The Meaning of Politics Today

Death of Epaminondas

Politics was a source of meaning in antiquity, rival perhaps only to war. Part of what it was to live a good life was to play an active role as a citizen. It was one of the key roles one is initiated into.

The US frames the goal of politics as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is the purpose of the state to protect these values. Citizens in antiquity, especially in the early Greek states, saw the importance of the state and life in the reverse order  – life serves politics. 

This is evident in the relatively low status of commerce and, to some extent, innovation in the ancient world. Businessmen were often seen as second class citizens behind statesmen and generals.

What was politics in the early Greek city states? In its highest form, it was conceived of as serving the city and exercising one’s own political liberty. In modern republics, individual rights are often more important than serving the state. The concept of political liberty today usually refers to the right to vote and run for office. In antiquity, it had a much more expansive definition. Political liberty consisted in the power to shape the city through deliberation. It consisted of actively participating in the public life of a city, whether by serving in office, speaking in an assembly, or by voting. It’s this distinctive notion of politics as political liberty that we should focus on. It isn’t liberty as negative freedom – the freedom from coercion, but liberty as the capability to shape the world – the freedom to be an effective force in politics.

War was the only other activity which could offer the same status and prestige as political achievement. Politics and war were of course deeply intertwined. Most of the renowned statesmen were soldiers and generals too, consider Caesar, Themistocles, and Pericles. They were more clearly able to express their will on the world and make high stakes decisions. They were held accountable for their performance in a way we are not.

Epaminodas, located in the Stowe House

The successful life was epitomized by someone like Epaminondas, the Theban general who defeated the Spartans at Leuctra, and served as Boeotarch, an elected leader of the Boeotian league. Roles like the strategos of Athens cemented the link between political and military leadership in the ancient city. The link between battle and office continued to hold well into the Roman empire and beyond its fall. 

This isn’t to say that war and politics were the only way to attain honor. Poets, philosophers, and other citizens had their qualms with this view. Yet it appears to be the mainstream view, especially of the early Greek city states, before their conquest by Alexander. Plato’s Socrates put the life of the thought above that of the general and king, but even Plato believed that roles of the philosopher and statesman should merge into one.

A good life requires control over one’s destiny and the destiny of one’s city. By and large, when not under the grip of tyranny, the Greek states aimed to protect its citizens’ political power. By the late 4th century nearly half Greek city states had formed democratic states (See Teegarden’s work). Those that were ruled by kings often aimed to temper the power of the kings via citizen bodies. 

The classical example of this is Sparta, which reined in the power of the kings by having two of them and by separating powers between different government institutions including  the ephors, gerousia, and assembly. The five ephors, an office any adult male was eligible for, oversaw the gerousia and council of elders and possessed the power to prosecute the king.


No Greek tyrant ever established himself as a god like king

Why Politics Can’t be a Source of Meaning in the Modern World

Today, life, liberty (not the political kind) and the pursuit of happiness are broadly held as more important than politics.

Politics is no longer the field of community and political liberty, instead it consists of bureaucracy and performance. Although we may view the presidency with some aura of majesty, it would be more accurate to view the position as the chief public goods administrator. 

Today there are more ideas and more people.

This means that the cost of competence is much higher than it used to be. Training in any field demands mastery over a broader set of information. 

As world population and wealth increases, people specialize. In antiquity, the roles of the general and the politician were bundled together. This is less the case today. Polymaths were more common than they are today. Socrates was a soldier and philosopher. Epaminodas was a general, statesman, and philosopher trained by a student of Pythagoras.

The United States contains 330 million, compared with 8 million or so Greeks in Alexander’s day. Athens contained no more than two hundred thousand citizens, potentially fewer than one hundred thousand in the 4th century BCE – compare that with the least populous state, Wyoming, with it’s half million population.

Stakeholders desire to play a role in decisions that impact them. Most developed countries let them play a small role in doing this. With so many people, the large bodies of stakeholders wield force, even if each of their members are relatively powerless. So, any exercise of political power is hostage to these broad bodies or organizations, even as each individual retains less political power.

Votes have a vanishingly low probability of making a difference. The same can be said of activism in general. The power of political office itself has become distributed and watered down by vetocracy

The political player today is lost in a vast and tightly crowded mass of other players. There is some sense in which each citizen plays a role in the direction and speed in the movement of the crowd, but it is not an empowering one. If a person were to go against the crowd, their actions would make little difference. 

These two facts mean that political liberty cannot effectively be a source of meaning for citizens today. Instead, seeking life and liberty demands specialization. A vanishingly small number of us will specialize in politics. 

The upshot of this is to outsource political judgements to specialists, such as a pundit, professor, politician, or think tank. 

For many in antiquity, this would have been equivalent to giving up on political liberty. All that is required of citizens in democracies today is the ability to listen to the “right” cues and then make their judgements. Politics is outsourced to activists, experts, and entertainers. Meaning must come from elsewhere.

What Matters in Politics

Greeks lost political liberties as time went on. As cities grew into empires, the voice of the citizens declined. With the arrival of Alexander, Greek states continued to flourish but lost much of their autonomy. Roman conquest reduced their political liberties further. The life of the warrior statesman living in an autonomous city was largely out of reach.

Political liberties took a similar turn in Rome, as the republic fell and the aristocrats and people of Rome no longer determined its destiny.

Around the time of Alexander, the idea that political power was essential to life had likely declined. It was now when philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism began to emerge. Both, especially Stoicism, persisted into Rome. Although it is not a philosophy of political quietism, political liberty is not central to the Stoic. Cultivating virtue is more a matter of pursuing knowledge and making excellent decisions as an individual, than playing a role shaping the city. One didn’t need politics for the best life, let alone a good one.

Today more egalitarian ideologies, like Christianity and the secularism that followed it have put meaning elsewhere. 

One way to tell this story is one of defeat and decline – of great people losing the power to self-determine. Another way to tell it is one of empowerment – where more people play a role in shaping the state and power of elites declines. 

Whatever story is right, what is the place of politics today?

There are many options. From exit to local politics to politics as entertainment.

As a descriptive matter, the primary role politics plays for a particular person is a social and experiential one. Social, in the sense that politics can bring one closer to one’s political allies, and experiential, in the sense that modern states render politics entertaining. Politics feels meaningful, but it’s only as meaningful as simulation

Politics used to be war for the typical citizen, now it’s physical war for very few. The state is backed by violence, but for most citizens, that violence is hidden. So, politics becomes a cinematic myth, to be experienced as the consumer desires. It’s a myth that feels like it just might become realized in reality. It’s not impossible that the most extreme versions – where the left implements communism at scale or the right turns the country facist come to pass. Moreover, for some citizens, a minority, politics is too real.

But that’s just a descriptive matter, what role should politics play for the individual?

John Rawls made political liberties, understood as the right to vote, organize, and run for office a part of the fundamental package of liberal rights. This suggests that their exercise is a part of a good life. But is that true in the world of bureaucratic specialization? Maybe for some individuals, whose talents and motivations fit nicely with the form of politics today. The boring, but correct answer to this question then, is that it depends. Participation in local politics may be admirable for some in some communities, political passivity is probably preferable for most.

Between the life of the activist and complete exit, lies the intellectual. If you’re reading this, you likely fall into that class.

The lifespan of ideas is long. Though one’s thought may not have an impact during one’s life, it can influence thousands down the line.

Of course, most intellectuals won’t make a difference. They’re drops in a quickly moving current whose direction is difficult to predict. But ideas have consequences. Indeed, the extreme range of their consequences shows how careful we should be with them.

Marx was one of the most powerful political actors. He shaped the lives of billions without attaining any political office. Here at The Classical Futurist we’ve noted how classical ideas have had political upshots, many more positive than Marxism, which, to be fair, is not a challenging bar to clear. 

Activism, from this perspective, is dangerous. It warps intellectual incentives. Those who have pursued philosophy with the aim to change the world, rather than describe it have rendered the world worse. 

Ideally, one pursues truth as carefully as one can. The chance that one influences the future is there. By aiming to carefully describe the world, one reorients away from politics and towards learning. We must make the same move that the many Hellenic philosophers did, away from worshiping the city, general, and leader and towards personal virtue.
Politics is people and people matter, to ignore it entirely would be a mistake. But this is not the city-state ruled by relatively few citizens. It’s a massive network. Here, the best one can do is think well.

One’s thoughts must be worthy and the future must be willing to listen.

By Caleb Ontiveros

Writer, programmer, and founder of Stoa. He focuses on philosophy and is fascinated by stories of the classical world and its gods.

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