Our Politics of Everything and Nothing

Aristotle famously said that political science isn’t for the young, because youth lack the broad human experience needed to make prudential judgments for the common good. He set the age at around 40. Perhaps he was 40 at the time, and it was a smart jest for his students, but I think his point is important. 

Even to exercise the vote, our forefathers believed a man ought to be at least 21, nor did they see anything absurd or unfair about having men younger than that, men or boys who could not vote, take up arms in wartime. To our objection that such a thing would not be fair, they would have cast a quizzical look upon us, and asked us why we thought the ability to run fast, to swing a sword, or to fire a gun implied the ability to see many years beyond the next hill, and to make a good guess as to what would benefit a far broader class of people than the youngsters to your right and left.

Still, if you think about it, a boy signing up for either army in the Civil War would be a veritable library of practical human knowledge by comparison with his young counterparts in our electorate today and even, by comparison, with many people much older than that. 

Place him somewhere. Place him on the seacoast, where fishing schooners and trade ships come and go, and men must pool their resources into joint-stock companies to make the enterprises feasible, while others who will not go aboard must be hired to load the ships with a wide variety of provisions (ropes, tar, medicaments, iron tackle, firewood, pots and pans, dried or salted food, even livestock), all of which require the services of the grocer, lumberman, blacksmith, chandler, and so forth. 

Place him on a farm, and he must know about land, mortgages, agreements for providing up-front money to the farmer in exchange for a share of the profits, the peculiar and sometimes drastic swings in fortune the farmer is subject to; not to mention the hundreds of tasks requiring skilled labor (smithing, carpentry) or unskilled but still intelligent labor (butchering, digging drainage ditches, clearing a field). 

Place him in a city, and he must know about the innumerable interrelations of workers of all kinds, even if he has not the words to express them: the iceman upon whom the doctors in the hospital depend; street-cleaners; hostlers; deliverymen for bread, vegetables, fruit, milk, wood, coal; hawkers of cooked food, cloth, and the ordinary implements of daily life.

Regardless of where you place him, he will have rubbed shoulders with people in all kinds of occupations, with related but not identical economic interests; he will almost certainly know, in a personal way, rich and poor; he will not have been segregated by age for most of his young life; he will have come from a large extended family, with each household a proving ground for virtues that make for a decent life in this world, and vices that corrupt or destroy it. He will, before the bristles come out on his chin, have more practical experience of mankind than most of us will ever attain, even if we should live to be 90.

But, you say, we can make up for our straitened mode of living by our education. It is possible; hardly likely. The main source of vicarious experience of mankind is the book: great literature; historiography. And here too, I am afraid, the boy in 1861 has the advantage over us. Books were not yet mass-produced, and that meant what ordinary people read was not likely to be mind-rotting garbage. As I have often had occasion to mention, I collect and read popular all-purpose magazines from about 1870 to 1920: mainly The Century, Harper’s, and Scribner’s. They give me a clear idea of what it was that caught people’s attention. 

If you wanted to read, while it was new, before it ever came out in the form of a book, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, you would read it where it was serialized over the course of a year, in The Century. And there you would happen upon other works of literature, some of them by the greats (Henry James, William Dean Howells), others by lesser lights; and articles about history, exploration, science, religion, politics, economics, architecture, technology, medicine, and the fine arts: imagine, for example, an article by one great composer on the work of another (Saint-Saëns, Messiaen, Liszt, Debussy, and so on). 

Television is not in our boy’s head, but Scripture is; and if he had a taste for reading, Milton, Plutarch, Dr. Johnson, and the ever-popular Longfellow might be there too. In other words, he has not been made stupid by bad schooling and inanities in print. 

Meanwhile, since our own schools have signed history over to current political fads, and hardly go near literature written before 1900, and then mostly, like Swift’s Yahoos, to sniff at its posteriors, we are likely to be worse than ignorant; we are likely to be downright certain of things that happen not to be true, or to exaggerate the most evident vices of our cultural forebears, in order not to be put to shame by their far superior virtues.

So much for our padded-cell electorate. But our politicians are cut from the same cloth. I have an old book of great American oratory. Right there, we seem to enter another world, one not yet entirely characterized by clichés, grunts, shrieks, advertising gimmicks, sloppy reasoning, and a wholesale ignorance of or contempt for any way of life before our own. Instead, we find appeals to human nature, references to persons and events from distant places or in the distant past, and these not for decoration, but for the wisdom they provide. Such a survey of human events almost implies the capacity to see forward, to make prudent guesses as to what the distant effects of current policy or current proposals may be; to reason from principles to their logical or pragmatic conclusions, long after we are gone.

Note well: our politicians never do these things. They do not look far into the past, and whatever projections they make into the future have all the flimsiness and filminess of a cartoon for a not very intelligent child: all unicorns and pink flowers and stars and smiles forever. 

They fail to ask questions that would immediately occur to someone like Thucydides. If your military relies mainly on superior equipment but not on the morale of men in platoons, how will you ever again win a ground war and keep the territory your materiel has gained for you at the start? If you concede to your judges the authority to determine what are not juridical questions but matters of culture, who will be your real governors in years to come? 

If you make schooling compulsory till age 18, what will become of the young people, usually boys, for whom schooling—which is not the same as education—is a worthless delay of their entry into the world of work, or a constant irritant, breeding disaffection and vindictiveness? What happens to the students around them? What happens to curricula relieved of the necessity of getting the important things done in an efficient way? 

The result is a terrible paradox. All things that once were thought to lie in the domain of a free people coming together in private or local public associations have now been raised to matters of national political concern; we have a dreadful excess of politics, if you are talking about chatter, advertisements, votes, and the massive power and gluttony of Jabba the State, but a more dreadful deficit of politics, because no one can speak sensibly about anything beyond the lifetime of a May-fly, or anything that requires reasoning far beyond the single issue at hand. 

We would be better governed by an addlepated prince with a taste for polo and loose women; then at least we would be free, and a natural kind of politics might rise up in local communities, like blades of grass through the cracks of a cemented field. We should be far better governed by an Augustus Caesar, ruthless and amoral but far-seeing and competent. Instead, we have the worst of silliness united with the worst of ambition; and where politics is everywhere and everything, politics itself is the first casualty.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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