Posts Tagged ‘Trump’

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.