Political Community vs. The Soul

Alright, everyone. We’re taking a break from the emotional, nostalgic wave I’ve been riding lately and are getting back to some philosophical roots in this post! The state of our nation and the direction of the political world is constantly on my mind, but especially as of late. One of the political questions I’ve been pondering since the start of my undergraduate career is the role of political community and how virtuosity and viciousness tie into both political engagement and the lack thereof. In other words, I’ve taken great interest in human nature, matters of the soul, whether or not politics is inherently engaging and virtue-bearing, and whether political “retirement” or refusal to involve oneself in matters of the state is emblematic of some form of vice. My graduate school coursework will likely have some semblance of these questions and theories, so this essay I wrote last year has been at the forefront of my mind in recent weeks. Here are some notes on political community and the human soul:

In Politics, it is undeniable that Aristotle proceeds to make a multitude of claims about the nature of the state, how it relates to the notion of a community, and the role and responsibility that he believes human beings to have to participate in such a community. He emphatically discusses at length how important and necessary communities are, and ultimately works to argue that human existence and engagement in political community and is absolutely essential in trying to achieve eudaimonia, or the ultimate good/happiness. In the very opening of Book I of Politics, he claims that “it is clear that all communities aim at some good, and that the community that is most authoritative of all and embraces all the others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city or the political community” (Aristotle 1).

Through his immediate articulation of the notion of community and what he understands it to be working towards, it is clear that Aristotle holds the political community to a high (if not the highest) regard, even equating it to the city itself. His emphasis and transparent declaration that the political community is the highest and all-encompassing community allows him to set the stage for what will be discusses in his subsequent books in Politics, and ultimately leads him to stating that “the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and […] man is by nature a political animal” (Aristotle 4). This premise is what most undergirds Aristotle’s argument throughout the text and bodes well in concisely summarizing what he wishes to proclaim about the function of the political community and the agents within it– that the community is absolutely needful, the source of human engagement, and the only means by which a human being may obtain eudaimonia. In short, Aristotle’s theory of virtue and eudaimonia is completely dependent and contingent on human beings’ potential and actualization of participating in a political community, and he deems it completely imperative for people to do so. He even goes as far as to say that human beings are their most human (that is, we best express our humanity and highest capacities) when we engage politics and claims that we simply cannot exist without the community in general. He claims that “the individual when separated from [the city]is not self-sufficient” and that “one who is incapable of sharing or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of a city, and so is either a beast or a god” (Aristotle 5). This, by and large, is the argument that most grounds what Aristotle works to lift up throughout the text, and is the principle that will be challenged throughout this paper. Aristotle says that political engagement and the participation in a community of this sort is unquestionably necessary in order to pursue justice, virtue, and eudaimonia, and he does not believe it to be possible or probable for people to exist outside of the community successfully. However, I think it possible that Aristotle, in so enthusiastically defining the political community and describing its essentiality in relation to human beings, perhaps undermines several other elements that have major force in the lives of people, and even misses some that may even be more important. That is, Aristotle fails to recognize the complexity and difficulties that may arise between individuals and their community, and he undermines the possibility of an unjust political community in and of itself. Should he believe the political community to be the ultimate driving force in the pursuit of justice and eudaimonia, yet the political system itself is unjust and detrimental for the individual, I find it very difficult to agree with Aristotle in saying that it is necessary for human life and happiness. If the political community and the practice of engaging with it is, in some way, damaging to an individual or their soul, then Aristotle’s argument appears to be somewhat self-defeating. In short, he fails to consider the potential for an unjust and injurious political community, as we witness in Sophocles’s Philoctetes, thus causing him to overlook circumstances and states in which engaging with the political community would not only be disadvantageous for an individual, but also pain-inducing and harmful to their life and soul.

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One of the ancient works that I have found to be in direct conflict with the overall premise and argument articulated in Aristotle’s Politics is Philoctetes, a tragic play by Sophocles. The play tells the story of Philoctetes, a notable archer and warrior in ancient Athens, who was bitten on the foot by a snake and abandoned by his own men on the island of Lemnos, left with nothing but his wound to rot (and his bow and arrow). Throughout the play, Philoctetes is further schemed when Neoptolemus and Odysseus, after being told by a well-regarded prophet that Philoctetes and his bow and arrow are necessary to bring down Troy, attempt to rob him of his bow and deceive him in doing so. The Athenian men go to Lemnos with the intention of persuading Philoctetes to rejoin their army and fight the war with them, but many complications and questions arise when Philoctetes (rightly so) does not wish to rejoin Athens. Philoctetes, in this sense, has been completely disengaged from his political community and the life in Athens following the desertion he faced after being left on Lemnos by men he trusted, and does not feel an obligation nor a desire to re-engage with the community that had abused and wronged him. The clear deception that Odysseus and Neoptolemus exercise right from the start indicate that their motives are not derived from an innocent and virtuous place, for they only wish to trick Philoctetes enough to succeed in escorting him back to Athens with them. As Odysseus speaks to Neoptolemus and directs him in what to say to Philoctetes, the malice is evident: “You must maneuver the mind of Philoctetes and deceive him with beguiling words. […] Say they implored you to leave home and join them as the only man who could bring down Troy […] Say what you will, as bad as can be, the worst things imaginable” (Sophocles 6). Odysseus’s attempt to persuade Neoptolemus to act in such a deceptive and scheming manner is both disappointing and unjust in itself, for it illustrates the malfeasance and degrading effects the corruption of the youth may have in the formation and actualization of people’s character. Following the orders given by Odysseus, we see the character and demeanor of Neoptolemus change from a man of high integrity and one who “would rather do right and fail than do wrong to win,” to one who, in attempting to follow orders from those who are hierarchically more powerful and respectable, abandons his sense of virtue and goodness for the sake of honor and victory. This initial change in Neoptolemus’s character after being inveigled by Odysseus is the first instance in which it becomes clear that the Greek political community is perhaps mal-intended and unjust in itself, thus raising question as to whether the community has the capacity to be considered something essential in achieving eudaimonia, justice, or virtue. That is, if both the political community and the actors who engage in the community do not act according to justice, it would be difficult to sustain Aristotle’s claim that the community is the mode by which justice can be attained. Assuming that the Athenian political community that is reflected throughout the play is one in which the men deceive one another for the sake of achieving glory or honor, lose their integrity in order to prove their loyalty to those with power, and treat the misfortunes and pains of others (as in the case of Philoctetes) as negligible and unworthy of consideration, I would hardly say that this type of environment is one aimed at the good, justice, or any facets of the sort that Aristotle is so certain of being true of the political community. The way in which the Athenian community is presented in Philoctetes challenges Aristotle’s notion and role of the political community that he describes in Politics and poses the question of whether or not communities have the capacity to cause more harm than good and be more detrimental for the individual and his/her soul. In the case of Philoctetes, his forced re-entry into the political system is something that is questionable– there is reason to doubt if his being forced to engage with the system, people, and community that had previously caused him immeasurable amounts of agony and grief was necessary for him to continue on. Furthermore, I find it unlikely that his reintroduction into the community was something that would enable him to be “happier” than he was in existing outside of it. For this reason, I find Philoctetes and his life to be an unmistakable counterexample to Aristotle’s notion of community and its capacities.

In some ways, the Aristotelian view of political community is both understandable and agreeable, for it is difficult to imagine a world where communities of this sort don’t exist, and even harder to imagine individuals who are so detached from the community as a whole and are completely uninvolved in every aspect. In this sense, the community can be deemed necessary merely because it exists. However, that in no way means that the community manifests all of the assets Aristotle believes it to in his articulation. It is possible, and clear in Philoctetes’s circumstance, that the community is neither just nor good, thus rendering it somewhat improbable to conclude that it is capable of promoting the pursuit of eudaimonia and virtue. For Philoctetes, the mistreatment, abandonment, and pain (both physically and psychologically) he endured at the hands of the political community which betrayed him is irreparable. The damage and harm the political community caused him was not without cost, and the attempt of Odysseus and Neoptolemus to deceive him further only illuminates the inherent conflict between political community and the proper orderliness of the soul more. If Aristotle is correct in his notion that Philoctetes could only flourish, achieve the ultimate good, or display his humanity if he were to re-enter the environment that had destroyed him in the past, his circumstance is extremely problematic, for it asks an awful lot of Philoctetes. Not only is he expected to put aside all that has been done to him and the pain he has been forced to deal with, but he is also expected to assist those who had wronged him in their pursuit of glory and honor, something that Philoctetes undoubtedly would not desire to do. The re-engagement with his political community that Philoctetes ultimately concedes to is not a choice that came without consequence (if it can be considered a choice at all). Philoctetes, in describing what he had been through and the position he later found himself in, stated, “Evil creatures are never destroyed; some unseen power carefully protects them and takes perverse pleasure in diverting criminals and wrongdoers away from Hades, while the just and the good are sent straight there” (Sophocles 23).

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It is clear that, after all that had been done to him, Philoctetes had lost faith in the rightful outcomes of justice in accordance to man’s character, and he did not take lightly the wrongdoings that had been committed against him. Still, when Neoptolemus and Odysseus arrive on Lemnos trying to persuade him to come back to Athens, rejoin their army, and reintegrate back into the political community so that they may win the way, Philoctetes does so. It only takes the arrival of Heracles at the very end of the play to change the course of Philoctetes’ thoughts. The deus ex-machina ending of Philoctetes involves Heracles descending from the heavens and directing Philoctetes to go with the men to Troy so as to “be cured of [his] vicious wound” and be known as the army’s champion (Sophocles 69). Heracles proclaims that his suffering “will be repaid with a life of glory,” and that the Athenian civilization will forever hold him in high regard,” something that clearly is of high value to the people of Athens (Sophocles 69). The order of the god takes immediate hold within Philoctetes, and he immediately agrees to sail back to Athens, but the dissatisfaction and malcontent that accompanies this ending should not go unnoticed or unexamined. By the end of the play, it is evident that Odysseus had only selfish and conniving intentions for wanting Philoctetes to rejoin the Athenian army. He had not only succeeded in persuading Neoptolemus to abandon his sense of morality and integrity in going along with his deceitful motives, but he also achieved what he wanted to accomplish all along when Philoctetes agreed to return to Athens and fight the war. The mere injustice of the course of these events throughout the play is what makes Aristotle’s conceptualization of the political community as a mechanism through which happiness and justice is achieved a hard pill to swallow, and a description that doesn’t quite fit Philoctetes’ situation. It seems as if asking Philoctetes to simply let go of all that was done to him and wash away his pain is a wearying and unreasonable task, yet he is still asked to do so, and concedes upon being asked. The encouragement of those around him, Odysseus, Neoptolemus and Heracles alike, to return to Athens by their side whilst dismissing from mind all of the turmoil and pain he had endured is not only a sign of manipulation, but a reflection of an unjust political community. Philoctetes’s re-entrance into the Athenian community was one in which he did not receive the just treatment or recognition he deserved, nor did Odysseus and Neoptolemus reprimanded in any way for what they had done. In this way, the wicked were never punished (or even considered wicked except by Philoctetes himself), and the good individual with the virtuous soul was forced to reconcile his burdens and pains so as to rejoin the political community that had created his misery in the first place.

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The tragedy of Philoctetes lies in the fact that political life itself is in conflict with the pursuit of justice and virtue, and there is no inconsequential and just way to go about it, for human beings ourselves are incapable of escaping the injustices that accompany political engagement (illustrated for the need of Heracles to descend and “solve” the worldly problem).  Philoctetes must return to Greece with those who betrayed him, while simultaneously receiving an opportunity to be healed. The paradoxical ending reflects the tragedy that participating in a political community may be inevitable and unworthy of choice but is perhaps not always the best option for the nature of the soul. In the end, we are left with a meaningless solution provided by a god– one that offers no insight as to how to begin solving the lasting and inevitably tragic conflicts that come with political and social life. The harmony has been lost, and there is no seeing a possibility of coexistence between political community/engagement and the pursuit of justice and virtue, thus challenging Aristotle’s claim that political community is where eudaimonia is said to be found and where the source of justice lies.

With Philoctetes in mind, it is clear that political community can be harmful and have detrimental effects on the individual, which leads me to believe that perhaps political engagement is not what allows for the highest good. In fact, it is something that can produce permanent and ruinous impacts on people and their lives. In this way, I disagree with Aristotle, for I find it more agreeable to say that political community is somewhat inevitable (simply because it exists), but not necessarily essential for human life or the pursuit of eudaimonia or justice. The likelihood that political communities, like that of Athens in Philoctetes, will be unjust and reflect a world in which the wicked proceed to be honored, moral compromises are made and result in the loss of integrity, and the blameless suffer is not a community that I call just, nor is it one in which I can imagine human beings flourishing. That is to say, political engagement comes at a very high cost, one that is often irreparable and unfair. And to me, the inherent conflict between the need to engage in political community and the pursuit of justice, a well-ordered soul, and human flourishing is enough for me to defy Aristotle’s elevation of political community as the means to achieve the highest good. Political community is, in itself, a tragic element of human life; we are forced to live with one another despite everything, but that doesn’t deem the community necessary for happiness. For if the community is unjust and inequitable, as it is in Philoctetes, the position of the individuals and their souls is at stake, something that should never be taken lightly. Aristotle fails to acknowledge the possibility of such conflicts that may arise, as Philoctetes’s circumstance so perfectly demonstrated, and through Sophocles’s play, it becomes clear how complex and tragic political life really is, despite all of the potentials Aristotle believes it to have.

Works Cited

Aristotle, Politics. Edited by C. D. C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2017.

Sophocles. Philoctetes. Edited by Seth L. Schein, Cambridge University Press, 2013.