Listers, when Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle spoke of politics they spoke in terms of the regime and of the best regime. To properly unlock this term, SPL turns to Leo Strauss, a pathfinder among modern political philosophy insofar as he understood and articulated the ancient and modern’s dialogue.1
Since political philosophy is the “noble science” and the deals with the highest of human goods, it is a primary place for understanding the differences in ancient and modern thought. In ancient thought or classical political philosophy the primary question was one of the best regime.2
Classical political philosophy is guided by the question of the best regime.
In his work An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays Leo Strauss touches upon the term regime and its importance amongst the ancients. SPL highly recommends the work for anyone wanting to be properly introduced to political philosophy.
1. Cause & Effect
The problem of speaking of laws rests on the fact there are various types of legislative bodies. The laws are dependent upon the legislator(s), and monarchies, democracies, oligarchies, and any mixture thereof differ in legislative methods. Consequently, the focus shifts from the laws to the legislators and to all the factors that define them. As Strauss articulates:3
The legislator is the governing body, and the character of the governing body depends on the whole social and political order, the politeia, the regime.
A proper focus on law inevitably leads to a focus on the regime, because the regime is the cause and the laws are the effect.
2. Regime: “A Specific Manner of Life”
Strauss comments that the “regime is the order, the form, which gives society its character.” He goes on to note:
Regime is the form of life as living together, the manner of living of society and in society… Regime means that whole, which we today are in the habit of viewing primarily in a fragmentized form: regime means simultaneously the form of life of a society, its style of life, its moral taste, form of society, form of state, form of government, spirit of laws.
The ancients speak of regimes because it addresses the political whole. It is the form of several vital aspects that moderns have habitually separated into distinct spheres. Moreover, out of the organization of each regime comes a goal. A goal for the regime and all its holistically unites. Each different regime “explicitly or implicitly” demonstrates a “claim,” and these claims “extend beyond the boundaries of any given society.” Inevitably, the various claims of various regimes conflict with one another.4
The regime then is the whole, the form, of aspects of human society, and by its own organization and order demonstrates a goal – which includes external and often discordant claims.
A unique character of ancient or classical political philosophy is its reverence of chance. The ancients spoke of regimes, which ultimately led to questions of the best regime. However, the best regime cannot be brought about by knowledge of the best techniques or the power of the will of men, but by chance.
The actualization of the best regime depends on the coming together, on the coincidence of, things which have a natural tendency to move away from each other (e.g., on the coincidence of philosophy and political power); its actualization depends therefore on chance.
The acknowledgement of chance in the classical political philosophy is a foreign concept to modern political philosophy and is almost jarring to modern sensibilities. Without question, moderns believe chance is conquered by the bold, by the cunning, and by the most prepared. The modern view is directly attributable to Machiavelli, who was the first to explicitly reject classical political philosophy. In The Prince, Machiavelli speaks of dominion over chance by those who are willing to force themselves upon Lady Fortune. The intimated rape of Lady Fortune in Machiavelli’s seminal work has become a general principle of modern politics.
The basic notion behind the acknowledgment of chance in classical political thought is that the individual’s assent to the highest principles of life is an arduous path only accomplished by a few, how little hope is there then that all of society, the regime, will be formed properly.5
4. The Patriotic Citizen & The Good Citizen
In his work Constitution of Athens, Aristotle speaks of the Patriotic Citizen as one who loves his country regardless of the regime, because his “loyalty belongs first and last to the fatherland.” In his Politics, Aristotle says The Good Citizen is dependent upon the corresponding regime or rather the Good Citizen is characterized by his regime. However, Strauss points out that “a good citizen in Hitler’s Germany would be a bad citizen elsewhere.”
There is a contrast between being a good citizen and being a good man. Still, a harmony may be struck, because “the good man is identical with the good citizen only in one case – in the case of the best regime.”
For only in the best regime is the good of the regime and the good of the good man identical, that goal being virtue. This amounts to saying that in his Politics Aristotle questions the proposition that patriotism is enough.
The patriot is like a “doting mother” who loves his country regardless of whether it is good or bad. The patriot is likely to see someone who favors a certain regime over the fatherland itself as “a partisan, if not a traitor.” The partisan is only “superior to the patriot” in one instance, the partisan of the best regime, i.e., the “partisan of virtue.”6 Virtue is a quality of the best regime.
5. Matter & Form
As implied by the previous points, the regime is the form and the society or nation is the matter. It is the form that gives order and existence to the matter. Matter is seen as potency and form as the act; thus, the regime acts upon the nation to give it order and existence.
The relation between one’s own and the good finds its political expression in the relation between the fatherland and the regime. In the language of classical metaphysics, the fatherland or the nation is the matter whereas the regime is the form.
The form is a “higher consideration” than the mere matter; thus, the pursuit of the best regime carries more dignity than simple adulation of one’s own fatherland. Strauss compares this regime/fatherland relationship to the relation between the Torah and the nation of Israel.7
- The Ancient & Modern Dialogue: The ancient and modern’s dialogue rests upon the idea that modernity was a rejection of ancient thought and not a natural development or perfection of what had come before; however, the “ancients” or the Greek philosophers, Early Church Fathers, and the Scholastics did not live in a fanciful world and there is no legitimate advocacy to return to some previous utopia. Rather, the ancients and the moderns must be in dialogue with one another if we are to understand and flourish in this world. [↩]
- An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss, 33. [↩]
- Strauss, 32 [↩]
- Strauss, 32 [↩]
- Strauss, 33 [↩]
- Strauss, 33 [↩]
- Strauss, 34 [↩]