Greece and human flourishing

John W. Danford reflects on Greece and the ancient view of human flourishing:

Modern Western “democracies,” as they are usually called, are actually better described as liberal commercial societies. They rest on principles of individualism and individual rights—especially legal rights—which are more fundamental than democracy, and also much newer. Democracy, after all, is an ancient Greek word for “rule by the many,” and democracies have not until quite recently been regarded as very good or fair types of governments. The many can oppress the few quite as easily as the reverse, and the notion of individual rights actually has more to do with limiting the power of any government—whether by the many, or by a king, or by a party—to treat individuals unjustly.

In a very general way the core idea of liberal commercial societies is individualism. The view that has gained acceptance in the last three hundred years in the West is that society should be thought of as a collection of individuals whose needs and purposes lead them to constitute society, or to continue living in a society, as a way of furthering their individual needs and purposes. This individualism thus presumes that human beings should be understood primarily as individual organisms, who are what they are whether or not they live in some social order. More than that, it presumes that the needs and goals of human individuals—not just survival, but dignity, the active use of faculties, and a measure of security and comfort—are able to be understood in reference to individual men and women, with society but a means to achieve the goals or supply the needs more reliably or more easily.

This view of human beings as individuals “by nature” was advanced as a challenge to the view that rested at the core of classical political science, a mode of thinking which prevailed in the West (where it was invented in ancient Greece) for nearly two thousand years. The modern view can best be understood in comparison to the older view it replaced. The prevailing modern view was not unknown to ancient or classical thinkers, of course, but they rejected it in favor of an understanding more closely connected to their conception of the nature of all things.

The ancient Greek political philosophers taught that man is by nature a political being. By this they meant that human beings are suited naturally—by nature—for life in a particular sort of community, called a polis or city. Any human being not fortunate enough to live in a polis, they said, would not be capable of realizing his full humanity or “humanness.”

They also knew that many, if not most, men and women were cut off from the possibility of being fully human because they lived either outside cities (as nomads or shepherds, condemned to what Marx later disparaged as the “idiocy of rural life”), or in vast empires, far too large to have any taste of genuine political life. The special characteristic of a city or polisis that in a city human beings are able to exercise one of their highest, most human faculties, which the Greeks called logos or reasoned speech. This capacity is involved in all political deliberation, by which human beings exercise choice about how to live and how to constitute social life itself. According to Aristotle, the faculty of logos distinguishes men from all other animals. It is also what makes man the only being who is political by nature. Any man who lives outside a polis, he taught, must be either a beast or a god—either less than human (because falling short of the true human potential) or more than human (and hence self-sufficient).

The Greeks thought one should conceive the nature of anything by thinking about its perfection or completion, that is, what the thing is able to be in the best or most appropriate circumstances. This is an extraordinarily dynamic way of looking at things: each particular example of a thing (whether a man or an oak tree), since it falls short of perfection, could be said to point beyond itself to what it ought to be. This exciting idea led men to think about what a polis or city ought to be, or what the nature of political life would be in its full perfection. And this is where complexities began to develop. The lofty idea that man is a political being by nature seemed, on reflection, to have troubling consequences in at least two respects.

While rejecting radical individualism and the false good of autonomy for its own sake, a more limited perspective might be that human beings are likeliest to achieve their peak/fullness in relationship with other human beings. This is because relationships and community life are the contexts for virtue and vice, and for cultivating and expressing virtuous ways of living.

Virtue cannot be incarnated in abstract, but only in relation to others. This doesn’t mean that shepherds or hermits or nomads are less likely to be virtuous, for instance, but it does mean that they might suffer in different ways from their physical, intellectual, and emotional remove from other human beings.