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. Read more