Since the beginning, thoughtful political observation has happened by way of big questions. What makes a question big? It’s something like the theory of relativity. From one angle, the question looks as simple as asking what time it is, but the answer requires looking at everything we thought we knew from a different perspective.
We end up considering life, the universe, and everything. That’s how a civic perspective works for us too. We can see more. One question leads to another, and the search for the answers transcends the limits of one’s individual experience.
Aristotle’s question, “what is good government?” is this type of question. It sounds easy.
To answer that question, however, Aristotle traveled from one Greek city-state to the next collecting observations to inform his answer. Whether or not we can cite his language, his work continues to influence our idea that good government includes the participation of the people in the pursuit of what is good for the many.
Even that answer sounds simple enough. Someone has surely made a meme of it. This answer still took careful study and observation of the many different ways humankind has attempted to live together in society. A good question helps us see beyond a simple answer. A good question requires us to keep thinking.
Looking for answers that transcend our own individual experience
When we stay longer with questions, we build our civic muscles as citizens and take on the essential work of civilized life. This kind of activity, let’s call it an inquiry, also helps us earn our status as political animals. That’s another concept borrowed from Aristotle.
He determined that our capacity for language and reason separates us from other animals. These abilities make us “political animals” because we have the ability to “declare what was advantageous and what is the reverse.” Political life then comes into view through this perception of good and bad, accompanied by our ability to participate in making things good.
“…it is the peculiarity of man, in comparison with other animals, that he alone possesses a perception of good and evil, of the just and the unjust, and other similar qualities; and it is association in these things which makes a family and a city.” —Aristotle’s Politics (1253a7)
Using language and reason to evaluate the answers and share “how we know”
Following Aristotle’s example, our inquiry would include asking:
- What is good?
- What is evil?
- What is just?
- What is unjust?
And then there’s the follow-up question: How do you know?
When we engage in questions like these, we engage in political life, and we do so in a way that requires thinking together.
Asking follow-up questions and participating in an ongoing inquiry
There is one quote from Aristotle that animates our work more than any other. When it comes to understanding our communities, Aristotle said, “they come into existence for the sake of mere life, they continue to exist for the sake of the good life.”
What if we as a people are no better than the outcomes we make possible in our communities?
With a more civic perspective, political life is the work of asking these questions, searching for answers, and shaping ideas for doing better.
Aristotle also set the terms for recognizing good government. He described it as “the form of government… in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happy.” When we exercise our civic perspective, we’re turning the questions of today’s politics, whatever they might be, to concerns of good government and the good life.
“The good in the sphere of politics is justice; and justice consists in what tends to promote the common interest.” —Aristotle’s Politics (1282a14)
How to Cultivate a More Civic Perspective
Let’s create more opportunities for everyone to practice a civic perspective by:
1. Looking for answers that transcend our own individual experience
2. Using language and reason to evaluate the answers and share “how we know”
3. Asking follow-up questions and participate in an ongoing inquiry
4. Thinking together on making it possible for us all to act best and live happy