “and” and “or”, “if…, then…”, “all,” “some” and “not” (words we now call “logical terms”) and was thus able to generate sentences of greater syntactic complexity. This use of a new and more abstract vocabulary helped him, in turn, in replacing the older, more imagistic and more metaphorical use of language and put in its place a conceptual discourse. Wielding this new vocabulary has come to be known to us as logical reasoning – a pleonastic expression that alerts us to the linguistic and discursive element in the new philosophical practice (logos = word or sentence). Its introduction into our thinking has had numerous and rich consequences. For Plato the most of them was that the complex linguistic operations allowed now longer lines of argumentation and these encouraged him to conclude that at the end would stand some principle that neither required nor was capable of further justification, that is, in other words, a self-evident truth, a timeless and ultimate principle. Where a principle (arche) had for the Pre-Socratic thinkers been a real and material part of the temporal world, a principle now became for Plato a timeless reality, a universal “archetype,” a form, an idea.

Politics was never very far from Plato’s mind. This made him think of his ideas in yet another sense. They explained not only what everything is and why it is but also told us what everything should or should not be. The ideas had, in other words, also normative power. Politics, he concluded, could ultimately be understood only in terms of these ideas and to those capable of deploying the newly developed techniques of reason. There had, thus, to be an understanding of politics accessible only to the few and the experts. In this way political philosophy was born or, to speak even more precisely, political science (politike episteme). This science was utterly different from the political thinking of the pre-philosophical period. It too had deployed language but in a very different manner. Language is, of course, decisive for all kinds of politics and for all kinds of thinking about political matters. It serves as the medium in which events are related, deliberations are conducted, explanations provided, and commands are issued. In more advanced political systems, written language serves as an effective means for transmitting and preserving knowledge, for extending the scope of political communication, for the fixing and promulgating of decisions and laws. That practical use of language in politics is, of course, to be distinguished from another and (we might say) secondary employment in which politics becomes a subject for rumination. Political “thought” of this kind is, for one thing, always a product of leisure. It arises when physical and mental resources are not used up in the pursuit of immediate needs. We see this clearly exemplified in Heraclitus who disdained actual politics in favor of watching children at play. The role of their dice, their contests and contestations provided him with illuminating metaphors for understanding the world. Politics, too, he thought could be conceived in these terms. God is a child, he said, that plays. And conflict is the father of everything and king of all. The cosmos is held together by the tension of opposites. Such insights he considered incompatible with actual political practice where mean seemed to him always asleep and full of dreams in their moist souls. Heraclitus is surely the first Greek thinker who wants to look at politics from a deliberately external and higher view-point. His contempt for the ordinary man and for the affairs of ordinary politics will be adopted by Plato but for all that he is not yet a political philosopher in the Platonic sense for his thinking remains intuitive and imagistic, expressed through vivid aphorisms rather than chains of reasoned argumentation. Plato depicts Protagoras as being similarly pre-philosophical. While Protagoras differs from Heraclitus in being a fully engaged political thinker and his perspectivism stops him from assuming the possibility of a privileged higher view of political matters, his language remains cast in metaphorical and narrative terms. Plato’s political philosophy aims, by contrast, at literal truth; it is expressed in carefully articulated, argumentative prose, and believes itself in possession of the magisterial authority of reason.

Plato never fully succeeded in constructing the political science he envisaged. Aristotle’s Politics can lay greater claim to being a scientific study of politics. Hobbes, in turn, revised the project in modern, mechanistic terms and since then the study of politics has fully emancipated itself into a political science. But it is still far from clear how much of a science even this modern undertaking could be. If Schmitt, Arendt, and Foucault are right, then there is no outside stance from which politics can be seen objectively and the prospects for a political science in the Platonic and classical are dim. Plato himself found it necessary again and again to go beyond the confines of reasoned argumentation and to speak of politics again and again in narrative and mythological terms. This is evident in the Republic and the Laws but just as much in The Statesman which is supposed to show us the uses of the new logical techniques for the understanding of politics.[14] The mythological narrative is meant to communicate to us and plausible to us what we cannot (or not as yet) grasp in concepts. It is seen as an extension of our rational discourse partly for didactic reasons, partly for the uses of those uninitiated in the proper business of philosophy, and partly a concession to the earlier, pre-philosophical forms of thinking. We have to wait till Aristotle to get a fully reasoned and unmythical treatment of politics.


The Platonic myth

The Statesman is like any other Platonic dialogue concerned with a number of different (though interrelated) matters. One of its concerns is to find a characterization of the politikós, i. e., the “statesman,” or “king”, and through this of the nature of politics; another is a radical critique of democracy, a third, the explication and exemplification of a logical technique. In the course of this complex enterprise Plato seeks, at first to give a straightforward definition of the statesman which concludes that politics is the art of tending of a human herd. “But no other art would advance a stronger claim than that of kingship to be the art of caring for the whole human community (epiméleia dé ge anthropínes sympáses koinonías),” Plato writes and adds right away that this art will also be that of “ruling all mankind (pánton anthrópon arches eînai téchne).” (276C) In order to explain why care must, as here indicated, take inevitably the form of ruling, he embarks on the telling of a myth that mimics the one he had used to characterize the Protagorean understanding of politics. Once again the setting is the world as a whole, cosmic history, the history of an evolving (and, in Plato’s case, revolving) universe.

            Once the cosmos was steered by the god Kronos, Plato’s narrative tells us. He ruled the whole universe and took care of its cosmic rotations. Divine spirits divided the living things among themselves at that time and like herdsmen provided for all their needs “so that none of them was savage, nor did they eat each other and there was no war or internal strife at all.” (271e) Human beings, too, lived without toil in this age. “A god tended them…and given his tendance, they had no political constitutions.” (272a) But eventually came the moment when “the steersman of the cosmos, let go – as it were – of the bar of the steering-oars and withdrew to his eerie.” (272e) Then the cosmos was thrown into turmoil and human beings suddenly found themselves without their accustomed resources. “Their food supply was no longer freely available and they did not yet know how to provide for themselves, having had no shortage to force them to do so before.” (274c) They had to fall back then on the gifts the gods had left them – “fire from Prometheus, crafts from Hephaestus and his fellow craft worker, seeds and plants from others” (274c) – and through teaching and learning they finally managed to take care of themselves. But such human care-taking is always imperfect and at best manages only to hold up the decay that is inevitable in a world lacking divine guidance. At first, after the god had withdrawn from the cosmos, it still moved more or less according to the divine principles, but with passing time its disharmony inevitably increased. Finally, it is bound to reach the point “where it is in danger of destroying both itself and the things in it.” Then at last the god, “concerned that it should not, storm tossed as it is, be broken apart in confusion and sink into the boundless sea of unlikeness, takes his position again at its steering-oars, and having turned round what has become unsound and broken apart in the previous rotation, when the world was left to itself, puts it in order and setting it straight makes it immortal and ageless.” (273d-e)

As in the case of Protagoras we must, once again, ask ourselves what part of this  fantasy we are meant to take seriously. We can say for sure that there exists for Plato a highest principle, a point of origin from which everything derives and on which everything depends. This point we can call the arché, which means literally the beginning and origin of everything. In the mouth of the Pre-Socratic thinkers the word had also already come to mean the abstract principle from which things derive and of which they may be composed (such as water or air or the indefinite). Since Homeric times, the word has, moreover, also meant political rule. It appears that Plato’s tale relies on all these meanings. The entire cosmos is for him an “archeic” structure, a system of rule. Its ruling principle is, however, not part of the temporal world; eternal and ageless it lies, rather, outside the cosmos and serves as measure and standard for all that exists in it. This temporal world is always in danger of sliding away from this measure and standard, away that is from the self-identity of the forms (goodness is good, beauty is beautiful) into what Plato calls colorfully :the boundless sea of unlikeness,” that is, of unlikeness to the ideas and thus to the principles of reality. In human life, when it is left to its own devices, there is for that reason always the danger of decline and corruption. The political task must therefore be to restore and maintain the arché. But human effort alone cannot do so; it can, at best, only delay the decline. For that reason, our only and ultimate hope is that the original arché will restore itself to the world.

Looked at more closely, the story proves to be just as disconcerting as the one that Plato had put into the mouth of Protagoras. Plato agrees, with Protagoras that we are forced to engage in politics only because the god has dismissed us from his care. We discover then also that nature does not cater to our needs, that there is no natural order on which human beings can rely, and that there are no naturally appointed masters. When there are neither gods nor masters present, human politics will begin and end in conditions of anarchy. Plato has little confidence in the ordinary human capacities. A politics based on them will, he thinks, soon sink into  chaos. The task of human politics must therefore be to stave of that threat as far as possible. Politics is, indeed, as Protagoras and the pre-philosophical tradition had suggested, a care of the common – the human endeavor in which human beings jointly pursue their survival and well-being. But on Plato’s account this care must model itself on divine rule, if it is to have any chance of success. Even then it will ultimately prove itself flawed since human action can only defer the inevitable decay of a world when it is left on its own. At the moment of greatest danger, only a god can save the cosmos and his return will inevitably mark the end of human politics. By contrast, Protagoras is not concerned with the gods. Whether they exist or not, they have, he is convinced that they have never taken sufficient care of human life. He knows, in consequence, also nothing of a great cycle that takes Plato from  divine care through human politics to a final redemption from politics. Human beings are for him, instead, irredeemably and inherently political and human politics must not be  conceived on the model of the divine rule of the cosmos and must not be thought of as a second best in comparison to divine rule. Human politics is, rather, a distinctively human enterprise and can only be conducted with earthly, temporal, human resources. Protagorean politics is thus more radically godless than Plato’s, more anarchic, and hence also more democratic. Whatever admixture of democracy the later Plato will accept, he makes clear in the Laws that every human institution has to model itself on the true law which is not made by humans. From here the road is short to Kant’s idea of a politics based on the categorical imperative and to Rawls’ politics on the basis of his principles of justice. Protagoras thinks of politics, on the other hand, as a more contingent business which can rely only on prescriptions they themselves have made and which are for that reason always fallible. Where Plato, Kant, and Rawls speak of the need for obedience to the law, Protagoras considers ways in which we might learn to make better laws, that is, laws that deserve our conditioned respect.


Politics as rule

When he spoke less metaphorically about politics than in the central myth of The Statesman Plato made clear that he considered the polis to be the center of all human politics and he assumed that every genuine political institution would approximate its  organizational structure. He concerned himself, therefore, in great detail with the internal ordering of the polis which he believes to reflect the kind of rule (arché) it will have. Herodotus before him had undertaken to compose a taxonomy of different kinds of political rule, distinguishing between the rule of one (monarchy or tyranny), the rule of the few (aristocracy) and the rule of the many (democracy). Plato elaborated on this system, distinguishing seven forms of rule: a good and bad rule of a one, a good and a bad rule of the few, and a good and a bad rule of the many and far above them the rule of the genuine politicos or, alternatively, the rule of the philosopher-kings. This kind of project still engages our political philosophers. Since rule manifests itself most directly in action Plato turned, in particular, to the question what kind of person was most qualified to act politically. We will come appreciate the ripple effect of these ideas when we see that even such a decidedly modern thinker as Carl Schmitt directs his analysis of the political first and foremost to the question of institutional order (in modern terms “the state” rather than the polis), that politics is for him still a matter of rule and organization just as it had been for Plato, and, even more remarkably, that Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty mirrors precisely the Platonic characterization of the “statesman” as the one who is able to integrate and divide human beings and is qualified to act in the absence of law.

Four elements in this syndrome of ideas stand out as constitutive of the Platonic conception but as definitive also of much that we now call political philosophy. The first is the assumption that politics inevitably concerns bounded communities, in other words, the equation politics = polis or its modern counterpart politics = state. The second is the belief that the essential feature of such communities is their system of organization; in other words, the equation polis = politeia or its modern variant state = constitution.  The third is that the political order concerns the nature of rule or government. Hence politeia = system of rule (arché) or, in modern terms, constitution = government. Forth and finally, there is the assumption that human beings realize their rational nature by organizing themselves politically, in other words, the equation zoon politikon = zoon logon echōn or in modern terms political animal = rational animal. All these assumptions and equations are now in question. While politics is still often seen as concerned with bounded communities, local communities are becoming more and more merged into the global totality of the common. While politics is still often seen in terms of systems of organization, we are increasingly made aware of the fact that organizational structures do not necessarily coincide with political function. Third, while politics is still often conceived in terms of rule or government, our historical experience tells us that it can also take on revolutionary, anarchic and self-regulatory forms. Fourth and finally, while we still speak of human beings as essentially rational, we are coming to see more and more how far they driven by interests and needs and by their attachments and emotions. In the light of the central myth of The Statesman we can attempt to make further sense now of the four equations that ground the Platonic and classical conception of politics.

(1) Politics = polis. The derivation of the adjective politikos from the Greek word for city (polis) provides Plato with a decisive clue to its meaning.[15] The Greek polis is for him the natural and unquestioned model for all political community (koinonía). Aristotle will make the point even more sharply when he writes in his Politics that “the polis is among the things that exist by nature, that a human being is by nature a political animal [i.e, an animal destined for the polis], and that anyone who is without a polis, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else superhuman.“ (1253a) Neither of them means by this merely that human beings can survive only by acting jointly and are thus made to live in some form of political community; they mean, rather, much more specifically that human beings are made to live in the type of community exemplified by the Greek polis. Once again, Aristotle is helpful on this point. He recognizes in his Politics that the polis is just one type of community. There are in addition the family, the village, and clusters of villages. But the polis, he insists, is the dominant and highest form of any community. In contrast to the others, it is self-sufficient in being able to provide for the basic needs of its inhabitants but, unlike other forms of community, it serves also more than the needs of survival. Succinctly, Aristotle writes of the polis: “It comes to be for the sake of living, but it remains in existence for the sake of living well.” (1252b) In a more narrative fashion, Plato had much the same point already in the Republic by distinguishing two phases in his imagined evolution of the polis. In the first phase “the healthy polis” emerges which supplies its citizens with the fundamental means of survival, but eventually people want more and “the luxurious polis” comes about which provides also for the amenities and niceties of human life. Finally, the polis is for both Plato and Aristotle also a moral institution, the place where questions of justice are raised and settled. “Justice is a political matter,” as Aristotle puts it. “For justice is the organization of a political community” and, thus, the organization of that kind of community which is a polis. (1253a)

Plato and Aristotle were certainly right in emphasizing the great contributions of the polis to Greek culture and politics. Cities have, moreover, remained sources of cultural inventiveness and foci of political activity until today. But none of this permits the conclusion that the Greek polis is the unique or even the exemplary place for politics. The Platonic-Aristotelian claim is peculiar in any case because the characteristic structure of the Greek polis was itself a late historical phenomenon. The ancestors of the Plato’s and Aristotle’s Greeks had lived in a quite different, palace-centered civilization which had modeled itself on the example of ancient Crete. The advent of the polis with its civic and political institutions marked a decisive event in the history Greek culture, politics, and thinking.[16] Plato and Aristotle were probably ignorant of these historical facts, but their insistence on the polis as the perfect model of political community is just as problematic in the light of the circumstances of their own time, for while they were proclaiming the unique political role of the polis the Greek city-states were already losing their autonomy and were being swallowed up into the structures first of the Alexandrian empire and then of the Roman. Politically independent cities were going to appear once again only in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance and we still have residues such independence in some modern constitutions. For all that, the polis never made a comeback after the time of Aristotle as the model of political community.

For that reason, later readers have generally taken Plato and Aristotle to have meant the term “polis” to designate any kind of political community. Hence, the translation of the Greek term first as “republic” – a Latin word that initially referred to the political order of the city of Rome and later on to the Roman empire as a whole – and then as “state” or “city-state.” The influence of the Platonic-Aristotelian view reveals itself, in any case, in the persistent idea that the practice of politics is essentially tied to a specific form of communality, be that the Greek polis or the modern state. In this broadened sense the idea is still generally accepted in political philosophy. But republics, empires, states and nation-states are just as much contingent formations as the Greek polis and our modern thinkers can give no more reason for why human beings should live in an empire or a state than Plato and Aristotle could give for their claim that they should be living in a polis. We are therefore still left with the question why it should be natural for human beings to live under any such form of organization. We can certainly argue that under specific historical conditions (of population density, of specific needs and interest, and of technical resources) one or the other of these formations is likely to emerge, but from this one cannot deduce that the common will always and necessarily have to come in the form of an organized political structure or that it would ideally be so organized.

The Platonic-Aristotelian understanding of politics has a number of significant and problematic implications. (a) With it politics is naturally conceived in terms of the internal conditions and functions of the polis or state. Politics is, in other words, first and foremost internal politics. So dominant is this view that one must wait till Carl Schmitt to find a thinker for whom politics is, by contrast, primarily foreign politics. (b) The care of the common becomes on this view the care of those in one’s own community. Those outside are neglected, treated as aliens, and perhaps even as people inimical to one’s own interest. In the hands of corrupt politicians this redefinition of the care of the common as care for one’s own polis, state, nation, or empire becomes then a means of justifying acts of conquest, subjection, and exploitations of others. (c) The division of human beings into a multiplicity of specific communities is on this view natural and as such unproblematic. There may be different conceptions of what human characteristics define membership in a particular community (descent being a primary factor), but the question how a community is generated and then maintained gets rarely asked. Characteristically, Plato suggests that there are natural divisions and naturally constituted “herds.” We can contrast this attitude with the Protagorean one according to which the question of the self-constitution of a community is pressing and real.

(2) Polis = politeia. Once again it is Aristotle who voices this claim most sharply. In his Politics he asks “when we ought to say that a polis is the same or not the same but a different one.” (1276a) The identity of the polis, he goes on, is not defined by either its location or its population. Instead, “we must look to the constitution (politeia) above all when saying that the polis is the same.” (1276b) According to Aristotle’s  reasoning, “if indeed a polis is a sort of community, a community of citizens sharing a constitution, then, when the constitution changes its form becomes different, it would seem that the polis too cannot remain the same.” (Ibid.) And he compares this to a musical case where “we call a melody composed of the same notes a different melody when it is played in a Dorian harmony rather than a Phrygian one.” (Ibid.)

In translating Aristotle’s politeia as “constitution and in speaking here of the constitution as that which defines the identity of the polis we must understand that a politeia is for Aristotle neither a written document nor a set unwritten claims concerning the polis and its policies. Aristotle means by politeia, instead, the actually existing order of the polis. His underlying assumption is here the metaphysical distinction form and matter. Locations, people, and other substantive characteristics of a polis are for him only the matter of which it is composed whereas its identity is given by its form, just as the identity of any physical object is determined by its form rather than its matter. Behind the equation of polis and politeia lies, thus, the Platonic theory of forms as modified by Aristotle.

The Platonic theory itself was, in turn, based on the assumption that being is permanent presence and that its archetype are the unchanging forms. Temporal objects instantiate these forms only imperfectly and are for that reason never completely real. In politics Plato speaks accordingly in terms of absolute truths, of blueprints of ideal cities, and of universally binding principles. He has, in consequence, little sense for the particularity, adhocness, and historicality of actual politics. His thinking focuses on the ideal of a stable order, not on the precariousness of the political life that flows through the institutional channels. This pre-occupation with institutional order has been inherited by the political philosophers after Plato and motivates their concern with constitutive and regulative norms, principles, and standards. Our philosophers occupy themselves, for that reason, so often not with the whole broad range of political phenomena (that is with the entire spectrum of things that make up political life) but more narrowly with a philosophy of the state, of its structures and underlying principles. They often even neglect to ask how their normative principles can gain a foothold in actual political life. Pre-philosophical thought had, by contrast, concerned itself with actual political life and with the question what concept of the political could prove useful to it. Plato’s writings, on the other hand, display an increasing pre-occupation with the question whether there are absolute normative constraints on political actions and institutions. This transition is made evident by the place the two thinkers assign to the concern with the nature of the political. For Plato deals with that concept it not in his two major political dialogues, the Republic and the Laws, but in the minor, methodological dialogue Politikos. Similarly, Aristotle poses the question of the nature of the political in the first lines of his Politics but then proceeds to determine the nature of the best politeia. In the second book of his Politics we can see, moreover, that even his initial concern with the concept of the political was motivated by normative questions and specifically by his critique ofPlato’s normative vision of the ideal city. His focus on the question of the “best” constitution and the “best” design for a city precludes, in fact, further concern with question of the concept of the political.

By conceiving politics in terms of absolute norms and institutional structures the Platonic tradition sought, in effect, to eradicate the tragic uncertainty of politics so central to pre-philosophical thinking.[17] It is only now at the end of the modern age with its interminable murder and warfare, its holocausts, its poisonous weapons, with the cold intransigence of its institutions, its powerful, ruthless leaders that we have come once again face to face with the tragic nature of politics. And in the stark light of these historical facts, the pretensions of political norms and ideals have become once again obvious to us. In consequence we feel kinship not so much with the Platonic-Aristotelian mode of political philosophizing as with the political thinking of the pre-philosophical Greeks.

(3)  Politics = rule. In The Statesman Plato interprets the pre-philosophical notion of the care of the common in onto-theological terms and treats human politics, in consequence, as an earthly analog to the divine governance of the cosmos. He appears to treat the idea of divine governance at the same time as a metaphor for the “rule” of the unchanging ideas or forms over our changing, temporal reality.

In either form politics, as the care of the common, must model itself on this arché. Politics and the craft of governing thus become one and the same. Plato’s story evinces, however, an ambiguity that will remain a feature of all subsequent political thinking. Does rule mean ultimately personal governance or does it mean the rule of principle or law? In The Statesman Plato tells us that “rule” means, first of all, the divine governance of the world. It is, thus, primarily the personal rule of a god. Human politics has to be understood on this model and the most genuine form of such politics is therefore the personal rule of a politikos. The rule of law is, in this version, only a second best. In this version, Plato turns out to be the founder of a “political theology” which seeks to understand politics on a theistic, theological model. The monotheistic assumptions of this doctrine connect, moreover, directly to the modern theory of sovereignty. Just as there is one single divine ruler of the cosmos, there must be a single holder of ultimate power in the state. Polytheism might suggest here another picture, one that could still see human politics as a reflection of divine rule, but that would at the same time recognize different and competing centers of power and thus set aside the idea of sovereignty. Plato’s alternative reading of rule is to be found in the Republic and the Laws where it is understood as principle, that is, as the rule of the unchanging forms or ideas. We can speak of this view as Plato’s ideocracy, as a “political idealism” in contrast to the political theology of The Statesman. On this view, politics must be conceived as primarily concerned with “the rule of law” and political action must be seen as aimed at the institution and maintenance of law. Human beings are thus reduced to the role of mediators and facilitators of ideal rule. Modern discussions take this ideocratic conception of politics to be strictly opposed to the “personalist” conception with its commitment to the principle of sovereignty. But the ideocratic doctrine has, in fact, its own version of sovereignty. It replaces the conception of a sovereignty of god with that of the sovereignty of the good, and accordingly on the human level the sovereignty of the personal ruler with that of the law.

The personalist conception of politics according to which the politically powerful derive their authority from the divine, in which they are indeed god’s representatives, appointed to uphold a divine power, was certainly not the invention of Plato. But in The Statesman Plato accommodated political philosophy to it and with that philosophy as a whole. What is genuinely new, however, in his work is the doctrine of forms and of the rule of forms. His whole picture of these forms with their hierarchical ordering and the assumption of a highest form, the idea of the good, expresses a political understanding of the whole cosmos. The analogy between divine and human governance has, of course, continued to be influential. It has shaped the political thought of the Christian world; it attained new life in the doctrines of modern absolutism; and it is, more generally, the source of even the most modern beliefs in political sovereignty. We are, today, for the most part no longer inclined to see human governance in terms of divine order. The belief that politics equals governance is, nevertheless, still widely taken for granted by both common sense and the mainstream of political thought. At the same time it has become a source of our unease with us and this unease is, in essence, disillusionment with the structures and functions of government.

By contrast, the equation of politics with governance was certainly not an inherent component in the Protagorean and pre-philosophical formula of politics as care of the common. Some of the pre-philosophical Greeks may have thought of politics as predominantly a concern with rule, but their formula allowed at least of the separation of these two ideas. It allowed for the possibility of many different forms of the care of the common and of many different forms of commonality. It is precisely this feature that  makes the pre-philosophical notion so attractive to us today, for it seeks to capture the nature of the political in the broadest possible terms, saying not only what politics is but also what it could mean to us, and it does so without referring us to the particular institutions of government and the state and without appealing to notions of power, struggle, freedom, justice, and law. The pre-philosophical formula alerts us, thus, to the fact that politics can be conceived in more fundamental, more general terms than political theorists for the most part employ. We can still detect aftereffects of that insight in Plato’s “political” writings which range always over the most general methodological, epistemological, ontological, and anthropological questions as well as over matters of politics in the limited modern sense. Plato, like the forebears he rejected, had thus still a rich conception of politics, not one restricted to government in the narrow and modern sense. For all that, it remains true that Plato was, in effect, restricting the concept of the political to the notion of rule. The equation, he introduced into our thinking, of politics and governance has remained an axiom of practically all political philosophy ever since.

We may, of course, wonder why Plato – and Aristotle following him – should have succeeded in imprinting that lesson not only on the political philosophers after them but even on political common sense and, thereby, on our political practice. Was it because their conception was intrinsically so compelling? Was it that their arguments were so powerful? No, it was in the first instance because their philosophizing was so sharply attuned to the changing conditions of their time. As Plato and Aristotle were writing, the formations of actual Greek politics were undergoing geological shifts. These brought about the integration of the polis into larger imperial structures, the growth of imperial bureaucracies detached from local conditions, and an increasing differentiation of life in the Hellenistic and Roman world. In this process politics was, indeed, reduced to governance. The newly powerful had, moreover, an interest in convincing their subjects of the truth of that specific, reductive understanding of the political. Plato and Aristotle did, in other words, not speak the timeless truth of politics but they dimly perceived what politics had become and was going to be in the years ahead.

The dissolution of the older, pre-philosophical view in which human life as a whole was conceived politically did not, in fact, take the form of a single cataclysm. There was, rather, a slow fading away of the old insights. Plato still entertained the old picture of politics as pervasive in human life. If he thought of politics at the same as governance it was because he saw the whole cosmos as a system of governance in which power cascades continuously down from the highest point, all the way from the idea of the good into the smallest nooks and crannies of the real. Aristotle, with sharper eyes for the actual societal changes around him, spoke instead of a falling apart of the human world into a private and a public domain, into household and polis. And in this process of isolation politics was indeed in the most straightforward sense becoming reduced to governance or rule.

This is, however, not a complete explanation. Protagoras and the pre-philosophical Greeks had equally know that there are always the ambitious and powerful waiting to rule either in the name of some divine dispensation, or with the help of their military, or with their money, or even by the means of the law. Why did they nevertheless think that politics could be conceived in other terms and why did Plato and Aristotle no longer share that faith. The answer is that Plato had come to develop a new concept of knowledge, he had invented philosophy and the figure of the philosophy. Knowledge itself had now lost its public character and had been turned into an expertise, the proper domain for the qualified few. True knowledge did not generate the fallible opinions on which the pre-philosophical Greeks wanted to found their politics; it was concerned, rather, with absolute truths and principles, with justified and true belief and it was up to those possessing the necessary skills of reasoned discourse to determine what was justified and what true.

(4) Political animal = rational animal. Plato understood just as much as the pre-philosophical Greeks that political thought requires a story of what it is to be human. But his view of human nature was narrower than that of his predecessors and motivated by his invention of philosophy. Plato maintained, in effect, that human beings are characterized by their logos – we say, more specifically, by their capacity for reason. It follows for him that logos or rationality makes man political, a thought taken up once again by Aristotle for whom the characterization of man as political and of man as rational are, in effect, interchangeable. By contrast to Aristotle, Plato made, however, as yet no distinction between practical and theoretical reason. For him the most genuinely political man was, in consequence, not only the most rational but also the most philosophical one. When Aristotle separated practical and theoretical reason he reduced politics, in effect, to a specialized enterprise. On his view the philosopher as a theoretical thinker could claim only limited competence in political matters. His political man was, for that reason, not Plato’s philosopher-king but the free man competent to engage in public life. Aristotle’s separation of practical and theoretical reason had still a further consequence. Since he  agreed with his teacher that philosophy was the highest occupation for man, he was forced now to downplay Histhe significance of politics for human life. Politics became for him a second best thing, the highest being theoretical contemplation.

We still cling to the belief that rationality and politics belong together even though we should by now have come to understand that “reason” is a word with varying and quite uncertain meanings. If we looked more closely at political life, we would also be forced to acknowledge that politics is as much a matter of passion, desire, and interest as of reason. These emotions are linked, in turn, to fears and hopes which pervade and motivate political life. And these fears and hopes are, in turn, made possible by the uncertainties in which all human life is embroiled. The pre-philosophical Greeks had a sense for all this. They were not yet obsessed with man’s rationality. They saw reason, instead, as a weak organ, hardly ever able to overcome the power of fear and hope, the steady wash of our emotions, the pressures of forces outside human control. We still have to recover a sense of this insight and have yet to rethink our notion of the political in these terms.

Plato, with the help of Aristotle, transmitted to us the ancient pre-philosophical formula of politics as the care of the common.[18] And it was Aristotle who preserved the equally ancient conception of man as a naturally political being. But Plato and Aristotle were not just transmitters of these ideas. They re-interpreted them at the same time in their own terms and for their own ends. Thus, Plato treated the pre-philosophical formula of politics as care of the common, in effect, as a point of departure for his own quite distinct characterization of the political as a royal art possessed by the few and directed specifically at the rule of the city and at establishing an appropriate of ruling. And Aristotle recast the proposition that man is a naturally political being in terms that allowed him to transform its egalitarian implications into an elitist, republican concept. Plato and Aristotle were, in other words, both engaged in a revision and narrowing of the original pre-philosophical understanding of the political. They replaced the broadly democratic conception of politics of their predecessors with one that attributed actual political competence to the few. The effect was that they re-interpreted politics as government or rule, that is, as an organized relation of dominance of some over others. This had been far from the minds of the pre-philosophical Greeks and, in so far as Plato and Aristotle succeeded in having their own concept established as the authentically philosophical and right understanding of the nature of the political, they brought about  revolution in Greek thinking whose after-effects we can still feel. For even where we aspire to democratic ideals we still hold on to the thought that politics is government and hence a matter of rule and of leadership. We say for that reason that democracy calls for the government of the people by the people and for the people. This idea is, however, far removed from the way the pre-philosophical Greeks conceived of politics. For them, not government but the care of the common by the common was the ideal. Because we no longer understand this, our form of democracy has become so distant from the original and it is for this reason also that our conception of democracy is so easily tied to authoritarian and totalitarian notions. We are, in other words, the heirs of the Platonic-Aristotelian understanding of politics whether or not we agree with their particular blueprint for a political order.

But how did those two and their followers and disciples succeed in imposing on the whole tradition of Western political thought their own particular way of conceiving of politics? The answer is that they did so because they convinced us not of the plausibility of their own concept of the political but of their being no alternative to it.  For their most decisive move was not the elaboration of their new concept of the political, but their insistence that there is no distinction between recognizing a conception of the general nature or essence of politics and the having of a specific concept of the political. The pre-philosophical Greeks had precisely maintained that distinction and had thereby, in effect, implied that every particular concept of the political, including their own, was just one possible embodiment of that nature or essence. This meant, in effect, that every particular concept of the political had alternatives, that there were many ways in which politics could be embodied, that the dominance of one concept of politics at a given moment and in a given place was always and only a historical fact, not an inevitable necessity, and also, finally, that it was a historical and political task to determine for each moment what concept of the political was appropriate. All these insights were swept aside by Plato’s and Aristotle’s insistence that the nature or essence of a thing is to be captured in its concept and that to every nature or essence there corresponds one single concept and that this concept is, in turn, unchanging and eternal. The outcome of all this was a normalization of our understanding of politics in which we learned to conceive of it only in the terms that Plato and Aristotle offered us. And it is, precisely, this process that has led to our current dilemma. For the unhappiness we feel about politics is unhappiness not only with the governments we have but also with the idea of government or rule altogether. But since Plato and Aristotle have taught us that politics means government or rule, this unhappiness turns for us by necessity into one with politics itself. And since they have also taught us to think that the nature or essence of politics is exhausted by the idea of government or rule, they have also made it impossible for us to see the task of forming a new and more adequate conception of the political.

The Platonic-Aristotelian conception of politics has proved seductive. Its subtleties, as compared to the sketchiness of pre-philosophical thinking, have animated philosophers ever since. But such gains have been bought at a price. For Plato and Aristotle the philosophers’ active concern with the question of the concept of the political died away. From them onwards thinkers have taken the concept of the political for granted. Or rather, they have taken the Platonic-Aristotelian interpretation of the nature of politics for granted. Plato and Aristotle, in other words, succeeded in normalizing their concept of the political and thereby making it ours as well. After them it was generally accepted that politics = governance and the philosopher’s question became who should govern and how. It will also be taken for granted that political philosophy should concern itself with the search for normative principles in politics. It was also assumed that such principles were to be found and applied through the use of philosophical reason. And it was, finally, considered obvious that such principles refer to a definite, naturally constituted, given community: the city or the state. Political philosophy was, in other words, from now on concerned with the principled, rational governance of states. And given this normalized conception of politics, philosophers no longer thought it worthwhile to reflect on the concept of the political itself. They assumed that we know already what it means to be political and, therefore, by implication also that we know already why, in what form, and to what extent we need to engage ourselves politically.

It is only under radically changed circumstances such as our own, when the political equations that Plato and Aristotle have put before us appear to be no longer working, at a moment when philosophy as we have known it may be coming to an end and when the power of human knowledge will once again need to be re-thought, it is only now that the question of the nature and meaning of the political comes finally back to haunt us.




[1]  Harry Frankfurt speaks of caring as an “indispensably foundational activity through which we provide continuity and coherence to our volitional lives.” (Harry G. Frankfurt, Necessity, Volition, and Love, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999, p. 162.)  This differs somewhat from the way I understand care-taking. For Frankfurt caring is a “reflexive” activity “constituted by a complex set of cognitive, affective, and volitional dispositions and states.” (Harry G. Frankfurt, The importance of what we care about, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988, p. 85)

[2] An exception is Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time which examines some of its characteristics though not ones that bear immediately on the understanding of politics as the care of the common.

[3] It is Foucault’s merit to have rediscovered the crucial importance of the notion of the care of the self for Greek ethics and for ethical thought in general. He failed, however, to pay attention to the Greek notion of the care of the common. Instead he proposed a dubious argument to show that the care of the self implied political engagement.

[4]  The nurse takes devotedly care of her patients; the gangster takes viciously care of those who oppose him; the shopkeeper takes care of his business.

[5] B. Kerferd, The Sophistic Movement, Cambridge U. P., Cambridge 1981, pp. 119 and 125.

[6] Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of the Philosophers, book 3, chs. 37 and 57.

[7] Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Origins of Greek Thought, Cornell U. P., Ithaca, NY, 1982.

[8] On this point see Christian Meier, The Political Art of Greek Tragedy, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1993, as well as Hellmut Flashar, Sophokles. Dichter im demokratischen Athen, Beck, Munich 2000.

[9] In quoting from Antigone I draw freely on the translation of Hugh Lloyd-Jones in Sophocles, vol. 2, The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1994.

[10] Bruno Snell speaks of the sense of helplessness or amechania as characteristic of the Archaic age in Greek culture. The Discovery of the Mind.

[11] I follow largely the translation by W.C. Guthrie, Penguin Books, London 1956.

[12] One might consider the teaching of language to be part of this “political” training and this would fit Protagoras’s characterization of the process of nurture as conducted mainly in verbal terms. But he classifies language, in fact, as a technical skill. This is surprising in the light of the sophistic concern with “rhetoric,” i. e., in the social uses of language. But in his own thinking about language Protagoras seems to have been mainly concerned with the question of the “correctness of names,” that is with problems in syntax and the theory of reference and these issues may well have looked to him “technical” in character. On his and the sophistic theory of language see G.B. Kerferd, loc. cit., ch. 7.

[13] Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1982, pp. 256, 260, 259, and 261.

[14] Since Victorian times the dialogue is known as The Statesman. This is unfortunate because the Politikos is hardly concerned with the statesman in the modern sense of the word. A statesman in  this sense is typically someone who has previouly shown wisdom, skill, and vision in conducting the affairs of the state or sometimes also, more minimally, anyone conducting the business of government. Plato’s “statesman” is, by contrast, someone who is specifically qualified to act politically. The currently used title obscures the fact that Plato describes political man in his dialogue in terms opposed to the pre-philosophical and democratic conception of him.

[15] The Greeks had as yet no noun for politics; they were forced, instead, to use phrases like “the political art” (politikē techne).

[16] Vernant, loc. cit.

[17] We find traces of this insight in Socrates’ Apology where Socrates holds, first of all, that he has always been political even though he has never held a political office, that he has been practicing politics by examining men and, second, that anyone engaged in politics will soon run into trouble and may not live long.

[18] In his Politikos he speaks accordingly of politics as an epimeleia koinonias anthropines sympases, as care of the human community as a whole. (276b)

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