Renewed? Yes You Could Say We Need to Be Renewed, Research Time, 05/05/2017

Because sometimes, I want to start a more meditative post about
strange and troubling political philosophy with a Doctor Who
reference. "Renewed? Have I? That's it, I've been renewed."
Enough confessionals. I’m back to cracking sidelong jokes about Doctor Who while I talk about extremely weird political philosophy.

These days, most political philosophy is about principles, right, and law. It all exists along this one plane of moral ideas about how society should be. All well and good, and some fantastic ideas come out of that way of talking about political existence.

But what could we learn from another approach? Political philosophy from an ontological approach. Machiavelli does that. I mean, he’s writing an analysis of a historical text, drawing pragmatic and idealistic political principles and guides from ancient Roman and contemporary Italian examples.

That's what it says on the tin. But the concepts he develops in doing so aren’t so much about principles and reasons for actions. The most innovative concepts in Machiavelli’s political guidebooks are of social solidarity and patriotism not as a principles, but as a force.

It’s easy to slip into what sounds like fascist territory. Machiavelli slips like that occasionally. That’s what separates a good reader from a sloppy one – a sloppy one will see the slip as the truth. A good reader keeps in mind the scope of the whole book, so knows a truth from a slip.

He writes that a good leader for a community will be “devoted to antiquity.”* It definitely sounds a lot like a seductive Golden Age that only ever existed in xenophobic fever dreams of a pure and potent society.

* Chapter 2.39, page 239 of my beaten up second-hand Oxford paperback.

But remember what Machiavelli spends the entire Discourses on Livy doing. He recalls and analyzes antiquity – it’s his own devotion to it. In antiquity, he finds the principles of a sustainable, empowering, democratic solidarity, which inspires his devotion.

He describes that solidarity as a force – the physical power of personalities dedicating themselves to the health and happiness of their entire community. The patriotism that unites a community in real and constant acts of mutual devotion to each other’s good and the public good.

But that force’s power wanes over time, for a huge variety of causes. Turmoil from war, factionalism growing bitter in the community, growing inequality that divides a society between oligarchs and those without dignity. A society like that is decadent.

Appropriate to read Machiavelli while that paragraph basically describes most of human civilization. So a pretty pertinent question is how we get ourselves out of this mess. It won’t be easy. The environmentalist slogan applies just as well to planetwide decadence.

The original Founding Father James Madison (far left).
The answer is, broadly speaking, renewal. That’s what Machiavelli means by devotion to antiquity. It’s what the lawyers of our time should properly mean by “originalism.” Not that grotesquely pious over-literalism about a country’s constitution. I mean the time when the forces of constructive patriotism that first brought your society together.

What James Madison called the one time Americans** from all over the country actually managed to agree on something tremendously important.

** Yeah, I know. Just the white ones. But you can’t even get all the white people in a society to come together anymore. Thank God.

How exactly do you go about renewing that energy of free, spontaneous, active solidarity? Machiavelli doesn’t have much of an idea, as far as I can tell. Neither do I, of course.

But part of what I want to do through writing, publishing, and promoting Utopias over the next few years is crawling close to a few answers.

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