A reflection on Plato’s Statesman
Previously I have warned about the danger of tyranny, both to the despot and the populace (see on Despots) but I have failed to examine the art common to dictator, oligarch, demagogue and democrat. The art of politics – the common thread which links these otherwise disparate professions – is seen by the multitude both as the pathway to power and as corruption which sullies the soul. I will attempt to identify whether politics is harmful or benign, and if politics is inseparable from humanity, I will attempt to determine how we can best employ this double-edged blade.
As the first point of call, we must define politics. I posit that politics is the art of employing power to control human communities. In this sense, it is a tool that can we can utilise either for good or ill. A good politician can order a society well, to minimise oppression on the best – allowing them to excel – and to free the weak from the vicissitudes of fortune – allowing them to reach their potential. In this sense using politics well is not about achieving the good, but in allowing others the opportunity to excel, overcoming the triad of capacity, circumstance and chance.
However, as politics deals with authority, it also opens up the politician to addiction: to pleasure and power. To prevent the destructive birth of a tyrant society must codify a series of checks and balances, granting politicians enough power to achieve their aims but denying them the supremacy to overthrow the state and enslave the people. However, with too many qualifications on rule, the politician becomes defanged – too weak to harm the citizenry but too pathetic to protect them from predators.
With this in mind, it would appear that politics is a paradox: the art of liberating the capable and elevating the weak, of protecting the populace and being defending the citizens against their guardians. As such, the role of the politician is not merely the employment of power, but the just employment of supremacy. It is this the ability to walk the fine line between dominance and deference, to approach the brink of superhuman authority and then step back.
The best politicians will be those who are not the best at politics, but the most just in its execution – able to aim for the stars without ignoring the means. This perfectionist standard is, without a doubt, beyond the capacity of the flawed humanity which populates this earth, but even if we can ape the merest shadow of ‘true’ politics, we can begin to approach justice in our societies.
Cesare Maccari, Cicero Denounces Catiline, 1889