Law versus Decadence
Like Plato (left), Aristotle hoped that an inspired lawgiver could establish an enduring good government.
A last concern of Aristotle’s which is of great relevance to our time is the prevention of decadence. For Aristotle, the good of the city is reflected in the virtue of the citizens. The citizens are educated and trained in virtue by adherence to the city’s largely-unchanging basic law, set in place by an inspired lawgiver. The question becomes: how can the law ensure that virtue is maintained in perpetuity?
There are no easy answers. Nations tend to be victims of their own successes. As Aristotle notes: “People are easily spoiled; and it is not all who can stand prosperity” (1308b10). He speaks at length on how Sparta’s morals were corrupted after that martial city defeated Athens and achieved hegemony in Greece as a result of the Peloponnesian War. According to Aristotle, adherence to Lycurgus’ law did not survive material wealth and the empowerment of women.
The Greeks were less prone to excessive individualism than the modern West has been, but they often ceded to the siren song of egalitarianism. Aristotle reports that many Greeks believed that if men were equal in some respect, such as being freeborn, they must be equal overall and certainly equally entitled to rule. Many took equality as a goal, leading them to seek to both make the citizens equal and to indiscriminately extend citizenship: “some thinkers [hold] that liberty is chiefly to be found in democracy and that the same goes for equality, this condition is most fully realized when all share, as far as possible, on the same terms in the constitution” (1291b30).
While Aristotle is indeed more ‘bourgeois’ than Plato, he too is contemptuous of egalitarian excesses, which manifest themselves in democratic extremism and selfish individualism. Aristotle, like Plato, argues at length that right equality or justice means that equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally (1287a1). And again, for him, justice means the interests of the community:
What is “right” should be understood as what is “equally right”; and what is “equally right” is what is for the benefit of the whole city and for the common good of its citizens. The citizen is, in general, one who shares in the civic life of ruling and being ruled in turn. (1283b27)
Aristotle notes that some democracies are so extreme that they actually undermine the existence of their own state, and hence do not survive as long as a moderate democracy. He writes with great eloquence on that “false conception of liberty” which has so often seduced our people:
In democracies of the type which is regarded as being peculiarly democratic the policy followed is the very reverse of their real interest. The reason for this is a false conception of liberty. There are two features which are generally held to define democracy. One of them is the sovereignty of the majority; the other is the liberty of individuals. Justice is assumed to consist in equality and equality in regarding the will of the masses as sovereign; liberty is assumed to consist in “doing what one likes.” The result of such a view is that, in these extreme democracies, each individual lives as he likes — or as Euripides says,
For any end he chances to desire.
This is a mean conception [of liberty]. To live by the rule of the constitution ought not to be regarded as slavery, but rather as salvation. (1310A12)
Is this not a very concise summation of the ills of modern liberalism? I would argue that the West was already severely infected by the 1930s, before metastasizing to an absurd degree from the 1960s onwards. Thus today, liberals express desire only for ‘equality’ and ‘solidarity,’ all the while destroying the very foundations for these ends through multiculturalism and open-borders, these being zealously imposed with disastrous short-sightedness.
Aristotle observes that constitutions have a tendency to turn increasingly oligarchic or democratic over time. This perhaps reflects the structural tendency of a faction with power to take measures which gradually reinforce that power. Aristotle argues that Solon, the founder of the Athenian regime, instituted the democratic elements which gradually led that city to become an extreme democracy, something Aristotle believes Solon did not intend — just as, we might surmise, the American Founding Fathers established the system which led to our current regime, but did not intend this outcome.
In the great slouch towards equality, Aristotle observes that foreigners were also a favorite political weapon not only of tyrants but also of demagogues. He writes: “At Amphipolis someone by the name of Cleotimus introduced Chalcidian settlers and incited them after their settlement to make an attack on the rich” (1305b39). Aristotle says that naturalization of foreigners played a key role in Athens’ shift towards an extreme form of democracy. He says of Cleisthenes: “after the expulsion of the tyrants he enrolled in the tribes a number of resident aliens, both foreigners and slaves” (1275b34). Aristotle says elsewhere that extreme democrats consolidate their regime by efforts to mix the citizenry (breaking down old identities) and stoking individualism:
Other measures which are also useful in constructing this last and most extreme type of democracy are measures like those introduced by Cleisthenes at Athens, when he sought to advance the cause of democracy, or those which were taken by the founders of popular government at Cyrene. A number of new tribes and clans should be instituted by the side of the old; private cults should be reduced in number and conducted at common centers; and every contrivance should be employed to make all the citizens mix, as much as they possibly can, and to break down their old loyalties. All the measures adopted by tyrants may equally be regarded as congenial to democracy. We may cite as examples the license allowed to slaves (which, up to a point, may be advantageous as well as congenial), the license permitted to women and children, and the policy of conniving at the practice of “living as you like.” There is much to assist a constitution of this sort, for most people find more pleasure in living without discipline than they find in a life of temperance. (1319b19)
Thus, by weakening traditional group identities and the authority of family fathers, the population of “liberated individuals” is paradoxically reduced to an impotent mass, which can then be skillfully manipulated. This, of course, has happened in America since the 1960s. White identity and the concept of Whites having interests as Whites have been vilified and pushed to the fringes of polite society. Freedom of association has been limited: for example, private clubs that were restricted, say to men or to Whites, have been made illegal or at least made to seem disreputable; segregation of the races in public places has been made illegal, and forced integration (e.g., via busing Blacks into White-majority schools) has been common.
Aristotle offers some advice for preserving a constitution. The law should incite citizens to be on their guard against those living lives contrary to the spirit of the law and the citizens should be trained to use leisure appropriately. While Aristotle is emphatic in stressing that war is not an end in itself, but merely a means to a good peace, he nonetheless observes: “War automatically enforces temperance and justice: the enjoyment of prosperity, and leisure accompanied by peace, is more apt to make people overbearing” (1334a11). Aristotle advises against regular changes to the basic law, for the small benefits this might entail are likely to be canceled out by a loss of reverence for the law’s authority. It goes without saying that daily life in ancient Greece was not constantly transformed by technological innovations as our lives have been for the past few centuries.
Ultimately, one must hope for a great lawgiver. There is a strong element of chance and destiny in this. Fo,r as Aristotle observes: “It is easy enough to theorize about such matters: it is far less easy to realize one’s theories. What we say about them depends on what we wish; what actually happens depends on chance” (1331b18). Aristotle recognizes that the law cannot foresee all circumstances. If suddenly a superior individual, a hero would appear:
There can be no law governing people of this kind. They are a law in themselves. It would be a folly to attempt to legislate for them: they might reply to such an attempt with the words used by the lions, in the fable of Antisthenes, when the hares were making orations and claiming that all the animals should have equal status. (1284a3)
In Antisthenes’ tale, the lions ask the hares: “Where are your claws and teeth?” Ultimately, the exceptional man must not be constrained by law but must himself promulgate a new one:
It is surely clear that [the one best man] must be a lawgiver, and there must be a body of laws, but these laws must not be sovereign where they fail to hit the mark — though they must be so in all other cases. (1286a21)
In conclusion, Aristotle provides a powerful rationale for a moderate constitutional regime of responsible citizen-soldiers constrained by an enlightened basic law. He was keenly aware of the solidarity enabled by kinship and the dangers posed by a lack of common identity. Aristotle’s citizens are not obsessed with their ‘rights’ to imagined equality or maximal individual liberty, but participate in the regulation of the collective life of the city, which is to say the assigning and fulfilling of duties. The city being the citizens, Aristotle ascribes a fundamental importance to legislating to ensure the cultural and biological quality and perpetuity of the community, to be achieved through rigorous education and systematic population policies.
Aristotle’s eudaimonic ethics and politics, grounded in the biological realities of human nature and aimed towards collective survival and flourishing, are eminently compatible with a Darwinian worldview. The ancient philosopher’s system can be readily updated, if need be, with the discoveries of modern genetic and behavioral sciences. Aristotle gives us at once an elevated, practical, and responsible vision of politics, far removed either from the effeminacy and solipsism of our times, or shrill denunciations of a stereotyped ‘totalitarianism.’ Indeed, he did not believe that civic freedom was even possible without manly virtue. Aristotle’s views on the ideal state are something of a synthesis and summary of wider Greek ones, acquired after hard experience and deep reflection: a balanced regime founded on a mix of aristocratic and popular elements, an inspired basic law, and an enlightened citizenry. His politeia shows that there is no contradiction between a muscular and holistic biopolitics and a civic politics characterized by the rule of law and open debate. The politics of the Greek city-state is nothing more than that of the assembled family fathers and soldier-citizens, perpetuators and guarantors of the social order, come together to fulfill their sacred responsibility to protect, discipline, and educate their kinsfolk towards the good.