Aristotle’s conception of the person effectively delineates two distinct arenas of appetites borne by the ‘soul’. One refers to the intellectual, the other to character. Essentially, the person as a whole is pulled toward seeking truth and knowledge by the intellectual aspect of their soul, whilst simultaneously being drawn toward improving their character through the adoption of ethical habits. This division does not totally break the connection between these two aspects of character, however, as each is marshalled by the individual’s practical wisdom or phronesis. In fact, the person as a whole can only flourish as a result of becoming a phronemos or an active exponent of phronesis. That eudaimonia or flourishing comes about as a result of the balancing of the divided aspects of the soul underwritten by practical wisdom. For Aristotle, indeed, this is the fundamental basis for exercising virtue per se. Being a phronemos is the how and the why of virtue.
Virtuous behaviour in Aristotle’s account has as its aim a specific outcome – praxis. Praxis is linked to notions of social benefit and is directly linked to practice. This is contrary to the aim of knowledge which is best construed as ‘production’ (poiesis). We can see that virtue is to be assessed, then, without essential reference to instrumental outcomes, whereas the productive nature of knowledge is part of its concept. For virtuous persons, it is clear that praxis is the point. Persons in charge must exhibit phronesis and end in socially beneficial action. Moreover, what beneficial action is is itself an open question – were it to be determined in advance, leadership’s role would merely be to bring about the production of some set of circumstances. This, of course, would be an exercise of instrumental reason and would rely upon technical knowledge. This would not be phronesis and so could not exhibit nor end in virtue. Instead, phronesis must underwrite an ongoing unfolding of praxis that involves learning and the possibility of change. The practice of living virtuously is fixed upon realising the good life, which is itself not revealed or pre-determined but an ongoing critical reflection. The person in charge of some public endeavour serves their community, themselves and virtue itself when they seek praxis through phronesis.
We now don’t have anything like an Athenian democracy. For one thing, we don’t keep slaves to exclude. Women are not officially politically subjugated. Our cities, states and constituencies far out-measure anything Athenian. The interpersonal basis of our lot is strained from the beginning – the ability of anyone to act for their community is an issue itself open to endless debate. But, in fact, this isn’t the real issue.
At the centre of the Greek democratic ideal was the idea of debate often related to a complex and deeply textured comprehension of ‘the good life.’ Generally, it’s thought now that privacy involves being master of our own domain – a region of privileged access where we can do, make, say, think what we like. It’s something we can protect with appeal to law if we feel it necessary. The public realm is where we need to obey predetermined rules. It’s out there. That is the realm where my ends and yours can clash. We appeal to laws and social norms to anticipate potential problems. We obey in the public realm so that friction is avoided.
Where’s the questioning role of the citizen in this tableau? Privately we feel an entitlement to hold opinion. Publicly we expect external powers to foreclose on interpersonal clashes. We can think what we like, but are wise to say nothing. The Greek ideal is semantic, being concerned with what claims and actions mean. The present case seems more concerned with syntax. It’s about structures for acceptability in word and deed.
With the advent of overt market interventions destabilising and removing democratic régimes in Europe we hear national sovereignty is at stake. In the increasingly security-obsessed nations we live in, we feel our privacy is under attack. Personal sovereignty is eroded as well as national. But the problem could be seen the other way around.
The public sphere that does exist for us seems preoccupied with syntax: structures. It is where challenge is precluded in order to protect the right to say and do what we feel we’re entitled to say and do. But if personal sovereignty comes to dominate the public sphere, if we think ‘everyone should be allowed to have their own opinion,’ but the private is free and the public is closed to debate, then we have a serious deformation in public action.
Once an opinion is expressed, it is treated as protected. Witness how often opposing a view triggers discussion about the ethics of causing offence, not the soundness of that view. Witness the phenomenon of the ‘super-injunction.’ As the idea of the private realm encroaches on the public we get instead of argument, unquestionable expressions of taste. We see instead of journalism, gossip. Instead of banking, we get a blind eye to externalities and cynical rent-seeking.
As long as we presume we have the ancient Greek ideal of a semantic public sphere, but exist in the syntactic, this dissonance will go on. What we need to counter these unsettling tendencies is a swing to the more classical pole: Privately we do what we must, but publicly we take a position, argue, oppose, propose and get involved in the public sphere that facilitates the existence we have.
We need to worry less about protecting our privacy, more about liberating our publicity. Part of this means not waiting for a mechanism to be put in place. It means setting sail fully knowing leaks will spring and have to be plugged at sea.