Politics as either Melodrama or
Community of Spirit

Politics is indeed melodrama, if politics is understood as a relation between friend and foe; as a compulsion to take sides in a struggle for power. . . . Insofar as politics actually assumes this form, and unfortunately it does all too often, the description is empirically adequate. . .

This conception of politics, however, is in radical opposition to the classic conception of Aristotle: that the essence of politics is the philia politike, the friendship which institutes a cooperative community among men, and that this friendship is possible among men insofar as they participate in the common nous, in the spirit or mind.

The genuine drama of the polis arises from the participation in the nous and the possibilities of defection from it; the melodrama . . . would take the place of the drama, if the nous is regarded as irrelevant or non-existent and the question of politics is reduced to the living-out of aggressiveness and the desire to dominate.

This second conception of politics has been elaborated for the first time consistently by Hobbes, from [which] all the later ones, including Carl Schmitt, derive [He defines the essence of politics as the "Freund-Feind-Relation," the relation between friend and foe.]. The psychology of melodrama, then, would be the Hobbesian psychology of life as a "race," and of the aim of life as being foremost in the "race." As you say in your letter, there is a spectrum from disaster (what happens to us) to victory and conquest (what we do to others).

This apparently simple psychology, however, is complicated by the further factor, which you mention, that man does not cease to be concerned with problems of the spirit, even if he experiences life as the melodrama of struggle; the problem of the spirit intrudes itself in the form that man has to [see himself as "whole":] that he has to be wholly good and the enemy to be wholly evil. (That is the point where the ideologies, etc., come in and have their function as the apology of the melodramatic view of life.) I should say, therefore, one must distinguish in the analysis of the problem at least the following strata:

(1) The psychology of passion, which is a solid piece of science, based on the empirical observation of anxiety, fear, aggressiveness, lust of power, and so forth. It touches an important part of the "drama" of politics, of the "stuff" of which history is made. I am inclined to consider this part of human life a relatively autonomous factor, which forces even the life of the spirit under its law. Even Christianity is a "living," "historical" force, insofar as it becomes "dramatized" into a passionate issue for which people are willing to live and die.

(2) The Hobbesian fallacy that the life of passion is the essence of man. This fallacy, when consistently carried out as it is by Hobbes, has a certain grandeur, because it implacably debunks the "melodrama" and reduces it brutally to the power-drive at its core. This consequence inevitably makes it unpopular; and Hobbes has remained, in his consistency, an isolated figure.

(3) In order to correct the fallacy, one has to take into account the life of the spirit, which goes on even if existence has degenerated to the level of "melodrama."

(4) If this further factor is taken into account, one arrives at the theory of the "melodrama". . . The difficulty of making tenable distinctions, as far as I can discern the matter at the moment, seems to lie in the subtle interplay of passion and spirit. One cannot make passion the criterion of "melodrama," because "drama" is not possible without passion either. One cannot make "spirit" the criterion, because there is no "melodrama" that is not vested with a spiritual issue.

The question seems to boil down to "excellence,". . . and that means the investment of passion in true spirit. Moreover, neither the life of passion nor of spirit is individual, but inevitably involved in social action. Hence, I wonder whether one can restrict the problem of tragedy to "what we do to ourselves," as you seem to be inclined. Is it really no more than a disaster, when the excellent is blotted out or suppressed by the vulgar in society? And is it "melodrama," when rarely enough it remains victorious?

These questions seem to indicate the necessity of an elaborate casuistry. If an inefficient man cannot cope with a situation and comes to grief, that may be personal disaster but it is no tragedy—but it is no melodrama either—it becomes a melodrama, when e.g. a poor novelist blows the miserable affair up and believes mistakenly that it is a tragedy.

If a vulgarly ambitious person achieves social success, a poor novelist would have the material for a melodramatic success story; a better one, might find the material for a social satire; and a really good one might even discern the tragic fall of a society in which such success has become possible. . . .

Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin
A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984,
Philia Politike,
Letter 84, München, August 20, 1959,

pp 194-195.