There are philosophers, Epicurus comes to mind, that would preach against the involvement of politics. Epicureans in general wished to live a solitary life, free from the stress of the city. They view happiness as an end unto itself, the meaning of life, and reached through ataraxia. It’s an interesting notion that happiness comes through inner peace, although not an uncommon one. What’s even more interesting is the fact that people like Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Hitchens considered themselves Epicureans.
This complicates the issue. For now we will have to take for granted that pleasure is the highest good, that being the most base solution we can work with. Jefferson and Hitchens were involved in politics just about everywhere they went, which, as it turns out, is pretty bad for someone’s inner peace. In fact a survey found that politics is the factor that induces the most daily stress in our lives. In their own words it was “hearing about what the government or politicians are doing” that causes that anxiety. Of course someone could make the argument that less stress would be created if the government functioned as it should, but that is ridiculous since there is no single consensus on what the government is for, and even if there were, there is no single consensus on how to go about achieving that purpose.
But to bring in the utilitarian perspective, involvement in politics can bring about the most happiness with the sacrifice of some personal pleasure. For instance, reading the news every morning can put me into a short depression, but it makes me a better informed voter. Or better yet, protesting may end badly for me when it is over, but it helps more people in the long run. This sort of argument is made by some to justify their actions. In a sense, this debate can almost come down to happiness for “The self vs. The many”. John Stuart Mill, the leading advocate for utilitarianism, was a politician for a period of his life.
With all this in mind, is it better to withdraw from politics altogether, or engage in politics to create a better society? First of all it depends on what kind of society is going to be created out of this. I’m not going to attempt to draw any sort of political philosophy out of Epicureanism, since I believe arguments can be made for both liberal and conservative living from his writing. John Stuart Mill remained a classical liberal throughout most of his life, but seemed to move towards socialism in his later years.
If it were possible I would love to live an Epicurean type commune modeled after The Garden, but today’s modern living makes this more complicated. This shows a clear want to withdraw from life and politics, but an acceptance of what we are given with. To give a practical example I will take reading the news. I would almost certainly be happier if I had no idea what was going on in the world and I had nobody around me that pressured me to do so. After reading about constant atrocities and the despair around the earth, a certain weight is put on the individual. The person in most cases can’t act to remedy the unhappiness, which may cause more distress for that person. The answer can’t always be to go out and help, so does that mean that ignorance is bliss? My proposal is that it is entirely up to the individual. I will admit to a certain extant that ignorance is bliss (even though in the long run it may cause more harm) but once the individual has been exposed to that weight of the world there is no way to be unexposed.
In a way my solution might be seen as almost entirely Epicurean. If you wish to do so, choose to involve yourself in politics if it will cause you more distress to know you aren’t helping society in any way. This is a serious issue for many people. If that is not your priority, and it will bring you no distress to do so, then detach yourself from society. Whatever the issue is, it will eventually reach it’s equilibrium point and resolve itself. The only difference is the amount of anxiety caused by your involvement in it or not.
This proposed solution leaves a number of problems. The first being if a person has absolutely no political inclination at all. It’s not unreasonable for a person to what to have no action in politics, as goes the old saying “Just because you don’t take interest in politics doesn’t mean politics doesn’t take interest in you!” Which really can be said for most subjects. If a person trusts others to take political action, which is the purpose of a republic, then there is no problem with this.
Another problem is a more egoistic one. We’ve already determined whom should participate in politics based off the amount of stress it induces, but once that person begins to participate, he may be taken with more stress than originally planned. The principle states the goal is to create the most amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. This presupposes that the person knows what is best for the greatest amount of people, even better than the people know what is best for them. This is contrary to what people believe a democracy is. How many leaders in history believe they could have done better if it were not for the will of the people? This was certainly the view of Hobbes, and a much controversial one. I don’t intent to propose any new take on this. But what this means in terms of ethics is that choosing to remain politically active may produce a more long term anxiety than small daily doses of it. If a person comes to a political conclusion out of the norm they think is best for humanity, it may follow them throughout their life. Such as claiming to be a communist or anarchist in today’s time.
It’s also taken for granted that the person would have other interests and hobbies outside of politics. While completely dedicating one’self to a political cause might create good in the long run, it does nothing to help the individual reach inner peace. As with all things, there is a balance to be reached.
Some are more susceptible to others to lead a political life, and some are more able to handle it. Surely Epicurus shied away from politics for a reason, and one has to admire him for it. However, that isn’t always the best answer considering how connected people are this days, and how much society relies on the election of officials every so often.