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Is a Contemporary Conservative Political Philosophy Based on the Aristotelian Concept of Phronesis Possible?

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Abstract

aBStRaCt: This essay – although aware of the contradiction in terms of the concept of conservative theory – tries to pick out some key notions within the conservative political mindset, and offers an analysis of them by relating them to one another. Beside Aristote-lian phronesis or practical wisdom, it focuses on kairos, or the right moment for action. It points out that due to the time constraint inherent in the realm of political action, agents need to acquire a kind of tacit, practical knowledge of how to deal with pressing issues, and phronesis is a term which covers this sort of practical ability. The paper then tries to show that individual action is closely connected to communal interests, differentiates between formal and informal forms of communal knowledge and ends up by referring to Oakeshott's, MacIntyre's and Tocqueville's ideas of communal wisdom and practice. 1. ProloGue: PHRONESIS As The TheorY of non-TheorY Politicians with a conservative inclination are well known for their non-theoreti-cal stance: that is, they dislike political ideologies or theories in general. Perhaps the best example of this kind is Winston churchill who did not mind leaving the conservative party when other considerations made that decision reason-able – theoretical considerations could not restrain him from this move. even if self-contradictory, this anti-theoretical attitude is regarded as a first preliminary consideration and, as such, plays a permanent part in conservative theory as well. Aristotle famously claimed in his Ethics that political expertise is "concerned with action and deliberation," and therefore it "is not systematic knowledge, since it has for its object what comes last in the process of deliberation" (ne 1141b28, 1142a24). edmund Burke, too, points out in his Reflections that one of the key problems of the french revolutionaries was that they were men of theory and not of experience:
Fe r e n c Hö r c H e r
Is a Contemporary Conservative
Political Philosophy Based on the Aristotelian
Concept of Phronesis Possible?
ABSTRACT: This essay – although aware of the contradiction in terms of the concept
of conservative theory – tries to pick out some key notions within the conservative political
mindset, and offers an analysis of them by relating them to one another. Beside Aristote-
lian phronesis or practical wisdom, it focuses on kairos, or the right moment for action.
It points out that due to the time constraint inherent in the realm of political action, agents
need to acquire a kind of tacit, practical knowledge of how to deal with pressing issues,
and phronesis is a term which covers this sort of practical ability. The paper then tries
to show that individual action is closely connected to communal interests, differentiates
between formal and informal forms of communal knowledge and ends up by referring to
Oakeshott’s, MacIntyre’s and Tocqueville’s ideas of communal wisdom and practice.
KEY WORDS: phronesis, kairos, virtue, moeurs, practice, institutions, Aristotle,
Oakeshott, MacIntyre and Tocqueville
1. PROLOGUE: PHRONESIS AS THE THEORY OF NON-THEORY
Politicians with a conservative inclination are well known for their non-theoreti-
cal stance: that is, they dislike political ideologies or theories in general. Perhaps
the best example of this kind is Winston Churchill who did not mind leaving
the conservative party when other considerations made that decision reason-
able – theoretical considerations could not restrain him from this move. Even if
self-contradictory, this anti-theoretical attitude is regarded as a first preliminary
consideration and, as such, plays a permanent part in conservative theory as well.
Aristotle famously claimed in his Ethics that political expertise is “concerned
with action and deliberation,” and therefore it “is not systematic knowledge,
since it has for its object what comes last in the process of deliberation” (NE
1141b28, 1142a24). Edmund Burke, too, points out in his Reflections that one
of the key problems of the French revolutionaries was that they were men of
theory and not of experience:
110 THE POLITICS OF ARISTOTLE
After I had read over the list of the persons and descriptions elected into the Tiers
Etat, nothing which they afterwards did could appear astonishing. Among them,
indeed, I saw some of known rank, some of shining talents; but of any practical
experience in the state, not one man was to be found. The best were only men of
theory.1
And speaking about “old establishments,” for Burke again, it is just their inde-
pendence from theory that makes them the more reliable: “they are the results
of various necessities and expediencies. They are not often constructed after
any theory; theories are rather drawn from them.” For indeed experience super-
sedes theory in politics: „The means taught by experience may be better suited
to political ends than those contrived in the original project.”2
If nothing else, these facts about conservative practice and theory should
make the present author cautious in trying to “reconstruct” conservative po-
litical philosophy along a theoretical proposition, namely, that the concept of
phronesis should be regarded as central to it. However, this is a tricky problem,
logically. For, indeed, here the theoretical concept is exactly to support an anti-
theoretical stance. On the other hand, its use would still be theoretical after
all, conservative politicians are not ready to consider theoretical constructs, like
the concept of phronesis, at all. Therefore I have to admit that to think over the
possibilities of a conservative political philosophy with phronesis in its centre is
still a contradiction in terms. But perhaps if I fail, the very fact of the theoretical
failure would save my project in the end. At least this is the hope which I cher-
ish. If the argument of the present paper can bring home my message, i.e., if it
works theoretically, then I did my job as a philosopher. If it does not, then it can
serve as one more example that theory really cannot help conservative politics.
But one can express this logical connection a bit more pessimistically as well: if
I succeed to convince the audience that this is a viable theory of conservatism,
then it certainly will not be a conservative theory, after all, that is a contradiction
in terms. And if I do not succeed, I prove to be a loser, anyway. Not too promis-
ing prospects.
2. THE TEMPORAL DIMENSION OF CONSERVATISM
Let me have this starting point: as we saw, both Aristotle and Burke had a basic
distrust in the reasonability of organising human and, more particularly, political
affairs on theoretical principles. Both held this view with good reason, presum-
ably having drawn the conclusions from first hand experience of the political
1 I use the following internet link: http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm
2 From the same internet source.
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matters of their political community. Therefore their mistrust of (political) the-
ory was not a simple theoretical construct, but was the summary of experiences
collected in their own life as well as by other authors whom they might have
consulted. They were experienced men, with the necessary amount of scepti-
cism about political construction.
If we want to characterise the position of authors like Aristotle and Burke, the
concept of phronesis seems to be useful as a point of departure. We can rely on it
to be particularly suitable when dealing with political matters. Phronesis, or prac-
tical wisdom is opposed to other manifestations of rationality in Aristotle. It is to
be distinguished from the primary vehicle of thinking about politics in the mod-
ern Western philosophical tradition: instrumental, or even moral reason. Perhaps
the main target of Aristotle’s criticism is Platonic political constructionism, while
for Burke indirectly the Kantian tradition. In 20th century terms, Conservatism
is opposed to the form of neo-Kantianism as it was reinvigorated by John Rawls
in his Theory of Justice. Kant tried to reinforce the efficacy of reason in practical
matters, reacting to Hume’s devastating criticism of rationality claiming that it
is, and ought only to be “the slave of the passions” (Hume 1992. 415). However,
in his effort to prove its capacity to directly influence human action, and for that
special purpose contrasting it with pure Reason, Kant exaggerates his case, and
this way – so the conservatives can argue – distorts human nature as it appears in
the context of political action. On the other hand, while his enthusiasm for the
self-capacitating intellectual powers of the individual is overstated in the neo-
Kantian tradition, there can be no doubt that the philosopher from Königsberg
was a firm believer in public reason, i.e., in the human ability to discuss (and
solve) political matters in a free and open way as part of a deliberative process.
Rawls and Habermas, for that matter takes over this firm belief in the ef-
fectiveness of public debate leading to a more democratic political culture than
it would be possible without this sort of open-ended, and theoretically informed
cooperation between the citizens.
Conservatism in the Aristotelian tradition is not much less intellectual than
the Kantian tradition, even if it is much more sceptical about the potential of
human reason in solving human problems on a grand scale. Although the scale of
reasonable scepticism in political affairs is debated within the conservative tradi-
tion itself, Aristotelian political thought never denied the intellectual capacities
of humans, even in their every day affairs. Phronesis is both an intellectual and a
practical virtue.
But then in what sense is it less optimistic intellectually? It seems to me that
in this respect Aristotle is a critic of his master, Plato who was a keen constructor
of political ideology in his Republic. Aristotle’s notion of phronesis is there to show
that politics should not be taken as a playground for the philosopher king: hu-
man affairs do not allow so much licence for rational deliberation as is ordinarily
accepted in the empire of thought. The main reason for this is not simply the
112 THE POLITICS OF ARISTOTLE
nature of political authority, i.e., not the fact that free thought can be politically
risky for those in power. Neither is it simply the political responsibility of the
political agent that should hinder him from the exercise of free enquiry. It has
more to do with another trait of politics: that power has to be operated under
very severe time constraint.
Time is necessarily a scarcity in the human realm, not only in politics and not
only because of the shortness of human lifespan. It has to do with the dynamism
of human affairs: there is a constant flow of ever newly born and reborn situa-
tions, and a never relaxing pressure on agents to decide and act. The life story
of a human being or community is so much in a constant and dynamic flux that
one can only afterwards, looking back on the whole story from some distance,
cut it up into distinct entities which could be regarded as episodes or political
situations. When experiencing one’s life, moments are not really separated from
one another but grow organically into one another, making it almost indiscern-
ible when one moment closes and another one opens up. Therefore we carry
along huge baskets of unresolved conflicts, tensions, dilemmas, and each and
every decision or non-decision of ours will have a direct or indirect, foreseeable
or unforeseeable effect or counter-effect on this package.
But there are special moments when decisions have to be made, here and
now. These moments of crisis call for immediate judgement. These moments
have their own Greek god after whom they are named: they are regarded as
being under the rule of Kairos. Kairos is a rhetorical term, meaning that the mo-
ment calls for the decision of the actor, it is the connection between the moment
and the agent who is confronting it. Each right action has its naturally assigned
time of execution, the actor needs to make good use of those moments in order
to be able to act properly.
If we want to make sense of Aristotle’s views on phronesis for our present
concern, what we need to understand is the way kairos objectifies time in this
ancient concept. Let me refer to Aristotle’s earlier idea in moral philosophy, to
the golden mean, so as to shed light on the meaning of this concept of kairos.
The golden mean is a teaching about how we should not miss the target in moral
decisions: either by over- or undercharging the case, by excess or deficiency in
our chosen type of behaviour. Aristotle’s point is that the moral target cannot be
hit by simply complying with the rules – what is needed is a kind of sense which
helps you to find the right proportions, balance, and scaling, in other words to
find what is “intermediate” between excess and deficiency (NE 1104a26). But
this is not an objective category because it is relative to the particular object and
to us as subjects confronting the object. What needs to be found is therefore
“the intermediate, that is, not in the object, but relative to us” (NE 1106b5).
Kairos calls our attention to the fact that a right decision is always to be re-
alised in time by a particular agent. It is neither to be done by him too quickly
nor too slowly. The first would amount to hasty-mindedness while deliberation
FERENC HÖRCHER: IS A CONTEMPORARY CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY BASED 113
should be done slowly, the second might miss the target by arriving at the spot
too late. Think about Aristotle’s reference to the archer as a metaphor for the
agent who deliberates in urgent situations. This time the task of the archer is the
more difficult as the target is moving, and as there is a very short time span when
he can actually act. Kairos is the temporal intermediate found. For deliberation
might last too long, or can be finished too quickly, but “deliberative excellence
is correctness as to what one should achieve, and the way in which, and when
[…].” (NE 1142b29). It is achieved not by trying to force the stream of time to
stop but rather by tuning oneself to the right rhythm of the flow. This is the
more important because the target is on the move – it can only be hit if subject
and object are moving in the same rhythm in this dynamic.
Finally, there is yet another dimension to the importance of the temporal
element in human decision-making to be taken into account. It is not simply
the objective flow of time that invites subjective response in particular cases or
emergency situations. Individuals also need a sense of timing in another way: to
accumulate enough experience for a good improvisation by the time the deci-
sion is required. This temporal condition of the right amount of accumulated
experience lets Aristotle say that “sense and comprehension and intelligence
[…] depend on age”, adding that “experienced and older people, or wise ones
[…] have an eye, formed from experience, they see correctly” (NE 1143b8,
1143b13–14).
Now my claim is that these two axes of what counts as ideal timing in Aristo-
tle, i.e., to find the intermediate between the too early and the too late, and be
fortunate and careful enough to accumulate experience in life, will be central
to our understanding of the conservative agenda. For it shows that liberals and
conservatives definitely have a different perspective on the relevance of time for
human decision-making. That conservatism is not simply a superficial admira-
tion of the past in direct contrast to the future-oriented positivism of the left-
ist ideologies is already made obvious by Titian’s famous painting of Prudence
which presents the face of a young, of a middle-aged, and of an old man, rep-
resenting the past, the present, and the future. These faces show the different
attitudes of the different generations, one caring about the past, the other facing
the present, and the third one trying to make sense of the future. None of them
is neglected by the artist, none of them is controlling the others. The three of
them together build up prudence, a virtue playing a pivotal role in conservative
political theory as it is related to right timing, kairos.
In what follows we would first concentrate on Aristotle’s idea that, in order
to achieve maximum safety in the temporal dimension, we have to obtain the
virtue(s) which will help us to save energy and time in daily life. Then we point
out that the individual agent’s virtues themselves are insufficient to lead us with
some guarantees in the labyrinth of political life. That is why we need to con-
sider the importance of communal practices for the conservative agenda. The
114 THE POLITICS OF ARISTOTLE
role played by virtue(s) in our individual lives is complemented by the commu-
nal practices of our political communities. Finally, we shall have a look at how
communal practices are divided then into informal techniques of harmonising
individual behaviour (moeurs) and formalised techniques of encouraging social
cooperation on societal level (institutions).
3. VIRTUE AS THE ACCUMULATED PRACTICAL DELIBERATIONS
STORED IN THE INDIVIDUAL’S ATTITUDES
Virtue, or aretê plays a key role in Aristotle’s moral theory. It is usually translated
into English as excellence, and Aristotelian virtues – which were largely based
on Plato’s example and Socrates’s views on it are identified in the literature
as “complex rational, emotional and social skills” (Kraut 2012). However, even
if they are social skills, they belong to the individual’s personal sphere: virtues
(or the lack of them) build up – in the ancients most of the time – his moral be-
haviour. This is not the place to give a full account of Aristotle’s concept of vir-
tue – the division of contemporary moral theory called virtue ethics has already
done a lot to update our knowledge of it in accordance with recent philosophical
developments. It is more interesting to ask if it can have any relevance in politi-
cal theory and especially in a conservative moral theory today. To answer
this question we are in need of a working definition of virtue in the Aristotelian
sense in order to be able to show how it can turn out to be useful in a conserva-
tive theory.
Now for Aristotle virtues are dispositions (hexis). And more exactly: “the
excellence of a human being too will be the disposition whereby he becomes
a good human being and from which he will perform his own function well”
(NE 1106a24). And in a statement which refers back to our earlier discussion
he adds:
Excellence has to do with affections and actions, things in which excess, and defi-
ciency, go astray, while what is intermediate is praised and gets it right […] Excel-
lence, then, is a kind of intermediacy, in so far as it is effective at hitting upon what
is intermediate. (NE 1106b27–8)
In other words, virtue is a complex human skill that leads one to the right sort
of action. And even among the virtues phronesis becomes a very special one: it
is regarded by Aristotle as both an intellectual and a practical-moral excellence,
and, as such, the virtue of virtues, a kind of meta-virtue. In other words, what Ar-
istotle suggests is that practical wisdom will help us in risky situations to find the
right decision in time. It can help us to do this because virtues are dispositions,
or even more radically translated, habits, which means that they do not need the
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sort of rational deliberation each and every time an action has to be performed.
Aristotle’s account of virtue in general, and phronesis in particular, does not aim at
providing a description of the whole decision making procedure. This is because
he does not believe that such a procedure can possibly be imparted. And yet he
insists on the rationality of our moral choices. His point is that by conditioning
ourselves to patterns of behaviour, or acquiring socially acceptable dispositions
called virtues, we can ensure that in an unknown situation we shall be able to
mobilise these rational potentials without losing time which is the most precious
valuable in those very moments. Also, phronesis is so handy for him because it
can stock all the knowledge one can acquire in one’s life in a condensed but
easily unwrapped form and activate it in unfamiliar situations at the right time,
too. The mechanism of how phronesis leads to action is not clearly described by
Aristotle but that it is not a simple syllogism or mechanical rule-following is clear
from his account, and nothing else is really relevant in this respect.
But what is the real political advantage in all these points? Well, it is, I hope,
obvious by now. Aristotle’s concept of moral virtue in general, and of phronesis
in particular can be used to override the sceptical premise of the political episte-
mology of Conservatism. After all, what Aristotle argues for is a kind of rational
knowledge in the political sphere which, however, has nothing of the a priori in
its nature. In this respect Gadamer’s account of the Aristotelian analysis of ph-
ronesis sounds quite convincing for he succeeds to show that although this form
of knowledge has no universal validity, it does not sink into mere subjectivism
or emotivism, either. On the contrary. It helps the political agent to behave in a
rational way in politics without disregarding the requirements of this particular
form of craft. It presents the activity of the statesman as based on principles,
without becoming clumsy or inadequate. The prudent politician handles each
case by mobilising the means of the adequate solution to it from the situation
itself and from his own conditioned reservoir of earlier experiences.
4. THE COMMUNAL DIMENSION OF VIRTUE POLITICS: PRACTICES
The Aristotelian doctrine of virtues enables the individual to mobilise his ac-
cumulated experience in an emergency situation. It can also be read, however,
as a summary of social norms: a manual of what is required from the agent by
the Athenian political community. But it can only make sense if we suppose the
existence of particular forms of social coordination mechanisms called practices.
This concept has been worked out in 20th century philosophy – among others –
by Michael Oakeshott and Alasdair MacIntyre.
Practice, or activity, for Oakeshott is a kind of social game played by a limited
number of people to achieve certain ends. He takes, for example, the activities
of the historian, the cook, the scientist, or the politician (Oakeshott 1962/1991.
116 THE POLITICS OF ARISTOTLE
117). All of them, he claims, are engaged in a certain way of behaviour defined
by the particular questions this activity tries to answer. Those people belong
to a given group – who think they know where and how to look for the answer
to these particular questions. However, Oakeshott also keeps emphasising that
their knowledge is not given “to be such in advance of the activity of trying to
answer them.” His knowledge is about the practice of that activity in general but
the activity itself generates particular questions as well as the modes how they can
be answered, and none of them can be foreseen before they are actually born. But
the activity itself already exists before any one practitioner of it will actually take
part in it, just as language exists before any individual speaker starts to use it. It is
in this sense that political action is not individual: it always happens in the context
of what we could call political practice. There are other participants, other ques-
tions, other efforts to try to answer those questions. And each and every activity
needs to have an idiom (as opposed to well-defined rules): a certain “knowledge
of how to behave appropriately in the circumstances” (Oakeshott 1962/1991. 121).
This knowledge cannot be abstracted from the very practice itself: “it is only in
the practice of an activity that we can acquire the knowledge of how to practise
it”. It is in the very activity where the knowledge is stocked: “principles, rules
and purposes are mere abridgments of the coherence of the activity” (Oakeshott
1962/1991. 122). But there are certain “elements” which can be identified “with
a relatively firm outline” within the pattern inherent in a certain activity: “we call
these elements, customs, traditions, institutions, laws, etc.” Oakeshott identifies
these relatively firm and solid parts of a given pattern of activity as “the substance
of our knowledge of how to behave” within that particular form of activity. The
pronoun ‘our’ shows that this is not the knowledge of a single person but shared
by all those who participate in the activity in an adequate way. We shall turn to-
wards these crystallised forms of social knowledge in the last part of our paper very
soon. Before that, however, let us look at an alternative description of practice –
this time by Professor MacIntyre.
MacIntyre calls practice in his book After virtue
any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activ-
ity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course
of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and
partially definitive of that form of activity, with the result that human powers to
achieve excellence, and human conceptions to the ends and goods involved, are
systematically extended. (MacIntyre 1985. 187)
He calls leisure activities, and sports like football and chess, useful arts like
architecture, and fine arts like painting, farming as well as the work of the his-
torian, and music, too, practice. And he also regards politics as practice in the
Aristotelian sense.
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What is the novelty of this understanding of the activity of politics? One of
the important points of this analysis is to show that the fruits of a practice are
not only to be looked for outside of the very practice but also inside. Certain
patterned activities are good in themselves – because they help us to fulfil the
potentials inherent in human nature. In this sense the activity of doing politics
is not simply useful if it leads to political success – as a certain form of activity it
might be valuable in itself, independently of the external consequences resulting
from it. But what does the internal value of politics consist in? The activity of poli-
tics gives us occasion to relate ourselves to our fellows in the polis in a way that is
characteristic of the potential of being human: by it we can prove that we are just,
courageous and temperate. It is a way to become better as human individuals by
becoming better participants of the given practice. In this sense the polis edu-
cates its members in a way that the modern state can hardly do by now.
Yet what is specifically conservative in these two descriptions of political
practice? There is no doubt that both Oakeshott and MacIntyre relied on Ar-
istotle heavily. But the question still remains whether this analysis belongs to
what is legitimately called conservatism today, or not. I would like to argue that
the answer to this question is yes. These descriptions of practice are to be seen
as answers to the specific problem of the time constraint which we characterised
as the sceptical starting point of conservative politics. According to this insight, a
primary problem for a political agent is the lack of adequate time span to process
rational deliberation to choose the right type of action in a tight political situa-
tion. I showed how virtue, or conditioned hexis is an answer to this sort of time
constraint: a virtuous agent does not need to think each time before he would
choose the right action in a given situation because his disposition contains all
the knowledge, in condensed form, he might need even in a brand new situ-
ation. If we accept the conclusion that the concept of virtue is a conservative
answer to the characteristic preliminary conservative problem of time constraint,
we only need to see that the analysis of practice is also directly linked to this set
of problems. I propose to understand the concept of practice as the communal
side of individual virtue. Virtue as the habituated knowledge of the individual
of how to behave in situations for which there are no exact rules of behaviour
only makes sense if we realise that individual action in politics is governed by a
socially constituted framework called practice which orders the relationships of
individual behaviours in a given situation. If virtue is an accumulated and con-
densed form of that knowledge which the individual requires to be able to make
the right decision in a given situation, practice is the reservoir of communal
knowledge responsible for the right coordination of individual actions in pos-
sible situations. Practice is also a form of phronetic knowledge in the sense that it
is not a set of abstract norms, rules, or etiquettes, but a practical way to handle
complex social relationships in a way that fits the situation, and the participants
who take part in them at the same time.
118 THE POLITICS OF ARISTOTLE
5. FORMALISED AND INFORMAL PRACTICES:
INSTITUTIONS, MOEURS, POLITICAL CULTURE
As we have seen, one can separate certain items within the general phenomenon
of what is called practice, in our case within political practice. A conventional way
to distinguish between different types of this crystallisations is to identify formal
and informal ones among them. Formalised solid structures within a given activ-
ity are called institutions, while the not less important informal ones, which are,
however, much more difficult to explain, are labelled as moeurs or conventions.
Formal institutions and informal moeurs build up what we call political culture.
In his detailed and sensitive description of the unprecedented workings of
American democracy, Tocqueville focused on institutions and moeurs as part
of his effort to describe the characteristics of the political culture of the New
World. In this effort of his, he could rely on forerunners like Montesquieu or
Rousseau who tried to define the differentia specifica of modern republics be-
fore him. Certainly the identification of the different forms of government went
back even in the 19th century to ancient sources, among whom Aristotle played a
pivotal role. But the novelty of Tocqueville’s effort was that he was not satisfied
with simply identifying the form of rule, or political regime. Rather, he tried to
show that democracy is more than a power structure, it is better to be regarded
as a certain form of life. He succeeded to show that it was due to certain histori-
cal peculiarities of the birth of the United States that some unintended conse-
quences engendered a certain way of practicing politics. And this held true not
only of the governing elite, but in an undifferentiated way of all those partaking
in political life – and certainly one of the key points was that a lot more people
engaged in politics on a regular, but most of the time non-professional basis.
Institutions are legally confirmed forms of social cooperation, fixed practices
that help to make the flow of political life smoother. They guarantee proce-
dures, intersubjective relationships, and room for manoeuvring for individual or
group participants taking part in it. Institutionalisation is a formalisation of hu-
man cooperation that is highly recommended by conservatives because institu-
tions serve to make manifest and available the experience of earlier generations
for any member of the present generation of the political community. This way
it makes political life less rough and more foreseeable.
But institutions are highly recommended by other ideologies of Western
democratic politics as well, even if they do not rely on it, most of the time, as a
solution to the problem of time constraint. Therefore, the informal constructs of
political activity, the soft forms of social expectations encoded under the name
moeurs are perhaps more characteristically conservative means of providing so-
cial peace. Here there are no formal agreements, contracts, legal sanctions or any
form of government pressure behind the self-controlling mechanisms of society.
Rather, requirements are “expressed” in the forms of habits or customs, i.e., in
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patterns of behaviour that are repeated in wide enough circles within a certain
community to be regarded as social expectations. It is based on the Aristotelian
insight that the human learning process is based on imitation, and on the mass
psychological observation that individuals are keen to adapt the norms of a given
society in order to get in on it.
Comparative studies of political culture reveal the fact that the frequency
and the elaborateness of the network of institutions and informal behavioural
patterns can indicate the level of development of the political culture of a given
political community. According to the conservative agenda, these crystallised
parts of political activities should be encouraged because they can safeguard
public peace and prosperity by transferring the experience of earlier generations
to the next one. They all contribute to handle the temporal deficit of political
agents in actual political situations this way they answer the first problem of
the conservative politician and the conservative thinker.
6. SUMMARY: PHRONESIS, KAIROS, VIRTUE, INFORMAL
AND FORMAL PRACTICE
In this paper I tried to show that if one wants to understand the perspective of
conservatism on time, it should not be interpreted as a simple nostalgia for the
past. On the contrary, conservatives care about the present moment: they call
attention to the fact that political agents can rarely have enough time to process
a whole programme of rational deliberation before they decide in a tight situa-
tion. It is in order to handle this time constraint that they rely on the Aristotelian
notion of practical wisdom, or phronesis: this is a kind of meta-virtue, intellectual
and moral excellence at the same time which enables the agent to make the
right decision and act on it without the sort of rational enquiry into the nature
of the cause that would be required in a theoretically defensible process like in
a scientific investigation. Phronesis is a kind of conditioned, habituated form of
technical knowledge which, however, does not allow any subjective preference
to take the lead as a motivational force in one’s decision making. Phronesis in
the Aristotelian discourse is closely connected with the concept of kairos which
denotes the ideal moment for an action to be executed. Practical wisdom leads
us to find the kairotic moment which is neither too fast nor too slow, and which
ensures that the agent be tuned to the rhythm of the dynamic of the object he
targets.
Finally, I tried to show that while phronesis is an individual virtue, it has a
communal counterpart, called practice by Oakeshott and MacIntyre. Practice
expresses the accumulated practical wisdom of the community by channelling
individual behaviour in a given community’s political life, relying on the experi-
ence of earlier generations, expressing it in practical knowledge instead of fixed
120 THE POLITICS OF ARISTOTLE
rules. There are two types of practice: while institutions are pretty stable forms
of social cooperation, based on formalised human activity, moeurs are habits, cus-
toms and conventions, unwritten rules, that govern members of a group without
reflecting on the very rules individuals are following.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Aristotle 2002. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated with historical introduction by Christopher
Rowe, philosophical introduction and commentary by Sarah Broadie. Oxford, Oxford Uni-
versity Press.
Hume, David 1992. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford, Oxford Uni-
versity Press.
Kraut, Richard 2012. Aristotle’s Ethics. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Phi-
losophy. URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/aristotle-ethics/>.
MacIntyre, Alasdair 1985. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame/IN, University of
Notre Dame Press.
Oakeshott, Michael 1991. Rational Conduct. In: Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Indi-
anapolis, LibertyPress. 99–131.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Article
A Treatise of Human Nature / David Hume Note: The University of Adelaide Library eBooks @ Adelaide.
Nicomachean Ethics. Translated with historical introduction by christopher rowe, philosophical introduction and commentary by sarah Broadie. oxford
BiBlioGrAPhY Aristotle 2002. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated with historical introduction by christopher rowe, philosophical introduction and commentary by sarah Broadie. oxford, oxford university Press.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Richard Kraut
Kraut, richard 2012. Aristotle's Ethics. ed. edward n. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. url = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/aristotle-ethics/>.