'Politics' is a strange word, and the particular nature of its strangeness may explain why so many people feel confused by or alienated from political processes. It can refer high-mindedly to 'the political ideas, beliefs or commitments of a particular individual'. But it can also be more or less value-neutral - or indeed suggest a complete lack of principle - when it is used to mean 'activities or policies associated with government'. According to the OED, both these senses came to prominence in the mid-to-late 17th century. During this period 'politics' in the sense of 'the theory or practice of government' begins to fissure into a number of different strands. Some of these were concerned with the motives and principles that determine the behaviour of individuals ('what are his politics?'), others concentrated on the mechanisms of government (politicking, in the low sense), while others still addressed the ideal principles behind the constitution of states through high political theory. This partial separation out of different senses of 'politics' is one of the most important facts about the 17th century. And the failure entirely to separate politics as principle from politics as chaotic process is one of the most substantial of our many debts to the period.
LRB 19 June 2008 | PDF Download