Change the Record

At lunch with a good friend today, we got talking about people and politics. We both admitted to getting cross, as we get older, at having to spend time with people whose views never change and who keep chewing the same cud. We concluded that people – even friends – who repetitively complain about things, moan about politics and never do anything about anything, are to be frequented with caution.

Later, I found myself writing a speech about society and citizenship for work. Where else to turn than Aristotle and Aquinas. Looking for inspiration, I stumbled across the reason my friend and I had been so grumpy about the monotonous tunes of stuck records. They are missing the point. Here (shortened) is what the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has to say on politics and society:

Following Aristotle, Aquinas believes that political society (civitas) emerges from the needs and aspirations of human nature itself. Thus understood, it is not an invention of human ingenuity nor an artificial construction designed to make up for human nature’s shortcomings. It is, rather, a prompting of nature itself that sets humans apart from all other natural creatures.

To be sure, political society is not simply given by nature. It is rather something to which human beings naturally aspire and which is necessary for the full perfection of their existence. The capacity for political society is not natural to man, therefore, in the same way as the five senses are natural.

The naturalness of politics is more appropriately compared to the naturalness of moral virtue. Even though human beings are inclined to moral virtue, acquiring the virtues nonetheless requires both education and habituation. In the same way, even though human beings are inclined to live in political societies, such societies must still be established, built, and maintained by human industry.

Both Aquinas and Aristotle write about how, and why, families, the household, villages and clusters of villages come together – basic biological needs and division of labour. But ‘society’ only emerges beyond a certain threshold. And why? Because:

In addition to yielding greater protection and economic benefits, it also enhances the moral and intellectual lives of human beings. By identifying with a political community, human beings begin to see the world in broader terms than the mere satisfaction of their bodily desires and physical needs. Whereas the residents of the village better serve their individual interests, the goal of the political community becomes the good of the whole, or the common good

The political community is thus understood as the first community (larger than the family) for which the individual makes great sacrifices, since it is not merely a larger cooperative venture for mutual economic benefit. It is, rather, the social setting in which man truly finds his highest natural fulfillment. It is in this context that Aquinas argues (again following Aristotle) that although political society originally comes into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of “living well.”

And this is what we were scratching at today. Friendship, communities, politics and society all require some form of constructive engagement, contribution and participation to reap the rewards of an ‘enhanced moral and intellectual life’ and “living well”. So we voted with Franklin D. Roosevelt, don’t waste time our time blaming the system, other people or society. As Roosevelt famously said ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’ Or change the record.

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