Why is politics a noble profession ?
August 5, 2011 10:25 PM   Subscribe

Why is politics a noble profession?

Aristotle once said that the two noblest professions are teaching and politics. Now almost two thousand years later, I still agreed with his assessment of teaching. But politics? I'm not so sure.

Why did he think that politics was a noble profession?

Did politics had a different meaning in ancient time that's different from our modern understand of politics? Were ancient Greek politicians really more noble than their modern peers?
posted by Carius to Religion & Philosophy (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you accept that government is necessary for people to live well, then working in politics is an act of public service, like teaching.

It may be fashionable (and sometimes justified) to bash politicians, but a government could not exist without being staffed by people, and our country and way of life could not exist without a government.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:31 PM on August 5, 2011

Best answer: Aristotle thought that the purpose of human existence had to be something that was an end in itself, not pursued in order to satisfy any other objective, and also something that was sufficient on its own to make a good life without requiring any other complementary goods. Furthermore, it must involve the full flourishing of the inherent capacities and inclinations of human beings. Humans are by nature "social animals" (zoon politikon, a term coined by Aristotle). Taken together, these premises indicate that lives devoted to pleasure or honour are not really desirable. The only way of living that met all the requirements is one of constantly making effective, rational, and correct decisions in a social context. This is a political life.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy devotes a subsection of their Aristotle article to explaining this position in more detail here. Aristotle develops his argument in the final section of the Nichomachean Ethics.
posted by wwwwwhatt at 10:46 PM on August 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Politics were an expressly moral enterprise for Aristotle. I think most people who have grown up in a liberal tradition think of government and politics as the way we figure out how to all get along well and live relatively prosperously. For Aristotle, that's not what politics was, it was the business of arranging the life of a city or people in such a way as to bring about a just society. A just society wasn't necessarily what we would think of as fair, but a society in which the people would be able to be maximally virtuous. And virtuous for the ancient Greeks generally mean wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice; not modern virtues like charity, faith, hope, etc.

So a politician to Aristotle was not someone who kept the trains running, he was more like a social engineer who made possible a virtuous life for the people of his city.
posted by skewed at 10:51 PM on August 5, 2011

Politics definitely had a different meaning in ancient times, because their conception of the ideal state differed from ours. The ancients thought that—just as an individual's ideal moral constitution could be deduced and attained—an ideal constitution and ordering of society could be deduced and attained. In the words of Plato, the state is just the individual "writ large."

Modern thinkers came to believe that one can't count on the wisdom and nobility of individuals to create and preserve a just state. By recognizing the base passions that drive human actions, and instituting "checks" against those passions, stable, effective government can be attained. The modern politician's lack of nobility is not a bug, it's a feature.
posted by Knappster at 11:07 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

This isn't really answerable without writing an essay, which I am not going to do on this bloody awful keyboard. In brief terms I think carius and drjimmy have it. The world has changed so much since Aristotle's time that although his view isn't wrong, it's now close to irrelevant. ('Close to' rather than just irrelevant because I repeat it's not wrong.) For a much longer but more complete answer, read In Defence of Politics by Bernard Crick. Years since I read it but it changed how I think about politics. From how I remember it, Crick wouldn't disagree with Aristotle but in modern circumstances governments are expected to do a lot more than just make a virtuous life possible. And I have to quote this (from Look Inside):

"If one reads Orwell's 1984 as savage Swiftian satire, not as prophecy, then one notices that the proles, unlike the inner party, are controlled by debasement more than direct terror: they are given not propaganda but 'newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means ...' ..."
posted by Logophiliac at 11:09 PM on August 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Crick (IIRC) would agree that deal-doing and compromise are a feature rather than a bug. Compromise is necessary for a stable society to be possible at all.
posted by Logophiliac at 11:19 PM on August 5, 2011

My dad was a politician. Watching him struggle, 18-20 hours a day, for years, to try and make things just a little better for everyone, and getting shat upon for the effort, convinced me that not only is politics the noblest profession, but that the electorate are, for the most part, unworthy of the attention.

And the pay is shit.
posted by klanawa at 11:21 PM on August 5, 2011 [6 favorites]

Politics and education are only noble professions when you have so much money that you should know better.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:06 AM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bless you for asking this question!

You should look into recent podcast interviews with John Taylor Gatto (investigate on google and iTunes) for some insight into this. Essentially, he was named Teacher of the Year in NY State and then rejected the award and began lecturing on exactly your question. Memail me for specific podcast interviews with him I have enjoyed.

Personally, I worked at the UN while taking a break from college (in the Secretary General's Office) and this caused me to change my major to communications/media. After working in tabloid news TV for a few years, I ended up on my local community board in Manhattan, NYC. Plus other political things that would betray my identity.

During my stint at the UN, I realized how much influence the media had. John Taylor Gatto talks a lot about Critical Thinking skillz - YES. It's all related.

How to encapsulate my point?

I can't.

But yeah - there is a difference between folks who care about the greater good VS. the folks who are in it for the money or accolades.

The big joke at the UN when I worked there? How many people work at the UN? Answer: About half (of the total staff.)

John Gatto's opinions apply here and I experienced their truth first-hand.

Make of that what you will.
posted by jbenben at 1:19 AM on August 6, 2011

It really depends on the person getting into politics, their views and beliefs, weather they're in it just for the money or for the cause of a greater society...
posted by Bacillus at 4:56 AM on August 6, 2011

Bear in mind also that, for most politicians in the classical republic, policymaking would have been a periodic sideline alongside a main profession, rather than a 100%-of-your-life profession per se.
posted by foursentences at 8:21 AM on August 6, 2011

Most men who devoted their lives to politics in classical antiquity were gentlemen estate-owners, at varying levels of wealth (small in Athens and in the earlier Roman Republic, huge in the later Republic and Empire).

Max Weber's "Politics as a Vocation" strikes me as more appropriate to modern times, though it's still framed at a rather lofty moral level; he neither witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler nor of Sarah Palin (equivalence not implied).
posted by bad grammar at 9:46 AM on August 6, 2011

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