Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: conclusions (pt. 2)

April 16, 2022

            Democracies, by contrast, aim for general prosperity if they know what’s good for them.  In modern history, it is often noted, most revolutions occur in times of rising prosperity, when the majority feel that they are not gaining the economic and political benefits they deserve fast enough.  Aristotle would expect this, and would add that democracies become unstable when people find themselves suddenly poorer.  If the majority has enough now and some reason to expect as much or better in the future, they are generally content.  Also, a democracy is not tied to the welfare of a single individual, or even a small group.  The Clintons or the Bushes or the Trumps could be forever eclipsed, and our democracy would be none the worse; in fact, it would arguably be strengthened.  In a democracy, power rests with the many, so a regular rotation of the particular office-holders is healthy; thus, it is to a democracy’s advantage that as many people as possible have the education and power to participate in politics.  In fact, for Aristotle that is the very definition of a citizen:  one who both rules and is ruled, who both helps make the laws and obeys them.  If one has no meaningful vote, one is not a citizen; in a tyranny where only one person makes the rules, there is one citizen and everyone else is a slave, or if you prefer, a subject. 

            So, for a democracy, the best political strategy is to strengthen the middle class, to provide educational opportunities to as many people as possible, and to promote the general prosperity of all, the exact opposite of the interests of the oligarchy or tyranny.  The democracy will seek to include, perhaps not all the residents, but as many people as possible, since the more voters and participants in the democracy, the more people will feel they have a stake in the welfare of the state and thus the less factional infighting, subversion and crime will threaten social stability. [1]

            Democracies have one other, substantial advantage over other forms of government:  the wisdom of the crowd.  Aristotle says that the best sort of government, if it were possible, would be to have a perfect king, the wisest and most virtuous person, to rule over the rest and lead them in growing morally as well as practically; but such a god among men is at best vanishingly rare.  More often the one or the few who lead an authoritarian state are no wiser or noble than the rest, and too often worse.  But if you have a group, it is more likely that some will be more knowledgeable on this matter, others wiser on that, some more patient, others more decisive, and so on, and the ones who are wiser concerning the matter at hand, or have characters more suited to the situation may be able to persuade the others or at least prevent disastrously bad choices.  As we know, sometimes this “wisdom of the crowd” doesn’t pan out; sometimes the better ideas get shouted down, either by an ill-informed mob or a clever demagogue.  But often the worst decisions, the really world-historical cock-ups come from authoritarians, whether it’s Napoleon invading Russia, Russia invading Afghanistan, Trump’s decision to make the states fight each other for resources to fight COVID-19 or whatever.  Democracies have made atrocious decisions, particularly morally; but again, it takes a number of people and institutions to go wrong at the same time for a democracy to go astray, while an oligarchy may collapse through the failure of a few or one person. 

            Less anecdotally, Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics for research that supports this claim.  For example, he points to Costa Rica and Brazil, two countries that had similar cultures and similar GNPs in the 1970s.  Costa Rica was a democracy, however, while Brazil was ruled by a military junta.  As a democracy, Costa Rica had to provide for its people, so it largely scrapped its national army and spent is resources on health care, infrastructure and other things the people wanted.  Brazil was an oligarchy, and only had to please the military elite and a few wealthy backers; so they spent a far greater percentage of their national budget on weapons, on big development projects that make money for the owners of big construction companies, and so on.  The average life span of a Costa Rican was ten years longer than that of an average Brazilian.  Again, remember, there was no meaningful difference between the wealth of the two societies; each had the same amount of money to spend per citizen, but the democracy spent the money in ways that benefited more people.  Sen also researched several modern-day famines, such as the Bengal Famine of 1943.  At that time India was not a functional democracy; power rested with the colonial occupiers, not with the people.  As in famines generally in the modern world, there was in fact food available; it was just too expensive for many people to buy, and the government didn’t care enough to feed them all because it didn’t need to care.  Sen is careful to point out that he is discussing real functional democracies:  those that have not only free and fair elections, but also free markets, a free press, and rule of law.  If the country is hamstrung by corruption, or monopolies allow a few people to control all production, or the press does not provide the people with complete and honest information on which to base their desires and their votes, merely having a vote every few years is meaningless; but where all the institutions are healthy, democracy and the wisdom of the crowd generally lead to policies that are better for the majority and for the health of the body politic.

            If an oligarchy wants to stay in power, it must weaken the people, keep them ignorant and poor, and frightened.  Nothing makes the school tighten up like a shark.  So the autocrat wants the people in constant fear; nothing aids a tyrant as much as a crisis.  But for the most part, a real problem demands real solutions, which the autocrat has little interest in providing and generally little competence; so instead the oligarchy or tyrant seeks to gin up class hatreds, religious bigotries, racism, conspiracies and so on.  Once the monsters of the people’s imaginations are unleashed against them, a faux savior can step forward and say, “I am the only one who can fix this.”  If Capt. Bligh could have kept his crew constantly on the lookout for sea monsters, H.M.S. Bounty would doubtless have returned to England with her cowed, obedient crew, some even grateful for having been saved from the imagined terrors.  Instead, they saw the warm, welcoming islands and the people who lived without floggings or scurvy, and mutinied against their true enemy.

            A democracy (or better, a polity, to use Aristotle’s term) is most safe when the people are happy.  It depends on as many citizens as possible feeling invested in the welfare of the nation as a whole.  Its leadership does best if it can demonstrate competence.  The leaders of a democracy know that would-be tyrants are always lurking in their midst, ready to seize power by presenting themselves as the people’s only savior.  Hobbes’ leviathan always seeks to overthrow the promised land where every one sits under their own fig tree.  So the leaders of democracy have little motive to panic the people with bogeymen, and every reason to solve the real problems—or at least the problems the people feel are real. 

            To put it bluntly and in today’s context:  the tyrant, oligarch and would-be autocrat will seek to ignore or cover up dangers such as climate change, pollution, a threatened epidemic or other such threats that would require a collective response, as this would mean empowering experts to plan, and the people to implement the plan, dispersing power away from the autocrat.  The tyrant seeks to divide the people, make them loathe and fear their neighbors, so the tyrant can step forth as the only one who can protect them.  The tyrant creates the monsters and then promises to slay them, for the small price of your soul.

            By contrast, the democratic leader, the public servant, needs to keep the people happy rather than afraid or angry.  Such a would-be “good shepherd” needs to find and solve real problems, so that things continue to go as comfortably and steadily as possible.  And such a leader needs cooperation and buy-in from the people.  It is not an accident or genius that Obama said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  We are the change we seek,” while Trump said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”  This is the essential difference between the democratic (small “d”) and autocratic forms of government:  one seeks to both please the majority and to move it to solve its problems, while the other requires only passivity from the masses while it sees to the desires of the leaders.  That is why one party frets about climate change and the associated droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, increased epidemics and other disasters predicted by An Inconvenient Truth and increasingly prevalent today, while the other worries about CRT, mosques, trans people and whether the parental rights of rapists are being properly respected.

            If you want a government that at least attempts to provide prosperity for the majority, at least tries to identify real problems and real solutions, and mostly supports a stable legal system, you have to fight for democracy.  The alternative is a government that actively seeks to harm, impoverish and oppress, that makes actual problems worse while manufacturing others in addition, and which twists the legal and economic systems to benefit its leaders.  Aristotle told you over 2500 years ago, so don’t act all surprised.


[1] Aristotle is practical about this; he does not favor “open borders” without qualification, and mentions as an example one city-state that let a large group of immigrants settle in its borders who later overthrew the government.  In Greece in his day, there were multiple Greek-speaking states, each with its own distinct political culture and values; if you were a Spartan with a long history of ascetic militarism in reverence to the war god Ares, you wouldn’t want a bunch of merchants from Aphrodite-loving Corinth moving in and demanding the laws be changed to accommodate their more hedonistic lifestyle.  It was not uncommon for there to be communities of resident aliens, who did not have the rights of citizens even though they were expected to obey the same laws, just as there are today in most wealthy democracies.  Before a foreigner became a citizen, you would want to make sure they accepted the values and traditions of your society; and in the relatively small states of the day, you would likely want to limit the numbers of new citizens coming in at one time lest you literally change the demographics, and thus the society itself overnight.  One thing the United States does better than just about any other nation is turn immigrants into citizens, who often have more knowledge of the national heritage and more devotion to the national project than many so-called “native sons.”  But even in this “melting pot” we have some border controls, and a system one must submit to if one wishes to become a citizen.  Aristotle would say that we are broadening our democracy and thus giving it a more stable foundation, but he would also approve us not just allowing any resident to vote who had not first learned what it means to be a citizen of this nation, and shown their willingness to accept our key values.  Aristotle says the purpose of education is to train citizens in the knowledge and virtues they need to support the state; thus a democracy must teach democratic virtues, an oligarchy must teach oligarchic virtues and so on, and a state that brings in new citizens faster than it can properly educate them is bound for instability and ultimately for collapse.

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: conclusions (pt. 1)

March 29, 2022

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  Conclusions

            I’ve been working through Aristotle’s ­Politics for awhile, trying to lay out some principles to understand our situation today.  However, recently I’ve begun to suspect we may have hit the snooze button on the ol’ Doomsday Clock once too often, and that if I have anything I want to say, maybe I’d better say it now.  Besides, it’s not a bad practice to write the conclusion of a book (paper etc.) first, and then go back and do the argument, and then the introduction where you confidently predict you’re about to prove what you know you’ve already written.

            There’s a lot in Aristotle we need to just throw out.  His views on slavery and women, to name two notable examples, are rooted in his time, and in fact weren’t even particularly enlightened 400 years before Christ.  Plato, for one, advocated for equality of education between men and women as well as political equality and, with some adjustments, even physical training and military service; and in Meno he famously has Socrates discuss geometry with a slave, demonstrating that even a slave has the same innate ability to learn as any citizen.  In fact, since Plato argued that all learning is in fact recollection, he was saying that even slaves have the same innate knowledge that all humans have.  Aristotle by contrast thought only free-born Greek-speaking males were really human.  But if we accept that Plato was right, we can find that Aristotle’s other views are quite independent of his more notoriously parochial and oppressive prejudices.

            Let’s start with his linkage between human nature, ethics and politics.  Aristotle believed that there was one human nature.  We postmodernists may debate this today, but I think the question is not whether, but how much commonality there is between people, and how important it is.  Scientists tell us that across the globe, humans have certain qualities in common.  Obviously, we are all physical beings, as Aristotle says, we are animals, capable of movement and sensation, and thus requiring a certain level of physical satisfaction to be fulfilled (what Aristotle calls “eudaimonia” and we commonly translate “happiness”).  But we humans are also innately social; for example, deny humans access to other humans, say by locking them in solitary confinement for a long time, and they may go insane.  We need to see other human faces.  Children can suffer permanent damage if they aren’t talked to, looked at attentively, and physically comforted as infants, even if all their physical needs for nutrition and health care are met.  And as well as being social animals, we are thinking animals.  There is some debate among scientists as to how unique this is in nature, so some would challenge Aristotle’s claim that humans are unique in being rational animals; but whether we are unique or just rare, it is true that humans are rational as well as social animals.  Thus, we are not living a fulfilled human life unless we are part of a community that allows us to sustain ourselves physically and mentally.  We live in groups because no one of us alone can fully satisfy their needs; we need to live in groups, to trade with one another, to learn from one another, for mutual protection and cooperation.  The purpose of society is thus to provide each one with the conditions they need to thrive and be satisfied.  That doesn’t mean all need to be equal, and in fact humans generally divide up their tasks so that some produce food, others primarily craft, and generally some are leaders either for some joint task or for overall cooperation in the community.  This, too, seems to be natural, as indicated by studies of human cultures and those of social primates such as bonobos.  So a good society is one that allows for the flourishing of the social, rational animals that live in it.  This includes citizens, who are those who have a part in making the laws and in following them; it also includes those like children, resident aliens and perhaps others who contribute to society and depend upon it, but may not have any direct part in making its laws.

            Since a good society provides a sustaining environment, it must include attention to the economic divisions.  A large wealth gap divides the society and creates factions.  Aristotle was strongly (or primarily) concerned that society be stable, and a stable society is one where the people mostly felt they had a stake in the status quo.  There are bound to be richer and poorer, and these two groups often have antithetical interests; but where the poor are still able to live fulfilled human lives and the rich still feel some kinship with the poor, any struggle between them can be confined to the politics of the group itself, without either side feeling the need to overturn society as a whole. 

            This is also part of Aristotle’s discussion of the various forms of government.  He mentions the classic types known to Greeks:  monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.  He also divides these between “deviations” where the society is governed by the whim of the ruling power and exists solely for its benefit, versus proper forms of government that follow the rule of law and exist for the welfare of everyone.  Thus you can have a kingship, with a single ruler who governs for the welfare of the nation and according to the settled laws and norms of the society, with due attention to his various counselors and other officials; or you can have a tyranny, where the rules bend or break to satisfy the desires of the dictator, and everyone else exists only to please and enrich him.  You can also have a ruling class of the best and noblest aristocrats, or an oligarchy of the richest governing in order to protect and increase their personal wealth.  And you can have the mob rule of a democracy where the poor use their combined strength in numbers to plunder the rich, or a constitutional democracy (what Aristotle calls a “polity”) where the laws are made by the majority but for the welfare of the state, and it is settled law rather than the passions of the crowd that determine the actions of the government.  Ultimately, though, Aristotle says that this three, or six, or maybe more (if you mix and match characteristics) comes down to two forms of government:  rule by the many (who tend to be the poorer) or rule by the richest (who are the fewest, and perhaps ultimately only one). 

            Aristotle says you want a stable society; humans can’t live their best lives if the society is in constant turmoil of faction, crime and revolution.  And to achieve this stability, the government should aim not at the welfare of the rich or the poor, but at those between these two extremes—in today’s parlance, the Middle Class.  Whatever form of government rules the state, if the middle class is strong and feels valued and protected, it will be a force for stability.  When the poor are too strong and the society starts to turn on its “best and brightest,” to “eat the rich,” the middle class will feel threatened and side with the rich; when the rich decide the poor need to be “taught a lesson” and seek to crush the majority with harsh laws or to impoverish them with excessive taxes and demands, the middle class will side with the poor lest they find themselves impoverished by those same oligarch-sponsored policies later.  Ultimately, then, a society that aims at the middle will be more stable than one that aims to promote the interests of either the rich or the poor, and ultimately all three groups will get what they really need:  a stable society that is fair to all, and thus where all can fulfill their needs and be as happy as their health and personal circumstances allow.

             Here’s where we get to the part that really interests me today.  Ever since the rise of authoritarian populists like Trump, Duarte, Bolsonaro, Farage and others who seem to prefer the policies of Putin and Xi and other “strong” leaders, there has been a lot of chatter in the press and social media about the “death of democracy.”  I am no prophet, or if I am then I’m Cassandra since no one believes me anyway; so I won’t say whether the authoritarians or democrats will ultimately prevail over the next century.  I will say, without reservation, that if the authoritarians win, it will be a disaster for the human race.  This was obvious long before Trump botched (and intentionally sabotaged, according to some of his own family and administration) the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  It was obvious long before Putin’s debacle in Ukraine, which was supposed to be a surprise lightning conquest and now will be either a Pyrrhic victory or ignominious defeat for Russia, tarnishing its national reputation at every level.  It was obvious long before Brexit promised the English national prosperity and prestige but instead delivered the economic chaos which the economic experts they despised had predicted.  It was obvious, largely, due to the words of Aristotle.

            Ultimately, Aristotle said, there are two factions in every state.  The poor favor democracy, since there are more of them, so naturally they claim that the majority should wield more power and the government should be in their control; the rich favor oligarchy, since they are few but individually rich and powerful and thus argue that they do more for the state and thus should control it.  If you follow the oligarchic logic to its conclusion, the two end-points on the political spectrum are tyranny and democracy.  Any oligarchy is just tyranny by committee or by clique.  And while we can hope the tyrant or oligarch will seek to gain and hold power by ruling justly and beneficently, it is not obviously in their advantage to do so.  More generally, the few or the one seek to weaken the many, by keeping them as poor, ignorant, miserable and powerless as possible.  Aristotle said that in oligarchies, the government officials take vows to treat the people (that is, the majority) as enemies.[1]  Furthermore, oligarchies are inherently less stable than democracies.  While a democratic state is likely to have an oligarchic faction, an oligarchy will have both a democratic faction and factions within the oligarchy itself, with rivalries between the various ruling families.  Thus the authoritarian has less incentive to make the state prosperous, wise or powerful, since these things could wind up creating challengers for the throne. 

to be continued…..


[1]Aristotle, Politics, Book V, chapter xi, 1310a2.  Today, our oligarchs and tyrants almost always claim to be saviors of the people (a pattern reaching back to Rome) even when their actions do nothing but harm and oppress.

Fifth Thesis Attributable to Aristotle: Which Form of Government is Best?

January 25, 2022

Which Form of Government is Best?

It is clear then that those constitutions which aim at the common good are right, as being in accord with absolute justice; while those which aim only at the good of the rulers are wrong.  They are all deviations from the right constitutions.  They are like the rule of a master over slave, whereas the state is an association of free men.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter vi, 1279a16

            What is the best form of government?  This was a real concern for Aristotle.  On the one hand, he was teaching in famously democratic Athens; on the other, his father had been physician to the king of Macedon, and Aristotle owed his own career to his connections to the Macedonian royal court.  He had also studied under Plato, who was an Athenian himself but born to the aristocracy, and distrusted democracy.  Aristotle preferred to observe the world, collect opinions from disparate sources, and then draw conclusions; and he had a wide range of experiences and philosophical influences from which to draw.  And while this gives his political philosophy a prima facie practicality that Plato’s rationalist idealism lacks, it may also explain the problem with answering this question; for before we can say which form of government is best, we have to know which forms there are, and Aristotle is not particularly consistent on that point.

            Aristotle describes six forms of government in his most intentional list.  Government, he says, can be rule by one, a few or the many; thus the three legitimate forms of government are monarchy, aristocracy or what he calls “polity.”  These are the three “correct” forms of government, when the governing body acts primarily for the welfare of the state and all the people.  For each of these, there is also a “deviation,” where the government acts not for the good of society but for the benefit of the governing power:  tyranny, oligarchy or democracy.  The deviations are also the forms where the government acts without constraint from laws or customs, at the whim of whomever controls the levers of power; these written and unwritten laws really are the state, so a government which seeks to preserve the state will obey the rule of law rather than any human or group.  A king is a single ruler who acts within the prerogatives of his office, with respect to custom and his council, for the good of the kingdom; a tyrant is a single ruler who acts in whatever way benefits him personally, without regard for any legal or institutional constraints.  Aristocracy is rule by “the best,” the wisest and most virtuous, the elite minority who act for the good of the whole; an oligarchy is government by the rich and for the rich.  Democracy, in Aristotle’s terms, is rule by the mob and demagogues, for the many (which means “the poor” since there are always more poor than rich), regarding anyone with any sort of superiority as an enemy, whether it be riches or noble birth or even virtue.[1]  A “polity,” by contrast, is rule by the majority, but with rule of law rather than rule of the mob, and with an eye for the welfare of all rather than what we’d call “class warfare.” 

            But having worked out this classification in Book III of The Politics, Aristotle doesn’t stick with it.  For one thing, these six are ideal types in a sense; many constitutions actually mix elements from two.  For example, Sparta was a monarchy, but the Ephors were elected by the people and had considerable power.  Aristotle himself favored a mixture of aristocracy and polity, so that both “the best” and “the many” had a voice and each side had to work with the other.  So if asked which of the six forms of government is best, it seems Aristotle’s answer is that none of them are; the best is a combination of the best elements of rule by the few and the many, so that neither the rich nor the poor might exploit the other but both should work together for the good of the state. 

            At other times, Aristotle seeks to simplify his discussion down to its barest essence.  In a sense, rule by “the one” or “the few” is just a matter of degrees, so at times he conflates them.  In any state, he says, the rich tend to favor oligarchy, since they benefit from rule by the richest few; the poor, being most numerous, favor democracy, since rule by “the many” favors them.  Both sides argue that they are the strongest and best able to govern the state, and thus deserve to rule.  When discussing this debate/power struggle, Aristotle writes as if there are essentially only two forms of government:  oligarchy or democracy, rule by the few (rich) or the many (poor).  But again, elsewhere he has extensive discussion of tyranny and the strategies of the tyrant/monarch, including different forms of tyranny. 

            So, Aristotle presents a formal classification of six forms of government, but at times lumps the “correct” and “deviations” together to make three, other times lists two, and still elsewhere discusses how actual city-states often don’t strictly conform to any of these types and thus present an indefinite number of “mixed” constitutions.  And he does not dismiss out of hand the claims of any to be the “just” form of government.  He writes:

            It has already been stated that while all men have some kind of justice in their claims, not all of them have a claim that is just in an absolute sense.  (a) The rich argue that they have a greater share in the land, and the land is of social interest; and further, that they are more to be relied upon to fulfill their contracts.  (b) The claims of the free and well-born are closely related:  the more nobly born are more fully citizens than the non-noble, good birth being held in esteem in every country; and the offspring of the better sort are likely to be better men, for good birth is excellence of stock.  (c) Next we shall mention the equally just claims of virtue, for we always speak of justice as a social virtue, and one which is sure to bring all the other virtues along with it.  (d) And surely the majority have a better claim than the minority, as being stronger, richer and better, if we balance the larger numbers against the smaller.[2]

Aristotle concedes that all of these have some claim to rule the state, but that only one has an absolute claim—and that one is humanly impossible:  rule by a person of the highest virtue.  A person of absolutely superior social virtue would be as a god among men, and “there is no law that embraces men of that caliber.”[3]  Such a leader is the law to themselves, and ought to be law to all the others.  If such a person, motivated entirely by the good of the society and with no personal ambition, could be found to run the government, of course we’d have a government that aimed at the common good.  Since the virtue of a citizen is both to rule and to be ruled, to order and to obey in turn, this absolute paragon of virtue would not be part of the citizen body since such a person would obey nothing but his own virtue; for the perfect person to obey anything else would be to obey the lesser. 

            However, such superior virtue is vanishingly rare, essentially nonexistent.  Instead, in the actual states we live in, we find a mixture of rich and poor, more and less virtuous, established families and obscure houses, a variety of claimants with some just claim to rule.  Therefore, the best state is going to be one that can accommodate all of these, balance their demands, and incorporate them into the government together.  A correct constitution is one that aims at the common good; and in the real world, that includes the welfare of rich, poor, superior, mediocre, as many different persons and backgrounds as possible.  For this reason, the best form of government is going to be a mixed constitution, neither purely oligarchic nor purely democratic, but giving enough to each side so that neither feels shut out or endangered and thus no one has reason to oppose the welfare and stability of the society.

            This idea is also behind our own Constitution.  We have a House of Representatives, which is designed to give “the people” the most direct representation practically possible.  With short terms of office and every member up for reelection, its members have to constantly appease the mob or be voted out of office.  The Senate has higher standards of membership, requiring thirty years of age and nine years of citizenship, as opposed to twenty-five years old and seven years’ citizenship for a Representative.  Its members serve longer, and turnover is staggered, allowing for greater stability.  There are fewer of them, which encourages more collegiality and discussion.  And essentially, Senators represent the states, not the people directly; for the first 125 years of this nation’s history, Senators were appointed by state governments rather than elected by the people.  Even today, with Senators elected by the people, they were always expected to be the thoughtful and dignified body, even if the House was comparatively more raucous and volatile.  The Senate is, by design, more oligarchic than the House, with the intention of giving both “the mob” and “their betters” a voice and a share in government.  The Founding Fathers didn’t want a monarchy, nor did they want an Athenian-style democracy with every matter decided directly by the people; they wanted a representative democracy with aristocratic elements to put a brake on runaway popular passion if need be.  Their historical model was an idealized version of “the People and Senate of Rome” from its republic, or more historically the English model with the House of Commons and House of Lords (with the “lords” replaced by patricians serving temporary terms of office). 

            Of course, for this system to work as intended, the Senate has to live up to that responsibility as the long-term, greater-common-good thinkers as opposed to the immediacy and parochialism expected of the House.  When people speak of “the breakdown of decorum in the Senate,” that is the real problem they are noticing.  The problem isn’t that Senators are being rude or even dishonest with one another; that’s only a symptom.  The problem is that instead of one legislative body of partisan demagogues, we have a political party of partisan demagogues in both Houses.  The fact that Secretary of State Clinton was targeted by eleven Benghazi investigations over the deaths of four people, while Republican Senators and House members join together to oppose any investigation into an armed mob overrunning the Capitol in an attempt to overthrow a duly elected President and impose minority rule, is all the evidence needed to show that many Senate Republicans have abandoned even the standards of responsible behavior they would have insisted upon just a few years ago.  Because of this, the Aristotelian idea of a détente between those who proclaim themselves “the best” and “the many” is breaking down; the former elite (White males, esp. with money) and the majority are losing trust in one another, with White male Republicans increasingly calling for a second Civil War rather than allow “liberals” to take control simply because they keep winning elections.  And in a sense, they’re right.  Tyranny of the majority is still a form of tyranny, and the increasingly minority, former majority White non-college males who dominate the Republican base, and the primarily White male billionaires who dominate the Republican donor list, have a right to demand protection from undue attacks.  That does not mean the rest have to accept their understanding of “undue,” but it does mean that reassurances and a commitment to consideration of their concerns is necessary.  Sometimes just showing some respect and listening to the other can go a long way.  Donald Trump largely won in 2016 by appealing to White rural voters, not because he’s one of them but because they felt that Democrats talked down to them.  Despite being a silver-spoon elite who’s said repeatedly that billionaires like himself are genetically superior to working-class drudges who lack ambition and vision, his language and his emotionalism seemed to be talking to and for them instead of down to them, while people like Hillary seemed condescending despite her own blue-collar roots because of her law-school background and numbers-heavy policy proposals.  No one is going to trust a government that seems to regard them as inferior, and most people will respond to feelings, such as a candidate who “speaks my language” at least as much as to what the candidate has actually said.

            For a government to fulfill its function, which is to support human flourishing and happiness (eudaimonia) by giving citizens a community that nurtures a good life, it has to be reasonably reasonable, supportive of the virtues while inhibiting vices such as corruption, and stable.  Aristotle says people need a certain kind of life to be fulfilled and content:  not just consumer goods and pleasures, and not just individual autonomy since that much they could have outside of a community.  These things are important, but they are not all, and excessive luxury or excessive individualism can be as destructive as the absence of these things.  Humans are social animals; they cannot fulfill their human nature without a community of individuals and households relating to each other, trading goods and services, discussing each others’ insights on life, marrying one another, and mutually working to determine the best ways to live together.  A state where people are generally content and mostly believe the government is fair will be stable, allowing such social goods to flourish; one where a great many of the citizens do not trust the state to treat them fairly or to provide such social goods will become increasingly volatile, and eventually liable to social strife and revolution.  Much of Aristotle’s advice centers on the chief causes of political instability, and how any form of government can prevent “a change of constitution.”  While changes of constitution can be gradual, too often they involve violence and chaos that render any real human happiness impossible.  His study of politics is thus not merely “academic;” it is a search for political stability.  The causes of the downfall of governments, and how to prevent these, will be the subject of the next chapters.


[1] Democracies such as Athens used to exile any citizen who seemed so powerful that he could possibly take over.  In Athens, all the free citizens voted, once a year, who should be exiled.  The story is told that one year an illiterate citizen wished to cast his vote to exile Aristides the Just, and approached a stranger on the street to write the name for him.  It just happened that the person he asked was Aristides the Just himself.  Aristides asked the citizen if Aristides had ever wronged him.  The man replied, “No, I don’t even know him.  I’m just tired of hearing ‘The Just’ all the time.”  So Aristides wrote his own name on the ballot and gave it back to the man, who cast his vote.  Enough other Athenians agreed with him, and Aristides the Just was sent into exile—for being too famously honest.

[2] Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter xiii, 1283a29

[3] 1284a3

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Fourth Thesis

October 28, 2021

Fourth Thesis:  Rule of Law Totally Rules

We begin by asking whether it is more expedient to be ruled by the best man or by the best laws.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter XV, 1286A7

         It has long been debated whether a “benign despotism” is a better form of government than any other.  In this regard, even Plato’s philosopher-king seems to be an example:  take the best, wisest person of all of us, and empower that person to make decisions; by definition the best person will be the one who makes the best decisions, so this wisest and most benevolent despot will make better judgments than any group of lesser souls ever could.  J.S. Mill takes pains to argue against the notion of benign despotism, precisely because it seems so logical and is so often accepted, at least tacitly.  People may say democracy is better because no one person has the wisdom and benevolence to wield unlimited power; but often they go on to say or wish that if such a one did arise, that person should be given sole rule and the power to back up their decrees. [1]  In Christian political thought into the Enlightenment, monarchy was often assumed as both the most natural form of human government, and as reflecting God’s own reign; Jesus is the King of Kings, raised from lowliness and from death to rule, and your local king was Christ’s viceroy.  Whether the secular humanist or theocratic model is preferred, the agreement is that the ideal government would be one where a supremely good person had supreme power as well, and was free to make decisions and set policies for society unchecked either by lesser persons or by the dead letter of the law.  Aristotle, too, discusses such arguments.  He uses the analogy of a doctor; wouldn’t it be better to have a doctor who was well-trained and perceptive who could prescribe treatment based on the unique problem at hand, rather than one who read the treatment from a book? 

         But while there are arguments in favor of the benign despot, Aristotle rejects the notion.  Ultimately, he says, the best society will be one that is run according to written laws and unwritten customs, with individual case-by-case human judgment kept to a minimum.  Returning to the analogy of the doctor, he says, suppose you feared your doctor might have been bribed by your enemies; in that case, wouldn’t you prefer that he treat you according to previously-established rules and procedures?[2]  This is the situation in the state.  The supposedly “benign despot” still has appetites and desires that may run counter to yours, or even to the good of the nation as a whole.  Furthermore, every group has its own interests:  the poor want power given to the many since they outnumber the rich, while the rich want power restricted; the military, the agriculturalists, even the tradesmen all have their own agendas.  A stable government is one that is accepted as just and beneficial by all, or at least by the overwhelming majority.  If the state is run by a king who is furthermore unchecked by laws and customs, each person will fear that the decisions of that king are bought by their competitors.  The law, Aristotle says, is “intellect without appetition.”[3]  It is both general and, usually, long-established, and the same for everyone; it is what has been.  Everyone knows “the rules of the game,” as we say today, and can accept that there’s “nothing personal” when things don’t work out in their favor.  Aristotle even goes so far as to say, “he who asks law to rule is asking god and intelligence and no others to rule; while he who asks for the rule of a human being is importing a wild beast too; for desire is like a wild beast, and anger perverts rules and the very best of men.”  So even though he says elsewhere that if it were possible to have a single morally superlative ruler, that would be like having a god who should be obeyed unquestioned, in fact he claims that in a realistic society with realistic people we should be governed by good laws.  It is these laws which will in turn educate the citizens and leaders, turning them into the kinds of people who can know how best to apply these general principles to actual cases.

         While Aristotle discusses this primarily in relation to monarchy, his comments about rule of law apply to all governments whether they be rule by the one, the few or the many.  A “correct” government is one that rules in the interest of the state as a whole; a “deviant” one rules in the interests of the rulers.[4]  And it is rule of law that protects against arbitrariness and self-serving government.  In fact, the laws (written and customary) reflect the constitution.  Aristotle’s definition of the “constitution” of the state is the organization of the citizen-body:  who has authority, who holds what offices and so on.  The laws reflect this organization, laying down general principles whereby this authority is exercised.[5]  So rule according to the laws precisely is rule that seeks to preserve the state, and thus the only justified government at all. 

         In Aristotle’s time, it was an established practice that someone leaving office would present an account of his tenure; if he was found to have failed or acted corruptly, he could be punished.  In our day, President Trump sought to overthrow those “unwritten” laws, norms and customs of government, as well as many of the written laws, in an attempt to subvert the established principles of our government on January 6th, 2021.  In response, he was impeached by the House, but was not sanctioned by the Senate.  This is despite the words of Mitch McConnell, then leader of the Senate, who said, “”Former President Trump’s actions (preceding) the riot were a disgraceful – disgraceful – dereliction of duty,” and, “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.”[6]  In an Athenian “scrutiny,” this would have been all the cause needed to punish.  In fact, though, the entire administration had been one of ignoring both written and unwritten rules, particularly when the financial profit of some government official was at stake or the political and personal feud of some person was being pursued.  And in fact, there are still many cases when politicians of both parties use government information to profit in the stock market, use their power to protect their personal investments, condemn in their opponents what they praise in their allies and otherwise put the interests of themselves and their faction over the welfare of the state as a whole.  Whereas Aristotle considered the unwritten norms and customs of the state to often be even more crucial in decision-making than were the written laws, today the unwritten norms are shredded if it suits the power of demagogues.  And too often, those who think themselves championed by some demagogue not only tolerate violations of law and custom:  they demand it.  Now, it is largely the “conservatives” who seem least interested in “conserving” our traditions of government; recent polls have indicated more than half of Republican voters are ready to abandon our Constitution’s democracy in favor of some vision of “America” that better suits them.  When I was in college, I heard that same sort of rhetoric from self-professed “liberals,” who referred to the government’s written laws (whether it was student government or national) as a “toolbox” from which the leaders could select whichever “laws” would help them promote their agenda, while leaving the rest aside.  Always, whether it’s liberal or conservative, the impulse to abandon rule of law, norms, and rituals of government represents a faction and its leaders putting themselves ahead of the health of the nation.  There is no true “enlightened” or “benign” despot; anyone with governmental power and office is either a servant and executor of the laws of the nation, or its enemy.


[1] John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, 1861

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter xvi, 1287a32

[3] 1287a23

[4] Politics Book III, chapter vii, 1279a22

[5] Book IV, chapter I, 1289a11

[6] MacKenzie Sadeghi “Fact Check:  Yes, McConnell Said Trump Was ‘Practically and Morally Responsible’ for Capitol Riot;” USA Today February 16, 2021 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2021/02/16/fact-check-mcconnell-said-trump-was-responsible-for-capitol-riot/6767311002/)

How the Republican Party Became a Death Cult (pt. 4, conclusion)

August 31, 2021

            So, just as the Religious Right embraced nuclear conflagration as a good thing and thus rejected diplomatic efforts aimed at avoiding the destruction of the world, so too did 20th century apocalypticism support Republican contempt for climate science.  The Revelation of John describes a situation of famine and inflation of basic food prices, so warnings from Al Gore about future famines if global warming ran unchecked didn’t frighten them.  They welcomed the idea that some sort of food crisis would precipitate the U.N. takeover of world government and worldwide food rationing.  A few million or billion humans dead from starvation is a small price to pay for eternal salvation; and besides, “prophecies” from A Thief in the Night to Left Behind have assured Evangelicals that they won’t experience any of this suffering themselves.  They, the faithful ones, will be caught up to Heaven in an instant, while only those faithless, godless hordes and a few weaker Christians “left behind” to suffer oppression and thus fulfill the Biblical warnings that the faithful would be persecuted will have to endure any of this.  While the original apocalyptic writings were addressed to people already undergoing persecution, today’s milquetoast, middle-class prophecies are meant to reassure the comfortable that they can profit now from ravaging the world’s resources, and later miraculously disappear from history to watch the Tribulations unfold on Earth while they sit as the audience in Heaven, enraptured.

            Evangelicals plan to ride to victory with Death, War and Famine; could you really expect they’d turn down the fourth horseman, Pestilence?  The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the full enervation of the Republican Party by this Evangelical anti-abortion, pro-business apocalypticism.  When Donald J. Trump won the New Hampshire primary in 2016, many Evangelicals were dismayed; he was a rich, pampered, self-indulgent, self-promoting New Yorker, nearly everything they’d always claimed to despise.  But he was endorsed by Jerry Falwell Jr. and promised to appoint anti-choice judges; so just as they had overlooked Falwell Jr.’s sexual and financial excesses because of his successful father and his support of “traditional” values, so too they agreed to first ignore, and later even to glorify what they had once regarded as Trump’s sins and shortcomings in exchange for his furthering their political agenda.  Many of us looked at his career, his public statements, his legal history and the words of his confidants, and concluded that he was temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to high office—or low office, for that matter.  We predicted that he would use the office for his own financial gains and to settle personal grudges, and that he would make foolish decisions while ignoring the “experts” because of his own confidence in his genetic superiority.[1]  We predicted that his racist rhetoric and his racist actions in the past showed that he was incapable of governing a diverse society and unwilling to try.  And for these reasons, we believed he would eventually face a crisis that no amount of smug superiority or “power of positive thinking” could overcome, which would wreck his presidency and the nation.  As Jon Stewart said, even if you don’t like Hillary, the worst you might get with her is a bad president.  The nation has survived that before.  Trump was a whole other level of danger.  But to Evangelicals, the dangers of world war, economic collapse, famine, even pandemic were at worst nothing, and at best harbingers of the Kingdom of God; but abortion (something the Bible doesn’t even treat as a sin) is really terrible, while the promise of White Evangelical cultural dominance was intoxicating. So they laughed off the warnings from “socialists” and embraced a man they had once abhorred:  the money-grubbing, pussy-grabbing, bad-mouthing, threat-breathing braggart, Donald Trump. 

            And behold, all that the nasty socialist liberals warned against has come to pass.    He, his family and their associates used their offices for financial gain, whether it was charging the Secret Service to lodge in Trump Tower and various Trump golf courses to protect him and his family, to using a border crisis to force Qatar to “loan” Jared Kushner millions of dollars, to multiple Cabinet members and others using their official power to throw taxpayer money to businesses they were invested in or to kneecap competition.  Despite promising to assemble a team of experts to advise him, he dispensed with them as rapidly and frequently as he does wives and mistresses, driving many into early retirement so that not only did he not have the benefit of their experience, but future governments wouldn’t either.  His racist rhetoric has repeatedly inspired mass murderers and domestic terrorists, while he affirmed that those who walk shoulder-to-shoulder with Nazis were “very fine people.”  He spent years manufacturing crises and scandals, using one to distract from the other until, inevitably, a crisis came along that he couldn’t just wish away because he wasn’t the sole cause of it in the first place.  As his critics had predicted, he not only failed to deal with it effectively, he didn’t even try.  His sole instinct is to create chaos and instability, so that no one has the time to realize how incompetent and venial he really is; so his only plan when faced with a crisis is to make it worse.  He intentionally played the states off against each other, expecting people to blame their governors for the deaths while he took credit for the booming economy he’d inherited and squandered.[2]  He mocked the doctors and scientists who were trying to advise him and the nation, while turning to hucksters and conspiracy theorists who said everything from “it’s just a cold” to “disease is caused by demon sperm.”  As predicted, his reckless policy of “rob the poor, give to the rich” together with his general hubris, indolence, cowardice, impulsiveness and stubborn ignorance led to a national disaster.  And, as his long-time friend, lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen had predicted, he attempted a coup rather than accept defeat at the ballot box.[3]  After all, Donald Trump had spent decades saying that you should never admit defeat, and even claimed his half-dozen bankruptcies were brilliant business moves rather than failures; why would he suddenly start admitting defeat at his advanced age? 

            And, like some mass hysteria or epidemic-level Stockholm Syndrome, the Republican party follows him lock-step, marching over every cliff, seeing themselves as Achilles’ Myrmidons in their loyalty while the rest of us see only lemmings.  At least lemmings don’t drag other animals with them to the sea.  Republicans have become the party that will pay $400 to get a fake “vaccine passport” rather than just get a free vaccine.  They’ll refuse the vaccine because they don’t know what’s in it, while winding up in the hospital with poisoning from ingesting horse dewormer and fish-tank cleaner.  They’ll worry about carbon dioxide poisoning from wearing the same mask their doctors and nurses will wear for twelve hours a day while treating them when they show up at the hospital with failing lungs and bursting capillaries in their skulls from COVID-19.  And when some business tries to protect its employees and customers, or teachers try to protect their students by following the recommendations of doctors and scientists who spent decades studying viruses, they are harassed, threatened, even murdered by Republicans—people who only a few years ago were sane, normal neighbors and friends and steady customers.  The Republican Party has become a death cult, like Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate or the Manson Family, only on a larger scale.  Hitler’s plan to destroy German homes and industry was an attempted national suicide, because he’d lost the war and wanted to take everything down with him.  White American Fundamentalists are even more insane; they see this Gotterdammerung , this self-imposed apocalypse, not as a twilight of the gods but as the great dawn of the Savior they created in their own image.  The Republican Party is an arsonist who thinks he’s a phoenix, and would burn down the whole world so that he can attain immortality.  And like an unvaccinated COVID-19 patient gasping out their last breath, or burying an unvaccinated spouse or child, they will be more surprised than anyone when this fails.


[1] Caroline Mortimer, “Donald Trump Believes He Has Superior Genes, Biographer Claims;” Independent September 20, 2016 (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-president-superior-genes-pbs-documentary-eugenics-a7338821.html)

[2] Charlotte Klein, “The 5 Most Damning Things Jared Kushner Told Bob Woodward about Trump’s COVID Strategy;” Intelligencer October 28, 2020 (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/10/the-5-worst-things-kushner-said-about-trumps-covid-strategy.html)

[3] Rob Porter, “Michael Cohen Predicts Trump Will ‘Never Leave Office Peacefully’ Because He’s Terrified of Being Sent to Prison;” Business Insider August 14, 2020 (https://www.businessinsider.com/michael-cohen-book-foreword-trump-will-never-leave-office-peacefully-2020-8)

How the Republican Party Became a Death Cult, pt. 3

August 28, 2021

            The so-called “Moral Majority” and “Religious Right” jumped into politics just as apocalypticism was on the rise, and they used it as a motivational force to fire up their voters.  It also came to drive much of their thinking on political policy, and these notions in turn began to take over Republican thinking in general.  The Antichrist was predicted to be a “world leader,” so Evangelical “prophets” devised an elaborate fantasy whereby the United Nations and its Secretary General would take over the entire world, which would be pretty amazing given the general fecklessness of the organization to date.  (This had the added advantage that it saved them from asking uncomfortable questions about who really is said to be “the most powerful man on Earth,” the Caesar of the 20th Century’s greatest empire, and thus the most logical applicant for the role of “all-powerful world leader” which they were advertising—POTUS.)  Israel plays a major part in the Apocalypse despite the fact that it wasn’t even an independent nation when either Daniel or John wrote, so the Religious Right became Zionists; but the final Battle of Armageddon takes place in Israel, so the Religious Right had to oppose any possibility of peace that might have ensured Israel’s existence.[1]  Instead, since their vision required a nuclear conflagration before Jesus returns, the Religious Right has consistently pushed for more militarism, more war, more international tension, and either pooh-poohed the dangers of World War III (since the Good People will be raptured away to Heaven) or actively sought to encourage it.  No war, no Jesus, so they have to have their war.  The Religious Right thus pushed the Republican Party to become, quite simply, pro-death, pro-war, pro-Armageddon. 

            The same logic drives GOP contempt for diplomacy also drives much of its contempt for climate science.  The Revelation of John depicts a world in famine, with both land and sea in near-total environmental collapse.  Since this disaster for humanity (not to mention nonhumans, since these superlative Christians never mention them) is actually a blessing for the “true believers” who expect to be raptured away into Heaven before things get really bad and then to return with Jesus to rule over the miraculously restored new Earth, they actually welcome all the dire warnings of environmentalists.  They want the Earth to burn with wildfires and drought. They want crops to fail and fish to die.  All of this is simply the fulfillment of their vision of the End Times.

            I cannot emphasize enough how mistaken and self-serving all of this is.  The original apocalyptic writings have two things in common.  First and most obviously, they are all extremely symbolic.  Many of these symbols are traditional, practically a code which is understood by the community but unintelligible to outsiders.  When the original readers of Daniel read a description of a series of kingdoms ending in a divided kingdom (Daniel 2:31-45) they knew to whom it referred:  the kingdoms of the Persians and the Greeks, to Alexander’s empire which was divided at his death, and which they believed would be replaced by the reign of God.  When John’s readers read a description of a beast with seven heads, they knew it meant Rome and the Caesars (Revelation 13:1-10).  They did not expect a literal beast, and for the most part they were not too surprised when the world didn’t end and they had to reinterpret the prophesies.  We can see this in the Gospels, where the more apocalyptic Mark (the first written) was succeeded by others that depicted the Kingdom of God as an ongoing, growing reality, the Church.  The oldest versions of Mark end at the empty tomb; Luke by contrast wrote a sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, where the Kingdom of God is seen being fulfilled not in the end of the world but in the ministry of Paul in Rome.  The end of the world prophecies that most Christians believed were fulfilled as the world they had known did, in fact, end, replaced by a new and unimaginable reality:  the Roman gods thrown down, and worship of the God of Israel spread around the world.  But the end and the new beginning were different than they’d expected, and for the most part they rolled with it.  Today’s Fundamentalists,  with their selective biblical literalism, demand a literal end of the world, while claiming the authority and mission to change how these ancient symbolic writings were understood to fit the political agenda they desire—their dislikes become demons, their ideological targets become the Antichrist, and so on. 

            The second, and essential reality of apocalyptic writings are that they were addressed to the poor and persecuted.  Both the writings of Paul and contemporary nonchristian sources indicate that most (not all) early Christians were from the lower classes—not too surprising given the demographics of the Roman Empire, but apparently noteworthy enough at the time.  The writings of Daniel were addressed to the victims of persecution by Antiochus; the writings of John were addressed to Christian churches in Asia Minor, which were under pressure from social, political and economic powers around them.  They were messages to inspire hope in those who had no earthly reason to hope.  By contrast, today’s White Evangelical community is culturally and politically dominant, a powerful force worldwide and particularly in the United States, the most powerful nation on Earth.  While the original apocalyptic writings were meant to comfort the afflicted and condemn the comfortable, the new apocalyptic writings of Hal Lindsey and Tim LeHaye, Jerry Jenkins and company are meant to comfort the comfortable, and thus often end up afflicting the afflicted.  They are aimed at showing White, middle-class Fundamentalists that they really do know more about science, economics, politics and everything else, and that those people who didn’t believe them will burn in Hell.  They aim to show that weak and poor nations deserve to be weak and poor, while the United States is rich and strong because God has blessed it for being the home to Christian Fundamentalism.  They aim to reinforce the economic status quo; there’s a direct line between the Christian Dominionism of R. J. Rushdoony, the Christian nationalism of Jerry Falwell, and the Prosperity Gospel that tells the poor that if they show their faith by sending money to the TV preacher God will make them rich.  John of Patmos wrote from exile and imprisonment, but today’s apocalyptic writers are well-funded by the rich who want to wrap themselves in this new gospel that protects their wealth from condemnation.[2]


[1] Mary Jane MacKay (correspondent) and Michael H. Gavshon (producer), “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” 60 Minutes aired October 6, 2002 (https://www.cbsnews.com/video/zions-christian-soldiers/ transcript https://www.cbsnews.com/news/zions-christian-soldiers/ )

[2] This alliance goes back to the early intellectual fountainhead of the Religious Right, R. J. Rushdoony, who was bankrolled by businessmen opposed to FDR’s New Deal. See Michael J. McVicar, “The Libertarian Theocrats:  the long, strange history of R. J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism;” September 1, 2007 (https://www.politicalresearch.org/2007/09/01/libertarian-theocrats)

How the Republican Party Became a Death Cult (pt. 2)

August 26, 2021

Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority

            While Rushdoony and his Chalcedon Foundation originally acted as a “think tank” rather than a lobbyist or activist organization, another Evangelical organization arose that began as legal/political activists and later added more theological and intellectual argument (much of it drawn from Rushdoony).  In response to the Republican Eisenhower Administration’s efforts to desegregate the South, White Evangelicals had established a network of private schools from kindergarten through college.[1]  In these schools, “race-mixing” was taught to be a sin, a violation of God’s intention in creating people as different races and nations.  The argument was that since segregation was a religious belief, and the Constitution protects freedom of religion, the Feds had to allow the White racist religiously-backed private schools the freedom to discriminate against nonwhites and to teach White supremacy.  Jerry Falwell and the other early leaders of the Religious Right started their political careers fighting to demand that racist schools like Bob Jones University be granted Federal funds and tax exemption, effectively requiring taxpayer support for their racism.  Ultimately, they failed in the case of Bob Jones, which was forced to choose whether it wanted Federal support or racism.  But in the years of legal and political fighting, Falwell and his allies had built a political organization, and they didn’t want to let it falter.  They had developed a taste for political power and activism Evangelicals hadn’t had since their heyday fighting Darwin in the 1920s.  As the segregationist cause faltered and Evangelical leaders realized they couldn’t ride to victory on a White horse, they began searching for another cause.  In the meantime, Republican activist Paul Weyrich had spent years looking for a cause—any cause—that would move Evangelicals to the Republican party.  Six years after the Roe v. Wade decision declaring abortion a Constitutional right, Weyrich, Falwell and others decided to fight abortion and make that a religious doctrine as well as a political weapon.  Prior to this, Protestants generally saw abortion as a “Catholic issue;” the Pope opposed it, but Fundamentalist Protestants followed the Biblical teaching that life begins with the first breath.[2]  As the 1970s were ending and, coincidentally, I was reaching voting age, White Evangelicals were lining up behind the Republican banner to fight abortion.

Celebrating Armageddon

            The 1970s were also a time of the rise of apocalypticism in the popular culture.  Poorly-made movies like A Thief in the Night, depicting the sudden Rapture, the rise of the Antichrist as UN Secretary General, a world government persecuting Evangelicals and so on were hugely influential in Fundamentalist circles, but had little impact beyond them.  Books like Hal Lindsey & Carole Carlson’s The Late, Great Planet Earth broke into the pop culture, feeding into Cold War anxieties about nuclear annihilation.  The End of Days has always been an effective trope for Evangelical preachers, ever since “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” was preached by Jonathan Edwards in Colonial New England; as the end of the world became a technological and political possibility, such notions moved from sermons and revivals to widespread secular worry.  So as White Evangelicals were beginning to move into the Republican party and become more powerful politically than they had been in decades, they were also becoming more apocalyptic.  For all the language of Falwell and others about the importance of preserving the physical, political United States as a bulwark against atheist Communism and a launching-pad for evangelism, millions of Evangelicals (and others) were increasingly convinced that neither the United States, nor anything else was likely to survive more than a few years.  For Evangelicals, this fear of nuclear annihilation was countered with the hope of apocalyptic writings in the Book of Daniel, the Revelation of John and other biblical texts, so that the destruction of the world became not just something God would ultimately overcome, but actually an essential part of God’s redemptive work.  Just as God had destroyed the world through water in Noah’s time so that a cleaner, less sinful world could be established, so soon, very soon God would destroy the world again, this time through nuclear fire, and Jesus would finally be able to return and create a new Kingdom of God that would last for all time.

            Rushdoony’s son-in-law, Gary North took over the leadership at the Chalcedon Foundation, pushing it in a more activist and more apocalyptic direction.  He earned the derisive nickname “Scary Gary” for his repeated dire predictions of some coming catastrophe, most notably Y2K, each of which was just around the corner and would lead to the collapse of civilization.  His political goal was that the U.S. Constitution should be scrapped and replaced with a Christian theocracy, and that the churches should be ready to step in and provide vital services such as education and all social welfare when government collapsed.  The only government structure that would remain (or be rebuilt) after whatever disaster he was predicting at the time occurred would be a bare minimal libertarianism.  In many ways, he combines Ayn Rand with the very sort of religious “mystery” that she so much despised.  This differs from Rushdoony’s original vision in that it makes the Church central even over the family, and it pushes political activism and campaigning to advance towards this Christian libertarian utopia rather than relying on the grace of God. 

to be continued….


[1] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right;” Politico May 27, 2014 (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133/)

[2] See Bob Allen, “Evangelicals and Abortion:  Chicken or Egg?” Baptist Global News November 6, 2012 (https://baptistnews.com/article/evangelicals-and-abortion-chicken-or-egg/#.YQrGtR1Onb4); also David Roach, “How Southern Baptists Became Pro-Life;” Baptist Press January   16, 2015 (https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/how-southern-baptists-became-pro-life/) and Neil Carter, “What does the Bible say about Abortion?” Patheos October 23, 2016 (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/godlessindixie/2016/10/23/what-does-the-bible-say-about-abortion/)

How the Republican Party Became a Death Cult (pt. 1)

August 24, 2021

How the Republican Party Became a Death Cult

Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert.

—–Katherine Eban, “How Jared Kushner’s Secret Testing Plan Went ‘Poof’ Into Thin Air” [1]

            The political world has turned upside-down since I was a child.  Growing up in the South in the 1960s, the Democratic Party had near total control of politics, and was often corrupt (Huey Long, etc.) and/or violently racist (Faubus, Wallace, etc.).  White Evangelicals, still stinging from the rebuke they suffered in the Scopes Monkey Trial debacle, often counseled the faithful to stay out of politics and let the state run its affairs; this had the added payoff that it allowed the Southern Baptist Convention and other churches to officially stay out of the segregation debate as a secular political issue unrelated to “saving souls.”  It was generally held that in many areas, particularly the rural counties that were the majority in the South, no one could win office without at least the passive acceptance of the Klu Klux Klan.  Republicans in the South were a minority of the racially progressive, the pro-business (which often meant pro-Northern business, as the South was economically undeveloped), and/or the educated, any group that couldn’t easily ally itself with the KKK. 

            What the Hell happened to the GOP?  How did they go from Teddy Roosevelt anti-corruption progressivism to millions of Americans googling “Emoluments Clause” virtually every day from 2016-2020?  How did they go from Eisenhower sending the 82nd Airborne to desegregate Little Rock  to Donald Trump sending in armed marshals to attack unarmed and peaceful protestors for a photo-op?  How did they go from the Party of Lincoln to the party that stormed the Capitol waiving Confederate flags?  The short answer is, “Nixon’s Southern Strategy,” but I’d prefer a bit more detail.

            R. J. Rushdoony and the Chalcedon Foundation

            Evangelicals did not simply wake up one day and decide all that “character matters” stuff was bunk, Northern billionaires were better than working-class people and having Russia like us was more important than protecting our own troops when a KGB officer-turned-politician puts a bounty on their heads.  The monster that is Trumpism (or Qristianity) flowed from a noxious cauldron bubbling with the worst political impulses of Western civilization.  And the guy who provided the first poisoned toad[2] was an avowedly nonpartisan and rather apolitical theologian:  Rousas John Rushdoony. [3]  Rushdoony was a rather eccentric and extreme Fundamentalist Calvinist even by the standards of the party of Barry Goldwater.  His opposition to Communism, evolution and the general breakdown of morality he saw around him led him to call for the end of democracy and even of the nation-state.  He argued for a Christian society where the government would be too weak and decentralized to interfere with businesses, but would punish non-Christians with death by stoning.  A child of refugees from the Armenian genocide, he went on to become a Holocaust denier and allied with neo-Confederate slavery apologists.  To an outsider, he seems to be a mass of contradictions.  He was initially funded by businessmen who were looking for a moral and theological cloak for their anti-New Deal policies; later even the more secular libertarians and more visible Evangelicals alike distanced themselves from him, while adopting and mainstreaming many of his views.  His central theme was that post-Enlightenment  civilization had turned away from God, who is the only source of truth; to regain their moral compass, their political cornerstone and their scientific guiding light, humanity must return to God’s revelation as it is expressed in the Bible.  This would mean a society resembling an idealized version of the Book of Judges more than Locke’s vision of a civil commonwealth:  a society where nonbelief was exterminated as a deadly threat, but without any central authority beyond the family.  In its original form, Christian Reconstructionism is rather utopian and mostly harmless.  Rushdoony expected this social revolution to occur spontaneously, by the grace of God, and not through human political activity or imposition.  It might take a thousand years, but eventually humanity would recognize their liberal errors and return to the Gospel (as that Gospel was interpreted by Fundamentalists like himself and his Orthodox Presbyterian Church).  But already, the poisonous brew that threatens to destroy our nation was coming together.  Rushdoony was funded by capitalists looking for a Christianity that would counter the dominant theologies of the day, which mostly supported a stronger social safety net.  FDR’s policies may have saved thousands of Americans from starvation and millions from permanent generational poverty, and Eisenhower’s policies may have started a movement towards racial justice that was centuries overdue, but Rushdoony was worried about the dangers of liberalism rather than the horrors of genocide and oppression which had afflicted Jews, Blacks and even his own Armenian people just in his lifetime.  He allied himself with business interests who cared more for protecting their own profits than in building up their nation; and he later joined in the historical revisionism of slavery apologists and Holocaust deniers.  While he himself was suspicious of political activism, his efforts to publicize his views brought together money, racism and Christian Dominionism.


[1] Katherine Eban, “How Jared Kushner’s Secret Testing Plan Went ‘Poof’ Into Thin Air;” Vanity Fair July 30, 2020 (https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/07/how-jared-kushners-secret-testing-plan-went-poof-into-thin-air)

[2] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 4, scene 1

[3] Mary Whorton, “The Chalcedon Problem:  Rousas John Rushdoony and the Origins of Christian Reconstructionism;” Church History vol 77, no. 2, (June 2008, Cambridge University Press ) pp. 399-437

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Third Thesis: A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

July 22, 2021

Third Thesis:  A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

But surely men praise the ability to rule and to be ruled, and the virtue of a citizen of repute seems to be just this—to be able to rule and be ruled well.

—–Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter iv, 1277a25

            Aristotle’s Athens and the United States of America have at least one thing in common:  both had to think about what it means to be a “citizen.”  The USA had to think about citizenship because the nation was born out of revolution; and in defining the citizen, the State and the relationship between them, its Founding Fathers drew explicitly on the intellectual history of which Aristotle is an important part.  Aristotle, and the other thinkers of his day, had to reflect on the nature of citizenship because the ancient traditions were not so universally accepted as they had been.  Greece itself was governed by different, often warring city-states, with different political institutions and different views of government and citizenship.  Greek merchants traded with empires and nations that differed even more drastically from the Greek assumptions.  Western philosophy began along the coast of present-day Turkey, where Greek and non-Greek cultures, religions, moral and political assumptions from different nations collided on a daily basis.  At first, the earliest of those we now call “philosophers” primarily focused on scientific questions, such as how the world was made; living in a region where Zeus and Marduk and others all claimed the title “Creator,” some Greeks decided to try to use human reason to answer the question instead of relying on religious traditions and myths alone.  Later, this rational, humanist approach to seeking truth was extended even to morality and politics.  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other great thinkers lived as the Athenian way of democratic government was collapsing; Aristotle’s own student, Alexander the Great, would go on to destroy the independent Greek city-states once and for all.  It was a world in political transition, and transition demands attention.  What is a citizen? 

            Rather than rely solely on tradition, or on the laws of his own city-state, Aristotle sought to look at all the various definitions and to define what “citizen” meant in all of them.  To be a citizen, he said, was to be eligible for “honors,” that is, public office.  One who was a citizen had the right to have a part in making the laws, or in carrying them out by participating in the civic institutions.  This, he said, was what it meant to be a “citizen” whether one lived in a monarchy or some more representative state.[1] 

            At the same time, though, to be a “citizen” in a properly-run state is more than just giving orders and rendering judgments.  Aristotle argued that a properly-run state, whether it was governed by one person, a small group or by the majority, was run according to rule of law.  If the leaders acted according to the state’s constitution and for the good of the nation, it would be a healthy, stable society where its members could practice their personal virtue and strive for eudaimonia as well as their nature was suited; if the leaders acted without regard to the laws and traditions of the society, seeking their own good rather than the good of the society, it was a “deviation.”  Even a monarch needs to rule according to the laws and traditions that define the monarchy; for example, the Spartan kings had clear limits on their power, with institutional checks such as the Ephorate.  A king with no limits is a tyrant, acting only as suits his own whim.  Likewise, a government by “the best” could be an aristocracy, led by the most noble and virtuous persons respected by the society as a whole, or an oligarchy, rich property owners ruling the state in whatever way made themselves more money.  Majority rule could be democracy, where the people vote on whatever pleases them without regard for the overall health of the state and without limits on their fiat; or, Aristotle said, they could vote and govern within the limits laid down by their constitution, following the laws and traditions of the society that would ensure stability and the overall good.  Aristotle describes this sort of nation as a “polity.”  In each case, whether the nation is ruled by one, a few or many, the good option is the one that aims to carry out the laws and constitution, acting on prerogative only where the law is not sufficiently precise; the deviation is where the rulers replace law with their own will.

            Thus, even in a healthy monarchy or aristocracy, a citizen must be someone who is eligible to exercise civic authority, and also obey authority—even the monarch is bound by the constitution.[2]   But this understanding of “citizen” is particularly true in a democracy/polity, where all citizens are equally entitled to office, and the same person alternates between being ruler and ruled.  I myself, in today’s society, could be called to be a juror and thus to carry out the laws of my community, exercising judicial authority; that is one sort of ruling.  I choose the leaders of my society, who act as delegates for me and the other voters; that too is authority.  I could run for office; as we have seen, the requirements for public office today are surprisingly low.  In all these ways even I must alternate between being ruled (most of the time) and ruler.  That is the essence of a democratic polity.  And according to Aristotle, it is also the essence of statesmanship:  only one who is capable of being ruled is fit to rule free citizens.[3] A leader who cannot also obey, who has never known what it was to be under authority, is a tyrant, fit only to rule over slaves, not free people.[4]  Slavemasters or tyrants need not understand those under their command; they need only know how to use them effectively.  The leader of free people must know what is it to be a citizen, and must understand those they lead, in order to exercise authority for the good of the citizens.

            If we take Aristotle’s thoughts seriously, we much that is relevant for understanding democracy in the USA today.  In 1980, at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, Republican strategist and activist Paul Weyrich delivered a speech where he argued against the prevailing wisdom that Americans should support democratic participation in society.[5]  Until then, it had been part of our nation’s culture and education from childhood that to be a citizen was to vote; it was your “patriotic duty.”  Yes, sadly, much of our politics has also involved voter suppression, suppression of immigrants, of Black people and so on; but this was not so much inconsistent as it was a recognition of the principle that to be a citizen was to be a voter—racists and religious bigots didn’t want those “others” to be citizens.  This idea of fighting to keep citizens from exercising their civic duty to vote was the way Republicans should work to win power was different.  Now, people like me, who had attended compulsory Civics courses in state high school so that we’d be good citizens, who had grown up hearing that our nation was “the arsenal of freedom” and “a shining city on a hill,” were now to be kept away from the polls and discouraged from even wanting to vote.  At first, these efforts seemed small; Republicans began fighting against voter registration drives by nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters, they began fighting against candidate debates sponsored by neutral parties and so on, seeking to make it harder for potential voters to learn about candidates or register to vote or become interested in politics, so that the most likely voters would be the older and more reliably Republican base who would, as they said, “crawl over broken glass” to vote against anything labeled “socialism.”  They founded FOX News and other partisan “news” organizations to not so much inform listeners from a particular ideological perspective, but rather to un-inform them, to rouse the emotions rather than feeding the mind.  These were attacks on the spirit of democracy, and attempts to weaken civic engagement in the majority.  These tactics aimed to promote apathy and non-participation, but didn’t directly attack the practice of democracy by people who sought to do so; it was most often a psychological warfare against democracy.  But in the last few years, Republicans have turned from attempting to dissuade people from voting or informing themselves, to actively seeing to stop even qualified and motivated people from voting.  Repeated efforts to “clean up voter registration rolls” or “fight voter fraud” removed tens of thousands of eligible, registered voters in Republican-dominated states.  Research was done to see where non-Republicans were most likely to live and what sorts of identification non-Republicans, and non-whites in general, were likely to carry, and to ban these as proof of voter eligibility; at the same time, gun permits and other sorts of ID which White Republicans were thought more likely to carry were declared the only legally acceptable proof that one was a voter.[6]  From the Republican perspective, this is just politics, doing what you can and must to win.  This is also why Republicans denounce efforts to allow more American citizens to vote as a “partisan power grab;” their own efforts in the opposite direction are a long-term strategy to grab and hold power, not by having the most supporters or even the most voters, but by disallowing and disenfranchising anyone who seems somewhat likely to vote against them.

            But while all of this may seem to Republicans like mere moves in the political game, from the Aristotelian perspective they are changing the constitution of the state itself, and attempting to strip millions of Americans of their citizenship.  The constitution, as Aristotle says, is not just a piece of inscribed parchment in a museum; it is the arrangement of offices in the state:  “the citizen-body is the constitution.”[7]  Who is eligible to hold office, and what those public offices do, is the constitution of the state; and who is eligible to hold office is a citizen of the state.  For most of us, the only public offices to which we aspire and for which we are undoubtedly qualified are voter and juror.  As voters, we delegate our authority to make laws, wage wars, enforce justice and otherwise govern on our behalf to proxies who take oaths of office to act on our behalf, not for their own selfish benefit.  As jurors, we act to give a voice to We The People in how those laws are applied to our fellow citizens.  Stripping someone of their right to vote, whether it’s based on their race, their zip code, or some more subtle method selected, as the courts said, “with surgical precision” to disenfranchise them, is denying them their citizenship.  Republicans like to talk about the Right to Bear Arms as a “sacred” right, enshrined in the Constitution; but the right to vote, and as a registered voter to be eligible for jury duty, are the true sacred rights of citizenship.  They are the very definition of citizenship.  What the Republican Party is engaged in today, with hundreds of bills introduced in state legislatures dominated by Republicans, is nothing less than a strategic campaign to strip citizenship from millions of taxpayers, millions of people who either serve in our military or have family who served, millions of people either born in the this nation as the children of citizens, or who have undertaken to study and learn and withstood an examination of their worthiness more rigorous than any which many Republicans could possibly pass.  It is, as Aristotle says, an attempt to change the constitution, not through the prescribed method of amendment, but through skullduggery, corruption, intimidation and deception.  It is far more serious than what we often think of as “political games,” which reasonable people often ignore; and the results could be far more serious than those who are carrying out this plan want to admit, or even realize.  It is an attempt to drastically curtail, if not eliminate American democracy, all for the sake of winning one more round against the Democrats. 

            If you think democracy is important, if you think it matters, you must do everything possible to break the GOP, to either crush it into dust or to force it to reform itself.  This can only be accomplished if American independent voters, Democratic voters, and even Republican voters who love their country and their democratic (small “d”) heritage, vote straight Democratic in every possible election.  Not voting, or voting third party, will not accomplish this.  Voting for the “good Republican candidate” in the general election is still to vote for someone who made their peace with this decades-long plan to subvert not just the democratic process, but to undermine civic participation and patriotic duty for all citizens.  Whether liberal, moderate or true conservative, we must “mindlessly and mechanically” vote against literally all Republican candidates, including those who run in ostensibly nonpartisan races like School Board but whose public statements or voting record show them to be QAnon, Neoconfederate, “very fine people on both sides” Republicans—because all Republicans, at this point, have declared that both Nazis and anti-Nazis are either equal or the Nazis are better, simply by remaining in a political party where Nazis are welcomed, given tours of the Capitol by sitting Congressional representatives days before attempting a putsch, and whose crimes are covered up by elected Republican officials and their party information/propaganda outlets such as OAN, FOX News, etc.[8] 

            On the other hand, if you don’t value democracy, then perhaps you should continue voting Republican after all.  What, if anything, might Aristotle say to persuade someone on this point?

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter 1, 1275a22

[2] In the United States, and many other nation-states today, the “constitution” is a written document, the founding charter of the nation, spelling out the foundation of the laws and the political institutions.  Aristotle’s definition is looser.  While most states had a historical or mythological lawgiver, Aristotle only specifies that the arrangement of the offices of the country is its constitution; thus even a nation with no written constitution, governed by longstanding tradition and legal precedent, would have a “constitution” in Aristotle’s sense—so, good news for Great Britain.  Also, it is common for authoritarian regimes to have a written “constitution” that promises all sorts of rights, while the reality is very different; in this case, Aristotle would say that the actual constitution is what is actually done. 

[3] Politics book IV, chapter iii, 1277b7

[4] 1277a33

[5] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch September 24, 2015 (https://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/)

[6] Rebecca Leber, “In Texas, You Can Vote with a Concealed Handgun Permit—but not a Student ID;” The New Republic October 20, 2014 (https://newrepublic.com/article/119900/texas-voter-id-allows-handgun-licenses-not-student-ids) ; also Camilla Domonoske, “Supreme Court Declines Republican Bid to Revive North Carolina Voter ID Law;” NPR May 15, 2017 (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/15/528457693/supreme-court-declines-republican-bid-to-revive-north-carolina-voter-id-law), as well as other efforts in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere, which historically have led to tens if not hundreds of thousands of voters being purged, only to subsequently proved only a few hundred were actually ineligible.

[7] Politics Book III, chapter vi, 1278b6

[8] Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, “Boycott the Republican Party;” The Atlantic March 2018 (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/boycott-the-gop/550907/)

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Second

June 9, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  Second

Second Thesis:  A well-run state must pay attention to the relationship between economic and political power

For if the work done and the benefit accrued are equal, well and good; but if not, there will inevitably be ill-feeling between those who get a good income without doing much work and those who work harder but get no corresponding extra benefit.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book II, chapter V, 1263a8

ABSTRACT:  In discussing both the idealized states proposed by philosophers, and some states of his day widely considered to be well-run, Aristotle examines the role of wealth in society.  He rejects the extreme egalitarianism of Plato and Phaleas, as well as the restrictions put on the wealth of Spartan rulers, as being unbearable as well as impractical.  At the same time, he admits that rivalry between rich and poor can lead to factionalism and instability.  He argues that citizens need enough property to not merely live, but to live well; but he does say the state must have laws and policies to prevent the gulf between the wealthy and the rest from becoming so great that it undermines social unity’

            Book Two of Aristotle’s Politics is a survey of proposed ideal states, as well as some actual constitutions which were widely held to be successful.  Half of the chapters are devoted to criticism of Plato’s theories, particularly regarding property.  Plato himself was very concerned with the relationship between wealth and political power; it is therefore worthwhile to recall Plato’s views in order to see in what sense he and Aristotle might agree, and to better understand the nature of their disagreement.

            Plato’s political speculations in Republic begin with the individual rather than the group.  His Socrates and other characters are debating what sort of life is best for an individual, when Socrates proposes that they look at the State as an individual magnified.  In understanding how a well-run state would function, the group hopes to see how the individual soul should be arranged.  The individual can be said to have reason, passion and appetite; a city-state can be imagined as reflecting this structure.  The majority of people are farmers and other sorts of producers.  They are primarily concerned with material goods and satisfying their appetites.  They have no inclination or patience for higher education, or abstract thought, or for moral concerns beyond what is good for themselves and their households.  If they are drawn to political power, it is only as a business like any other, to enrich themselves.  Others are more drawn to military careers, as they desire honor and fame more than wealth and comfort.  These are the people governed by passion or spirit (Greek:  thumos).  In any society, only a few will be philosophers, lovers of wisdom, primarily governed by reason and desiring nothing more than to learn and understand.

            People seeking power either to feed their material desires, or in a lust for fame, are the least suited to hold power and will inevitably abuse it, putting their own gain before their duties to the State.  Only those who care the least about material comforts or the adoration of the mob can be expected to lead their society responsibly and intelligently.  Thus, the first division Plato proposes is between those who seek wealth and are denied political power, versus those who care little about gaining wealth for themselves and thus can be trusted to protect the rest:  the producers and the guardians.  These guardians are warrior-philosophers, devoted to a lifetime of physical and intellectual training, including martial and gymnastic practice, geometry, music and philosophy.  The producers want wealth and are welcome to pursue it; in exchange, they support the leadership and obey its instructions.  Among the guardians, the younger and more high-spirited individuals serve as auxiliaries, using their military training to enforce the law and to protect against invaders; they are driven by their thumos, and prefer honor over wealth, so they are rewarded with military honors and accolades for their service.  The older and wisest seek neither praise nor wealth, but wish mostly to be allowed to pursue knowledge; these are the leaders who guide the state out of a sense of duty, sharing the fruits of their learning to direct the state justly and wisely.  In return for their service, they are allowed ample time for study and philosophic contemplation.  Neither the guardians nor the auxiliaries are allowed any private property; they are supported entirely by the State, which collects taxes from the producers.  They thus have no incentive to accept bribes, or to engage in aggressive wars to gain loot, or any of the other personal or corporate corruptions that would undermine the smooth running of the state; they simply live peacefully as far as they can, prepared to defend the modest national wealth they possess but otherwise seeing to their own welfare.  Plato’s ideal republic is, in short, a society where those who have money are denied power, and those who have power are denied money but instead “give according to their abilities and receive according to their needs,” as a later philosopher put it.  Furthermore, Plato explicitly links the mixing of economic and political power as the corruption that undermines even the best state and, step by step, leads it to tyranny, where the government is entirely devoted to the profit of the tyrant and his toadies.

            Aristotle is also aware that differences in wealth can undermine a nation, and the desire for wealth can corrupt its leaders; but he rejects Plato’s radical solution of doing away with private wealth (at least for the leadership) altogether.  He agrees that the citizens definitely share some things; “at the very least, a constitution being a form of association, they must share in the territory, the single territory of a single state, of which single state the citizens are sharers.”[1]  But in Plato’s ideal republic, the Guardians are to have literally all things in common:  not only having common meals and sharing all property, but even sharing wives and children.[2]  Aristotle criticizes this excessive unity.  While it is possible to imagine such a society, Aristotle says that in fact the state benefits from being a diverse association.  Different individuals, with different abilities and aims, come together and work together for the benefit of the whole; that is what makes the state more self-sufficient than the individual or even the household.[3]  And while Plato explicitly seeks to break down the natural family relationships among the Guardians so that all will equally care for all the children, Aristotle argues that in fact this will lead to weakening concern for any children.  He makes a similar argument when it comes to property in general.[4]  Where one person is responsible for one household, that person will take care of the people and associated property; there are clearly designated areas of responsibility for each person.  Where everyone is equally responsible for caring for all the children and maintaining all the property, no individual has a specific responsibility to do anything.  When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.  Thus, Aristotle argues, it is better that each man be responsible for his own wife and children, and that the property of the state be divided, some (like temples) for common use and cared for by the people as a whole, while others (such as farms and other means of production) privately owned, the responsibility of particular individuals who will bear the consequences if they neglect their proper work. 

            Aristotle also discusses Plato’s last dialogue, his Laws, wherein he seeks to give more concrete detail to the somewhat abstract idealism of Republic.[5]  While Laws is Plato’s longest dialogue, Aristotle has relatively little to say about it, since it is in many ways a rehashing of RepublicRepublic is an idealized state, and thus lacking on details and not too concerned whether its ideas could be actualized; the Laws keeps most of the original notions of Republic but provides more detail and clarification, attempting to present not just an ideal state but a framework for establishing a state based on those notions.  There are, for example, lengthy discussions of how to arrange households and farms, the role of foreigners such as traveling merchants, details of the education curriculum, and more.  Most of the details which Aristotle discusses have to do with property laws:  how much each citizen would be allowed to own, laws regarding its management, and political implications of these laws, among other matters.  There are two points in particular that appear in this book, and will become recurring themes later in the Politics:  the problem of faction, and the types of political structure.  As to structure, Aristotle mentions monarchy, oligarchy and democracy, and argues that Plato combines elements of oligarchy and democracy into a type Aristotle calls “polity.”  Aristotle in fact prefers so-called “mixed” constitutions over any pure example of the three types, seeing them as having the chance of avoiding the weaknesses peculiar to the pure types while drawing on their strengths.  He will say much more about this later in the Politics.

            Aristotle has more to say about the issues of money and politics.  He points out that a state like Plato proposes, where individual estates are limited by law, will in serious trouble unless population is controlled as well.[6]  In most states, neither births nor property acquisition are strictly regulated; people have as many children as they are able, and sometimes even more than they can support.  This “inevitably causes poverty among the citizens, and poverty produces faction and crime.”  Plato’s Laws would start each producer citizen with an equal estate, and limit the maximum increase of wealth to five times that, with the number of such farming estates firmly established; thus if the population were to grow, there would simply be no way for the excess to start their own households, and seemingly no way to absorb the new population into the economy.  Aristotle goes on to discuss another utopian thinker, Phaleas, who also discusses the social problems related to wealth.[7]  Phaleas too was concerned with how inequalities of wealth can undermine the stability of the state, by breeding crime and factionalism.  His answer was simple and direct:  eliminate differences in wealth.  The factions that so often divide and can even destroy the state are largely conflicts between the poor many and the rich few; eliminate the differences, and you eliminate the chief cause of factionalism.[8]  Poverty would be eliminated, and thus crime would disappear as well, Phaleas claimed, since no one would have to steal to feed themselves.[9] 

            Aristotle appreciates the effort Phaleas makes to head off factionalism, but finds several faults with this plan.  First, Aristotle says Phaleas pays inadequate attention to national defense; we don’t have any evidence to judge this claim, and the question doesn’t seem essential; the issues of foreign relations could be addressed without seriously undermining the internal economics, if equality of property were workable.  Aristotle’s other objections seem more substantial, as they touch on human nature itself, and provide reasons why such equality would be impossible.  Suppose, Aristotle says, it were possible to determine the perfect level of property for everyone, so that no one was either corrupted by luxury or ruined by poverty, but each had enough to live moderately and well; even then, there is no guarantee that everyone would be content.  Unless people’s appetites are also equal, what seems a reasonable allowance to one will seem to be penury to another; thus, unless education is equal so that all have the same characters and expectations, they will become discontent even with equality.  (He does concede that maybe Phaleas has assumed this equality of education, but doesn’t think this is clear.)  Furthermore, people don’t resort to crime merely from poverty; some, perhaps most are trying to get far more than they need, and it is the desire for easy luxury that drives them.  And people do not compete merely for greater wealth, but also for distinction, status and honor. Those who have worked harder, or who have fought bravely in defense of his nation, or who otherwise consider themselves “better” will resent being treated “the same.”  So while Aristotle sees some merit in paying attention to the divisiveness of wealth, he finds this sort of extreme state control of wealth unviable.

            Much of the difference between Aristotle and his mentor Plato is visible in their discussion of the Spartan government.[10]  Plato cites the Spartan as one of the best constitutions, largely because it separates the aristocratic, military leadership from the producers; the leaders strive for honor, while the others are focused on farming and producing goods.  His only fault with the Spartan model is that they don’t practice philosophy; compared to his republic, it is as if the Guardians proper were gone and the Auxiliaries were left in charge, without the benefit of learned, wise, steady leadership.  In Plato’s telling, even the perfect republic would eventually decline, first by abandoning the leadership of the philosophers, and then as a result becoming increasingly interested in money.  First the aristocracy declines to an oligarchy, rule by the rich few; from there it deteriorates to a democracy, where everyone rules and everyone simultaneously pursues their own private wealth, further mixing politics and money-making; and finally it devolves into a tyranny, where the most corrupt and ruthless individual seizes power and turns the state into a money-making enterprise for himself and his cronies.  It is a rationalist explanation, deriving from the principle that corruption of the individual or the state occur when the appetites overrule reason; and it is a somewhat idealized presentation of the Spartan constitution as well.

            Aristotle is much less enthralled with the Spartan ideal and more interested in the Spartan reality.  While Spartan men are supposed to be pure warriors living lives of material simplicity and concerned only with honor, Aristotle says in fact there are great differences in wealth between them, which weakens the nation and in particular leaves the Ephors, magistrates drawn from outside the aristocracy, open to bribery.  And it is not just the Ephors who fail to live up to the ideal of Spartan austerity; Aristotle writes, “They live a life of undue ease, while the rest have a very high degree of austerity in living, so high indeed that they really cannot endure it but secretly get round the law and enjoy the pleasures of the body.”[11]

            On the other hand, Aristotle writes somewhat approvingly of the council of Ephors itself, an institution Plato generally ignores.  While there seems to be no constitution with which he doesn’t find some fault, and he minds much to say about the character and competence of the Ephors, he does agree that they contribute to the stability of the state.  The Ephors were a council of five men, elected from and by the people, who shared power with the Spartan kings.  This clearly is a deviation from the aristocratic ideal, which is likely why Plato ignores it in the Republic; he is presenting a clean typology, while Aristotle is looking closer at actual cases.  In fact, he says, Sparta has this democratic element in its government, which may weaken the aristocratic ideal but does keep the people “quiet because it gives them a share in the highest office…  The point is that if a constitution is to have a good prospect of stability, it must be such that all sections of the state accept it and want it to go on in the same way as before.”[12]  This is a point that Aristotle returns to:  a “mixed” constitution is often better than a “pure” type, because it can draw on the strengths of several types of government.  Aristotle is greatly concerned about the causes of  factionalism and instability in the state, and how to avoid it.  Plato’s solution to the problem of instability is to put the most reasonable people in charge, and preserve them from the corrupting influence of money by forbidding them to own any private property—including even spouses and children.  Those with power, have no wealth; and those who are allowed private property have no power.  Aristotle says this is unbearable, and thus people will circumvent such restrictions if imposed on them; also, no one can practice the virtues of such as liberality, which involve proper use and sharing of wealth, if they have none.  Plato’s republic, or Sparta’s aristocracy, ultimately lead to the corruption of the people by denying them scope to practice the virtuous use of wealth, while allowing them only corrupt opportunities to obtain the wealth that people naturally desire.  So Aristotle argues that it is better to allow people the ability to obtain enough wealth, while also limiting the gap between rich and poor if it threatens social stability.

            Aristotle’s survey of philosophical political theories and of actual constitutions doesn’t focus exclusively on economic policies, but this is at the center of many of his criticisms.  There is advice here that would please the American “right” and “left” wings, which I suppose makes it “centrist” and perhaps even “practical.”  Conservatives would undoubtedly agree with Aristotle’s objection to Plato’s extreme egalitarianism, even communism.  Our conservatives would echo Aristotle’s view that each person will see to their own property better than the society as a whole can manage extensive common property; if you want production and trade to thrive, let specific individuals run their own businesses.  The view that the one who works should see a profit from their labors will also appeal to conservatives in our day.  And Aristotle’s view on the relationship between private wealth and virtue has parallels to conservative arguments against taxpayer-funded social programs.  Conservatives often argue that if society collects taxes to help shelter, feed and cloth the poor, this will undermine morality since it means taking money away from individuals who might have shared it freely, and also because if society as a whole is helping the poor, then no one individual is exercising the virtue of charity or liberality by sharing what specifically is that individual’s own wealth to give away.  Just as Aristotle says it is important that citizens not only have enough to live, but even enough to enjoy and enough to share, American conservatives today would argue that a society with high taxes to fund things like universal health care and tuition-free college not only robs individuals of the incentive to work, but also robs them of the ability to do good, and to be good and virtuous people, by giving personally to help others. 

            Liberals would reply that what matters is that the poor are fed and sheltered, and that if the state can accomplish this better then that is how it should be.  They would applaud Aristotle’s awareness that vast differences in wealth can divide, weaken, and possibly destroy a society.  A government that wishes to last must be a government that provides justice in the eyes of its citizens, and that includes justice for the hungry and cold.  While the rich may claim that they deserve more as the “better people,” everyone has a right to life, which means everyone must have a right to the requirements for life; if a society fails to provide either a chance to earn a living wage or help for those who cannot, that society devolves into a cold war between the rich and the poor, which could eventually go hot and end the society. 

            Aristotle is seeking political structures that avoid either extreme.  He is neither Rand nor Marx, though he could see the point in both perspectives.  Instead, he wants a society that can provide enough to every citizen to live a good life, while giving those who want more a legitimate and socially helpful way to earn it.


[1] Politics, Book II, chapter 1, 1260b36

[2] Plato is often criticized today for his totalitarian tendencies, but it is interesting to note that he treats women as people, with the same rights and responsibilities as men; he says they should have the same education and even be trained for military service.  Aristotle states that women are inferior, and in much of this chapter explicitly treats them as property more than people. 

[3] Politics, Book II, chapter 2

[4] Book II, chapter 5

[5] chapter 6

[6] Book II, chapter 6, 1265a38

[7] Book II, chapter 7

[8] chapter 7, 1266a31

[9] 1267a2

[10] Plato, Republic, book VIII, 542-550; Aristotle, Politics, book II, chapter ix

[11] 1270b28

[12] 1270b17