12th Grade: Aristotle and the Modern Political Landscape

Greetings,

This week we examined the philosophy of Aristotle, specifically his theory of truth and how it related to his ideas about government.

Creation

Aristotle saw the created order not as a negative (like Plato), but as a friend or guide to truth.  Truth Aristotleresided here among us, not “up there” among the gods.  For Aristotle, God/the gods may or may not exist, but whether they did or not they had nothing to teach us.  As far as Zeus and Apollo are concerned, the power and immortality of the Greek gods make it so they never pay for any of their decisions.  They stand immune from consequences, and hence, immune to gathering wisdom.  If God existed, Aristotle thought he stood too far removed from human life to be of much use to us.  We experience truth in the created order, not by looking beyond the stars.*

This does not make Aristotle a moral relativist, at least in the meaning that we normally give the word.  However much truth depended on context, what worked could be said to be fundamentally true.  If someone, for example, argued that his heroin addiction benefitted him, because it, “transfers me to a different spiritual plane,” where, “I see myself and the world in radically new way,” Aristotle would respond by saying:

  • You cannot be a heroin addict and function in creation
  • Who you are cannot be separated from your physical body.  Thus, you will not learn anything about yourself by seeking to destroy yourself.

Aristotle did not deny that mankind had a soul, but he thought that the physical and spiritual aspects of who we are cannot be separated, which made his view of creation and the body much more Christian than Plato’s.

balloon-glassI like to think of Aristotle’s view of truth like one of those air-blown figurines.  Some things always remain constants, i.e. human nature and creation.  But, the application of those constants might change depending on the circumstances.  The figure may flap around but always remain rooted to the ground.  A law, for example, can only be considered a good law if it will actually work in the applied context.

Aristotle had a profound influence on the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, who gives a striking example of this principle.  Suppose you were made king of a country that thought murder was a good thing, and had practiced murder for centuries prior to your arrival.  One might think that your first order of business would be to make murder illegal.  Indeed, murder is obviously wrong, but Aristotle would argue that such an action would be foolish, and would not help make your people more virtuous.  Why?

  • The people would not obey this law, and would find it ridiculous.  This would lead to them flaunting the law, adding to their sin.
  • The people would also lose respect for you as king, and refuse to follow your authority.

If you wanted to make the people more virtuous, they must have respect for law in order to change.  This change will come about slowly.  People, like battleships, can’t be turned so quickly.  We discussed in class how Aristotle would face such a situation, and got some interesting responses from the students.  Maybe start, some suggested, by arming everyone to make murder more risky.  Or maybe make a law restricting murder to certain days.  In any event, virtue comes by the practice of it, not from a mere intellectual recognition of what virtue might be.  Abstracting a law from its context is not the way to judge it.  Rather, a law can only be judged properly when we see its application, its result.

Plato spilled a lot of ink thinking about how to form a government without making it too much of a government in the standard sense.  Plato sought for a society knitted together not by law but a community of harmonious souls.  Aristotle seems to have not given such a prospect much thought, as it probably seemed to him pointlessly unrealistic.  He had no doubt that the best form of government would be the absolute rule of one good man.  But just as easily, the rule of one bad individual would create a disaster.  The rule of a ‘few good men’ via an oligarchy of birth can minimize the possibility of autocracy and provide the state with wisdom.  But this oligarchy can easily degenerate into rule by an elitist and wealthy cabal.  Democracy provides more stability, but less brilliance.  It has the advantage of building on the broadest foundation, but can descend into mob rule.  The government that might work best for a given area would depend on what they valued most, and what their current political context might be.

The differences between Plato and Aristotle are not merely academic.  Few of us might always agree with either one, but our leanings to one side or the other will influence our decisions.  Generally those on either the far left or right might have more in common with Plato.  The goal is to move people to the absolute standard of the founders vision (Tea Party?), or create a better society on Earth regardless of the messy context of law and custom (Liberal Progressives?).  Centrists and moderates tend to be more comfortable with moving slowly, tweaking things with the times around the edges, and being ‘realistic.’

We can relate this idea to our views about democracy.  Supposing that one believes that democracy is the best form of government (and that is a big ‘suppose’). Should the U.S. attempt to spread democracy abroad?  Of course this involves some speculation, but we might consider that. . .

Plato

Plato would answer ‘yes,’ if he believed that democracy was the ideal form of government (he did not in actuality). Though not all have an immediate cultural context for democracy, he would argue that democracy appeals to all humanity on a ‘spiritual’ level.  Just as most of us can guess that that Caribbean vacation would be nice even if we’ve only experienced a cold and crowded New Jersey beach, so too things like equality, control of your destiny, participation, and rights, have an immediate gut level connection with us.  We should spread it because it would take root in people’s hearts, even if it might take a bit longer in some places than others to come to fruition.

Aristotle

Likely Aristotle would answer ‘no,’ or at least ‘no’ most of the time.  He would have wanted to see certain key structures in place before even considering spreading democracy, like a strong middle class, an educated populace, a stable economy, and a general trust across class, race, and religion.  Without these things democracy would have no place to take root, like a bird trying to make a nest in the air.

If I had to make a personal wild guess, Aristotle might think that democracy in Iraq has about 33-50% chance of succeeding.  In Afghanistan, with its mountainous terrain, strong tribal affinities, little education, and divided population, I’m guessing his estimation of success would be much lower.

Plato would counter that since true knowledge is ‘remembering,’ the truth is bound to take root once they have a chance to truly experience democracy.  Democracy would not be a narrowly western system in this view, but truly universal, applicable regardless of context.  Again, this is mostly speculation, but hopefully profitable nonetheless.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

*The Incarnation provides the bridge between Aristotle and Plato’s ideas.  It fits within neither one of their philosophies, but their systems stand in sore need of a proper unity between the eternal and the temporal.

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