Aristotle and [American] Politics
December 2, 2011
I was educated by men who were convinced that Aristotle was an important source for understanding politics and political life. However, the lessons that they drew from Aristotle were (a) his teaching, allegedly, on the innate inequality of human beings, with some human beings labeled as superior and others labeled inferior. Of course, we did not dispute this argument because we just assumed that we were among the superior human beings. Then, another Aristotelian lesson was that politics, at its best, was about virtue and the inculcation of virtue by means of an aristocratic “government.” Again, because we just assumed we were the virtuous ones, we did not dispute this argument too readily, if at all.
Now, I must say that I still agree with the idea that Aristotle is indispensable for understanding politics but for different reasons than those stated above. First, Aristotle is clear that all forms of political rule are defective or partial. That is, according to Aristotle’s famous scheme of “regimes” there are six regimes, that is, pairs of regimes led by the one, the few, or the many. Note should be taken that for Aristotle, all or “the people” as we like to say never rule! There is no such thing as the rule of all or of “the people,” for Aristotle. All forms of rule are partial, therefore, and in that sense defective because when push comes to shove, as it always does, those with power will rule for the their own benefit because they cannot rule for the benefit of all. Aristotle makes it clear then that there is no such phenomenon as rule for the benefit of all. And I believe this means, ultimately, that there is no good that is comprehensive, that is, good equally for all human beings. And this Greek is said by many to be an “idealist.” Some “idealist.” Even “the good” is partial.
Secondly, Aristotle makes it clear that the most common regimes are oligarchy and democracy; that is, the rule of the few rich or the rule of the many not rich. And he also makes clear that political life is, by and large, characterized by vibrations or vacillations between these two opposed and competing political ways of being. Sometimes the few rich hold sway and other times the many not rich hold sway. And this is the stuff of politics as most human beings experience it. So, for Aristotle, our distinction between “liberals” and “conservatives,” which we take to be the most fundamental of political divisions, is obfuscating, and perhaps intentionally so. Think about it. What better way to try to escape the constant vibrations, the constant battles between the rich and the not rich than to replace this dichotomy with another “dichotomy,” one that directs our attention away from the rich-not rich division, a division which easily leads to violet disagreements? And if this disguise or displacement leads, most times, to the rule of the rich or the better off, what is the harm in that? After all, isn’t it the rich, the better off, who should control the levers of power? Are they not the responsible parties, the mature ones, the ones who are not governed by envy? And besides, even if they are governed by greed, doesn’t “greed work?”
But if Aristotle’s analysis of political life is correct, then it must be said that our political categories merely disguise without displacing the most basic of political divisions, that of the few rich and the many not rich. Some might think this argument is confirmed by the intensity with which some contest anyone who seems to talk about “class” as if it were the motivating force of our politics. The intensity of the opposition to such talk reflects an awareness, maybe only unconscious, that such talk threatens to upset “the apple cart,” as it were, by laying bare the real but suppressed and disguised conflict that is going on in our – and indeed in every – political society. Such talk is dangerous, just as is talk that no good in comprehensive in the sense of being able to satisfy or fulfill all human beings. But is this not what the argument that the supreme good is accessible only to a few implies?
So, as I see it, Aristotle’s politics, his analysis of political life is still relevant. But it is also dangerous, even subversive of our current way of being political. This is not a lesson I was taught with sufficient clarity. Or perhaps I was, only it took me some time to discover or uncover the lessons Aristotle would teach us.