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What Is Politics

On hearing the word politics, what usually springs to mind are images of 
government, politicians and their policies or more negatively the idea 
of corruption and dirty tricks. The actual definition seems to have been 
obscured and almost lost by such representations and clichés that tend 
not to pinpoint the true essence, which defines this thing, called 
politics. In order to make an attempt at a definition of politics a 
systematic approach is required. To begin with, a brief historical 
overview will be considered, to understand the origins of politics. 
Following this, different core concepts, which are imperative to a 
definition of politics, will be discussed, in the hope to discover a 
true and fair interpretation of the word politics.

The word politics comes from the Greek word "polis", meaning the state 
or community as a whole. The concept of the "polis" was an ideal state 
and came from the writings of great political thinkers such as Plato and 
Aristotle. In his novel "The Republic", Plato describes the ideal state 
and the means to achieve it. Hence, the word politics originally has 
connotations in the ways in which to create the ideal society. An ideal 
society is in practice a rather difficult aim and even an impossible aim 
to achieve. Politics implies measures which could and should, in the 
views of their devisor, be implemented in the hope to create a better 
society, than that which is already present. The very fact that Plato 
and Aristotle saw imperfections in the societies in which they lived, 
prompted them to write their political philosophies. These philosophies 
provided the first written recognition of politics. In his writings his 
"The Politics", Aristotle states that "Man is by nature a political 
animal"(The Politics, 1) in another words, it lies deep within the 
instinct of man. It is almost primal. Due to his nature man should 
consider and realise his role within the "polis". So according to 
Aristotle Politics is not a dreamt up concept, but rather an inherent 
feature of mankind. 

To begin with, the basest premise that underpins the notion of politics 
should be considered in order to arrive at a fair definition. Man is 
self-preserving by nature. He thinks and acts, whether that is as an 
individual or as a group who share interests, with foremost regard to 
his own interests. Self-perpetuation is the number one rule. He 
therefore possesses his own interests, ideas and preferences, which may 
differ to those of his contemporaries. In the "Blackwell Encyclopaedia 
of Political Thought", Miller supports this premise:

"Politics presupposes a diversity of view, if not about ultimate aims, 
at least the best ways of achieving them". (Miller, 1987, p.390)

 Politics consider this view of man, in that on meeting others whose 
interests oppose his own, conflict is bound to occur. What could be the 
cause of this conflict in interest? The world has its limits; all 
material wealth within it is exhaustible. Who therefore, gets how large 
a share, of those resources, which are present on the earth in limited 
supply? If man were permitted to act on and pursue his own selfish 
interests, snatching that, which he desires, a society would quickly 
become under rule of violence. Politics is a way of combating the 
degradation of society into a violent and unstructured mess by reducing 
it to be governed by the primitive instincts of man in order to resolve 
conflict. Leftwich states in his essay entitled "Politics: people, 
resources and power" from his book "What is Politics?"

"...politics compromises all the activities of co-operation and 
conflict, within and between societies, whereby the human species goes 
about organising the use, production and distribution of human, natural 
and other resources in the production and reproduction of its biological 
and social life." (Leftwich, 1984, p.64-65)

Politics therefore may be defined a means to resolving this conflict 
through various means, which will be tackled later in this essay. If 
however one was to take this premise of the existence of opposing 
opinions as false, conflict between individuals should never occur and 
politics would not be required to resolve problems. To justify politics 
however, this premise must be true and through simply considering, the 
society in which we live it is evident, that conflict exists. In his 
definition of politics in the "Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political 
Thought" Miller advocates this view, stating that if "people (were to) 
agree spontaneously on a course of action...they (would) have no need to 
engage in politics."(Miller, 1987, p.390)(Added) Thus, politics exists 
due to the broad spectrum of ideas and opinions within any society.

To resolve conflicting opinions, a consensus must be agreed upon by all 
parties affected. Also in  "The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political 
Thought", Miller cites three methods which are a feature of politics 
when resolving disagreements within society, these three elements are 
"persuasion, bargaining and a mechanism for reaching a final 
decision"(Miller, 1987, p.390). This means that politics tries to act as 
a peacemaker by offering solution(s) to conflict to the parties involved 
by means of discussion with them. The outcome will most probably require 
the yielding of at least one of the parties implicated in order to meet 
at a compromise. The mechanism is the way in which the parties make 
their final decisions based on the scenarios with which they have been 
provided. This may take the form of a vote. 

How is it that the final decision made though compromise is enforceable? 
For surely in order for politics to be of any use as a pacifier in 
strained relations it must carry some sort of authority and power.

Politics implies power. Dahl, in Modern Political Analysis, states that: 
"a political system as any persistent pattern of human relationships 
that involves, to a significant extent, control, influence, power or 
authority." (Dahl, 1984, p.9-10)
Certain members of a society must have the authority over other member's 
in order to enforce civil discussion in the first place. It seems to 
follow that for certain individuals to exert more power than others they 
must have the support of a large proportion over those which they have 
authority. Going back to the premise that man is at heart a selfish 
creature, it must be true that even those in power are immune to the 
effects of pursuing their own goals to a certain extent. Politics could 
therefore be defined as a power struggle between those in influential 
positions. Power can only be obtained by obtaining the support from as 
many groups and individuals as possible. This can be achieved by 
providing tempting solutions to conflicts that already exist in a 
society, whether this be in a honest or dishonest way. By appealing to 
members of a society with solutions to their problems and promises to 
act in their interests, a group or individual can gain support and 
ultimately authority over other groups and individuals. Politics could 
thus be defined as a calculating art of power gain or power retention or 
more simply as power struggle. 

The ultimate power is found in government. Miller continues to name the 
state as "the chief arena of politics, in the modern world. (Miller, 
1987, p.391)
It is within this institution that all of the aforementioned takes 
place. Thus, politics could be defined as the workings of government as 
a guarantor to a peaceful society. The government is run by the 
politicians, it is the politicians who form the ideas to hopefully 
settle conflict in the society they govern. However it seems that if 
politics are the working of government those societies and communities, 
which do not possess a government, are devoid of politics. In Britain, 
we have a government so we tend to relate the politics as the workings 
of that government. However, in every community and corporation where 
there is hierarchy politics must exist. In a company for example, a boss 
makes decisions and resolves conflict. In a tribe, a leader makes 
decisions to keep internal conflicts to a minimum and ultimately ensures 
the survival of his tribe. Thus politics is present in every community 
and is used to manage workings and disagreements that may occur within 
any co-habitation. John Horton, contributor in Leftwich  "What is 
Politics?" supports this view. Horton quotes from "Rationalism in 
Politics and other Essays"(1962) by Michael Oakenshott;

"Politics I take to be the activity of attending to the general 
arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice have brought 
together. In this sense, families, clubs and learned societies have 
their politics" (Leftwich, 1984, p.112)

Here Oakenshott acknowledges the existence of politics in all kinds of 
human societies and communities, because of co-habitation. Horton 
however goes on to name the state as being as possessing certain 
features which make it particular from those other examples of politics 
listed by Oakenshott. These features suggest the mandatory and 
authoritarian nature of the state, when compared to those politics that 
exist in say a sports club. Politics occurs in all kinds of communities. 
Whether it be the sports club or the state government and is concerned 
with devising a method of organisation and attempting to implement that 
method of organisation within that community over which it acts. It is 
present in these communities as a necessary measure to avoid conflict 
due to those inevitable diversities in opinion and therefore ultimately 
needed to promote as peaceful an existence as possible.

In the process of establishing the core concepts of this affair called 
politics, it is plain to see that a brief definition is virtually 
impossible. Politics is not simply an object or a single stranded idea. 
It is not a concise term but rather a complicated notion, which embraces 
premises, opinions, and qualities of human nature, actions and 
institutions. It seems to arise in those situations where humans live in 
coexistence whether that be by choice or otherwise. Any attempt at a 
definition would be to confine and customise politics to suit ones own 
particular views. Nevertheless, in fitting with the title of this essay 
an attempt at a definition shall be made. 
Politics is the means to creating a more organised and peaceful society, 
by providing methods to resolve conflict that naturally occurs between 
men, by means of civil discussion and rational compromise. It thus stems 
the need for violence in tense situations and ultimately looks to avoid 
the degradation of a community into utter chaos. Authority is the 
underlying feature of politics and ensures its enforceability. Power 
underpins its very existence; it is a prerequisite for politics exist. 
Without authority, politics simply is not feasible. The most visible and 
widely accepted example of politics is the workings of the governmental 
institutions. However, although at first glance one may not be aware of 
it, politics in its various forms is present wherever and whenever 
humans form a community. Referring back to the views of Aristotle, 
politics is an intrinsic feature of mankind.


Aristotle (1996) The Politics and the Constitution of Athens (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press)

Crick, B (1992) In Defence of Politics (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Dahl, R (1984) Modern Political Analysis (New Jersey: Prentice Hall)

Leftwich, A (1984) What is Politics? (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

Miller, D (1987) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought 
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

Plato (1987) The Republic (London: Penguin)

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