It has often been argued that all of politics can be boiled down to Plato versus Aristotle.
Plato takes a lofty, idealistic approach to politics. He sees potentialities and perfect forms, and for him, politics is a means to the approach of the harmonious balance between these purposeful entities, which is justice. To achieve this, a city must have a wise ruler who can direct the coordination of society’s constituent elements, like a conductor directing a symphony. This was necessary for the protection of the city as well as for the success of the individuals.
Aristotle, by contrast, begins with observations of what is, and builds upwards. He is an empiricist and a sort of proto-scientist. Rather than Plato’s dictatorship, used to achieve control from the top down, Aristotle favors a mixed-government style, of the kind which Lycurgus of Sparta instituted, and which Cicero was to go on to defend in De Republica, and which the Founding Fathers of the United States were to refine nearly two millennia later.
There is clearly a distinction in political nature between these two philosophies, but looking backwards across 2,000 years of development, it is difficult to determine which philosopher is “right,” and which is “left.” Does the question even make sense?
The modern right has championed limited government and freedom of speech, and so they might point to Plato’s totalitarianism and claim Aristotle’s republicanism for themselves, perhaps after pointing out the Left’s proclivity for expanding government power. The modern left, on the other hand, has consistently stood for more inclusive representation and a less fixed view of human nature. They might point to Plato’s more aristocratic understanding of virtue, and claim Aristotle’s slightly more plastic view of humanity for themselves, perhaps after pointing out all the right-wing fascist movements of the 20th century. In a similar manner, either side could claim Plato for themselves, and pin Aristotle on the opposition.
The Greek Philosopher distinction can still be made, but it is not obvious, and takes some unpacking to be useful in application to the politics of today.
However, there is an older and more useful Greek thinker that can help us distinguish between the political right and left: Homer.
Daniel Mendelsohn observed that in the realm of classics, there are Iliad people and there are Odyssey people (his father, after taking Daniel’s course on the Odyssey, revealed himself to be an Iliad person). They are dramatically different poems, in which the heroes seem to operate on completely different principles.
In the Iliad, the warriors Achilles and Hector are fighting for honor and duty, respectively. Survival is not even a question. Achilles knows he is fated to die young, and in the famous courtyard scene, Hector says he is compelled to lead the men from the front, regardless of personal risk. The predominant emotions of the story are wrath, vindication, loss, and forgiveness, and the story is essentially of the pursuit of meaning when death is inescapable.
The hero of the eponymous Odyssey, Odysseus, is not the same kind of hero as Achilles or Hector. While generally noble in his actions, and virtuous in the original Greek sense–“capable,” or “masterful”–Odysseus is not afraid of debasing himself, of beating himself, of begging, of submitting to more powerful forces, or of disguising himself as a vagrant. There is no obstacle, physical or moral, which can stop him from surviving to see his family again.
As with Plato and Aristotle, it isn’t immediately obvious based on the actions of the characters which book could be described as “liberal,” and which as “conservative.” The underlying motivations, however, are far more clear than those of the philosophers. To analyze these motivations, we can use Plutchik’s useful breakdown of emotions, and look for patterns which define the characters and the stories themselves.
Of the Iliad:
Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles, Peleus’ son, the ruinous wrath that brought down on the Achaians woes innumerable, and hurled down into Hades many strong souls of heroes, and gave their bodies to be a prey to dogs and all winged fowls; and so the counsel of Zeus wrought out its accomplishment from the day when first strife parted Agamemnon king of men and noble Achilles.
If we were to choose words from Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, the key words I’ve emphasized in the opening passage could be labeled rage (x 2), grief, disgust, and anger/contempt, respectively.
Of the Odyssey:
Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.
To repeat the exercise, we might label them admiration, acceptance, sadness, fear (x 2), grief, and disapproval.
The clustering is more clear in the case of the Iliad, but there is a discernible core motivation driving the Odyssey as well, especially in the context of the meaning of the paragraph.
These distinctions can be even further distilled by looking merely at the first word of each paragraph in the original Greek language and syntax. For the Iliad, the word is μῆνῐς (mênis). For the Odyssey, the word is ἀνήρ (anḗr). Respectively, these words mean “anger” and “man.”
Mênis actually means slightly more than “anger.” In his book on the subject, Leonard Muellner describes it as “a feeling not separate from the action it entails, of a cosmic sanction, of a social force whose activation brings drastic consequences on the whole community.”
As for anḗr, Odysseus’ virtue as a man derives from his “ingenious” devices and strategems he uses to survive a veritable labyrinth of lethal obstacles and dangers. This genius competence is put to the task not of justice or righteous wrath, but of survival, for himself and his crew. Although he failed to retain his crew, we are told that they perished due to their own sins, and not those of Odysseus.
In short, we have a book about justice on one hand, and survival on the other.
That these two poems were written by (or at least alleged recited by) the same person speaks to the synergy between these two motivations. Justice is an aid to survival, through the establishment of stable and predictable order which people can depend upon and build assumptions around with certainty. And of course, survival is useful–perhaps necessary–for the carrying out and maintenance of cosmic justice. If we ourselves are good and just, then Justice demands our survival.
But the synergistic nature of the relationship between justice and survival does not prevent individuals from being dominated by one motivation or the other. Those who we consider to be of the Left are those who are “justice-dominant.” Those who we consider to be of the right are “survival-dominant.”
This dichotomy is one I wrote about recently for Counter-Currents:
In his book A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell argued that the political left–whatever their particular policies–reflected an unconstrained vision of human potential, whereas the political right reflected a constrained vision of human potential. Modern neuroscience seems to support this theory: liberals on average had more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is active in navigating social situations, whereas conservatives on average had more grey matter in their amygdala, which (among other things) orients us towards potential dangers and threats. Liberals see options and opportunities; conservatives see risks and dangers.
In fact, “Liberal” and “Conservative,” as labels, are woefully inadequate in encompassing the distinction between those on the Left and those on the Right. This is because “liberal” describes not just one particular theory of justice among many, but also one particular means of going about enacting that theory within a civic order. “Conservative” is a bit more general, and thus broader in its inclusion of right-wing people. However, it is possible to imagine a person who believes that rapid change and “progress” is the surest way to preserve our species. I have personally met transhumanists and people pushing for space exploration who hold precisely this view. Their policies seem to be “liberal,” but their motivations are distinctly right-wing, and their friend-groups and personal politics bear this out, sometimes to extremes which would shock more “moderate,” and less politically-engaged people.
This Homeric theory also carries explanatory power in the realm of parenthood. It is no secret that those with children tend to be more right-wing (“conservative”), and younger people and those without kids tend to be more left-wing (“liberal”). When you become a parent, suddenly survival becomes a viscerally important purpose, and youthful ideals of “justice” often seem abstract, ephemeral, and paltry next to the overwhelming importance of your own children.
This may explain why I myself am slightly more of the left, in my idealism and my psychological profile (high openness, low conscientiousness). I am happily married, but as of the time of this writing, have no children.
It should come as no surprise that Odysseus was not returning to Ithaca merely because it was rightly his kingdom. As he was languishing on Calypso’s island, repelling the Goddess’s sexual advances, he was not longing for home out of a sense of justice, but out of a burning desire to return to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.
Achilles had no wife or children that we know of.
This theory also explains why the military is strongly right-wing in nature, while academia is strongly left-wing. In universities, violence is an abstraction, foreign and removed from the daily affairs of life. Survival is a given, and so justice becomes the greatest point of contention. For a soldier, survival is not a given, and so it becomes the single greatest factor in the planning out of every action and every operation. They, like Odysseus, want to come home to their family. While the generals, politicians, and voters may go to war thinking of democracy, human-rights, and the liberal order, soldiers tend to fight for the man at their shoulder. Though they may be just, justice–as a motivation–is an afterthought.
So how do we go about identifying these motivations, in ourselves and others?
Circumstances often dictate the political frame from which we speak. A life of prolonged deprivation in childhood and adolescence may orient a person toward survival-strategies. If food and shelter were not readily available when you were young, ensuring that you have both and more in the future will be paramount in your decision-making. This could lead to advocacy for either traditionally “left-wing” policies (for instance, social services and equitable distribution of resources to favor those who have very little), or “right-wing” policies (property rights and low barriers to entry for those looking to buy and sell in the market). Both are fundamentally rooted in a survival, but are expressed in so-called liberal or conservative policies.
The fact that the “left-wing” policies might be proposed in a fascistic totalitarian society where the policy only applies to citizens of our nation, or that the “right-wing” policies could be proposed in a communistic dictatorship where free-market economics are unknown, is irrelevant. Every policy is enacted in a context. The time and place matter when determining whether a policy is justice-oriented or survival-oriented, as does the character of the advocate. A “right-wing” policy may be rightly viewed as justice-oriented, rather than survival-oriented, when advocated for on behalf of other people.
Others have suggested a quadrilateral analysis of political views, with left and right on the x-axis and authoritarian and libertarian on the y-axis. This is useful in charting the policy positions of various groups at the same point in time, but the problem of the left-right difference remains for both historic and cross-cultural analyses. By looking at the policies–the results of a particular political ideology–instead of the character and motivation of the people who created the political ideology itself, our analysis will always be retroactive and insufficient.
Instead, we must look to the underlying principles, motivations, and experiences of the governed. Through the Homeric lens, we can understand why people group together on seemingly independent issues, such as healthcare, foreign policy, abortion, religion, and literary preference, and we can do so without the slight mischaracterization of Sowell’s “unconstrained vision.” For predictive purposes and for seeking a path to cohesion between separate factions, we can only reach a true understanding through the mind of the governed.