Posts Tagged ‘Political Philosophy’

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: introduction

March 30, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  introduction

Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating good (habits) in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure.

—–Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book II, chapter i, 1103b

            From the end of the 20th Century until now, I have seen a lot of division and confusion regarding our politics.  As a child I was largely oblivious to the existence or the end of legal segregation.  As a schoolchild I was part of the struggle over desegregation, and while I could observe the poverty of Black schools and desired that adults would fund all schools better, I was still a child and had little sense of involvement.  As I got older, I began to think more consciously about the relationship between myself and the nation I lived in, between the citizen and the state, the meanings of these terms and the mutual obligations entailed.  Without my quite being aware of it, these social questions that were affecting me, such as court-ordered bussing or draft registration, were parts of one larger question:  the relationship between the individual and the state. 

            Unknown to me at the time, the political parties were defining their different views on this question.  Race and the draft were the two issues that got people out in the streets when I was a child watching television.  We didn’t have as much discussion of things like “wealth gap” in those days, partly because it wasn’t nearly as big an issue; the wealth gap was a fraction of what it is now, and the middle class was strong and growing.  Both liberals and conservatives agreed that a citizen had a duty to vote, and devoted energy to train children to become citizens—-thought it is sadly ironic that there was still a lot of conflict and even violence over whether this citizens’ right and duty to vote should apply to nonwhites.

            My first introduction to philosophy was Walden, and I was particularly influenced by Thoreau’s essay “Economy.”  Thoreau presents his vision of human nature:  the ideal life is one close to Nature, eschewing luxuries, working enough to sustain life but little more, so as to allow ample leisure time for thought, writing and other pursuits to feed the mind and soul.  I don’t remember if I read his essay on civil disobedience at this time, but I still have the book I used and it includes that famous essay so I think I did.  Either way, I was already reading political philosophy at the age of thirteen, including critiques of consumerism and capitalism, representative versus radical democracy, and the general relationship of the individual to society.  Metaphysically and epistemologically, Thoreau is something of a mystic; the believed that God was literally in Nature and could be experienced directly by experiencing Nature, getting away from crowds and civilization.  In the woods, by his beloved pond, Truth gave itself directly to Thoreau.  In the bustle of society, in the ambition of politicians and the pressures to conform and in the strivings of empires, he found only falsehood and sin.

            I think the next major piece of political philosophy I picked up was Plato’s Republic.  Plato too is a mystic; Truth and The Good are transcendent reality, known directly by the mind open to receive them.  And also like Thoreau, Plato was something of an ascetic; he too thought luxuries and the pursuit of profit lead one into greater unhappiness and ignorance, while embracing simplicity in life allowed greater devotion to fullness of thought and spirit.  But whereas Thoreau politically was a cynic and almost an anarchist, Plato was anti-democratic, yearning for a Philosopher-King who would combine the philosophical insights of Athens with the rigid class distinctions and social discipline of Sparta.  In high school I didn’t really notice the disagreement, as I saw Plato’s republic as merely a thought-experiment expressing how reason should rule in the life of the individual; but as time has gone by I have come to see that Plato took this idea of enlightened monarchy seriously.  Plato is not an individualist; he yearned for a society with a wise division of labor, where those who were good thinkers did all the thinking and policy-making while those whose hearts turned towards business devoted themselves to producing and making money and left the running of society to the intellectual elite.  So while Thoreau is heir to Plato in many ways, politically he follows the example of Diogenes the Cynic, the fierce individualist, who rejected political partisanship and creature comforts alike in his pursuit of complete personal freedom. 

            Plato and Diogenes were both students of Socrates, but took different lessons from the teacher’s words and fate.  Which is best:  a well-ordered, stable society where everyone knows his or her place and strives to benefit the whole, or a society which is an aggregate of individuals, each striving to live out their own ideals and pursue their own happiness?  It seems to me that this is a conflict that occurs repeatedly in the history of thought, since it is intrinsic to the project of human social life in general.  China had Confucius and Chuang-Tzu; the Hellenistic Age had the Stoics and the Cynics; the Enlightenment had Hobbes and Locke; nineteenth-century America had the Capitalists and the Transcendentalists.  As societies grow beyond family-groups and clans, we’ve had to turn our brains to intentionally work out the relationship between the individual and the group, with some placing the emphasis on one and some on the other.  Does the individual exist to serve the group, and is the nature of the individual defined primarily as part of the group?  Or does the group exist to serve the individual’s needs, so that anything that does not nurture the individual is to be discarded?

            There’s been something of a resurgence of Aristotle in recent decades.  Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum have been arguing for a return to virtue ethics, and a view of ethics as aiming for some sort of “good life,” some fulfillment of human nature.  On the other hand, political conservatives in the USA have promoted Aquinas and other Aristotelians, as well as Plato’s anti-democratic republicanism, not so much from any intellectual consideration as because they see both Plato and Aristotle as useful cudgels in their ideological war against “liberals.”  I’ve taught Aristotle as part of my Ethics classes for years, but only recently have I become interested in his political philosophy.  I believe he has much to say, and much that would defy the easy liberal-versus-conservative polarities we seem to love so much today.

            Aristotle’s Politics picks up about where Nicomachean Ethics leaves off. Aristotle’s ethics rests on his view that humans are rational animals, and thus not only have needs for basic essentials for life and desires for pleasant sensations while avoiding misery, but more essentially they need to live lives “guided by reason, or not apart from reason.”[1]  To attain this sort of life, one must cultivate habits that contribute to it; these are the virtues.  By contrast, habits that lead away from true human fulfillment (or “eudaimonia,” often translated “happiness”) are termed “vices.”  For Aristotle, the ethical life is a matter of cultivating virtues by acting virtuously, reinforcing those beneficial habits while avoiding acts that would tend towards vices.[2]  And in support of his linkage between morality, character and habit, Aristotle mentions that states themselves often employ legal codes that will shape the character of their citizens by using rewards and punishments to encourage good habits while discouraging bad ones.  For instance, we ourselves seek to be properly brave, neither too reckless nor cowardly, because if we are wise we know that hitting the virtue defined as the proper midpoint between these extreme vices will lead to our own true happiness; and societies seek to encourage bravery, industriousness and other virtues in citizens as a whole for the wellbeing of the community, so they use laws and other social pressures to encourage each individual to become a better person.  Aristotle would say that in doing so, the society is pushing the individual to become not just more socially useful, but also more personally happy.

            So even in his exploration of personal ethics and personal happiness, Aristotle sees an important role for the State.  This certainly distinguishes him from some ethical schools which have been important in American history, such as Transcendentalism; and it distinguishes him from some successors to Socrates, such as the Cynics and the Epicureans.  Today’s successors to Aristotle will likewise be less individualistic, but also concerned about the ultimate fulfillment of the individual; Aristotelians will not sacrifice the individual to the State as a Hobbesian would, since the individual’s happiness is the goal of the individual’s own activity.  Also unlike Hobbes, an Aristotelian will stress the character development of the individual, and stress the importance of cultivating the virtues.  Because of Aristotle’s view of the importance of both the individual and the group, it was natural that he would write both personal ethics and political philosophy, and base the second on the first. 

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book I, 1097b22–1098a20

[2] Nicomachean Ethics, book II

Plato and Music Education, pt. 1: The Importance of Music Education

August 13, 2013

Plato on Music Education:  How American Idol is Destroying America

            I’ve had to interrupt my work on “Work and Philosophy,” this time to grade research papers.  I also made the mistake of doing something I’ve avoided my whole life:  reading Plato’s Laws.  I say “mistake” because I thought it would be a lot less interesting than it is turning out to be, so it is sucking up a lot more of my time.  I had heard that it was the product of Plato’s later period, in fact his last writing, and that by this point he had pretty well rejected using literary artistry to make philosophical points; so I was expecting something dry and abstruse.  I had also heard that it was written after his disappointing experience at Syracuse, where he attempted to educate the tyrant and turn him into a philosopher-king; so I was expecting something bitter and, if anything, even more oppressive than his ideas for a republic.  Instead, I found something fairly pragmatic, as much a successor to early theory like the Crito as it is to the Republic.  Yes, there are long passages where he discusses hunting and farming principles appropriate to a citizen, gathering fruits and so on; but there are also some interesting insights to his political thought in general, and what survived from his early days as a student of Socrates until his later days as founder of the Academy.

            Just to focus on one element that intrigued me, let me discuss Plato’s views on music education.  In the Republic he famously argued for state censorship of the arts, and denounced certain rhythms as leading to wild, uncontrolled dancing instead of the harmony of body and mind which he thought best.  His reasoning for these arguments were thoroughly rationalist; he had his ideal of Justice, and based on that he sought to create the most orderly, rational society imaginable.  His procedure in the Laws is different.  Here, he is not writing for ideal people, although his ideas are fairly radical (asking Greeks to give up seafood?  Really, Plato?).  While the Republic was presented as a thought experiment by Socrates at a dinner party, the Laws is a conversation between three Greek men from three cities, one of whom has been tasked with writing the laws for a new colony.  If the first was utopia, this is merely “new topia.”  In some ways, it is similar to the Torah in that respect:  not quite ideal and utopian, but not a real, established community either; instead, it is a set of legal principles intended to create a nearly ideal society, still believable but probably not really attainable.[1] Because it is a colony, it is legally a blank slate, but the people are not ideal or completely malleable; so expedients like inventing new mythologies or establishing a rigged marriage lottery (prominent in the Republic) are not possible.  Thus, when he discusses the education of children, the ideas that no one knows his or her parents, that some believe they have gold in their veins and receive a different education, and so on have little place.  But Plato does retain the idea that the education of the children is an important work of the State; though he allows for more parental control in the Laws, he also affirms “that the child is even more the property of the state than of his parents.”[2]

            In the Laws, the primary purpose of education is to make lead the child to grow to be a good person.  This includes producing good citizens, since a well-ordered state is essential for human fulfillment; but moral education is important to the individual as well.  Just as the state must avoid internal division and conflict, the individual can only be truly happy when he or she avoids conflicting passions and desires.  Thus, the rational and temperate person is not only a good neighbor and citizen, but also the most truly happy.[3]  For the state to fulfill its function, it must aim both at social order (by avoiding conflicts and reconciling neighbors) and at the education of citizens (promoting temperance, justice and reason).

            Plato’s educational proposals all intend to promote this sort of society which is fulfilling for the citizens and able to preserve itself from all threats foreign and domestic.[4]  For this reason, he says the most important courses for young children are gymnastics and music.[5]  Physical training is to lead to overall health, and in particular to fitness for military service; therefore, Plato says that all athletic competition and training must be in realistic armor, and must focus on martial skills such as archery, riding, running, throwing javelin and so on.  He also includes dancing in physical education, seeking here to teach grace and agility of movement.  Furthermore, as he says earlier, dancing is an essential element in the chorus, which is essential as a religious and communal activity.[6]  Music (particularly singing) is important for mental training, just as physical culture is essential for bodily training.  Music trains the person to patience and skill, and it trains the character by its stirring rhythms as much as by its words:  valorous songs to encourage bravery, hymns to foster piety, gentle songs to promote caring and mutual support.  And choral singing in particular honors the gods and brings community members together in harmony (in more ways than one); therefore Plato considered choral singing so important that he suggested it be mandatory for all citizens from childhood through old age.

To be continued….


[1] Historically, we know much of the Torah was written in the post-exilic period, and was as much an idealization of what should have been as it was a recounting of what had been; certainly, even internal evidence from the Bible shows such strict monotheism as described in the Pentateuch never really existed.  But the emphasis on social harmony and justice is striking in both Mosaic and Platonic Laws.

[2] Laws book VII, 804 d-e

[3] Laws book I, 626-628; book II, 663d

[4] This is in contrast to the earlier Republic, where the goal is explicitly said to be the overall harmony of the state, not the greatest happiness of any individual or class.  Plato, Republic, book IV, 419-421c

[5] Laws, book VII, 795-796

[6] Laws, book II, 654

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