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. Continue reading Aristotle’s Politics and You