Truth and Ideal as Poison Politics

“Platonically speaking, the few cannot persuade the multitude of truth because truth can not be the object of persuasion, and persuasion is the only way to deal with the multitude. But the multitude, carried away by the irresponsible tales of the of poets and storytellers, can be persuaded to believe almost anything…”

From the essay, “What is Authority” in “Between Past and Future” by Hannah Arendt

That quote can be read on many levels, and contains the central conflict of the practical and ideal in politics; one always imagines themselves the few with the truth, and also then tries to employ the poets and storytellers to persuade the masses. Along with everyone else.

In this essay, Arendt takes us through a genealogy of Greek and Roman philosophy to explore authority and it’s role in societies. In this section exploring of Plato’s Republic, she see’s Plato trying to take his philosophical idea of the ideal and insert it into into the poltical world where it does not fit, in such a way as to justify the work of philosophers in politics, ergo the free Greek society of men. She synthesizes a lot of the inherent contradictions and conflicts with Plato’s project more coherently than I have found anywhere else. (Her work in exploring the genealogy of western philosophy is always. amazing. Check out The Human Condition for her comprehensive genealogy of western philosophy.)

My current take is the ideal might be a private matter, and the public realm of politics is more harmed than benefitted by the ideal. When we carry our ideals to the public and demand their acceptance by others, something critical is sacrificed. What if Truth cannot be discovered by persuasion or dominance, and only discovered in the private realm – where “what is at the same time self-evident, invisible, and beyond argument” is truly discovered? All attempts to “teach” truth would be fruitless at best, and might actually persuade others to accept your ideals as truth, but because they didn’t encounter that truth privately and fully, it’s always a facsimile of truth, and thus less than truth.

Poltics seems to be destined to always be less than ideal. Perhaps if we more fully realized and acknowledged this we might be able to create a more effective politics focused not on the always endlessly reimagined ‘ideals’ of systems, persons, or movements, but on the practical purpose of improving the common, collective lives of people. When we sacrifice an achievable, immediate, common good due to a future perceived weakening of some ideal, perhaps we corrupt our private ideals as well as our politics.

Might the few always indicate a singular? And as soon as the few seeks to become plural, the truth it encountered is lost again. Because, to move Truth beyond an immediate experience of a single soul, Truth must be hidden inside stories and poems. Stories and poems become replacements for the Truth they point towards as soon as they become necessarily “true”.

Truth as such could never be “believed” or “accepted” but only encountered—not discovered, not realized, not found—but faced, reckoned with, wrestled with, seen by, and ultimately transformed by this encountering experience. Truth as an experience cannot be transmitted by one person to another. Thus great teachers, spiritual and secular, never claim their words are truth, but rather point their words and practices at Truth, that grasping and claiming and forcing move us away from Truth, and that Truth finds us when and where it does—that we can prepare ourselves to behold it, but never compel it to manifest.


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