Friday, March 4, 2011

Government of the Best, by the Best, and for the Best

Wednesday afternoon I attended a faculty meeting at which both the Director and the Dean spoke. On a completely unrelated note, I've been reading in Aristotle recently about mistakes tyrants make.

Aristotle has a lot to say in his Politics. He offers definitions of various forms of government, outlines the theory of the ideal state, explores conditions under which less-than-ideal governments work better than the ideal, rehearses historical examples of governments that worked and governments that fell violently, and gives practical advice for the maintenance of all forms of government -- even the forms of which he disapproves.

People establish a state, he says, to provide a good life for the people. A well-functioning state provides justice and protection for all, coin and a regulated market for distribution of necessities to all and for increase of wealth, laws and judges to maintain order, and so on. But not all governments are good. "Governments," he says, "which have a regard to the common interest are constituted in accordance with strict rules of justice, and are therefore true forms; but those which regard only the interest of the rulers are all defective and perverted forms, for they are despotic, whereas a state is a community of freemen."

Aristotle outlines three main kinds of government and names both the good form and the perverted form of each, for a total of six types of government. Rule by one person, provided that one virtuously serves all the people, is called a monarchy; the perverted form, in which the ruler serves only himself, is called a tyranny. Rule by a few, if those few are virtuous, is called aristocracy; if the few merely seek to maintain the power of their wealth over others, their rule is called oligarchy. Good rule by many is called constitutional rule when it listens to and serves all the people, but democracy when it rules by the tyranny of the poor majority over the wealthy minority.

In a helpful aside, Aristotle says that an individual's mind should rule over his passions with monarchical rule and over his body with constitutional rule. The lesson teaches about both politics and personal ethics. Thinking about the virtuous person I wish I were, I imagine that while I should never let my passions dictate, I should sometimes (but not always) listen to my body as the best source of knowledge for what it needs. This picture helps me see the virtuous monarch that Aristotle has in mind: he makes all the decisions, but the excellence of his character gives him the knowledge and the desire to give the people what they need. A constitutional body of rulers, on the other hand, makes decisions sometimes based on its own experience and judgment and sometimes based on the voice of the people.

I am amazed on rereading this treatise that Madison and his friends didn't cite Aristotle along with Locke and Hobbes as inspiration for our United States Constitution. Aristotle thinks his constitutional rule is generally the best form for several reasons: because many minds are better than one or a few at finding the right path, because this form of government serves all classes, and because it tends to last longer since all classes are happy with its use of several methods for decision making. These features serve as some of the foundational ideals of our government, with its mixture of representation and direct vote and its promises of opportunity for everyone. Aristotle even divides the offices of government into legislative, executive, and judiciary branches. But the Enlightenment times had no great respect for authority, especially the authority of teachers from the distant past.

All of Aristotle's basic model seems smart and interesting to me. But I can't agree with his view of laborers. When he says some are born naturally to labor and some to lead, I don't necessarily balk. (By the way, his "natural" division has nothing to do with family or nationality, so racial slavery and racial politics is completely irrational according to Aristotle.) I know people I would choose first to work on my car and people I would choose first to run my government, and no one is in both groups. But that doesn't mean someone couldn't be in both. Aristotle says that in the ideal state, mechanics and farmers lead an ignoble life of labor that is inimical to virtue because it leaves no time for education, and that idea shakes every nerve in my system. Our first ancestors were husbandmen, and while they had a problem with self-control that has proven somewhat of a burden to their descendants, their occupation was nonetheless noble. Our first three Presidents (two of which I admire greatly) were farmers. And while virtue requires education, that education doesn't have to be formal and can be acquired by farmers and manual laborers. Doesn't the life of our sixteenth President prove that the good laborer may educate himself and prove himself virtuous under the severest of trials?

So what about those tyrants? Aristotle says that if they want to play the tough-guy game, they have to be ruthlessly consistent about it. Much better, he says, is to pretend to be interested in the people: tell them they are valuable, keep your contempt for the law secret and make a display of following it, never take away honors suddenly or in public, provide entertainments, etc. Of course the people generally know what kind of hand clenches inside this velvet glove, and, as Aristotle tells us comfortingly, history shows that tyrannies are generally short-lived.

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