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The Ethics of Politics

Keynote Speech

Politics today, in the context of representative democracy based on the party system, has a limited meaning, quasi professional, referring to the exercise of the executive and legislative functions of the state.

This is primarily related to the highly developed party system which involves the attachment of politicians to political parties and their advancement to positions of power through the party system as well as the operation of the political system through partisan correlations and interests.

The party system results essentially from the conversion of direct to representative democracy, which carries with it the establishment of an extensive civil service machine for the purposes of the administration of the ever-growing and ever-more-complex state. In such a system, in which the government is in reality in the hands of an oligarchy, the citizens are marginalized, being limited to their participation in elections over relatively long intervals, with the consequence that their participation in the affairs of the commonwealth becomes minimal, the quasi professional politicians through the representative party system and the administrative machine handling all the affairs of the commonwealth.

In ancient Greece politics had a wider meaning, referring to the very nature and mission of the system of government. The word politics itself, always bearing in mind the wisdom of etymology as shown by Plato in his dialogue ‘Cratylos’, takes us to the matters affecting the city as the embodiment of the commonwealth of citizens. As Aristotle told us, man is a political being, that is, tending not to the isolated life but to the life within the city for the satisfaction of his material as well as of his intellectual needs. Politics, therefore, as Plato persistently demonstrated, is an art, like medicine and architecture, and, as any other such pursuit, is the art which concerns the proper regulation of its subject, that is, the city and the citizens, on the understanding that good citizens constitute the strongest foundation of a healthy city. Indeed, as history teaches us, cities collapse more often and more easily through their internal weaknesses and dissensions than through external dangers. Politics as an art, therefore, presupposes the appropriate education and sense of mission. The exercise of the art of politics, therefore, presupposes the appropriate education, as does the exercise of the art of medicine or of architecture or of any other art. If no man could be a doctor or architect without the necessary education, why could a politician?

In Plato’s dialogue ‘Alkiviades A’ Socrates shows to Alkiviades, the charismatic and ambitious but inexperienced young man who proposes to go into politics, that politics presupposes true knowledge of its subject as to what is proper in every aspect of public life for both the governors and the governed. And true knowledge in politics means, in ultimate analysis, the possession of ethical virtue, which the politician, as a responsible artist, has the duty both to exercise himself and teach to the citizens in the context of his services to the city. In so far as the politician cannot pass to the citizens what he himself does not possess, the paramount ambition of the politician should, therefore, be not the vain pursuit of political power for its own sake or for personal benefit, be it material, financial or even honorary, but to rule for the benefit of the citizens through the virtues of wisdom, true judgment, nobility, and, above all, justice, which includes all others. Otherwise, the politician will fail in his mission and the citizens will lose in very many ways, while the system of government itself will be led to erosion and diversion. This is why Plato was at pains to demonstrate that only the philosopher king can be a good ruler, the philosopher being the par excellence virtuous man. Politics, divorced from virtue, will inevitably fail in its mission, in the same way that a sick man who entrusts his health to a non-doctor or a man who wants to build a house entrusts the work to a non-architect is exposing himself to analogous risk. And it is precisely because the citizens prefer the popular politician, the party man, the populist demagogue, to the philosopher as ruler that Plato was never involved in politics, especially after his failure to imbue political ethics into the tyrants of Syracuse Dionysios A and Dionysios B. This is why Plato believed that the philosopher must not aim at political involvement unless invited to do so by the city, and then only upon his own terms, as in the case of Lykourgos in Sparta and Solon in Athens. Lykourgos’ laws, based on citizen equality, simplicity of life and the abolition of gold and silver, held for five hundred years and made Sparta a protagonist of Greek political life, while his political reforms secured the desired balance of power and orderly operation of the system of government combining monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Likewise, Solon’s laws, based on his sense of justice, balance, moderation and conciliation, freed Athens from the shackles of feudalism and transformed it into the city of trade, enterprise and progress that it was to be, while his political reforms laid the foundations for its democratic constitution which has become the model of democratic government and upon which Athenian civilization in the letters and the arts rested. Solon’s aim was, through the laws, to make the citizens better. His philosophy of life is cis His haracteristically reflected in one of his poems in which he says that many rich men may be bad and many poor men may be good, but virtue is independent from both conditions, resting upon the citizen’s choice rather than his circumstances. Solon is the most luminous example of what a wise man as philosopher ruler can achieve if only the people are prepared to give him the authority and the power to do so. The same political ethos was exhibited by Noumas in Rome. Upon Romylos’ death, the citizens turned to Noumas who was so universally honoured for his virtue as to be acceptable to all. Noumas was utterly unwilling to accept the kingship and accepted only upon the hardest of pressure, considering the unity that he would be bringing to Roman society among Romans and Sabinians and with the ambition of making Rome a city of peace and prosperity as he did in his long reign.

What these three men had in common was their political virtue which they aimed to convey to their fellow citizens. Educating them through their personal ethos and political work, they showed that politics is not an end in itself for political ambition as such but service and mission for a good city.

This, alas, is not likely to happen today. Today politics and ethics are at a distance, due to the political system itself which, in the form of modern representative democracy based on party politics, allows to anyone to become a ‘politician’ as long as he can, primarily through party procedures and other considerations, achieve his election or appointment to office regardless of proper education, personal virtue and wisdom. It is, therefore, not surprising that Plato, as much as Aristotle, did not consider democracy as the best system of government, since even in their days of direct democracy party politics and demagogues often led to decisions of the Demos which served party, local or class interests rather than the good of the city as a whole. The reason being that in the democratic system, particularly the modern system of representative democracy, the elected representatives, like the citizens, do not have in the same or sufficient degree virtue, knowledge and objective judgment concerning public matters. Instead, the citizens are led to their choices mostly on the basis of selfish considerations, partisan preconceptions and artful demagogue ‘politicians’, while the politicians, as modern sophists, exploit the mass communications media for their own purposes, are drawn by popular interests and say what sound pleasant to the ears of the many, whom they need in order to come to power or maintain themselves in power. The rulers, therefore, in so far as they act in accordance with objectives alien to virtue, preserve their own stagnation and that of the citizens at the low levels of political ethics and build the city upon weak foundations. This has long-term adverse consequences, particularly due to the dissensions and conflicts which result from the absence of a unified course to be followed by the city towards what is objectively good for it. As Pythagoras told us, such a state of things is much like a ship managed by several captains and thereby successively following erratic courses.

Plato, true to the timeless value of virtue, suggests in the ‘Politeia” that the best system of government is that in which the rulers are selected at an advanced age for their virtue through constant and demanding processes and judgments which are aimed at securing their quality and their commitment to virtue. This would be analogous to the Gerousia in Sparta and the Senate in Rome which were composed of the most distinguished elders as the very word Gerousia means, but the modern form of the Senate has degenerated into just another legislative chamber. Plato knew, of course, that his ideal city constituted in fact a utopia, but this, as he emphasized, does not detract from its ethical value or from the need for cities to constantly tend towards it. In this context, he refers to the education of the citizens, that is, the classical and universal education of the Muses, as the only way for moving out of the ignorance of the darkness of the cave and towards the true knowledge which leads to the view of the light of virtue. In the “Laws’ Plato points out that the basic duty of the politician is to so arrange the priorities of the city that the primary aim is to be the good of the soul of the citizens, secondly the good of their bodies and only thirdly the material goods which are external to both soul and body. But if we reflect upon the current state of things, we shall see that in politics these priorities have been reversed, the first being the material goods and the third being the good of the soul. Indeed, even the word ‘ψυχαγωγία’ has lost its meaning, referring to material pleasures rather than the education of the soul, whereas the cultivation of the body is aimed not at its perfection as the mortal habitation of the soul but at the vanity of the external and impersonal beauty and strength and its use as materially beneficial. This is also seen in the marginalization of the education of the classical education of the Muses and the exalted significance, indeed deification, given to money and material things as well as to all other things acquired through them. And we only have to turn our eyes to the corruption and the financial ethical value or from the need for cities to constantly tend towards it. In this context, he refers to the education of the citizens, that is, the classical and universal education of the Muses, as the only way for moving out of the ignorance of the darkness of the cave and towards the true knowledge which leads to the view of the light of virtue. In the “Laws’ Plato points out that the basic duty of the politician is to so arrange the priorities of the city that the primary aim is to be the good of the soul of the citizens, secondly the good of their bodies and only thirdly the material goods which are external to both soul and body. But if we reflect upon the current state of things, we shall see that in politics these priorities have been reversed, the first being the material goods and the third being the good of the soul. Indeed, even the word ‘ψυχαγωγία’ has lost its meaning, referring to material pleasures rather than the education of the soul, whereas the cultivation of the body is aimed not at its perfection as the mortal habitation of the soul but at the vanity of the external and impersonal beauty and strength and its use as materially beneficial. This is also seen in the marginalization of the education of the classical education of the Muses and the exalted significance, indeed deification, given to money and material things as well as to all other things acquired through them. And we only have to turn our eyes to the corruption and the financial conscience and justice. He will thus avoid essential inequalities resulting from unlimited selfishness and leading to greed, exploitation and illegality which render the city a disunited collection of conflicting interests under the impotent cover of the laws. Then and only then will democracy have real value, based upon the equality which it professes as its fundamental principle and not upon the phenomenal equality which involves inequality of knowledge, judgment and claims and thereby negates the principle of democracy.

Then there is the question of the control of the rulers against their abuse and exploitation of office. As Sir John Acton said, ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. This is due to the weakness of human nature because of the tendency towards selfishness, greed and exploitation, especially when given the opportunity and when no punishment ensues, as often happens. It is, therefore, necessary, if the rulers in our system of representative democracy are not sufficiently virtuous as to withstand corruption, to have proper institutional guarantees for its avoidance. To that effect, certain guarantees are formally provided by the constitution and the laws, especially concerning the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the powers of the independent Attorney-General and the prohibition of profit from state office. Nevertheless, as experience shows, these guarantees are not sufficient, as corruption is usually found out after it is committed rather than prevented in advance, and, further, corruption has wider political rather than legal dimensions. It is, therefore, necessary in the interests of constant vigilance, as Plato points out, to provide for the supervision and accountability of the rulers themselves before, during and at the end of their office by an independent and incorruptible body. The assumption of public office involves the entrusting by the people of their affairs to the rulers, so that any breach of that trust by them amounts to a betrayal of trust and therefore to the most serious offence on the part of the ruler.

The essence of the matter, of course, is that even the best laws afford no guarantee for their observance and for the correctness of the judgments of rulers and ruled concerning public issues. Which reminds us that the success or failure of any institutions is the success or failure of the persons who from time to time are in charge of them and indicates the need for the redefinition of the role of the politician in terms of ethics. This is what led Socrates in ‘Gorgias’ to say that, whatever material services a politician may render to his city, they will not be of real worth if at the same time he does not make the citizens better through their education in virtue. Hence Socrates justly considered, however paradoxical this may sound, that he was the only one in the city who was concerned with politics in the true sense, aiming st the advancement of rulers and ruled towards virtue through his philosophic teachings. It is thus fitting, in closing, to cite the wise words of Plato which contain the timeless value of the ethics of politics –

‘Unless the philosophers become kings or the kings become philosophers, so that political power and philosophy, which now go their separate ways, coincide in one person, there shall be no end to the evils befalling the cities and humanity’.

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