Each Together II: The Ancient Trade-Offs, Research Time, 19/09/2017

Here's what we should preserve and revive in the polis-era political and social philosophy of Greece – the cultural blend of communitarian patriotism and individual freedom to debate and change important principles and matters of public morality.

Such an attitude to community and morality preserves what’s great about liberalism – the right to live as you wish – and turns away from what stinks about liberalism – how individualism can encourage turning away from public goods and moral obligations.

But I want to get some problems of Greek inheritance out of the way first. The most important obstacle – at least as I work my way through Arendt’s The Human Condition – is the precondition of becoming a citizen able to participate in public life. You had to be rich.

In our industrial era – choked as we often are by pollution – we think
of nature as a place of Eden. It's true that simply being in forest
environments improves our health
. But to live without our
technological infrastructure would doom many of us to a short,
painful life. We forget this, as our industry is killing us too.
Being rich in a society like polis Greece is very different from being rich today. I don’t just mean that there’s so much more wealth to be gained in 21st century society. But there is that too. I’m talking about the very different relationship Greeks – and all people – had to the labour it took to stay alive than we do.

People in industrial societies today don’t have to work as hard to stay alive as we did even just a couple of centuries ago. I’m not talking about working for your living – needing to find jobs, build a career. I’m literally talking about working to stay alive. Growing food, milling bread, preparing and cooking food, fetching well water, sewing clothes, tending hearth fires.

In a non-industrial society, this is a list of the basic labour you need to do to stay alive. Literally. I’m definitely far from complete because I’m improvising this list for a blog entry and have never had to take care of myself to such a degree aside from the occasional camping trip.

You just aren’t going to have time to head down to the square and debate matters of governance, leadership, and public morality if you have to get all this stuff done. It literally takes all day. So you can only enter public life if you have other people to do this for you.

Political freedom and active roles in the leadership of your community require you to be rich enough to hire household servants. They can do all the work of keeping your place functioning while you take care of public service.

Polis Greek political freedom was grounded on the labour of others. Those others were understood to have no freedom. This is why – even though the polis Greek institution of slavery had nothing of the horrifying racialization we know today from the history of the United States – it was said that a free man would kill himself rather than become a slave.

For almost all of human existence on Earth, so much of our toil and
torture has simply been the intense labour we have to do if we
want to stay alive.
Labour – having to labour – yokes you to the Earth. You’re bound to service the natural processes of your own metabolism, of your house’s metabolism. Your whole city’s metabolism.

Arendt notes at one point, during the many times she returns to the concepts in Polis Greek social morality, one way their society differed radically from ours. In an industrial society, cities are the centre of production. They’re the centres of industry, where people and businesses gather for trade, manufacturing, and corporate management.

But in Polis Greece, cities were centres of consumption. The wealth was produced in the fields, as you’d expect from an agrarian society. You came to the cities when you’d built your wealth and you were ready to spend it so you could devote yourself to public life.

You had to walk away from productive life to live freely. Freedom, for the Polis Greeks, was primarily freedom from the brutal necessity of agrarian production, of metabolism. You’ve produced all your fuel, and now you were ready to burn it up.

So what kinds of fires were a rich Polis Greek going to start?

No comments:

Post a Comment