Aristotle’s Politics and You

Last Saturday I went to a meeting of a book group that I’ve been part of for about one year. (I wish I could have discovered these guys years earlier.) The book we discussed was Aristotle’s “Politics.” It’s certainly not a “page-turner.” But fortunately, the copy I got from the library included a clearly written introduction and content outline that helped me grasp at least some of what Aristotle had to say. The discussion we had in our group also helped a lot.

Still, I’m far from claiming any deep knowledge of Aristotle’s writings on politics. But for sure, what I did learn is that most of the challenges our democracy faces today are hardly new. Twenty-four hundred years ago Aristotle described dangers and aspirations facing the societies of his time that sound very familiar.

Here are a few of Aristotle’s observations: A healthy middle class is needed for the successful administration of a society… Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime… It is important to prevent the growth of a “pauper class”…In general, faction arises from men’s striving for what is equal — or at least it does if no proportion exists between those who are unequal (think of our nation’s extreme wealth gap) … The main cause of the overthrow of democracies is the outrageous behavior of demagogues.

Today, I searched the Internet for more of Aristotle’s statements on subjects still relevant in our times. It was interesting, but not surprising, how Aristotle’s words could be interpreted quite differently depending on the ideology of the website visited. For instance on the subject of demagoguery, a 2010 article on the “American Thinker” website warned the world of the extreme demagogic language of Barack Obama. They said he was, “stirring up class warfare against Wall Street, bankers, insurance companies, and the “rich.”

Now, I agree with Aristotle that virtuous citizens should shun extreme behavior. But I also know that “extreme” is in the eye of the beholder. The writers on that “American Thinker” site claimed that it was extremist for the 2010 Obama Administration to clamp down on the greedy financial players who caused the Great Recession. Just like years earlier their philosophical brethren viewed the establishment of Social Security and Medicare as government overreach.

In that same vein, I read a recent right wing guest op-ed in the Tribune that warned Trib readers that today’s Democratic Party, with all its talk about “Medicare for All” and universal access to an affordable college education, is “lurching toward socialism”. I do understand how powerful and negative the word “socialism” can be. (Thank you, USSR.) But what too many of today’s political observers have forgotten is that there was a time only 50 years ago when a hefty majority of the American public were unafraid of government systems that raised the quality of life for our society. 

Americans in the 1960’s had accepted Social Security, the GI Bill, the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid. The American people were becoming comfortable with certain social safety net programs – and it was driving the Republican Party leaders crazy. That is, until they came up with their “Southern Strategy.” Using racism, rabid regionalism and anger over a war lost 100 years earlier they gained the support of the majority of voters across the South, gradually redirecting our national focus. (The election of the charismatic Ronald Reagan helped seal the deal.)

My mentioning of our shifting priorities leads me back to Aristotle and his frequent reference to the goal of “a virtuous life.” From what I understand about his teachings on ethics, Aristotle’s idea of virtue is basically “excellence at being human,” being the best you can be in what you do, having integrity, valuing justice and fairness.

Certainly, I would never claim that everything about our Democratic Party and its leaders is virtuous — far, far from it. However, it does seem to me that a political effort motivated by a desire for improved national healthcare and education access is considerably more virtuous than one that continues to use racism, fear and divisive appeals to motivate support.

I apologize if this week’s NTD News essay is a bit unusual, but reading words first spoken 24 centuries ago that still inspire in today’s political mess had an impact on me. So, I’ll end this with one of Aristotle’s most timeless observations (please read “man” as meaning all humankind): “Man is a political animal… A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature… But justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society.”

Our striving for a just and virtuous government will always be worth our serious efforts — although I know in these depressingly chaotic times it is tempting to throw up our hands in frustration. So, I will leave you with what Aristotle had to say about that emotion so many centuries ago: “…to be constantly asking ‘What is the use of it?’ is unbecoming to those of broad vision and unworthy of free men.”

That Aristotle was a smart guy.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973