One of the first philosophy books I ever read, when I was around 14 or so, was Plato’s Republic. It’s a very well-known and influential book, both in the philosophical world but also in Western culture in general. The basic theme of the book is that there is a discussion, including Socrates and his interlocutors, about the nature of the human “soul”, by use of an analogy of creating a perfect “Republic.”
The concept of the “tripartite soul” was derived, in part, from this book (also the Phaedo). Plato saw us as being made up of logical, spiritual, and desirous parts, all having to work together in a hierarchical fashion in order to achieve harmony and happiness. Analogously, the state, in this case an ideal republic, should be made up of the “philosopher kings” (reason/logic), the soldiers (will/spirit), and the citizens (appetite/desire).
Plato’s psychological theory is, of course, unscientific and not used by psychology (and his political one as well, given his inability to build a successful state himself) but nonetheless this idea is embedded in much of Western thinking (for good or ill, probably more the latter). How often do we think of ourselves as having to use reason or logic to reign in our will or desires? Don’t we still see, in some ways, our leaders as a means to control our ability to make war or to give us motivation to work and not to simply eat, drink, and have sex all day?
I’ll leave that for the anarchists out there to discuss.
Revolution v. Incremental change
“God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” (Thomas Jefferson)
Thomas Jefferson, despite his flaws, has been an inspiration to me in my life. I have a cloth-bound copy of his writings which I found in a little used books store in DC many years ago, and I read a bit from it now and then.
In a conversation I paid attention to among some Facebook friends yesterday about the upcoming presidential primaries (specifically concerning the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who I am supporting), a comment exposed some skepticism as to whether Sanders’ political revolution is possible or even likely. The sentiment was that political change occurs slowly, incrementally. The idea is that the “Hope and change” we progressives wanted with Obama only partially happened, but that we want more. Some people think that’s not going to happen, and we need to be patient and work within the system for change to happen slowly.
That actual revolutions are rare, usually bloody, and don’t happen in the way that Sanders’ supporters would like.
And if we look back on history, we don’t see too many successful purely political revolutions. Perhaps the recent election in Canada are an exception (I have not been following Trudeau’s moves, but I’m glad that Canada has moved in a more liberal direction), and perhaps Sanders winning the presidency would be similar in scope. However, would such a feat equal a political “revolution”? Or would it merely lead to more congressional inaction due to Sanders being unable to bring more liberal congressmen to office to help motivate the change? Would Congress be as gridlocked as it has been in the last 7 years?
Would it really change anything quickly enough to warrant calling it a “revolution”?
I don’t know.
But shouldn’t we be trying, anyway?
That’s a good question.
So, taking a queue from Plato, I was thinking about how political mechanization can be analogous to ourselves. If I were to think of myself as an analogy for a nation, although not a tripartite one (because the relationship between reason, emotion, and desire are not actually hierarchical at all, nor are they separate modules in any clean sense), is it possible for a person to have a true revolutionary change in behavior, outlook, and disposition? Sure, we can change, but can we do it overnight, over a few days, or even weeks?
Lord knows I have tried, over the years. But have I succeeded?
No, I don’t think I have. And I am unsure whether I even can. So, is it true that true change can only be incremental?
After all, some people claim to have been born again, right?
I’ve had certain moments where I felt like I had changed. But, upon further reflection, this was really a matter of emotion and mood. A few days later, a few weeks later, I was back to the same song and dance, but with more experience. That experience is key; something from that mood stuck with me, and little by little those moments of clarity, the feeling of something having changed, accumulated into slow, actual long-term change.
And what I’m concluding about this is that while the cumulative change will not happen overnight, we need the temporary, passionate, and radical thrusts towards a better nation and person in order to keep us pushing forward. Whether it is politics or person, we need the revolutionary energy to keep pushing the conversation and the insight into ourselves to keep moving in a direction we want to move.
The United States may never becomes a liberal, Democratically Socialist country like I’d like it to be, but we need people like Bernie Sanders shifting our attention in that direction, even if they cannot implement that change as a candidate or a president. Similarly, I may never be the man I wish to be, but if I don’t allow myself to feel the passion of being that moment today, and from time to time, I will settle into a comfort zone of who I am, rather than keep pushing on.
And I need my temperamental desires, my reason, and my will to work in collaboration in order to get there. I will not make my will, desire, nor my reason to submit to any of the others, but I will let each do what they do best, and allow the process to bring forth growth.
Am I a different person than I was 1, 2 or 5 years ago? Yes. But that changed happened with incremental change fueled by periodic revolutionary moments of trauma, my own mistakes, and intellectual insight. Those revolutionary moments supplied the ideological horizon I should be moving towards it, but often gave the illusion of already having reached it.
Electing Bernie Sanders will not complete the revolution, but it might be a step in the right direction. Making a wise decision about what I will do in my life won’t make me my ideal self, but it’s also a step in the right direction.
Be patient, but don’t allow patience to prevent you from pursuing passionately from time to time. Because otherwise our patience turns into complacency and comfort. When we stop trying for revolutions, be become part of the establishment; we become the conservatives of tomorrow.