Left, centre right, and far right, in light of classical political philosophy

There’s a three-fold division of contemporary ideology that I find helpful, that I’ve spoken of before: the egalitarian left, the libertarian centre-right, and the militaristic far right. This division is too simple in some ways, of course, but it can be a clarifying simplicity, if treated thoughtfully.

It occurred to me that while none of these three maps perfectly onto the exhortations of classical political philosophy (the far right comes closest, though even there we see divergences), all three do have some resemblance to some part of what classical philosophers have recommended.

The left aligns best with the classics on the question of money. There is some resemblance in other questions (eg the relations of the sexes and the treatment of foreigners), insofar as they reject the worst excesses, though clearly they are for the most part not as radical on these fronts as today’s left is. But when it comes to class relations, the classical philosophers are fully on board with saying that extremes of wealth are bad for the community, that the community’s life should be organized in a way that prevents there from being the very poor or the very rich, as much as possible. This is where the classics would most emphatically agree with the contemporary left.

The classics probably have least in common with the centre right, but even here there is some agreement to be found. They think that economic strength is important; perhaps not endless growth and hyper-abundance, but what we speak of as the economy must be abundant enough, and resilient enough, to provide the community with enough to meet all its needs with a bit extra left over. The community needs enough to be able to feed itself and care for itself and invest in important projects (especially for war and study and the upkeep of the political system), but not so much that it will be an object of jealousy for surrounding nations who might wish to enrich themselves through pillage or conquest. This means that it is important to know how to keep an economy healthy, and to put the measures in place to enable and encourage the citizenry to keep themselves out of poverty.

And while political liberty does not hold so much pride of place for classical thinkers as it does for the centre right today, they do think that there must be an important place for such liberty, and that it is better to err on the side of too much liberty than too little, since a bad democracy will tend to be less bad than, for instance, a bad monarchy (ie, a tyranny).

Now, the far right overlaps with classical political philosophy, not perfectly, but in many ways. This seems unsurprising given that it is the most reactive and least fundamentally modern in orientation of the three positions. Classical political philosophy tends not to spend a lot of time on the benefit of religion or mythology in a political community, but it does recognize it and affirm it. The classics are far, far more interested in morality as a condition of and an outcome of a good political community, than we moderns are, as Rousseau has pointed out so memorably. The classics tend to emphasize military virtue not as the highest thing, but much higher than we do as moderns. The classics can be much more moderate in what they have to say about eg differences between the sexes and between what we today would speak of as different racial or cultural groups than the far right will often be, but they still recognize and accept those differences and their political relevance. I suspect there would be other similarities as well, but those are the ones that come to mind first for me.

The biggest differences between the far right and the classics that I can think of have to do with the place of the contemplative life, and the role of tradition. Where the far right elevates action over intellectual activity, the classics subordinated political and military action to the life of the thinker. And while the classics recognized the practical importance of tradition in a political community, they were far more ready to propose abolishing or overhauling received tradition in favour of something better when it is possible.

That’s how I see the overlap and divergences, overall. As I said, this is all off the top of my head, and so there may be important elements that I’m overlooking or oversimplifying.

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