Thursday, July 3, 2014

#185 / Personhood

Chris Neklason is a co-owner of Cruzio, a Santa Cruz-based business, and describes himself as a "pusher of civic geekery." Among other things, this means that Neklason is a major force in Civinomics, another Santa Cruz-based business that is marketing an online platform intended to "grow a network of civically engaged people worldwide." 

Civinomics publishes a blog called Tipping Point. In a recent posting (which I could not find online, unfortunately, and so can't link to, but which appeared in my email inbox on June 25th), Neklason talked about "personhood," and said this: 

Personhood comes with responsibilities to the community. The single most important responsibility is to participate.

I think, deconstructing this statement a bit, Neklason is affirming a couple of my main contentions about politics and our community life. Most obviously, our participation in the life of the community (which is normally called "politics") is part of what it means to be a person. 

Second, and perhaps not quite as obviously stated, we are not just "individuals." Being a "person" includes the fact that we are inevitably part of a community, and when we forget that, and omit the community part of who we actually "are," we go seriously wrong.

Our politics goes seriously wrong, too. 

While I am thus in accord with what Neklason says about "personhood" and participation, I would like to suggest that civic participation is not best thought of as a "responsibility." I think of civic participation as being an "opportunity," and it is only by seizing this opportunity that we truly fulfill ourselves as human beings. 

Hannah Arendt, my favorite political philosopher, wrote a wonderful book about civic participation. It is called On Revolution, and examines, in particular, the meaning of the American Revolution. Arendt reminds us that the word "happiness" appears (rather incongruously, some think) in what is probably the most famous statement found in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Arendt says that "happiness," in this context, is not something that is to be accomplished by individual actions, but that it is a "public happiness," the joyful result of our civic participation. That "public happiness" comes from our participation in the life of our community through politics. 

Since tomorrow is the Fourth of July, it's a good time to start thinking about civic participation. And while it is fine to think of civic participation as an obligation and "responsibility," I contend that it is even better if we think of civic participation as the way we can realize our genuine "personhood," and achieve our true happiness, since it is only through our participation in "politics" that we discover who we truly are as "persons."

We are not just "individuals;" we are all connected to each other, and we will find the true meaning of our lives in our participation, with others, in the exercise of our individual liberty through community-based self-government. That is what "politics" is all about. That is how we create our human world.

So, from politics comes "happiness." Take it from Thomas Jefferson and the "Great Generation" of the American Revolution. 

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  1. This is an amazing coincidence...

    I was just reading about the Jeffersonian perception of happiness as civic engagement, this afternoon, before I read this entry, in "The Bridge at the Edge of the World," Chapter 6, Real Growth: Promoting the Well-Being of People and Nature, by James Gustave Speth.

    Quoting Darrin McMahon in "Happiness, a History": "The 'pursuit of Happiness was launched in different, and potentially conflicting, directions from the start, with private pleasure and public welfare coexisting in the same phrase. For Jefferson, so quintessentially in this respect a man of the Enlightenment, the coexistence was not a problem.' But Jefferson's formula almost immediately lost its double meaning, in practice, MacMahon notes, and the right of citizens to pursue their personal interests and joy won out."

  2. Definitely some convergent reading going on there!


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