Published Humanitas, Volume XIII, No. 2, 2000
The Catholic University of America
Every age has its dominant intellectual and imaginative mind-set and corresponding pattern of practical striving. Deeply rooted ideas, hopes and fears shape desire, and desire in turn influences thought and intuition. Human beings perceive existence and set priorities according to this interaction of will, imagination and reason. The political arrangements of a society are but one of the ways in which a certain dominant approach to life articulates itself and in which a particular sense of possibilities is acted out. Whether a people will prefer limited, constitutional government or a comprehensive welfare state depends on what kind of predispositions and expectations have formed in that society. Not even dictatorial rule can be sustained without the grudging acceptance of a populace whose anxieties and other propensities incline them to submit rather than to rebel.
Any more than superficial inquiry into the meaning and sources of political power must consider the prevalent fundamental outlook of the society and larger civilization in question. What is the sense of reality and what are the deeper aspirations that have made a particular people prefer certain political modalities to others? Narrowly political conceptions of power stand in the way of adequately understanding political arrangements. Conceptions of that kind distract attention from what most fundamentally shapes human conduct. They obscure the moral-intellectual-aesthetical dynamic behind social evolution. What follows is an argument for a more nuanced and subtle view of power.
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