The Sunday News
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena
In Zulu and Ndebele communities there is always that one villager that is not trusted with public deliberations on weighty matters. When there are public gatherings for purposes of weighty conversations that concern individuals and communities such a villager is sent out to supervise the boys in slaughtering and skinning the beasts by the kraal. In ancient Greek city-states such a man was referred to as an idiot.
An idiot, in Athens in particular, was that fellow that was either unable or unwilling to concern himself meaningfully with public affairs; he had no capacity or just had no interest in public life. Whether it is a Zulu village in Africa or a city-state in Greece the idiot is that apolitical man. He is that one fellow that is caught up in perpetual immaturity and neither knows nor cares how society is governed. It was to be the Igbo people of Nigeria that coined the proverb: “every village has its idiot.”
The idiot proper is, otherwise a good for nothing fellow that has no problem laughing in funerals and crying in weddings. He has no capacity or interest in taking responsibility for himself and for others and can therefore not be trusted with any social responsibility except such useful but mundane activities as helping with the skinning of sheep and goats on the sidelines of public gatherings and during regular festivities.
His contribution to society remains his physical labour. He is not associated with any reasoning or articulation of progressive insights. Every society, in the west, east, north and south of the world has contemptuous and derogatory names and other monikers for such fellows. The idiot is only one of his titles of dishonour otherwise he is everything that is not desirable.
The Political Animal
One of the easiest things to assume in modern life is to associate political activity with the practice of seeking, finding and keeping political office. To be a political activist is easily conflated with aspiring for this and that position of political power. Yet a lot of what is political and politically active about us has nothing to do with the actual aspiring for or holding political office. It is Aristotle who classically noted that “man is by nature a political animal.” This Aristotelian observation makes the bold assumption that by sheer existence a human being becomes political and participates in political activity. In other words, to be born and to exist as a human being is to become a legitimate political subject and actor.
So when a man or woman decides that they are apolitical they actually become more political than the random politician and the regular political activist. One can say that those of us that do not vote actually vote more than the voters. They participate in politics by their passivity and in that way they endorse the status quo and prevent positive changes and revolutions even. Perhaps it is for that reason that the idiots, those that did not take interest in politics were despised in ancient Greece and looked at as enemies of progress. Karl Marx is another philosopher who observed that all human beings were by nature political subjects or objects of politics. In the Marxian sense, each and every one of us is born into a social class, a ruling or a ruled class.
Social classes are perpetually in struggle for the ownership and control of resources and therefore every human being is born into struggle, is a revolutionary or a reactionary, in that sense. When one considers politics in Marxist terms of natural class struggle for survival and prosperity one begins to see how to claim to be apolitical can fairly be understood as being idiotic and unwise. Clearly, human beings do not have to work hard to get involved in politics but politics get involved with human beings by its sheer nature of public affairs and concern with the weighty matters of resources and power.
The second by second and minute by minute scramble for oxygen that all living human beings are involved in is itself serious political business. The daily struggles for food, shelter, water, health and education are all political and public activities that touch every life and that involve every living person. To live today and aspire to be alive the following day is being involved in the natural and high vocation of politics. Men and women, therefore, are indeed political animals. From the biological struggle for access to oxygen to the struggle for water and food, being human is being a political animal.
The Reasonable and Reasoning Animal
That human beings are animals can only be refused by those that resist evidence and are inimical to obvious truths. The debate should be on what kind of animals we are and what differentiates us, fundamentally, from other beasts. What separates human beings as political animals from other animals, domestic and wild, is the faculty of reason. Human beings are not the only animals that think. Dogs, horses, cows and snakes have now and again shown us that they think in their own way. They know how to look for their food, they try to escape danger and they defend their lives when threatened. They take themselves seriously, otherwise. Natural instinct alone may not be enough to sustain the lives of animals, they also have some thought on their side, I think. In all their thinking and feeling animals have not proven themselves to reason.
The distinguishing factor of human beings that sets them apart from other members of the animal kingdom is the facility of reason. To reason is to think with measurement or in what one can call art and science. Human beings can think beautifully and scientifically. As a result they can design and create institutions and objects that enhance life. They are habitually able to be civilised, otherwise, which is what regular animals cannot do. When human beings act in manners that are not civilised and reasonable they are accused of behaving like uncivilised animals. People that lack basic politeness and exhibit excesses of behaviour and conduct or ignore fundamental morality are described as barbaric and animalistic. Human beings constantly strive to behave unlike animals and more like themselves as civilised beings that feel, think and also, above all else, can reason.
Public Uses of Reason
It is because human beings are reasoning and reasonable animals that they wear clothes. They reasonably find it good to shelter their bodies for physical reasons of protection from the elements and moral purposes of covering their nakedness. Human beings have found it immoral to do certain natural things in public. Such things as sexual activity and various toilet businesses are not publicly performed by humans for moral reasons. The human being is the only animal that has the capacity to think and act morally. Men and women are ethical beings that have a sense of right and wrong and live accordingly. Reason compels men and women to act in certain ways and not in other ways. That is why men and women, over the centuries, have created systems, institutions and organisations that are reasonable and are a result of reasoning. Democratic institutions and processes, states and nations, family units and religions, education and social systems, are all part of the furniture of human reason.
The first struggle of human beings is the struggle to be alive, to exist and achieve being. After being alive the human being wants to be free and to have access to forces and resources of life. For that reason, existence and life itself are a liberation struggle for human beings. To live and to be human, otherwise, is a struggle to be a liberated and reasonable being that uses reason to navigate and negotiate the world. The gift of thought and reason are otherwise the distinguishing human qualities.
The first human weapon in the war for life and freedom is reason. Immanuel Kant was right that in life in general and politics in particular the “public use of reason” is a central category of political and social life. Such modes of politics as national politics, party politics and international politics are all smaller modes of politics that must come after the politics of human liberation from animalism and the oppression of one by the other. Reason is the ultimate property of humans and its public uses for purposes of liberation and human development is the homework that all human beings, dead and alive, should do.
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Gezina in Pretoria: [email protected]