The private and the political
Raw link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWFF9vCzLbI
[ Below is the text of the presentation. Note that in the video I sometimes explain statements which are not found in the text. ]
Table of Contents
- The meaning of Ecos and Polis
- The instituted reality of the polis
- The quasi-permanence of institutions
- Rules, roles, and expectations
- Politics will find you
- The false dichotomy of individual VS collective
- Balancing the good of the place and the space
Hello everyone! My name is Protesilaos, also known as “Prot”. In this video I will talk to you about philosophical themes that relate to private and public spheres. I will try to explain what those are and how each of us may understand their selfhood within their boundaries.
The reason I cover this topic is because some of my recent presentations have revolved around matters of subjectivity and individuality. I have always mentioned the social and cultural magnitudes, but I never explained in clear terms how politics is relevant in this regard. I want to help you better understand what I have already covered and, hopefully, give you some new ideas to think about.
Before we go any further: my concept of “politics” in this context is theoretical and abstract. I will not dwell on what politician X did and how journalist Y reported on it. While this sort of information is useful in certain situations, it is not needed to understand the bigger picture of our human condition. Philosophy is all about this general appreciation of things; of finding the common in the multitude.
The key insight from this presentation is that we cannot fully withdraw from politics and live in our own little bubble. There has to be a balance between private and public affairs.
The text I am reading from is available on my website. If you are watching this on the video hosting platform, you will find the link in the description: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-09-09-private-political/.
The meaning of Ecos and Polis
Let’s start with a couple of Greek words that apply to this topic and which I will be referencing throughout my presentation.
Ecos, or oikos, or oekos (Οίκος): It literally means one’s home. This is the root term we find in words such as economics, ecology, ecosystem. All those retain the original meaning of “home”, “habitat”, or “household”.
Consider how eco-nomos, where “nomos” (νόμος) means “rule”, is the set of rules—and implied mechanics—that ultimately apply to the management of the household’s affairs. In economics, the “household” can denote a number of things. We would normally classify it as a private actor at the microscopic level, such as an individual or a business, as well as a literal household. Though we could also think of macroscopic matters as pertaining to our “habitat” at-large, such as how inflation, which is an economy-wide phenomenon, is affecting each of us in our “house”. So the meaning of “ecos” is conveyed correctly.
Same principle for ecology, the discussion about our habitat, and ecosystem, the interconnected factors that are relevant to our living space. Ecos, then, is not limited to the physical house, as in the actual building that we currently occupy. It is the place we live in as well as the space within which our existence is made possible.
Polis (Πόλης): This literally means “city” though it also describes the affairs that people have in common in some structured way in a given point of co-location. We can infer as much from the fact that the city is indeed constructed by humans to serve as their habitat. The origin of the city consists in some kind of intervention and deliberate action to bring about a state of affairs that differs from what we would get in the jungle, for example.
The city is structured not just literally but also figuratively as a bundle of rules that govern how phenomena within its boundaries are to unfold. There are provisions for every aspect of life within the city. Which are the working hours and for what kind of professions. Whether there are roads and what sort of code of conduct applies to their usage. The organisation of labour and the concomitant distribution of resources.
We then realise that the polis is a blend between the physical dimension of actual buildings and roads and such designs as well as normative or intangible systems that inform, frame, condition, or otherwise determine the context-specific behaviour of relevant classes of people.
It then is no surprise that we have derivative terms such as politics and polity. The former describes the matters of the polis, while the latter signifies the instituted order that pertains to a given phenomenon or state of affairs. The polis, thus, encompasses the meaning of ecos. It adds to it this important qualification of being a human-made construction and of embedding all those inventions we call norms.
Both ecos and polis imply the notion of space. They are not strictly private and cannot be realised in a vacuum. Our natural habitat, for instance, does not have a standalone presence, even if we live on our own in the most rudimentary way possible, such as on a tree. There always exists a wider system that envelops our own milieu. What we have is a subsystem of this supersystem. We call it the ecosystem, which is a system of systems.
All living organisms affect, in one way or another, how our life will be. The trees, the insects, the birds, the forests, the mountains, the oceans, the moon, the sun… they are all relevant to our actuality. We cannot live without trees, for example, and trees rely on mycelium, insects, and birds, and so on. Our existence in our home is one of co-existence with other forms of life. Our presence in this world is a joint presence. We are all interdependent. Again, the ecos is the space, not just the place, not just “rugged individual me” living in a cave at the end of a goat trail in some mountains.
The space is more clearly expressed through the meaning of the polis because here we understand that we are dealing with connections between people and with phenomena that involve classes of individuals. The polis is not limited to what happens within one’s own walls because of this broader dimension it has, though I shall tell you how even your own locality is not strictly private. But more on this later.
To be clear, emphasis on the significance of the space is not some hippie theory of someone who goes around hugging trees. Talking about the ecosystem and understanding those matters of coexistence and interdependence has always been part of the discussion about the ecos is.
The instituted reality of the polis
The word “institution” is a noun with a dual meaning:
- It refers to what has been set up as a node in the political order.
- It describes the process of establishing such a node.
Nodes are major points in a network of connections that influence specific affairs. For example, family is an institution. Each society or culture, has a specific understanding of what constitutes a family and which are the relevant rules for it.
Institutions are products of human conduct and invention. They are not natural laws. In one culture, people may consider private property sacrosanct. In another culture, private property is thought of as misguided egoism. It does not matter who is right and who is wrong based on which criteria. When we are doing philosophy and notice that there are disagreements or points of deviation, we can only express with confidence the view that we are not sure about it and that whatever state of affairs is relative to certain factors. In other words, we remain inquisitive and dubitative.
The polis and, by extension, the affairs of the polis—politics—are always framed in accordance with institutions or take place as part of a process of institution, of setting up nodes in the political order. Everything in the polis is instituted as such. What it means to have a certain gender. Which is the age of adulthood. Who governs. How is work organised and who gets what out of it. Which rules are relevant to the household, the workplace, the park, and so on. All these are institutions throughout.
Institutions are implemented to codify certain beliefs, values, or functions as quasi-permanent. Think, for example, about the institution of the parliament. It is a physical building but also a figment of the legal order. The parliament has specific duties and a certain role in the governance of the country. Though it also embodies values and opinions, such as the normative view that this polity should operate in such and such ways. The “should” is, as I said, not an objective reality. It is substantiated in the given culture.
An institution is quasi-permanent because nothing in politics is absolutely permanent. Everything that is instituted can be re-instituted. This is part of what I explained at great length in my presentation about “Conventions, relativism, and cosmopolitanism”: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-02-21-relativism-cosmopolitanism/. There I introduced two concepts, namely pragmata and chremata, which help us better understand what is subject to institution and what is not.
The point for us now is that institutions are, strictly speaking, relative. In the image of an institution we discern a set opinions, concepts, aspirations of those who brought it into being or, anyhow, contributed to its current state. When we examine the institution of the parliament, for example, we identify therein the principles of the separation of state functions and of checks and balances (among others).
Institutions cannot be value-free. They cannot be objective in the way a natural constant is. Because if they were objective it would be pointless to institute them as such. For instance, it makes no sense to declare that the Sun must rise from the East, that the Earth must have a specific orbit around its star, that the speed of light must be a given number, and so on. We do not control those magnitudes.
Now, relativism is a loaded term with negative connotations. The “relativist” is a bugaboo that triggers a fearful reaction in people. They think that if we dare recognise something as relative, as a product of institution, we necessarily labour towards its abolition. This is simply wrong. When we philosophise, we learn to listen to what the other person is saying, and we jointly assess what the state of affairs is.
Notice how dispassionately I am describing institutions as relative. I do not mean to suggest that “relative equals bad” or that we should go to some extreme end of tearing apart all institutions and then living in a world without order whatsoever. That would most likely be an untenable situation. All I am saying is that there is a distinction to be made between (i) magnitudes that exist regardless of human convention and (ii) those which exist because of human convention. It is simple.
Money, property, family, gender roles, the parliament, the monarch, the police… they are all institutions. They have a certain character, else specific attributes, that are developed through the history and traditions of the given polis. We can interpret institutions as codes which encapsulate what people believed to be true or practical for a particular issue, during the applicable period of time. Put differently, an institution reads as “these beliefs frame our conduct right now”.
As societies change and are exposed to new information and realities, so do their values, even if only incrementally. A few decades ago, women were not allowed to vote in free elections, for example. Now this is considered normal. In the future, we may have a different arrangement, such as teenagers being allowed to vote. The gist is that institutions are never truly permanent. They can be rendered obsolete, amended, reviewed, abolished… Relative, then. It is a matter of fact.
The quasi-permanence of institutions
Institutions are relative, though they are conceived and implemented with the intent of introducing a certain degree of predictability in the order of the polis. There is a paradox here. That which is relative must be embedded in the conscience of people as seemingly objective.
Think again about the institution of the parliament. If someone says that we should abolish it, they are faced with fierce opposition because such a course of action would usher in an era of uncertainty and instability, among others. It would disturb the delicate balance that the current instituted reality engenders.
There are good reasons to keep institutions in place, as I already noted, though observe how institutions serve as points of reference. They are the criteria with which every pertinent rule or pattern of behaviour is assessed. For instance, those who will defend the parliament are, in effect, arguing in favour of parliamentarianism and all relevant beliefs. Furthermore, they are of the view that those ideas are good for the polis at-large: they have worked before and ought to be respected for the ongoing well-being of the political whole.
Institutions can only work as quasi-permanent; only when they are presumed as permanent. It is impossible to incorporate relativity in very making and presence of an institution. Again, please understand my dispassionate use of the notion of “relative” and its derived concepts. Institutions can be refashioned, yes, but that does not mean that they must be in a state of constant review. When institutions are contested on a continuous basis, there can be no political order. It will implode with potentially bad consequences for those involved.
To treat institutions as quasi-permanent is a matter of practicality. The polis has to have a degree of stability so that people can go on with their lives. The polis is our ecos, after all: the space within which we all operate.
The quasi-permanence of institutions imprints them in the conscience as authoritative. While the immediate utility is obvious, there also is potential for misunderstandings where people became dogmatic in their support of the status quo. Think, for example, of the person who hears about “relativism” and immediately associates it with all that is evil in this world. They believe that those mischievous relativists will undermine all that is noble and worth having.
Take the institution of property rights as a case in point. Private property is the cornerstone of the current economic model. It is a foundational belief, so changing it is no mean task: whatever tweak will have far-reaching implications. Though tweaks can happen and we should not be afraid to have such a discussion when we are trying to solve certain problems. Why should, say, billionaires exist? Why can’t we shave off a bit of their wealth and use it to improve the living conditions of the vast majority of the population? Why must a handful of individuals hold more wealth than the rest of the planet combined? This is not a law of nature. It is a convention that, for whatever reason, has been instituted in place.
If we take the practical quasi-permanence of institutions as normative and then convert it into a dogma, we are effectively alienating ourselves from the products of our creation. We are falsely treating conventions as natural constants and we forget how they are all-too-human in their character and very presence.
This alienation from our own works effectively reduces us to hostages of a dead intellectual. We treat the beliefs which are codified in an institution as the word of some deity and we dare not recognise the reality before our eyes; the reality that those beliefs were conceived by humans in a specific historical context in pursuit of certain ends that made sense to those people at that time.
When we recognise that institutions are products of convention, we do not do it to pick a pointless fight with history. We cannot change what has already transpired. All we want is to have a sincere conversation about the actuality of things. If an institution becomes alien to us, if it is removed from our capacity to institute and re-institute, it performs the function of enslaving us to the past.
Imagine if all your choices in life were foreshadowed by your grandparents and you were indoctrinated to think of those decisions as the word of God. Perhaps what your grandparents would have to say is interesting and useful. Though this cannot be presumed to be the case, nor can any one opinion be exalted to the status of divine command.
Consider when a politician utters the dreaded phrase “there is no alternative”. For example, in an economic crisis they say that the government should increase taxes on the people while reducing social spending. The excuse is always that such policies are the only course of action that is possible. Those claims are predicated on the tacit alienation from our own institutions. The politician thinks that there is no alternative, because they do not want to consider the possibility of touching certain institutions. Why not roll back the generous benefits towards bankers? Why not prohibit tax havens? And so on. Of course there are alternatives! We just have to stop being dogmatic.
Rules, roles, and expectations
The instituted reality of the polis is made up of rules. There are rules with a general scope and others with a particular one. For example, the institution of fiat money as legal tender, as the only official way to pay your taxes, is a general rule. Whereas shaving one’s facial hair while doing their military service is a particular rule.
Rules are stated preferences or directives on the intended mode of conduct. They are linked to a criterion of conditionality and are enforced by a certain arrangement of power. In other words, rules tell people how they should behave in the given situation.
Rules are not targeted at specific individuals. Instead, they create and/or delimit roles. A role is an abstraction that applies to a class of individuals who fulfil certain criteria. For instance, the unconditional rule to take off one’s hat while entering a specific building abstracts away the subjectivity of the person: it covers anyone wearing a hat.
You may think that there are rules which are about individuals, such as what the president of the republic has to do. Though here, too, the rules envisage a role. They pertain to whomever assumes control of the institution. They are still abstracting away the subjectivity of the person.
Roles always have an implicit scope of action. They define who the agent is and what they can do. The role of the president of the republic comes with all the duties and powers of that office.
Remember that institutions are relative. Rules and roles remain open to interpretation. When, say, a new president comes to power and breaks certain traditions, they are effectively remaking the role by changing some of its facets. Whether this is good or not, desirable or not, is beside the point. What matters for us now is to understand that roles come with certain expectations. These expectations are either explicitly stated in the conditionality of the rule, or they are implicit in the minds of relevant people.
When a person conforms with expectations, they are operating in line with their role. They are not fully expressing their subjectivity. A soldier who is wearing their uniform is doing what soldiers must do. It’s not that those clothes necessarily are their favourite ones.
Now what does that imply for one’s personhood? If rules are everywhere around us and we are always conforming with them, who are we, really? When we see someone behave in certain ways, are we observing their actual preferences or their conformance with expectations?
To re-use an example from my last presentation on “The presumptive idol of you”: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-08-30-presumptive-idol/. Picture this acquaintance of mine who was acting in accordance with the stereotype of the “alpha male” while in the presence of women. He was pretending to be tough, dominant, unflinching, emotionless. Was he though? In reality, there is no such person. It’s a dangerous lie.
Expectations condition the behaviour of situational agents of action. When we always do what the role says, we effectively are denied of our subjectivity or are making it a copy of what others want.
The person who only conforms with roles is basically playing a game. They become the avatar of the applicable expectations and they do only what the rules of the game permit. Their goals are foreshadowed by the game’s world. There may be benefits, sure, though they come at the cost of one’s honesty.
Such a role-playing fellow is denying their reality. They may ignore or suppress their emotions for the sake of winning in this little game. They might become obsessed with proving to others how good they are at this role. They do it because they are misguided. It is how they are conditioned to think. Or they do it with the ulterior motive of gaining the rewards this game has for its participants.
Whatever the case, expectations, roles, and rules have a profound effect on one’s selfhood. They influence or outright determine who the person is and what they are doing.
This is where we observe the connection between ecos and polis. Recall that I explained how they both have a meaning of the wider space within which one’s presence is made manifest. They are not limited to the place. Not even one’s own house. Think about the gender roles in a traditional family. Those come from the culture, from the rules of the polis. Yet the persons who conform with them are made in the image of the role and are behaving in such ways even within the confines of their house. They embody the roles.
When we think about private affairs, then, we should keep in mind that the people involved do not have a decontextualised presence. They are always immersed in a given milieu, they are framed by it, and they learn how to not express what they truly want. At least not always.
Politics will find you
What I just described blurs the distinction between private and public spheres. Let me offer you a personal example and you can generalise it from there. I had a deeply religious and prejudicial distant relative. I met her when I was a young adult. She would make comments about my appearance; comments which had value judgements built into them. You see, I have been able to grow a full beard since I was a teenager. So I would get constant remarks such as:
Why didn’t you shave? Do you want the girls to think you are a thug?
Imagine you find yourself in a room full with such people or in a town where everyone is like that. They will not consider the specifics of your case. There is no respect whatsoever for what you think is a private matter. Your very appearance is political; your body is political. They have an opinion about it and they feel entitled to be vociferous in their conduct. They will demand that you become who they expect you to be. In this case, it is the stereotype of the “good lad” which is enforced through peer pressure and outright bullying.
You may think that I am exaggerating. I could keep a clean shave each day. It would appease the girls for not having a thug in their midst. Sure. Though I would also be confirming their baseless view that some inconsequential facial hair defines the person. So I preferred to tell that relative and those girls to sod off. Simple though often costly.
We cannot escape from politics. You may not want to be involved. Fine! But they do and they will. And you shall suffer the consequences.
I am giving you an example with facial hair on purpose. I could have used something more egregious. I do it this way to illustrate how even something as trivial as a bit of hair is made into this major issue that we are supposed to be highly concerned about. In reality though, you know all-too-well that people judge others not just for facial hair.
When I was a child, the boys in my neighbourhood were allowed to go outdoors and play. Football, basketball… whatever. The girls were subject to an altogether different treatment. They were forced to remain indoors at all times. Why is this? Were they not children? Did they not want to play as well? Why was such a double standard in place? Did anyone really benefit from it?
The gist is that you are always judged. You are always expected to conform with the relevant roles. Your self, insofar as what you want and what your subjectivity is, is irrelevant. Unless you make a stand and assume agency, you simply are an avatar in this role-playing game. You are reduced to a hypocrite who suppresses their real wants in order to win some inane reward in this little game. You are dead inside.
What I want you to understand from this is that politics is pervasive. There is no ecos that exists in a vacuum. There is no way for you to live as a social animal yet remain outside the instituted reality. It will be there no matter what. The only choice you have is whether you try to do something about it if you care. To reinterpret the roles. To reform the rules. To enact institutions that respect and safeguard the diversity of the human condition.
Remain apolitical if you want. But don’t delude yourself into thinking that politics will not come after you sooner or later. It will, for sure.
The false dichotomy of individual VS collective
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we should abolish all rules and just do whatever we want. That would not be sustainable. There is a good reason to have some sort of structure in place. Otherwise we operate in an environment of radical uncertainty; an environment that is no longer conducive to all sorts of benign activities.
We will not outgrow politics while remaining human in the way we currently are. The key is to find a balance between competing priorities: the good of the place and the good of the space. This can be framed as the individual versus society. You may think it is an easy choice. Perhaps you are an individualist who believes that “only the individual exists” and that there are no so-called “collectivist” entities of any kind. You would be labouring under a falsehood, taking for granted the dichotomy between the individual and the collective.
There is no individual in abstract. There is no individual in some decontextualised nothingness. Every person is brought into a world that predates them: their parents, their neighbours, their language, their customs, and so on. Every person grows up experiencing stimuli through filters that are not of their own choosing.
The construct of the individual is analytical, as is that of the collective. “Analytical” means that we discern a pattern in the cosmos and treat it as if it had a standalone presence. We do not mean that it actually exists on its own in a vacuum. These are aspects of a singular reality. The microscopic level is that of a single person, treated with a degree of abstraction. Whereas the macroscopic view is that of the interplay between those persons and the emergent phenomena to be discerned therein, also with a degree of abstraction.
The choice between the individual and society is not an easy one because the line dividing the two is not clear. It is a singular reality, as I said.
Forget about whether society exists as some collectivist magnitude and just think about climate change. Our ecos, our habitat, is being eroded. An individual who lives right now may not care about it and, indeed, most people do not really think about the environment. They do not care as they assume it is not their problem. Whatever consequences will be felt by future generations, right?
Think about the concept of “future generations” for a moment. Is this a thing that exists? No. Is it sheer fantasy? No. It is a potential of our condition. There will be humans who will be born into a hostile environment, especially if those of us now do not think about them in the future. The concept of “future generations” thus hints at a potential subject and this subject is collective. It is a class of people who are defined by their age relative to us. It is a group that will most definitely experience the calamitous effects of our choices.
To dismiss the concept of “future generations” as some preoccupation of a fringe group of misguided collectivists is a pernicious folly. You cannot afford to ignore this magnitude, for you too have been determined by previous generations. Your language, your culture, the institutions in your midst: they are not of your own making and they do predate you.
So please avoid this sloppy thinking of treating analytical constructs as if they are actual. It is fruitful to perform an analysis, yes, though we must do so with the requisite self-awareness. Otherwise we are prone to errors in the very method we are employing.
Balancing the good of the place and the space
There is a proverb, which might be of Greek origin, though I am not sure and it does not matter, anyway. It states that:
A society grows when elders plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.
This is another take on the false dichotomy between the individual and the collective. It is a profound insight into the singular reality that contains both the individual and the collective. Whatever distinction between the two is analytical. And whatever we have as institutions, rules, roles, expectations, and the impression of selfhood is, in one way or another, defined intersubjectively. It does not exist in a vacuum of nothingness. It does not have a standalone presence and cannot be properly understood in its own right without reference to its supersystem.
We thus return the problématique of managing politics, the affairs of the polis. We need to tend to the integrity and overall quality of our instituted reality. We have to preserve a modicum of structure and order so that we may enjoy the stability that allows us to pursue all those endeavours we sometimes take for granted in our life.
To this end, we have to recognise that the institutions are not alien to us. They are made by us for our needs. An institution is a human invention, a product of our ingenuity and practical reasonableness.
Treating institutions as taboo or as gods or, anyhow, as magnitudes that we cannot affect only works against us. The same with all stereotypes or beliefs that we dare not question while we partake in all those role-playing games. Value judgements that go unchallenged tend to keep us hostage to a view of the world that is dogmatic.
What is human in origin, all the chremata—to re-use a term I mentioned before—, can be fathomed in a new light. We can re-institute the institutions. We can remake the rules and redraw the boundaries. Not for the sake of making changes. Not because of some frivolous desire to prove a point. No. We must not forget that our polis is indeed ours. This way we know what to do when we have to tweak certain aspects of the instituted reality in order to contribute to our ongoing shared wellness.
I am not telling you all this to nudge you towards joining a political party or becoming a revolutionary. I am merely showing you the bigger picture of our reality. We are political no matter what. This is not to say that day-to-day politics is interesting or nice or whatever. It most likely is not. There is filth, corruption, conspiracy, treason, and war. It is an ugly place. But such is the human condition. We do not live in an angelic world because we are not angels.
Not all is bad though. Think about that proverb I mentioned a few minutes ago about the elders who plant trees whose shade they shall never sit in. Imagine how your grandparents and their grandparents took care of you and tried to make the world a better place for you to have a decent chance in life. There is cooperation and solidarity among our species. Again, we want to avoid simplistic binaries and false dichotomies.
And some final words on this notion of keeping politics out of our life. I have talked with lots of competent people who are experts in some field of specialisation: scientists, engineers, programmers… Some live in a bubble and don’t realise that politics is pertinent to them.
Take the scientist, for example. To do science one needs laboratories, equipment, a group of specialists, and lots of experimentation. All this requires money; money that the scientist will most likely not have. Science depends on funding. Where do funds come from, exactly? In most cases, they are directly or indirectly provided by the government or some private actors which are predominantly businesses. Funding always comes with strings attached even if those are implicit in the form of incentives. The scientist must compete with other scientists for those scarce resources. They must peddle their research programme in order to get the money and do the work. Yes, there is the ideal of finding the truth, though it is driven by practical considerations with their implicit political or economic calculus.
Same principle for what happens at the workplace. The prevailing conditions are not the product of some law of nature. Those too are instituted as such. They are political throughout. What you think about politics is irrelevant. The rules still apply to you and you continue to be subject to the roles and expectations that go with them.
I understand the salient point to “keep politics out of this”. Indeed, there are technical matters that have to be treated with the requisite precision. My plea to you is to not forget about the bigger picture. There is a whole world outside whatever technical domain; an instituted reality; a polis that does not draw an indelible line between private and public spheres. You cannot opt out on a whimsy. If you do not speak, others will. And you will not like it.
That’s all for today, folks. Thank you very much for your attention!