Mini-Feature: Valuable Concepts

Some things we all need to learn

If you could teach every American one concept, what concept would have the biggest positive impact in your view?

The concept we need to retrieve is politics: actual politics, the activity of rule, structure, continuity, and collaboration that can't be reduced to culture or economics or anything else. Politics is seen today as trying to get power, getting power, and "getting to" wield it. Left unanswered is exactly what this "power" is. "Power" abstracted from our anthropology, from an understanding of who and what we are, destroys politics. It takes shape in our inner and outer world as something inhuman, more akin to the properties of a subhuman or superhuman being. As Aristotle reminds us, the man without a city is either a beast or a god...

Retrieving politics returns us to the understanding that many things can supplement the political but none can supplant it. There is no "escape" from politics, no more than there is an escape from "the world" or from our humanity. Given that so much of technology is wrapped around a devotion to building such escapes, teaching politics provides special access to the awareness that technology, even if it can counteract or even ward off "power" games, can never replace politics. The truth that technology can degenerate into "power" covers over the more fundamental reality that technology can never save us from "power." Neither, ultimately, can politics... but while it's bad news that we'll never escape from "power," just as we'll never escape from evil, that we're stuck with politics is ultimately good news... if we accept, as we must, that being stuck with our own humanity, warts and all, is good news too. 

-James Poulos, managing editor of The American Mind

What the Good Life is and how one works toward its achievement. 

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind

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I’d like us all to relearn the art of phronēsis, and I’d like us to recall that it’s just that—an art, not a science. Phronēsis is a Greek word sometimes translated as “prudence.” That gets close to the mark, but the slightly more technical phrase “practical wisdom” captures it exactly for me. Wisdom in practice—that is in action, or praxis—means finding effective ways to meet your lofty goals in the real world. 

For my money, practical wisdom is what makes our founding documents the masterworks that they are. The attitude I mean is encapsulated by Madison’s famous reminder in Federalist #51 that governments are for men, not angels: men as they are, not as we would like them to be. 

“Never let any Government imagine that it can choose perfectly safe courses; rather let it expect to have to take very doubtful ones”: thus Machiavelli, the great teacher of phronēsis to modernity, in Prince 21. You may devise and calibrate a perfect system for minimizing infection by coronavirus—but is it the morally right course of action? Or does it require a world of total compliance and lockstep unanimity of values, one that is not now, nor never has been, nor ever will be, real?  

All the horrifying damage our gubernatorial overlords are now doing comes from trying to muscle the real world into an imaginary shape that will conform with their fantasies. And though they have great power, they will fail, bungling everything they touch in the process. No man, be he prince or scientist, can make the world what it is not. 

Instead why not do as Aristotle instructs (Nicomachean Ethics 1144b), and let virtue choose the ends while practical wisdom chooses the means—and makes the compromises, and seeks the support, and forms the alliances—necessary to accomplish those ends? That would be the stuff true statesmanship is made of. If only we would learn. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind