“…but we do say that a city has concord when men have the same opinion about what is to their interest, and choose the same actions, and do what they have resolved in common.”
“…for if people do not watch it carefully the common good is soon destroyed. The result is that they are in a state of faction, putting compulsion on each other but unwilling themselves to do what is just.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
As of this writing the highly contested presidential election is still undecided. One way or the other, this election has put a fine point on the declining state of our body politic. At what point do differences and fault lines run too deep to be integrated into one people, one nation? I do not know the answer to this question. It seems we all must reckon with the real possibility of the disintegration of our polis into progressively more systemic chaos.
But at the same time, there is always a path of integrity that opens before me–a path that will make a real difference.
According to Aristotle, ‘concord’ among citizens is a great good, indeed it is the key to the health of political society. Concord, which means a certain unity of judgment and choices about important matters, is in fact a kind of friendship. It is interesting to think in terms of such ‘friendship,’ which is widespread in a healthy political society.
One side winning an election and holding certain levers of power—as significant as that might be—is in itself far from addressing the critical wound in the body politic. This body cannot endure, much less thrive, in the absence of a greater convergence of worldview and life practice. In other words, without concord.
It becomes more and more clear that a shared understanding of the good human life will need to be thicker than classical liberalism has suggested. We can’t just push forward as though a thin notion of ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ bolstered by economic prosperity is enough to constitute concord among a people.
So what are we to do? I might suggest two things that must be kept in proper balance with one another.
1. Treat fellow citizens as fellow travelers with whom our lot is cast, and so as persons with whom we seek concord, to the extent possible.
2. Pursue justice and the common good, recognizing that certain commonly held views are simply incompatible with justice and must be rejected and fought. This especially applies in defense of the defenseless.
I do not intend the first point to indicate a naïve assumption we can ‘all be friends.’ Aristotle is clear—both in his treatment of normal friendship and of friendship among citizens—that a rejection of the true human good in notion and in practice makes people incapable of real concord.
At the same time, our concern for the common good should lead us to be serious and intentional about doing what we reasonably can to change hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. In a rush for ‘victory’ over them at the ballot box, we do well to remember that we remain in some sense one body.
Perhaps they will not change. The most important ‘success’ I know I can achieve is not electoral victory or in changing a particular number of hearts, but in acting with greater courage and integrity in always putting the true common good first in my life, and in working to move others to do so too.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.
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