Fit Philosophy

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Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Saturday, November 16, 2019


A great many of our words for our common lives come down to us from the ancient Greeks, specifically the people and politicians of Athens from approximately the 7th to the 3rd c. BCE. But most of our American founders idealized the ancient Romans, especially the Roman Republic (509-27 BCE). The connection here is that the ancient Romans also idealized the Athenian city and its culture.

So we use the Greek word for "city"--polis--as the root of "politics," "political," and even "politician." One implication is that you can't have politics without living in a city, that is, living amongst other people. For Athenians, the real city was the fortified hilltop called the "Acropolis" or "Upper city." That's still the most recognizable feature of the contemporary Athens, especially it's temple dedicated to the eponymous Athena.

The free citizens of Athens were the politeia: in English the "polity," also "community," and "society." It's only as members of our society that we have rights and duties. Despite conventional usage, "rights" are not natural or in some other way independent of society: rights are conferred and guaranteed only by the laws and regulations of society.

Laws and regulations have to be created and maintained by the people of any society: by the "public" or, more properly, by our representatives in government . The Athenians also invented a form of representative government: democracy, which means "government by the people." In order for representatives of the people to form and maintain a government, they have to engage in politics. That is, they have to consider not only the needs but the competing interests of the citizens.

So politics is, at its best, settling differences and negotiating agreements. Life, especially human life, cannot exist without conflict. This is true at every level, from personal relationships to entire societies.

Years ago, while cycling in France, I stood one day atop the fortified tower on a mesa above the town of Foix, on the Ariege River at the foot of the Pyrenees. Such fortifications--incorrectly called "castles"--are characteristic of every ancient city, whether still standing or unearthed by archeological excavation. They are monuments to the actions of attacking and fending off other people. It occurred to me then to think that no activity has occupied more of human history than carrying rocks! We have forever been building forts to defend against attacks by others like ourselves. Why?

We have warfare when politics fails. Combat is evidence of the failure to settle our differences: to negotiate agreements over our conflicts. It follows that the aim of politics--as of life itself--is not to eliminate conflict. The aim of politics is to achieve agreement on ways to move on with our lives in the face of differences. Politics is thus the most important of human activities. It is central to our lives and our well-being, and also to our continued existence in society.

In a sense then, we don't "go into" politics: we are all always immersed in political forms of life: work as much as society, relationships as much as family. Life is marked by conflict; success in life is marked by achieving agreement about our differences, by settling our conflicts as fairly as can be, knowing that we'll never run out of them...