I arrived in Brussels a few days ago, and am traveling back tonight. The city is in full summer dress, and as I was running through one of the parks I ran past beautiful roses and other flowers, their scent almost creating a separate section of time and space. There is something about scents, about the way in which they catch you off guard. I am here working, but will not bore you with details. It is a formative period in the history of the European Union, a new commission, a new parliament — Europe chooses what it wants to be. It is also a formative time in many member states, where the sorting through the consequences of the European elections in quite a few cases is now shading over into national elections. I follow the reports from friends and others in Almedalen and see that Sweden is in the midst of this transition – the discussions about welfare, tax, xenophobia, immigration, education and health care both intense and wide-ranging. With the events in the Ukraine, defense also finds itself on the agenda, much to the surprise of many who would have expected that this issue would never figure on the national scene in Sweden.
I sat yesterday looking at the view from the terrace at the Sofitel, following the skyline of Brussels, the strange mix of small, old houses and new, very 70s modern architectures melding into one single skyline, interrupted by the occasional church or highrise. There is something about cities, there is something about that way of organizing ourselves that really appeals to me. I am reading a monograph on Aristotle and Plato, and right now the author is discussing their views of politics – the utopian Platonist view (that led to so many disasters when implemented in reality) and the Aristotelian view that starts from the bottom and reasons from the individual. Aristotle, then, is usually thought to be the father of the modern democracy, indeed of modern statecraft and a science of the state. His work on collecting constitutions – pure comparative political science – is one example. And Plato in the meantime has been derided as the philosopher of dictators and monarchs – and indeed that is how he has been used. But it strikes me that there is something both magnificient and tragic in Plato’s view of politics. His visions, myths and ideal models in The Republic and Laws or the Stateman are all societies that start from the assumption of the good man, they all start from this notion that virtue is knowledge. The socratic analysis. Virtue is knowledge, and hence if we build a society that creates knowledge – we will get virtue. When we give up on Plato, we give up on the possibility of creating (through external means) the virtuous man.
And, sure, we may be better off without that idea, without that illusion. But that does not mean that the question Plato forced us to ask was wrong. Plato’s assumption then – read one way – is that if we do not assume virtuous men and women, well, then what we do in politics will always be mitigation and probably useless at that. His quip, that good men do not need good laws, and bad men will ignore good law, is a reductio ad absurdum of the view that we can hope for laws to underpin any ideal society. The battle between Plato and Aristotle, then, becomes not so much the battle between utopianism and democratic realism as it becomes a a battle between the hope for a virtuous man and the fear that virtue is unattainable. We are, thus, perhaps, better off with Aristotle, but that sets a series of important boundary conditions for all political systems and asks that we base them on the assumption of scarcity of virtue.
I think that in one sense that was why Aristotle had to also attack the issue of virtue in the Nicomachean ethics. He needed to find a concept of virtue that was not impossible, but real. The very idea of virtue as the mean is powerful not least because the existence of the extremes prove that there is a virtue, it is real, it is realizable. And then we can build our society on that, not on the ideal man, but on the mean, and – again reading the ethics – on friendship as a fundamental social mechanism.
Then the question becomes: what is the maximum size of social organism that can be constructed with virtue as a mean and friendship as the constituent mechanisms? The city?