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What US democracy can learn from ancient Greek philosophy

In the face of intense political partisanship, Plato and Aristotle stressed the need for friendship among citizens and extolled the virtues of moderation and like-mindedness.

By Teresa Bejan

When president-elect Joe Biden addressed Americans on 7 November, many listened with palpable nostalgia and relief. Like Barack Obama before him, here was a politician promising “not to divide, but to unify” and claiming he “doesn’t see Red and Blue states, but a United States”. Biden even went so far as to console those Americans who voted for the other guy, and pledged to be their president, too. For those who can remember American politics before 2016, Biden’s conciliatory rhetoric felt downright old-fashioned.

Of course, critics on both the left and right dismissed it on social media as post-partisan pabulum. For the former, Biden’s talk of unity represented an unfortunate throw-back to a bankrupt politics of liberal consensus that paved the way to where we are now. For the latter, reports that their candidate had “lost” the election were greatly exaggerated. Let the litigation begin.

The response to Biden’s address has confirmed that Republicans and Democrats not only live in separate media bubbles and geographical areas, but different worlds. And the United States is not alone in these developments. Democratic societies are dividing internally the world over, politically and culturally, as well as economically.

Political scientists call this phenomenon – whereby a normal bell-curve distribution of opinion, with most people somewhere in the middle, gives way to clustering at the extremes – polarisation. Yet this term, borrowed from physics, evokes the behaviour of iron filings, not committed partisans. It fails to capture the social effects of this divergence – let alone the psychological alienation, acrimony and mutual suspicion that characterise our public sphere.

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To make sense of our political moment, many commentators seek historical parallels. In the US, the familiar reductio ad Hitlerum of the past four years has now produced Weimar analogies, bunker allusions, and breathless expectations of a coup. That Hitler’s preferred strategies were not half-baked legal challenges or compulsive golfing doesn’t matter. A significant portion of the commentariat evidently prefers to believe that over 73 million of their fellow Americans are fascist sympathisers. That some elites seem to find this thought comforting suggests a deeper problem.

There is, however, an alternative analysis of the current configuration of the US electorate, born of an older historical parallel: not polarisation, but stasis. In ancient Greek, stasis means literally “standing” or “taking a stand”. Applied to politics, however, it implies something less, well, static.

The original account of stasis comes from the historian Thucydides in his description of the troubles in the city-state of Corcyra (modern-day Corfu) during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BCE). There, Thucydides described how, for a week, “the Corcyraeans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow citizens whom they regarded as their enemies”:

So bloody was the march of the stasis [that] words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given to them. Reckless audacity came to be considered courage…prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, ineptness to act on any…The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.

According to Thucydides, the process continued “until even blood became a weaker tie than party”.

Stasis is often translated into English as “civil war”. But this is not quite right, for reasons the historian David Armitage has explored. As Thucydides suggests, the stasis in Corcyra preceded the outbreak of violence. It was a state of mind, rather than a state of war.

The stasis in Corcyra was a mental and affective orientation of mutual enmity between citizens who privileged their partisan identities over all other ties – including, crucially, that of language. In fact, the clearest sign of stasis in Corcyra was the loss of shared meanings. Even though citizens spoke the same language, they could no longer understand one another.

For Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, stasis became the motivating malady of political theory. “Do we know of any greater evil for a polis [political community] than the thing that makes it many instead of one?” asks Socrates in Plato’s Republic. “Or a greater good than that which binds it together?” Ultimately, Plato saw stasis as a product of the division between rich and poor. He concluded that the apparent unity of an unequal society concealed the fact that there were really two, antagonistic communities present, not one.  

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For Aristotle, the conflict arose rather from competing visions of justice. While democrats privileged equality, oligarchs stressed differential merit. According to Aristotle, both had a point: “All men cling to justice of some kind, but their conceptions are imperfect…the reason is that they are passing judgment on themselves, and most people are bad judges in their own case.” The problem, he believed, was this partiality of perspective: citizens in stasis simply could not overcome it. Although they shared a polity, they experienced different worlds. Sound familiar?

Today, many of the concepts with which we organise our common life – such as democracy, economics and politics itself – are inherited from ancient Greek. Even those of us without a classical education (myself included) speak Plato and Aristotle’s language every day. Yet though we cling to these ancient ideas, stasis has disappeared from our political vocabulary. The best translation of stasis into modern English is “faction”. But when it comes to faction, we moderns tend to be students of Machiavelli, who wrote almost two millennia after Aristotle.

Much like his Greek predecessors, Machiavelli lived in a world of warring city-states surrounded by great empires. Moreover, he was writing during the Renaissance, a time of rebirth in which the “wisdom of the Ancients” was revived and celebrated in philosophy and politics, as well as art.

And yet, while Plato and Aristotle had followed Thucydides in seeing stasis as a prelude to civil war, Machiavelli embraced the political division of citizens into opposing parties as a positive good. In his Discourses on Livy (composed c. 1517), Machiavelli rejected ancient wisdom altogether on this point and argued that the competition and mutual distrust between il popolo (the people) and i grandi (the elites) in the Roman republic had been the foundation of Roman liberty and greatness.

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Whereas Plato and Aristotle stressed the need for friendship among citizens and extolled the virtues of moderation and like-mindedness, modern democrats follow Machiavelli in valuing disagreement and diversity. Aristotle would have seen this embrace of faction as absurdly self-defeating. He argued that once a polis had succumbed to stasis, it was already too late.

I accept the threat Aristotle sees in stasis, but I am still modern enough to believe that the United States – however divided in reality – has some life in it yet. It may be too late for American partisans to become friends to one another, but Aristotle himself held out another possibility – that human beings might become “friendly” to the constitutions under which they live, as a condition of their liberty and mutual flourishing. To do this all citizens must feel they have a voice in the political process and can get a hearing – not only from their politicians, but from each other.

So, I agree with Biden: “To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.” Partisans the world over can start by rejecting that fashionably Foucauldian inversion of Clausewitz once and for all: politics is not simply war by other means, an activity whereby we exploit the force of numbers to impose our will on other people. Just as our political opponents are not our enemies, our co-partisans are not necessarily our friends.

Reactions other than outrage – and rhetorical strategies other than demonisation – are possible as we continue to confront the deep disagreements that divide us. These differences are not going away, and the hard work of living together and maintaining shared meanings remains. Let us stand divided, then, but stay on speaking terms.

Teresa Bejan is Associate Professor of Political Theory and Fellow at Oriel College, Oxford. She is the author of Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto.

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