Political Motivation in Three Forms or Why Patriotism is Not Enough

It is taken for granted in modern socio-political discourse that man is motivated by two primary drives. In the early modernist formulation, this follows Machiavelli’s definition of fear and love being the primary emotions on which the authority of the Prince hangs. Hobbes echoes this belief in his discussion of the uses of religion in political life. This formula still survives, but began to wane in the 19th century when two psychological alternatives presented themselves. On the one hand, Freud’s proposal that human motivation can be broken down into Lustprinzip and Todestrieb, embodied in Eros and Thanatos; on the other hand, Nietzsche’s appeal to completely different pagan deities, Dionysius and Apollo, describing the tendency in men and in works of art towards the pure, orderly, and sublime Apollonian or the earthy, chaotic, and existential Dionysian. In all three cases, ultimately, human motivation can be brought down to a single thing: desire, embodied in the positive desire (in the case of Machiavelli, love; for Freud, sex; for Nietzsche, order) and the negative desire to avoid or escape something (in Machiavelli, fear avoids harm or deprivation; in Freud, the death-drive achieves consummation and relieves the burden of creation; in Nietzsche, the Dionysian rebels against limitations of order).

Reducing all human activity, however, to desire offers only a superficial ontology, allowing man only two options in self-understanding, namely the Epicurean, which seeks to use desire and actualize the self, and the Buddhist, which seeks to eliminate desire, and therefore eliminate the self. In truth, though, both of these represent a form of nihilism: in the former case, the drive to master desire amounts to the quest for temporary meaning, and in the latter case, the drive to eliminate desire amounts to the quest for total resignation to meaninglessness. Nihilism is the way of modernity, and it ends in the nothingness of post-Modernity; this is the founding principle of all reactionary thought.

It is unfortunate how often Aristotle is today considered a relic of the late Faustian ramblings of the neo-Thomists. There is much to be found in his psychology, most of all because it reaches beyond the low-level emotive focus of modern psychologists. It makes some sense: Aristotle lived in an age, and in a stage of civilizational development, in which higher, metaphysical motivations were not only still imaginable but, indeed, observable—and to a degree far beyond modern capabilities.

The study of the soul—that is, psychology in its original sense—is impossible without recognition and understanding of the highest form of the soul. This is nous, what in the East is still regarded as the part of the Soul closest to God. Aristotle himself begins as the psychologists dividing the soul into two parts: the rational and irrational. He then ventures further, splitting the rational part into two subsequent parts, namely that which deduces and that which knows—an active and a passive element. The passive element is the nous, that part of the soul that divines the archetypal, the elemental, and the principal. It is unlike the fear of Machiavelli, the death-drive in Freud, and the Apollonian in Nietzsche, all of which represent the rational mind. It transcends their driving principles.

This is not intended necessarily as a philosophical treatise; the finer points of Aristotle’s argument can be discerned in the Nicomachean Ethics and Posterior Analytics. The importance of Aristotle here is to demonstrate the higher drive and purpose of man in a healthy society, to which neither Machiavelli, Freud, nor Nietzsche belonged. To reclaim the mindset that allowed Aristotle to think of the Soul in the way he did is the purpose here; to understand not Aristotle’s thought, but Aristotle himself.

Hierarchy is the political principle of Aristotle’s age: the clear delineation of boundaries and demarcation of realms. This can be demonstrated in the household of antiquity, which even in Athens abided by a monarchical principle: it was in the father that all ultimate authority rested; to him, the servants, his wife, and his children answered. But his children were also subject to their mother, and likewise to the slaves assigned to their care. Pets and slaves were under ownership, which obliged the family to them but also bound them inextricably to the family. Each was motivated by a different drive in relation to one another. The household radiated out to form a stable and, in the end, inegalitarian society. If we might borrow from Ferdinand Tönnies, the Ideal-type allows us to envision three major motivations: the fear of punishment in the pet and slave, the love of children and mother, and the obligation and duty of the father.

Applied politically, these motivations can be reflected in a general population. A tyrannical government is generally defined by the fear of the people and the fear of the tyrant(s) as a principle motive and method of control. The republic or nation-state generally reflects the common love of a people for the body politic of which they are a part. The monarchy, however, differs from these in that it reflects a series of obligations rather than emotive drives—a true sovereign elicits neither love nor fear from his subjects, but a sense of reciprocal obligation. A father has love for his children, but above that love is his responsibility: so too in any feudal arrangement.

The complaint offered, therefore, that there is no decency in politics—and this lack of decency can be observed in every age of the American Republic—is largely explicable because until recently the primary motivation sought by the political order was one of love, and nothing higher than that. To be clear, when we say “love” here, we are talking in purely human terms: even Aristotle’s “other self” is a material and merely human concept of love, not to be confused with the self-emptying of Divine Love. This love, on the other hand, is really quite dependent on a strong sense of self—for identity and belonging always do depend on such. Decency, on the other hand, depends on honor and duty, not on love. Good manners are firmer ground for behavior than passion because passion shifts, while custom requires stability.

The Patriot and Nationalist are both primarily driven by love, not duty—their language reflects this. “Love of country” is a republican and parliamentarian motto. The higher motivation of obligation do not functionally exist for the Patriot: for him, everything is a labor of love, even when he uses words like “duty” and “honor”. But this love is childlike, even childish, in its application, and for that reason has never been sustainable. The quick collapse of every form of patriotic republic, from Rome right up to the United States, and their devolution, as Plato indicated, into tyranny, is indicative of the instability of love as a political motivation.

Reclaiming honor, duty, and obligation, therefore, requires a great deal more than merely using those words again: they cannot exist in a child-like, egalitarian setting. They are not the realm of the child. Children are by their nature always free and equal: for this reason the Romans called them liberi, “free ones”. A society that seeks freedom and equality as its highest goals will always be a childish society—easily enslaved and easily tricked, subject to all the faults of childhood, from the blithe confidence to the passionate impetuosity. Only an adult society can be a decent society—a society which values the loyalty of honor rather than the loyalty of love and the ungrudging acceptance of hierarchy rather than the passionate embrace of universal equality.