Friday, August 16, 2013

Jesus in the polis?

(Aristotle with Plato in a painting by Raphael, from Wikipedia)

One of the joys of teaching ancient political theory is the love of Plato, Aristotle and their ilk for the polis (which translates more or less as "city"). At times it gets a little extreme, as in the 5th book of Plato's Republic where the character of Socrates posits a city of complete justice in which all traces of individualism, including private property and the family, are eliminated. (Was that a serious proposal or merely a thought experiment? Plato's readers have differed for almost 2400 years. Aristotle seems to have thought he was serious. I strongly believe he was not.)

Another problem with getting too far down with the ancients is that, in order to allow the citizens to devote themselves to public life, both Plato and Aristotle assume they will be supported by a platoon of unenfranchised manual laborers and slaves. From an American perspective this is impossibly elitist, though the alternative for ancient Greece was not political equality but aristocracy. "Democratic" Athens represents for us an unacceptable attempt to solve the ever-present obstacle to the participatory ideal: How do we find time to participate in public life to the extent that, say, Benjamin Barber expects us to, when we've got jobs and families and home repairs and stuff to attend to?

So, granted we're not going to find the blueprint of life in Aristotle's The Politics, and certainly not in Plato's Republic. We can still appreciate their appreciation for humans-in-community. Aristotle begins The Politics by arguing that early human beings formed cities in order to achieve a good life. Life's basic functions like eating and procreating could be done in smaller-scale associations (families, farm villages) but to move beyond a rudimentary life, and to live according to reason and not day-to-day survival, required a city (1:2). The city had to be large enough to include all the functions that made for a good life, but small enough that the citizens would all know each other; Plato in The Laws estimated the ideal population at 5040 citizens, though as noted above this would not include women or workers, or children (Book V). Human beings were intended by nature to live the sort of life that community afforded, said Aristotle; hence, political life defined what it meant to be fully human ("teleology"). Anyone who could exist outside of a city, he concluded, was either a god or a beast (1:2). In the city, citizens were engaged in a common project, to wit, the achievement of the good life.

Aristotle wrote, or was compiled, in the last half of the fourth century BCE; he died in 322. By then, the self-governing polis that he and Plato had idealized, and that had dominated Greek life for four centuries, was pretty well spent. The Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great heralded a long, long period of history dominated by autocratic rule and centralized governments. Athenian democracy, limited as it seems from our perspective, was gone forever. Citizens became subjects.

Post-Aristotle, ancient political thought turned sharply inward (with the notable exceptions of Polybius and Cicero). The central question turned from "How shall we create the best city?" to "How shall we live in a state that may crush us like bugs if it notices us at all?" Three prominent groups that emerged were the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans. (Here I rely heavily on Donald Kagan, The Great Dialogue, chapter 11.)
  • The Cynics renounced material goods, and attacked all social values and established institutions, often in shocking ways. The most famous Cynic was probably Diogenes, who lived in a bathtub, survived by begging, and is reputed to have carried a lamp in broad daylight in search of a true man which he never seemed to find. With the state making subjects of people, the only autonomous response was withdrawal-with-anger from the whole thing. 
  • The Stoics sought the happiness of the individual. This meant living in harmony with nature, which in turn required the avoidance of passion and anger, and as much as possible living peaceably with one's fellow humans. They believed in a religious/natural law that governed the whole world, and to which the laws of the state must conform, but if the state was going to go and be evil there was probably not much you could do about it. Aristotle famously concluded that "the good man is a good citizen only in a good state" (Politics 3:4); some Stoics dabbled in politics, but in the absence of true citizenship mostly focused on being good people and didn't sweat the state too much. 
  • Finally, the Epicureans focused on lives of pleasure and avoiding pain, with the additional interesting teaching that the universe was governed by a force called "swerve" that caused atoms to interact in a wholly random way. Think "Hakuna Matata."

It was into this world that, more than three centuries after the death of Aristotle, Jesus was born. The founding texts of Christianity are the 27 books of the New Testament, written between approximately 50 and 150 CE. Jesus, the apostles, and the writers of the New Testament lived entirely within the bounds of the Roman Empire. Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25), but all it seems to have gotten him was a trial before Caesar before he was executed. These were people with zero political influence, subjects all, whose animating passion was religious. Not surprisingly, then, the New Testament has very very little to say directly in the way of political thought.

In terms of their orientation to politics, John the Baptist seems to me something of a Cynic. The Gospel of Matthew portrays him living alone in the wilderness. "John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey" (Matthew 3:4). Not only did he eschew material goods he was unsparing of the social institutions of his day, calling on all who came to him to repent and prepare for the kingdom of heaven. And when religious leaders came to check him out, he would have made Diogenes proud: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (3:7b). Then he threatens them with Jesus's unquenchable fire.

The apostle Paul comes across as a Stoic, particularly in Romans 13, which begins, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities..." The first seven verses commend getting along with the positive view of the state and its agents, even though Paul found himself in conflict with public officials, getting arrested on several occasions for disturbing the peace by preaching the gospel. Later in chapter 13, he reminds his readers that "you know what time it is," meaning the urgency of living and preaching a Christian life pushed politics, the pursuit of pleasure (take that, Epicureans!), and other individual/earthly concerns to the far back burner. Then he goes back to individual ethics, which dominate the letter. Be good, let government go its own way... sounds like a Stoic to me.

Jesus is Stoic flavored with Cynic. He's no Epicurean, though he didn't eschew earthly pleasures, a fact that did not go unnoticed by his critics. "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking," Jesus noted, "and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (Luke 7:34) Through the gospel accounts of his life, besides performing miracles of healing and feeding, Jesus mostly teaches a positive but individual ethic, focused far more on good interaction with others rather than following rules of conduct. Examples abound, including the parables of the Good Samaritan and the sheep and the goats; after listing all the generous acts of the sheep, the king concludes, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

(Jesus healing the man with the withered hand,
 from the Codex Egberti, c. 980 via Wikipedia)

Jesus's ministry was itinerant, maybe super-duper-itinerant (Matthew 8:20), and once underway he was not attached to any place. The only city he specifically mentions is Jerusalem, while on his journey to arrest and the cross: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Matthew 23:37) Even here it's unclear whether he's envisioning Jerusalem as the could-have-been good polis or just noting it's the headquarters of the hostile. His only statement on government is the Stoical admonition to pay taxes (Luke 20:25), which in context seems dismissive. "The state? Whatever. Let's feed the hungry and prepare for the kingdom of God." Towards the religious authorities, though, he's a Cynic: openly and frequently critical, even contemptuous. They are the butts of the story of the Good Samaritan. In a dramatic in-your-face miracle, he heals a man with a withered hand after challenging a group of religious leaders to express disapproval of his doing so on the sabbath day (Mark 3:1-6). Even more dramatically, he clears the temple of buyers, sellers and money changers (Mark 11: 15-19); in John's version (2:15) he makes a whip out of cords with which to attack them. He frequently makes comments like "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites..." (Mark 7:6a)

The New Testament focus on individual ethical behavior, while Stoically ignoring or Cynically challenging civic institutions, reflects a time when the state was remote and oppressive. Within a few centuries this presented a challenge, because by 400 Christians were running the Roman Empire. After the empire's collapse in 476, the states of Europe continued to be predominantly Christian, at least in terms of political control. Today, Americans no longer live with an established church, but political power is widespread--short of the ideal, to be sure, but far more widespread than either Jesus or Plato ever saw--and most people are Christians. What does Christianity have to do with the state now that we are part of it? Augustine (354-430) saw government as a temporary necessity to deal with human selfish behavior, but our true destiny was the City of God. He and his contemporaries, writes historian Michael Grant (History of Rome, Scribner's, 1978, pp. 460-461), demeaned the state and civil service. Aquinas (1225-1274), influenced somewhat by reading Aristotle, allowed for a more positive role for government in seeking the common good. But what is the common good? Morality? Relief of suffering? Material well-being? Charity? The diversity of beliefs on this question is illustrated by the plasticity of the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). It's been used by states to justify everything from social welfare legislation to the Spanish Inquisition.

Today's New Urbanists are pointing us back to the polis, which takes the forms of economically strong metropolitan regions with thriving local neighborhoods. The five-minute walk, building civic sites, and diversity of housing designs are considerations that never entered the minds of the people who wrote the Bible. But they are oriented to ancient concerns of building and maintaining communities in which all people have the opportunity to live the best lives possible. This is our challenge today, in the face of rampant materialism and individualism, and indeed to repair the damage done by their excesses. That in turn may explain why these days I get more excited reading classical political thought than I do reading the Bible.


Harry V. Jaffa, "Aristotle," in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (eds), History of Political Philosophy. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1972.

Donald Kagan, The Great Dialogue: History of Greek Political Thought from Homer to Polybius. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Brian R. Nelson, Western Political Thought: From Socrates to the Age of Ideology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2nd ed, 1996.

George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory. New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 3rd ed, 1961.

T.A. Sinclair, A History of Greek Political Thought. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951.

 (Howard Mueller, from the North Central College website)

P.S.: I think this post owes a substantial debt to Professor Howard Mueller, who taught the religion classes I took at North Central College. I remember that he spent considerable time on the Stoics, Cynics, et al., and that I completely bombed the exam question on them. Enough of the lesson must have stuck in my subconscious that when I came to that section of Kagan's book bells went off and associations were made.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What is the future of Iowa's small towns?

Former Audubon County courthouse, Exira (Source: Wikimedia): county population has fallen from 8559 (1980) to 5578 (2017) A recent colum...