Aristotle in America: Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither

VIII. The Measure of a Man

Although America did not invent slavery, slavery did invent America. Slavery invented America by providing the delegates to the Constitutional Convention the frame within they considered each of the critical questions they sought to answer. This was already clear on May 29, 1787, barely two weeks into the convention, when Edmund Randolph introduced the resolutions, known as the Virginia Plan, out of which our constitution would emerge. For even those resolutions that did not mention slavery explicitly had slavery written all over them. Nor is it difficult for us to figure out why this was so. The answer is already right there in Aristotle’s definition of a slave: “Any human being that by nature belongs not to himself but to another is by nature a slave; and a human being belongs to another whenever, in spite of being a man, he is a piece of property, i.e., a tool having a separate existence and meant for action.”

In spite of being a man. . . .” So, were slaves to be counted as property, in which case they should be taxed, but not represented; or should they be counted men, in which case they should be represented, but not taxed. Here, in a man—a human being who belonged not to himself but to another—was contained the very cause for the American Revolution itself: taxation without representation. And, yet, the problem does not end there.

On May 29, 1787, Edmund Randolph set out five defects to the Articles of Confederation, defects that in the judgment of all those present warranted the creation of “a more perfect Union.” To begin with, “the Confederation produced no security against foreign invasion.” Congress could not “prevent a war, nor . . . support it by their own authority.” Congress also had no authority, should any state violate a treaty, or “the law of nations,” to punish that state. More importantly, noted Randolph, “particular states might, by their conduct, provoke war without control.” And, should they do so, “neither militia nor drafts being fit for defence on such occasions, enlistments only could be successful, and these could not be executed without money.” In short, the federal government was entirely incapable of either defending itself or of raising revenues with which to do so. This suggested a strengthening of the federal government at the expense of the states.

The federal government needed revenue in order to raise an army. Southern delegates objected. They objected, first, because, unlike their colleagues to the north, their property consisted not in real estate, ships, merchandise, and fixed capital, but in men, women, and children—in slaves. However, they also objected because they had reason to believe that, were the federal government to use their taxes to raise an army, that army might well be used against the southern states themselves.

The second defect to which Randolph called the attention of his fellow delegates was the fact that the federal government lacked authority to “check the quarrel between states, nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power, nor means, to interpose according to the exigency.” Again, the federal government was too weak to prevent civil war. And, again, southern delegates feared that the next rebellion might not be launched by Daniel Shays and his men, but by southern slaves eager to join their free brothers and sisters in the north. On whose side would federal troops side, on the side of southern planters, or on the side of southern slaves?

The third defect was that the Confederation was unable to secure the “fruits of liberty,” which, in this case, meant chiefly the economic fruits. But, once again, the problem was the weakness of the center. Without the ability to regulate interstate commerce or to impose restrictions on the generation of currency, the federal government was powerless to take advantage of the abundance of wealth and labor enjoyed by the new republic. But, once again, as well, property and, hence, slavery was the underlying issue. This is because the southern states wanted slaves to be treated as men for purposes of representation, but treated as property when it came to law. This placed run-away slaves in the odd position of being charged with theft, in effect stealing themselves. Interstate commerce was jeopardized by the countless caveats and exceptions that states were forced to make on account of slavery.

Randolph’s fourth objection to the Articles of Confederation was that they left no means for the federal government to defend itself “against encroachments from the states.” But, fifthly, Randolph pointed out, there was no clause making the federal constitution “paramount to the state constitutions.”

In both of these cases, slavery was the underlying issue. Against whom would the federal government need to defend itself if not from troops charged with protecting the South’s most peculiar institution? Or, which states sought preemption of their state constitutions over the U.S. Constitution? Again, the answer was clear.

And, yet, the northern states knew that economically they needed the South just as much or even more than the South needed them. We often overlook the immense windfall slavery provided all of the states and not simply those in the south. Economically, slavery drove wages down not only for unskilled workers, who often competed for employment with slaves, but for all workers, both skilled and unskilled. But, for this reason, we also often overlook the tremendous boost to overall productivity slavery provided, not simply for the South, but for all of the United States. This helps to explain why, for all their moral posturing, delegates to the convention from northern states did not simply walk away from the table when their southern colleagues refused to budge. And this, in itself, points to what was truly unique about the debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention.

Aristotle, we will recall, discussed slavery in the context of the household economy or private enterprise, the principle aim of which was to maintain the household. Indeed, Aristotle explicitly warned against those who would seek to expand their wealth indefinitely. The owners of such households were at risk, believed Aristotle, of mistaking life (bios) for creation (zoe) and so of substituting mere biological existence for living well. Such owners, Aristotle warned, would quickly lose their bearings and would begin to view all of human action as mere means for accumulating endless wealth. Soon they would see courage only another means for making money, instead of an indispensible component in winning battles. Or they would begin to see war as only another way of accumulating wealth. Or they would view health care as a means for making money rather than, as it should be, a means to care for the sick and make them healthy.

Clearly, the impact that endless accumulation of wealth would have upon the enslaved would be disastrous. For let us suppose that the owner of this form of property could increase his yield not by preserving or maintaining his human property, but by using, discarding, and purchasing another slave. Let us suppose that, like any commodity, this commodity too could carry a value that made its use and replacement more economical than its care and preservation. Here, in fact, was the ultimate perversion: that human beings would come to view other human beings not as a means to sustain a closed economy, i.e., a self-sustaining oikos or oikonomia, which is the case in every despotism; but, rather, that they would come to view other human beings as a means of unending accumulation of wealth. At this point, human beings, whose bodies and minds are not limitless, are made subject to a process that is. And the destruction of their finite bodies and minds for the sake of something limitless comes to be viewed as a price worth paying.

This, clearly, is what had happened in America, not only in the South, but also in the North. And it is what linked the fates of mere landless laborers in the North to the fates of enslaved Africans in the South. In both instances, their lives and labor had come to be viewed solely within the context of the private household economy. The natural condition of both was viewed as “the tool” of another human being within an overall despotic relationship.

But, since delegates from northern states shared this general outlook with their southern counterparts, northern delegates found it difficult to out-maneuver their southern colleagues in discussions about taxation, property, security,representation, and slavery. They wished—all of them, North and South—to be true republicans, true advocates and protectors of public life, the life we hold in common and where alone we are free and equal. And, yet, such was the nature of the despotism attached to the private household economy (oikonomia)—to which, in turn, the delegates were themselves attached—that this despotism could not help but seep through the cracks left open by the framers.

Initially, of course, it created but a trickle. Since it intersected every one of the resolutions named in the Virginia Plan, the topic of slavery came up almost every day the convention met. But, on most days, since it was always possible to reach consensus on whatever matter was explicitly on the table—length of term of service, direct or indirect election of representatives, interstate commerce, taxation—the treatment of slavery could be kicked down the road indefinitely, or so it seemed. But, then, beginning in July the matter of slavery could not be put off any longer. And by August it threatened to undo all that had thus far been accomplished. Would slavery wreck the convention? Would it deprive the new nation of what it most needed: a new constitution?

Republicanism presumes common wealth shared among political, economic, and intellectual equals. The men meeting in Philadelphia in 1787 to “form a more perfect Union” were under no illusions. They knew full well that this republican vision would not sit well with most of those who had actually picked up muskets, fought, and suffered hardship for their country. Most of their fellow countrymen lacked the wealth, education, and property they would have needed to actively participate in public life. And, although some of them might hope some day to own their own household (oikos) and thereby become the masters (despotes) of their own household economy (oikonomia), most of them were and would forever remain the doulos or “slaves” within some other man’s private household economy.

For those of European descent, there was a way out of such bondage. Hard work, saving, wise investment, and eventually land and education might earn them the right to actively participate in public life. For those of African descent, the same did not hold true. Hard work might earn them a transfer from work in the fields to work in the foundry or lumber mill or to the household itself. But no amount of labor would be enough to earn them their political freedom. They too remained doulos or slaves within some other man’s private household economy; but without any hope for redemption. They were bound to work for a master (despotes) for life.

Just as it was elsewhere in the Americas, despotism was thus an indispensible component of economic life in the United States as well. And this fact, in and of itself, made advocacy for republican values and institutions highly problematic. For, as the inhabitants on the Island of Hispanola (Haiti) would soon demonstrate, there was nothing to prevent slaves from embracing these same values and institutions. And, owing to the inherent conflict between republican institutions and values and despotic ones, this made the formation of a more perfect Union that explicitly included despotism a leading problem for those meeting in Philadelphia.

The topic of slavery came up nearly every day during the convention. It came up on July 11, because southern states wished to have their slaves counted (at least numerically) in the formula that would determine representation in the House. It came up on August 8, because Massachusetts’ Rufus King, an outspoken federalist, wished to revisit the matter of importing slaves, which he considered “a most grating circumstance.” King, who had just read a disturbing committee report on the matter, struck a despairing note:

In two great points, the hands of the legislature were absolutely tied. The importation of slaves could not be prohibited. Exports could not be taxed. Is this reasonable? What are the great objects of the general system? First, defence against foreign invasion; secondly, against internal sedition. Shall all the states, then, be bound to defend each, and shall each be at liberty to introduce a weakness which will render defence more difficult? Shall one part of the United States be bound to defend another part, and that other part be at liberty, not only to increase its own danger, but to withhold the compensation for the burden? If slaves are to be imported, shall not the exports produced by their labor supply a revenue the better to enable the general government to defend their masters? . . . Either slaves should not be represented, or exports should be taxable.

Here, again, questions of taxation, representation, and national defense are clearly bound together with the entire matter of slavery. Rufus had earned his wealth from manufacturing, shipping, and investing in public securities. He therefore well appreciated the intimate relationship between slave labor, manufacturing, and the export business. But, he also appreciated the expense the federal courts and magistrates had incurred and would continue to incur policing the slave trade and its issue.

At which point, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania was recognized. The only thing striking about Morris’ human geography is the praise it earned from his colleagues.

Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich and noble cultivation marks the prosperity and happiness of the people, with the misery and poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Virginia, Maryland, and the other states having slaves. Travel through the whole continent, and you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance and disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave the Eastern States, and enter New York, the effects of the institution become visible. Passing through the Jersey’s and entering Pennsylvania, every criterion of superior improvement witnesses the change. Proceed southwardly, and every step you take, through the great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings. Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and had them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?

What precisely Morris meant by referring to the human landscape as a “desert” is difficult to discern. Was he referring to the poverty, the hovels in which slaves were forced to live? Was he referring to the profound lack of commerce, when compared to the north? However, it is Morris’ aim that is truly astounding. Morris was not demanding representation for slaves. Far from it. Rather, he was pointing out that slaves could not and should not be represented (thus depriving the south of dozens of potential representatives in the House).

But, then Morris turns to the matter of property and therefore of taxation. Southern states wanted it both ways. When taxation was on the table, they wanted their slaves to be counted human beings and therefore not taxed. When representation was on the table, they also wanted their slaves to be counted human beings, at least for purposes of representation. But, then, when the matter of voting was on the table, all bets were off. Suddenly once again slaves became property. Which other form of property was thus exempted from taxation?

Morris then called attention to what all of the others had ignored. Slavery, he pointed out, is the foundation of aristocracy. “Domestic slavery is the most prominent feature in the aristocratic countenance of the proposed Constitution.” Of course he was right. But, he was not finished. “The vassalage of the poor,” he declared, “has ever been the favorite offspring of aristocracy.” Right again. But he was speaking to a room filled with men for whom “aristocracy” was not necessarily a term of derision. And, so, in conclusion Morris returned to the issues of security, revenue, and representation.

And what is the proposed compensation to the Northern States, for a sacrifice of every principle of right, of every impulse of humanity? They are to bind themselves to march their militia for the defence of the Southern States, for their defence against those very slaves of whom they complain. They must supply vessels and seamen, in case of foreign attack. The legislature will have indefinite power to tax them by excises, and duties on imports, both of which will fall heavier on them than on the southern inhabitants; for the bohea tea used by a northern freeman will pay more tax than the whole consumption of the miserable slave, which consists of nothing more than his physical subsistence and the rag that covers his nakedness. On the other side, the Southern States are not to be restrained from importing fresh supplies of wretched Africans, at once to increase the danger of attack and the difficulty of defence; nay, they are to be encouraged to it, by an assurance of having their votes in the national government increased in proportion; and are, at the same time, to have their exports and their slaves exempt from all contributions for the public service.

Here, finally, Morris tied all the themes together: despotism, security, revenue, and representation.

Aristotle, too, had recognized the interrelationship among these matters. Despotism—or, as we prefer to call it, private enterprise—was the very foundation for the freedom of the republic. Absent the household economy’s generation of wealth, there could be no revenue to share in common. And absent common wealth, there could be no freedom and independence for the citizens of the republic.

There was, however, a huge difference between fourth century Athens and eighteenth century North America. Where Aristotle had viewed the unending accumulation of wealth as a perversion of private enterprise, the framers of the constitution were inclined to praise this potentially endless source of wealth. Here, we cannot overlook the fact that, while the first Library of Congress gave Plato and Aristotle pride of place—first and second under the general heading of “Politics”—it grouped them together with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which, given its novelty, is quite impressive. Published a mere eleven years earlier, in 1776, Smith’s book had already made it onto the all-time best seller list alongside Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics.

Evidently the framers still believed that it would be possible to steer clear of the perversions Aristotle had mentioned. They would be able to prevent military courage from being leveraged for private financial gain. They would be able to prevent wars from being waged to accumulate wealth. And they would be able to prevent medicine from becoming a cash cow. But, mostly, they would be able to prevent the despotism of the private household economy from infecting the republic.

Yet, given their discussion of slavery, it already seems clear that republicanism itself was on the block. For, all of the delegates, not excluding Morris, were now entirely comfortable equating the value of human beings with the private labor they performed in one another’s households, as though a republic could possibly be based and built upon such a thoroughly despotic principle. Each of them had taken the measure of a man—a slave—and had made that measure the cornerstone of their so-called republic.

That cornerstone has a name and that name is Civil War.

Tea-Party Pushes for the End of Republic

Repeatedly over the past month I have read something like the following in the American (and in the foreign) press:

The expected showdown over the legislation is the culmination of months of efforts by Tea Party-allied freshmen and fellow conservatives to demand a fundamentally smaller government in exchange for raising the federal borrowing limit.

This from today’s New York Times (July 27, 2011). The problem I have with this casting of the debt crisis is that it isolates this particular campaign to disable and eliminate the federal government from past and continuing campaigns. This is not about smaller government. This is about the restoration of “private law” on behalf of private self-interest at the expense of public law on behalf of res publica. Nor is it about reducing deficits. The best outcome for the so-called Republican Party would be default, financial crisis, followed by a complete political overhaul of the nation.

This agenda places private investors  in a dilemma. On the one hand, they are not all too fond of the rule of public law. As the framers of the U.S. Constitution pointed out two and a quarter centuries ago, the single greatest defect in the Articles of Confederation was that it prevented the federal government from raising revenues to maintain the consistent rule of law across the states. In 1787, the federalists won out over the anti-federalists. But the argument didn’t end there.

Throughout the nineteenth century, southern Congressmen and northern industrial leaders labored tirelessly to overturn, pare back, and undermine federal institutions and federal authority. And, as we well know, in 1861, exactly one and a half centuries ago, eleven states determined that the only way to undo the decisions of 1787 was to once again declare their independence from the federal government. These states, in effect, re-instituted the Articles of Confederation. For private investors, the decision was was an unmitigated disaster.

Which is why financial markets are a bit jittery to say the least. For, the alternative is the consistent rule of law res publica, on behalf of the public. And they know what this means. As it did in 1787, it means the taxation of private wealth on behalf of public interests.

The game is over. Private financial institutions need to step up to the plate. They need to make clear to Tea Party Republicans that they are now on their own; that, given the alternatives before them, they will support (small “r”) republican values and institutions over private law and private self-interest. Because, in the end, this is what also serves the interests of financial markets.

My fear is that it is too late and that, having coddled and cheered these anti-federalists since the end of World War II, these anti-republicans now rule the roost. Which means that this may be not 1787 or 1861, but 1932. No, this is not about smaller government. It is about an entirely different kind of government. And, that is what concerns me.

Aristotle in America: Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither

VII. The Republic of Labor

We saw in chapter four that, to a person, the delegates to the convention in Philadelphia were republicans all, but democrats not. Their fear of democracy balanced their fear of tyranny. In the middle stood republicanism, a safe, secure, and stable public space carved out of and protected from private enterprise. None of the framers of the constitution needed to lie, either to themselves or to one another. They knew that they were all—whether planters or lawyers, merchants or bankers—at heart businessmen each and every one of them, and that, therefore,  at least in Aristotle’s eyes, they did not even deserve so much as an honorable mention among the philosopher’s “three main types of life.”

As for the life of the businessman, it does not give him much freedom of action. Besides, wealth is obviously not the good that we are seeking, because it serves only as a means; i.e. for getting something else.

Private enterprise was not so much a way of life as a way of producing and reproducing life itself, mere life: bios (biology) as distinguished from zoe (creation). And, yet, each and every one of them also knew and aspired after that independence and freedom of action that, as Aristotle himself acknowledged, was unattainable without sufficient wealth. The question for everyone in Philadelphia was, how are these two related?

The answer—as everyone in Philadelphia realized—was that all private households and all private enterprise would contribute a portion from their own wealth to create a common space, res publica, protected from the differences, distinctions, and hierarchical relationships of domination and submission that are necessary and natural in every private enterprise.

Of course, since nearly all of us work in someone else’s household (someone else’s private enterprise, oikonomia), some of us quite literally, we, today, shrink from the full implications of Aristotle’s discussion. The framers of our Constitution did not. They understood that those engaged in the meaner sort of mechanical arts, farmers who tended another man’s crops, or tradesmen who used another man’s tools and worked in another man’s shop—they understood that these, too, were a kind of slave (literally any person who is subject to a despotic relationship).

The slave shares in his master’s life; the artisan is less closely connected with him, and only attains excellence in proportion as he becomes a slave. The meaner sort of mechanic has a special and separate slavery; and whereas the slave exists by nature, not so the shoemaker or other artisan.

Such are the relationships that prevail in any private enterprise. And, since nearly all of us work for all living, there is little need for us to be particularly embarrassed by them. All of us report to someone. All of us owe our employment to someone. All of us work in someone else’s private enterprise. The Greeks had a name for this relationship. They called it despotism. And they also had names for the parties in this relationship: master and slave.

We will have more to say about this relationship—so crucial to American history—later on. For the moment, I want us to recognize, as the framers of the Constitution recognized, how and why this relationship is absolutely essential for republican self-rule. Therefore, in an attempt to avoid any confusion, I am going to build upon the definition to which Aristotle called our attention above and, rather than referring to all workers as slaves, I am instead going to use the more general terms “worker” or “laborer” to refer to all of those who work in another person’s private enterprise.

To begin with, Aristotle calls attention to the obvious: a worker is a tool employed by another human being to achieve that other human being’s objectives. Or, as he put it in his Politics: “any human being that by nature belongs not to himself but to another is by nature a slave; and a human being belongs to another whenever, in spite of being a man, he is a piece of property, i.e., a tool having a separate existence and meant for action.” Again, we need not put on airs for one another here. Any of us who hold a mortgage, who have unsecured debt, who work out of necessity and not for love, and who were born to parents in a similar lot; in Aristotle’s view, we are workers, laborers, and slaves “by nature.” Or, if you prefer, we are tools in another man’s household.

Next, Aristotle establishes, once again, that this relationship of domination and submission, of master and slave, is everywhere evident in nature. Aristotle does not ask us to like or approve of these natural relationships between men and women, parents and children, employers and workers, masters and slaves. But nor does he want us to ignore them since, in his view, without them, there can be no res publica, no public space where citizens do not work for a living.

After establishing the universality of the slave-master relationship in nature, Aristotle moves next to the purpose of the private enterprise based on such unequal relationships. And Aristotle’s first question is whether the acquisition of wealth is separate from or subject to the occupation of household management. In other words, as I manage my private enterprise am I simply trying to maintain my household, or do I aim to make it grow ever larger? And, if my aim is the continuous expansion of the household, the private enterprise, then am I any longer a household manager, or have I not become something else?

To answer this question, Aristotle first considers households that produce all that they consume and produce no more than they consume, which was a natural consideration not only in 4th century BCE Athens, but also for many independent farmers setting up homesteads on the frontier in 18th century CE America. Consuming something that the household did not produce was not only viewed a luxury, but a waste. And, in Aristotle’s view, “such a mode of acquisition is clearly given by nature herself to all her creatures, both at the time of their birth and when they are fully grown.”

Aristotle’s next question, is why? To what end has nature made the private household or private enterprise? Has nature made the private enterprise solely to reproduce itself? Or does it not have a higher calling?

The answer, of course, is that nature has designed the private enterprise to fulfill a higher calling, to produce a surplus “necessary for providing a livelihood or useful to household or polis as associations.” The purpose of the private enterprise is to support other associated households or even the polis itself. Yet, even this may not be sufficient to support the common weal. And, so, Aristotle recognizes, in addition to household management, there is also the “acquisition of wealth” proper, which he considers over and above household management. In other words, there is business.

With the appearance of business and the express aim of acquiring wealth, we also, once again, are faced with the question why? To which Aristotle answers, much the same as Adam Smith would answer two millennia later:

Mutual need of the different goods made it essential to contribute one’s share, and it is on this basis that many of the non-Greek peoples still proceed, i.e., by exchange: they exchange one class of useful goods for another—for example they take and give wine for corn and so on.

Nor, admits Aristotle, is there anything the least unnatural about such exchanges. “Such a technique of exchange is not contrary to nature and is not a form of money-making; for it keeps to its original purpose: to re-establish nature’s own equilibrium of self-sufficiency.” Yet, even Aristotle recognized that it was “out of this technique that money-making arose.” The process, as Aristotle outlines it, is simple enough. We go to market with an item that someone else needs, but we fail to find there the item that we need. And, so, naturally enough, we accept a place-holder for that item: money. But, since money is infinitely transferable (infinitely “liquid,” we would say), it has a value greater than all other finite items. (Aristotle then recounts the story of Midas who, though infinitely wealthy, starves because he cannot eat his gold.)

And, with this, the scales tip from the natural to the perverse because, rather than producing goods in order to supply some private or public need, those who fall under the spell of unending wealth produce goods only for that end and for no other.

There is no limit to the end which this kind of acquisition has in view, because the end is wealth in that form, i.e., the possession of goods. The kind which is household management, on the other hand, does have a limit, since it is not the function of household-management to acquire goods.

The dividing line separating the two is almost imperceptible. And, yet, it is also insidious. “They overlap in that both are concerned with the same thing, property; but in their use of it they are dissimilar: in one case the end is sheer increase, in the other something different.” Yet, on account of their similarities, “some people therefore imagine that increase is the function of household management, and never cease to believe that their store of coined money ought to be either hoarded, or increased without limit.” And, so, the perversion sets in.

To be absolutely clear, Aristotle was not arguing against the acquisition of wealth. For, without surplus wealth, Aristotle knew, there could be no res publica, no common wealth in a republic of equals. Rather was Aristotle calling attention to how easy it was to slip over the line separating the acquisition of wealth for public good and the mere acquisition of wealth for its own sake. The former was natural and virtuous, the latter unnatural and perverse.

But, then, how could one tell the difference? One could tell the difference, thought Aristotle, by considering the actions and the intentions of those who were acquiring wealth. On the one hand are those who pursue not mere life (bios), but who pursue the good life. Today, of course, the two have become nearly indistinguishable. The good life is the life of those who are wealthy. For Aristotle, however, as for the framers of the Constitution, the good life still maintained the overall connotation of doing good, i.e., of virtuous deeds on behalf of the public. And, yet, for many, even in Aristotle’s times, the boundary separating mere living from the good life could easily get blurred.

The reason why some people get this notion into their heads may be that they are eager for life but not for the good life; so, desire for life being unlimited, they desire also an unlimited amount of what enables it to go on. Others again, while aiming at the good life, seek what is conducive to the pleasure of the body. So, as this too appears to depend on the possession of property, their whole activity centres on business, and the second
[perverse] mode of acquiring goods owes its existence to this.

As individuals turn there attention away from the public good and toward unending private acquisition, they slowly begin to see all of creation as a mere means to this same end.

And if they cannot procure it through money-making, they try to get it by some other means, using all their faculties for this purpose, which is contrary to nature: courage, for example, is to produce confidence, not goods; nor yet is it the job of military leadership and medicine to produce goods, but victory and health. But these people turn all skills into skills of acquiring goods, as though that were the end and everything had to serve that end.

Who would ever consider using the rhetoric of courage or the deaths of soldiers in combat to make money? Who would ever consider making money promoting militarization and war? Who would ever consider making money selling good health? Aristotle, of course, knew who. So, too, did the framers of the Constitution:  Pericles.

But, the delegates also knew how close they too stood to the precipice. They, too, after all, were businessmen. They were all more than interested in acquiring wealth and they were interested in more than the common weal. However, this is not to say that their support for republican values and institutions was insincere. For, although they were businessmen all, they were also men of property, real estate, wealth, and education. In other words, they enjoyed many, if not all, of the qualities that Aristotle had recommended for those who would be leaders in a politeia, a common wealth. Indeed, three of their states had even elected to attach this precise designation—common wealth—to their states’ names: Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. (The Commonwealth of Kentucky, a fourth commonwealth that had been a part of Virginia, was admitted into statehood in 1792.) And, yet, they were also sufficiently acquainted with Aristotle’s Politics to be wary of admitting despotic, hierarchical relationships into their new republic.

Would the bankers, lawyers, and merchants who hailed from America’s northern and central states use their seats in Congress to benefit their despotic business relations? Would the merchants and planters from America’s southern states use their seats to introduce the despotic spirit of slavery into the federal government?

All indications are that the delegates meeting in Philadelphia genuinely believed that they could preserve and protect a meaningful wall of separation between their private, despotic, self-interests and the “general welfare” of their republic, to use the words of written into the Preamble to their Constitution. They had done all they could to isolate and separate the Chief Executive Office from the erratic, untutored, and unpredictable will of the people. The President, in their view, should be elected not by popular vote, but by an electoral college composed of trustworthy state electors, which were themselves to be selected in a way that protected them from private self-interest. Members of the Senate, who were to make up the aristocratic body in Congress, would likewise be insulated from the people. (Senators would not be elected by popular ballot until 1913.) Only the House, the democratic arm of Congress, would be popularly elected. And, yet, even here most states set such strict property and wealth restrictions on who would be granted the franchise that there was almost not danger that the “wrong sort of individual” would make their way into Congress.

We, today, view these protections as a slight against democracy (which, indeed, they were). Not only do we tolerate private, self-interest. We expect it. Indeed, we promote it. We support candidates for public office not because we believe that they will promote public institutions and broaden the common wealth, but, to the contrary, precisely because we feel they will advance our own private, self-interest. Candidates who fail to make the private interests of their constituents a leading element in their stump speech, or who invite voters to promote and protect public institutions, are regularly turned out of office. Candidates are expected, instead, to show how and why their voting record in Congress has built up, expanded, and promoted the interests of private businesses and industry.

Not, of course, that ever greater public political participation is their goal. Far from it. Wherever constituents are likely to support public values and institutions, wherever voters favor public health, public education, public transportation, parks, housing, or the “general welfare,” there we can anticipate massive voter suppression campaigns. In such places, it is as though the republican ideals of our Founders were turned on their heads. Where the framers were eager to protect and promote public values and institutions, these politicians aim to suppress and destroy them. And where the delegates in Philadelphia aimed to prevent private self-interest from gaining a foothold in Congress, these household managers appear to have no other interest other than promoting the same.

The challenges today are no different than they were in 1787 or, for that matter, 350 BCE. Private enterprise is natural. Indeed, it is necessary and even good. Without it, public institutions could scarcely exist. And, yet, in the end, private enterprise, by definition, does not aim at best interests of the common wealth. As Aristotle noted two and a half millennia ago:

Of forms of government in which one rules, we call that which regards the common interests, kingship or royalty; that in which more than one, but not many, rule, aristocracy; and it is so called, either because the rulers are the best men, or because they have at heart the best interests of the state and of the citizens. But when the citizens at large administer the state for the common interest, the government is called by the generic name—a constitution.

What the framers were aiming at was a constitution, a republic. But, it is clear, they were also aiming at a form of constitution composed by “the best men,” a “more perfect Union” that had at heart “the best interests both of the state and of its citizens.”

Could such be formed by men so deeply implicated in private enterprise? For, like all things in nature, private enterprise they knew was grounded in the differences that set individuals apart from one another. It is based on the principle of despotism. Some must labor so that others need not. Those who are bound to labor as well as those by whom they are managed are locked, as it were, in despotic relationships; the managers as much dependent upon the laborers whom they manage as the laborers are dependent upon the private enterprise that pays their wages.

How can we both found a nation on labor and, nevertheless, that nation be free?

Aristotle in America: Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither

Supplement: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

As any casual romp about the Internet will confirm, there is a great deal of confusion over why Thomas Jefferson altered John Locke’s already famous formula—Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property—when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Yes, Jefferson’s decision to replace Locke’s “pursuit of property” with “pursuit of happiness” was shaped by the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason. According to Article I of the Virginia Declaration:

All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

We see here how tightly bound together Mason, the delegates to the Virginia Convention, and Thomas Jefferson felt property—real estate—and happiness were indeed.

And, yet, the attribution is entirely misplaced. It belongs not to Mason, or Jefferson, or even to Locke. It belongs almost in its entirety to Aristotle. For it was Aristotle who, in roughly 350 BCE, first coherently laid out why and how happiness might be the chief end and goal of human thought and action. He did so in Book One of his Nicomachean Ethics.

Many of the delegates in Philadelphia in 1776—and , again, in 1787—would have been able to recite Aristotle’s argument by heart, in the original. So it is well that we bear Aristotle’s argument in mind when we reflect upon its meaning. The first question that naturally comes to mind is, why not happiness? What else could possibly be more basic?

And, of course, the obvious answer is property, things. Here is Aristotle’s argument. The highest good is an “end which we want for its own sake, and for the sake of which we want all the other ends—if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for this will involve an infinite progression, so that our aim will be pointless and ineffectual).” To Aristotle, as for the delegates in Philadelphia, it was “clear that this must be the good, that is, the supreme good.”

And, what is that good? “‘It is happiness,’ say both ordinary and cultured people; and they identify happiness with living well or doing well.” But, as Aristotle points out, it is precisely here that our troubles begin. For “when it comes to saying in what happiness consists, opinions differ, and the account given by the generality of mankind is not at all like that of the wise.” Most people, observed Aristotle, took happiness to be “something obvious and familiar, like pleasure or money or eminence.” Moreover, most people are liable to change their views depending on their circumstances. “When they fall ill they say that it is health, and when they are hard up that it is money.” Or, “conscious of their own ignorance, they are impressed by anyone who pontificates and says something that is over their heads.”

At this point, Aristotle would appear to be heading in the same direction as his mentor, Plato, who held that the highest good did not reside in things at all, but could be obtained only through contemplation. But, this, too, Aristotle rejected. True happiness is no more obtained in contemplation than true community could be obtained in complete solitude. For, argued Aristotle, “even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of a community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.” If, therefore, happiness is the highest good, it is not obtained in private contemplation, but in public action.

But, then, Aristotle catches himself. Would it not be possible for a citizen to be happy but momentarily, but, over the duration of his life otherwise miserable? Therefore, Aristotle concludes:

The good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind. There is a further qualification: in a complete lifetime. One swallow does not make a summer; neither does one day. Similarly neither can one day, or a brief space of time, make a man blessed and happy.

Happiness, then, extends across a lifetime and consists, not as Plato had argued, in contemplating the realm of pure ideas, but in exercising virtue publicly and for the benefit of the public. Still, Plato was not completely mistaken. It is not the things around us that make for our happiness. Rather, it is the virtue of the good individual who then sees in these things means for achieving the highest good in the republic. For, as Aristotle points out, it is possible for individuals to experience happiness entirely in their heads without ever acting one way or another; without, as he puts it, “effecting any good result (e.g., if he is asleep or quiescent in some other way, but not for the activity).” But the virtuous person “will necessarily act, and act well.” Thus, Aristotle likens to person possessed by good intentions, but no public action, to the Olympian who merely dreams of running a race. 

Just as at the Olympic Games it is not the best-looking or the strongest men present that are crowned with wreaths, but the competitors (because it is from them that the winners come), so it is those who act that rightly win the honours and rewards in life.

The difference between the one and the other, between a life of merely contemplating the good and the life that brings about the good publicly, is that the former is lacking in true virtue and, therefore, in true happiness.

And, yet, Aristotle was not finished. For, he notes, it would still be possible for individuals to be virtuous, not only privately, in their heads, but publicly for the sake of the community, and still live miserable lives. “It seems clear,” therefore, “that happiness needs the addition of external goods, as we have said; for it is difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any resources.” And there is more.

Many can only be done as it were by instruments—by the help of friends, or wealth, or political influence. There are also certain advantages, such as good ancestry or good children or personal beauty, the lack of which mars our felicity; for a man is scarcely happy if he is very ugly to look at, or of low birth, or solitary and childless; and presumably even less so if he has children or friends who are quite worthless, or if he had good ones who are now dead. So, as we said, happiness seems to require this sort of prosperity too; which is why some identify it with good fortune, although others identify it with virtue.

And with this we near the wisdom that George Mason found in John Locke’s formula and also the reason why Thomas Jefferson felt compelled to replace Locke’s “pursuit of property” with Mason’s “pursuit of happiness.” Happiness is not something flimsy, a mere idea or fleeting virtue. It depends upon real good fortune and material goods. But it is not those goods. Nor is it something that can be had privately, individually, or in my own household. For, as Aristotle reminded his students “on this view happiness will be something widely shared; for it can attach, through some form of study or application, to anyone who is not handicapped by some incapacity for goodness.”

We conclude, then, that the happy man will have the required quality, and in fact will be happy throughout his life; because he will spend all his time, or the most time of any man, in virtuous conduct and contemplation. And he will bear his fortunes in the finest spirit and with perfect sureness of touch, as being “good in very truth’” and “foursquare without reproach.”

Property and happiness were related for the Founding Fathers not because property was the goal or aim of human life; but, rather, because they understood that only those who possessed their own property, those who did not have to labor in another person’s household (and for this reason only those who were truly independent); only such individuals could be truly happy.

Aristotle in America: Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither

VI. No Deception Required

In his widely-read essay, “Natural Right and the Problem of Aristotle’s Defense of Slavery,” Marquette University Professor Darrell Dobbs urges us to take Aristotle’s defense of slavery as a common-sense way to avoid “the extremes of a purely formal universalism and relativistic situationalism.” Dobbs wants his readers to recognize both that “Aristotle’s account of natural slavery is coherently formulated, and that it incorporates a reasonable standard for justice in the conduct of despotic government and thus provides a solid basis upon which we can condemn the actual practice of slavery wherever it involves abuse and injustice” (emphasis added).

Dobbs’ reading of Aristotle’s defense of slavery is particularly popular among scholars who trace their intellectual lineage to University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss. Beginning from the premise that members of society are and will remain unequal, these scholars then seek to interpret political institutions and laws in such a manner as to accommodate this persistent inequality. Then somewhere along the line, most, although not all, of these scholars end up advocating something like Plato’s rule of Guardians who keep “the many” in check by enlightened use of Gorgias’ fine art, rhetoric, i.e., “the noble lie.” For, they argue, it would be irresponsible and, indeed, destructive to permit “the many,” who lack both sufficient knowledge and sufficient skills for statecraft, to be granted equal power and status alongside those who are fit to rule.

Like most Straussians, Dobbs reads Aristotle through a lens cut by Plato. That is to say, Straussians come to Aristotle bearing Plato’s accusation that Socrates was unwise. He was unwise to publically air his criticisms of “the many” and he was unwise, when confronted by a jury composed of “the many,” to mock them openly. Members of the really existing polis (as distinguished from Aristotle’s ideal republic) are unequal. Moreover, “the many” are uneducated and unskilled. If you really want to do what is best for the republic, then you had best keep your thoughts to yourself.

Was then Aristotle naïve, as the Straussians suggest? Or was he wiser than either his mentor, Plato, or today’s would-be Platonic Guardians.  In all honesty, Aristotle was a little of both and neither. But, in order to understand how Aristotle was “both and neither,” we need to understand how and why he differed from his teacher Plato.

We have to remember that, following Pericles’ death, during the struggle for his successor, it was entirely natural for “true Athenians” (i.e., those who had supported Pericles) to look with suspicion on anyone who had been a student of Socrates. Nor was this merely on account of Socrates’ teachings. Although we may never know for certain, it appears likely that either under duress or willingly, Socrates may have been complicit in the rule of the Thirty Tyrants who, like Socrates, wished to make a quick end to Periclian democracy. If there is any truth to these reports, then it may help explain Plato’s commitment to secrecy and deception.

And where was Aristotle during these tense moments? He was nowhere. Remember, Pericles dies in 429 BCE. Socrates is tried and executed in 399 BCE. When, thirty-three years later, Aristotle shows up on the doorsteps of Plato’s Academy, he is only eighteen years old, barely a man. We need also to remember that the wars sparked by Pericles’ insatiable ambition had left Athens a shadow of its former self. As the Athenians attempted to restore some semblance of order to their once grand city, few paid any attention to their neighbors to the north, in Macedon, whose role in the final chapter of Classical Greek History would soon prove so central. And, so, few paid attention to the resident alien, Aristotle, himself a full Macedonian, who, in 366 BCE, showed up at Plato’s Academy.

During Aristotle’s studies at the Academy, Macedon’s expanding wealth and power began to make its way south toward Athens, gradually drawing Athens and southern Greece into its imperial orbit. Plato dies in 347 BCE.  Aristotle clearly thinks that he should have been selected Plato’s successor. Instead, a “true Athenian,” Plato’s nephew Speusippus, was selected. Aristotle is looked over, it is likely, because by then Philip II of Macedon’s imperial designs for Athens and Greece were obvious to all. So, when, in 344 BCE, Philip invited Aristotle to tutor his son, Alexander, Aristotle had every reason to accept the invitation and no reason to stay in Athens.

A half-dozen years later, in 338, Philip’s armies defeat a Thebian-Athenian alliance and Athens officially becames a part of the Macedonian empire. In 336, Philip dies and his empire passes into the hands of his son, Alexander, Aristotle’s former student, thus laying the groundwork for Aristotle’s triumphal return to Athens in 335 BCE.

Was Aristotle naïve? Not at all. Aristotle returns to Athens with the full protection of his imperial patron who is no longer Alexander the son of Philip, but already Alexander the Great. In broad daylight, absent the fear that plagued Plato and his students, Aristotle the resident alien is free to boldly lay out before his students his blueprint for sound republican government. Moreover, as Alexander’s former tutor, Aristotle can instruct his own students with complete confidence that Alexander knows and is sympathetic with the principles he is setting forth. No secrecy or deception required.

Was Aristotle naïve? Absolutely. For he must have known, as every agent of an occupying military force surely knows, that his safety in Athens depended almost entirely on Alexander’s good will and good fortune. One slip and Aristotle’s dream of helping to found a truly republican Athens could be shattered. For, as Aristotle must surely also have known, the republican values and institutions that he was seeking to create required a certain kind of individual, an educated and independent citizen, bound together with other like-minded individuals who share a singular vision for the common weal. And such citizens were few and far between in an Athens made safe and secure by military occupation.

Absent that military occupation, what would prevent Athens and Greece from dissembling into its several parts? What would prevent “the many” from once again pouring out into the streets and threatening the lives and livelihood of their self-selecting Guardians? What would prevent difference, inequality, domination and submission, and so despotism, from once again prevailing in the streets of Athens?

In the 1940s and 50s when Leo Strauss began to collect and consolidate his small following at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, almost thirty years of world war must have made Aristotle’s republican vision appear naïve indeed. Democracy had prevailed in Hitler’s Germany. French sympathizers had poured into the streets to welcome Nazi troops come to liberate them from their bourgeois dreariness. Fascism, strictly speaking, was, of course, not democracy. But, it was close enough to democracy—appealing directly to “the many” who lacked what the few wisely denied them—to disabuse Strauss’ worldly-wise students of any direct path leading from truth-telling to freedom. They preferred Plato’s deception and “noble lie” to Aristotle’s naïve republican virtues.

But, what of Aristotle’s defense of slavery?

In the last chapter, we explored Aristotle’s discussion of private enterprise (oikonomia) and public. We saw that while nature is naturally despotic, Aristotle felt that it was in the nature of being human for us to band together in communities of equals. This, Aristotle concluded, was why the manager of even a large private enterprise should not become a representative within a political community of equals.

As Darrell Dobbs’ article shows, Aristotle’s defense of slavery has been allowed to flourish apart from and even in opposition to his defense of public values and institutions. This was not Aristotle’s intention. Aristotle did not urge human beings to follow their nature, not if this meant limiting themselves to their isolated households and private enterprises. Rather did Aristotle call attention to our higher nature, that nature that draws us together into communities composed of equals dedicated to the common good.

What Dobbs and Strauss’s other followers have done is simply ignore Aristotle’s defense of public values and institutions. Our life together begins and ends with our isolated private households and businesses. Here, reduced to nature, difference prevails over equality. No wonder then that Dobbs becomes an advocate for despotism and despotic rule over republican values and institutions. And no wonder that Dobbs becomes an advocate for that movement within American political life against all things public.

Public institutions, it is said, are strangling private enterprise. The public needs to let go in order for private enterprise to flourish. It is not the public’s responsibility to promote equality or health or education or welfare. Rather should our public servants, laws, and institutions promote and protect the private household and private enterprise.

Of course, this is not only the very opposite of Aristotle’s republican vision. It is also the very opposite of the republican vision contemplated by the Framers of the US Constitution. And, yet, despotism is there—right there—written into that very document. It is called slavery.

Aristotle in America: Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither

V. Private Enterprise and Public

When Pierce Butler and James Wilson debated how quickly a member of Congress, following his term in office, might be employed by the Federal government, much more was at stake than the influence wealth or personal connections might exercise over taxation and regulation. At stake were two competing visions of what it meant to be an active citizen in a republic. Broadly speaking, as republicans, both Butler and Wilson would have agreed with Aristotle that a representative within a republic was not the same thing as the head of even a large private household. And, yet, practically speaking, both Butler and Wilson were heads of large households; or, to use Aristotle’s terminology, oikonomia (i.e., private enterprises). Wilson, the lawyer and real estate speculator, might even be termed a “dependent” since he depended upon others to pay him for his services. Is it not likely that Wilson would therefore promote legislation that favored his real estate speculation? And would this not then violate his oath to act solely in the public’s interest? If so, then what about Wilson’s colleague to the south?

For Butler, who owned and depended upon the labor of slaves, the problem was somewhat more complicated. For, as we will see in a moment, Butler could claim—as many southern planters did claim—that, although his private enterprise entailed that someone labor, he personally was not that someone. And because Butler lived off of the labor of others, he personally was a man of leisure. So long as there were buyers for sugar cane, or tobacco, or rice, or whatever a planter chose to plant on his lands, the planter himself could feign disinterest in crass economic self-interest. Indeed, since most planters who were of Butler’s caliber would have several managers taking care of their business, in addition to their wives, it was with some justice that wealthy planters could claim only a casual interest in money at all.

And, in matter of fact, as we cast our sights back to the fifth century BCE, and to the Athens of classical Greece, we can well understand why southern planters viewed themselves, their way of life, and their values as a near complete embodiment of res publica, of the common weal. So much so, that most wealthy southerners could help but view their colleagues to the north—the bankers, lawyers, merchants, and land speculators—as direct threats to the very ideals of republican self-government.

Not surprisingly, the archetype for their understanding had been published two and a half millennia earlier by none other than Aristotle. It looked something like this. If a person had to work in order to survive, then it was clear that he or she was not free. But, if a person is not free, then their judgment is impaired by the cares and concerns of everyday life. Such a person cannot impartially judge what is good or evil, right or wrong, but is always pushed to esteem good and right only those things that are in fact determined by necessity. The free woman or man, by contrast, enjoys independent judgment—judgment free of personal, private, and hence arbitrary desires, interests, or needs.

But, of course, Aristotle realized (as did Butler and Wilson) that if I am not working, then someone else is. The price paid for my freedom from want is another person’s need.

Given this intimate and necessary relationship between dependence and independence, the common wealth or republic must be a very unusual place indeed, since all of its members and its leaders are independent and free. To explain this unusual arrangement, Aristotle set out from that place which is least free: the natural order. Nature is least free because everything that occurs within nature occurs by necessity. Thus, for example, while Aristotle knew that men could and did love men and that women could and did love women, he also knew that nature had established that reproduction required a man and a woman. Similarly, although equality governed in a republic, Aristotle recognized that equality was unnatural, that by nature individuals were unequal.

Aristotle captured the unfreedom displayed in the natural order by calling attention to four necessary pairings: between male and female, ruler and ruled, and master and slave.

The union of male and female is essential for reproduction; and this is not a matter of choice, but is due to the natural urge, which exists in the other animals too and in plants, to propagate one’s kind.  Equally essential is the combination of the natural ruler and ruled, for the purpose of preservation. For the element that can use
its intelligence to look ahead is by nature ruler and by nature master, while that which has the bodily strength
to do the actual work is by nature a slave, one of those who are ruled. Thus there is a common interest uniting master and slave.

Lest we become sidetracked, Aristotle is not advocating slavery in this passage, least of all for the republic. Rather is he calling attention to the fact that in nature, outside of the republic, difference overshadows equality. But that is not all. Aristotle is also reminding us that the household, the oikos, is as much a part of the natural order as any other part of nature and is therefore subject to the same relationships of domination, submission, inequality, and difference as are all other parts of the natural order.

No parents, for example, extend equal rights, privileges, and responsibilities to their children. This, Aristotle reminds us, is not only because parents are more powerful than their children, but also, more importantly, because parents enjoy more experience, have acquired a more comprehensive understanding of the world, and because they know far better than their children what tasks all members of the household need to perform in order for the household to function as it should. Similarly, since the private enterprise (the oikonomia) is an extension of the private household (the oikos), no employers extend equal rights, privileges, and responsibilities to their employees. This is because employees enter and work within their employer’s household only at the employer’s invitation. In the household, as in the private enterprise, relations between parents and children, as between employers and employees, are by nature unequal.

This, however, still does not explain how we get from the unequal, hierarchical relationships that characterize nature to the equal, politically achieved relationships that characterize the republic. To get from natural inequality to republican equality, Aristotle invites us to reflect on what in Greek is called the telos or purpose of human beings. Human beings, says Aristotle, differ qualitatively from other kinds of creatures. For, whereas the purposes of other kinds of creatures are dictated by nature, the highest purposes for human beings can only be achieved with other human beings in community. Thus, whereas all other animals can achieve their highest end in isolation from or even in conflict with one another, human beings require the polis, the political community.

The final association, formed of several villages, is the state [polis]. For all practical purposes the process is now complete; self-sufficiency has been reached, and while the state [polis] came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life. Therefore every state [polis] exists by nature, as the earlier associations too were natural. This association is the end of those others and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end-product of the coming into existence of any object, that is what we call its nature—of a man, for instance, or a horse or a household. Moreover the aim and the end is perfection; and self-sufficiency is both end and perfection.

What at first may appear slight of hand turns out to be common sense. Unlike the rest of nature, whose highest ends and purposes are exhausted in inequality, difference, domination, and subservience, human beings highest end and purpose—and, hence, their nature—can only be achieved in the republic. The republic, therefore, from the vantage-point of nature is unnatural. Yet, from the vantage-point of human nature, it is in the republic that humanity fulfills its highest calling.

Human beings are self-sufficient only in community with others like them, only in the polis. And it is from this that Aristotle famously concludes: “It follows that the state [polis] belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.” But, what then happened to the inequalities and distinctions to which Aristotle had just called our attention: male-female, ruler-ruled, master-slave?

To be sure, these distinctions were, are and will remain natural. Like all animals, human beings must provide for themselves. They must labor to produce and reproduce their kind. And, so, like all other things in nature, human beings too are subject to the sphere of necessity. But it is not this quality that makes us human. Rather, what makes us human, according to Aristotle, is the polis and, in fact, the republic, where, rising above our base animalistic needs and desires, banding together with one another, we achieve that independence and freedom that on our own we could never have realized.

What this means, however, is that the oikos, the household, and oikonomia, the private enterprise through which the household produces and reproduces itself, is nothing more than a means through which human beings are to reach their highest calling in a republic of equals.

The economy and household exist in order to make it possible for human beings to achieve their highest end as citizens within the republic. Or, as Aristotle puts it, “the polis has a natural priority over the household and over any individual among us.” And, then, in an analogy that has well weathered the passage of time, Aristotle points out, “for the whole must be prior to the part. Separate hand or foot from the whole body, and they will no longer be hand or foot except in name, as one might speak of a ‘hand’ or ‘foot’ sculptured in stone.” Human beings, at their best, when they achieve their fullest potential are naturally unnatural. They do what no other animals do and are completed and fulfilled in a manner unlike all other animals.

It is clear then that the polis is both natural and prior to the individual. For if an individual is not fully self-sufficient after separation, he will stand in the same relationship to the whole as the parts in the other case do. Whatever is incapable of participating in the association which we call the polis, a dumb animal for example, and equally whatever is perfectly self-sufficient and has no need to (e.g. a god), is not a part of the polis at all.

To be sure, human beings are also natural. Parents need to guide and govern their children. Private employers are not obligated to hire every applicant—in effect inviting them into their private household—irrespective of their qualifications or experience. Not all individuals enjoy the same aptitudes, abilities, or experience.

But were we to build our political form around these distinctions, differences and inequalities, we would then achieve not a republic, but a despotism. And, in this, we would be no better than other animals who have no choice but to obey their instincts.

We can now better appreciate why Aristotle refused to equate the ruler of a republic and the manager of a private enterprise. The two are not only vastly different from one another. They are in some sense opposites. The republic is founded on unnatural relationships among equally endowed, able, and empowered citizens; the private enterprise is based on natural relationships of domination and submission, i.e., despotism. Yet, Aristotle goes even further, rejecting the idea that the polis and the oikos, politics and economy, are simply two, equally important, dimensions of public life. To the contrary, the oikos and oikonomia by definition stand outside of public life, whereas the life of equal citizens together by itself embodies and fulfills humanity’s highest aims and ideals.

So, how were the framers of the Constitution to fit these two ways of life, the way of politics and the way of business, together in a single republic? Or, more pointedly, how were these businessmen—some merchants, others lawyers, some planters, others land speculators—how were they going to “form a more perfect Union” that protected and advanced republican values and institutions?

To answer these questions, we will need to enter into what could be called both Aristotle’s and the Founders’ heart of darkness: slavery.

Aristotle in America: Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither

IV. Dependent or Avaricious Men

In a section of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics familiar to most college students, but otherwise relatively unknown, Aristotle briefly reviews the three broad categories of people, distinguishable by what each believes is the highest good:

To judge by their lives, the masses and the most vulgar seem—not unreasonably—to believe that the good or happiness is pleasure. Accordingly they ask for nothing better than the life of enjoyment. (Broadly speaking, there are three main types of life: the one just mentioned, the political and, thirdly, the contemplative.) The utter servility of the masses comes out in their preference for a bovine existence.

Two and a half millennia later, and an ocean and a world removed, framers of the U.S. Constitution illustrated day after day how deeply indebted they were to Aristotle’s views. Take, for instance, the seemingly unrelated debate over whether the Constitution should set some appropriate time period before members of Congress could seek a job (whether for themselves or friends) with the Federal Government. Pierce Butler of South Carolina put forward the mainstream argument. “A man takes a seat in Parliament to get an office for himself or friends, or both,” Butler surmised, “and this is the great source from which flows its great venality and corruption.

The idea, expressed repeatedly at the Convention, was that the interests of wealth are best served by representatives who are deprived of the opportunity to get too comfortable in government service. If a man cannot weather a year or two free of public service, relying solely on his own private wealth, then he has no business seeking office in the first place. For such men of means, a year or two free of public support, whether for himself or his friends, would undoubtedly do him some good and certainly do him no harm.

Butler was a southern “planter,” a not too thinly veiled euphemism for “slave-holder,” and was not much interested in having Congress develop sufficient independence to slap undue taxes and regulations on private wealth and industry.

It was from Pennsylvania that what would eventually become the prevailing view was first sounded. James Wilson was not a “planter” and would probably not even have known how to hold, much less use, a hoe. Wilson was a lawyer who was engaged, mostly, in real estate speculation. Educated at Saint Andrews, Scotland, he was also a Latin tutor at the College of Philadelphia. In his view, there was a danger that, by making public service too burdensome, the best men might steer clear of it, leaving public office to what he called the “dependent or avaricious man.”

Strong reasons must induce me to disqualify a good man from office. If you do, you give an opportunity to the dependent or avaricious man to fill it up, for to him offices are objects of desire. If we admit there may be cabal and intrigue between the executive and legislative bodies, the exclusion of one year will not prevent the effects of it. But we ought to hold forth every honorable inducement for men of abilities to enter the service of the public. This is truly a republican principle. Shall talents, which entitle a man to public reward, operate as a punishment? While a member of the legislature, he ought to be excluded from any other office, but no longer.

The difference here, as in so many other instances, consisted less in what Butler and Wilson aimed at than in how they got there. Butler, a planter, had plenty of capable men to look after his affairs; clear proof of his privilege and qualifications to serve in public office. Since he did not need public office to enrich himself, he would not be tempted to use his election to obtain what he already had.

The same, arguably, could not be said for Wilson, the lawyer and real estate speculator. For Wilson, independence lay in constant economic vigilance and tireless labor. For Wilson and those like him, most of whom were from the northern states, a year or two could have huge economic repercussions. Not that they were seeking office in order to enrich themselves. But, if Butler had his way, industrious men would be barred from service. “Shall talents, which entitle a man to public reward, operate as a punishment?”

Or, take the instance on June 26, 1787, four days later, when James Madison took to the floor to defend the “aristocratic” character of the Senate. Madison’s argument undoubtedly sounds strange, even offensive, to our ears. And, yet, it tells us a great deal not only about the institutional differences between the House and the Senate, but differences in character that persist right up to our own times. The Senate was to have a longer view, less beholden to the immediate interests of voters and, therefore, more jealous of protecting republican values and institutions. “We are now to determine,” thought Madison, “whether the republican form shall be the basis of our government.” But, what had the republican form of government to do with the manner in which Senators were to be selected, the length of their terms, or by whom they would be compensated—their states or the Federal Treasury—for their service?

Most, if not all, of Madison’s colleagues shared his concerns. A commercial society, such as America was becoming, would consist of persons with many conflicting interests. “Such are the various pursuits of this life, that, in all civilized countries, the interest of a community will be divided. There will be debtors and creditors, and an unequal possession of property; and hence arise different views and different objects in government.” And, if such a country be democratic, however limited the franchise, the temptation to bend virtue to self-interest, to use ballot and bill to get one’s way, will always be near. “Democratic communities,” Madison observed, “may be unsteady, and be led to action by the impulse of the moment.” Which is why republics need institutions that are insulated from this impulse. “This, indeed, is the groundwork of aristocracy, and we find it blended in every government, both ancient and modern.”

Yet, far from decrying aristocracy, Madison gave voice to a sentiment widespread among his colleagues, all of whom were “healthy, wealthy, and wise,” as the saying goes. If American continued to prosper and if the numbers of its laborers, tenant farmers, and tradesmen continued to grow in disproportion to the landed and educated among them, Madison had no doubt but that soon their country would be governed by men less educated than themselves and, therefore, less consumed by a passion for republican values and institutions.

The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe,–when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures,–will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections? and, unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government?

The danger, thought Madison, was that the uninstructed interests of the dependent and uneducated classes would soon overrun the interests of the independent and well-instructed. Ignorant of the foundations of their own governing institutions, such classes would unwittingly undermine these foundations.

Madison pointed across the Atlantic to illustrate his point. “In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian-law would soon take place.” Turning his eyes back to his own land, Madison wondered how long or secure its republican foundations could remain in the absence of some institution—in his view, the Senate—to look after and protect the interests of its healthy, wealthy, and educated. “Landholders ought to have a share in the government,” argued Madison, “to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The Senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and, to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability.”

Alexander Hamilton concurred. “We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism nor the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

Two centuries later, it is still difficult for many to sort our their own convictions on such matters. The difficulty, in part, is due to the historical fiction that the United States was founded, first and foremost, as a democracy. Again and again, the Constitutional Convention reminds us that we are, first, a republic, and that, in fact, only one of our chambers, the House, was designed to be democratic. But, our difficulty is also due to what might be called a widespread social fiction, that political equality can and should be kept separate from economic and social equality; that individuals lacking in economic security and education might and should nevertheless enjoy political equality with those who enjoy them in abundance.

However, as these two examples from the floor of the Constitutional Convention clearly illustrate, the framers of the Constitution entertained neither of these fictions. For them, economic security and education were inseparable from the political responsibility and good judgment that they felt were necessary to preserve republican institutions and values.

Translated into a language with which all of the delegates were intimately familiar, a republic simply could not be governed and surely would not survive were it governed by individuals who preferred “a bovine existence,” which, in this context, means not individuals who are lazy, but rather individuals who are governed by their wants and needs. Such individuals would govern with an eye only upon what they lacked individually and privately, but, therefore, by definition they could not govern in public’s best interests.

We, today, of course, have turned this conviction on its head. Elected officials are supposed to represent private interests, and we are astonished when they don’t. We are resentful when some portion of our hard-earned wages are used to pay the medical bills, or educational expenses, or rent for one of our fellow citizens. We are indignant when our time and labor are made to contribute to res publica, to our common wealth.

Which, of course, is precisely what Madison and Hamilton feared. They feared that, should America ever succumb to democracy, then “the dependent and avaricious man” would take the place of “the best men,” and that these would then lay waste to the republic.

Aristotle evidently entertained similar fears. But his fears extended somewhat further than Wilson’s and Butler’s or Madison’s and Hamilton’s. If what a person values most defines who that person is (or is likely to become), then cultured people might be as worthy of fear as those of a more bovine nature. The reason, thought Aristotle, was that such individuals often pursue political life not so that they might genuinely benefit the public, but only because they seek honor. Honor, however, because it depends upon the character of the ones who bestow it, might just as easily become an inducement to act politically not for the sake of the common weal, but solely to receive honor.

Finally, those who enjoy a cultured life might also mistake upright behavior, goodness itself—their own goodness—as the highest good. Yet, as Aristotle points out, “even this appears to be somewhat deficient as an end, because the possession of goodness is thought to be compatible even with being asleep, or with leading a life of inactivity, and also with incurring the most atrocious suffering and misfortune; and nobody would call such a life happy—unless he was defending a paradox.”

In the end, for individuals who have joined together in a republic, there can be but one good, the common good or common wealth.

The framers of the Constitution recognized this good and, as we will see, they wished to institutionalize it. Yet, they, too, it would appear suffered from a singular, debilitating, deficiency.

At the conclusion of his discussion in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle suddenly realized that he had overlooked one of the most common ways of life. In addition to the bovine existence, the political life, and the contemplative life, was there not also the life of business? And, in the end, were not nearly all of the framers of the Constitution businessmen of one sort or another: planters, merchants, bankers, lawyers, land developers, buyers and sellers? Which is why this final remark from Aristotle must have stung all of them to the core:

As for the life of the businessman, it does not give him much freedom of action. Besides, wealth is obviously not the good that we are seeking, because it serves only as a means; i.e. for getting something else. Hence the earlier suggestions might be supposed to be more likely ends, because they are appreciated on their own account; but evidently they too are inadequate, and many attacks on them have been published: Let them
therefore be dismissed.

Dependent and Avaricious Men

Elliot’s Debates –Friday, June 22, 1787.

Still plowing through notes on the Convention, I came across an interesting commentary by Pennsylvania’s James Wilson. Wilson, by profession, was a lawyer who liked to engage in real estate speculation. Educated at Saint Andrews, Scotland, he was also a Latin tutor at the College of Philadelphia.

On June 22, the Convention continued to debate the two houses of the legislature, in this instance the House. At issue was whether men might seek elected office only to use their office as a stepping stone to more permanent employment for themselves and friends. Should a period be fixed, following their service, during which they would be ineligible for other offices?

Not unlike present-day advocates of term limitation, Pierce Butler of South Carolina, who was a planter and slave holder, saw every reason to place as many limits on former legislators as possible, specially if those legislators were likely to interfere with his private enterprise. Better to make sure that legislators had the financial means to weather two or three years without a post than to open the flood gates to individuals who might use the office to enrich themselves. Such individuals, Butler not incorrectly judged, would probably not support southern planters’ interests. “A man takes a seat in Parliament to get an office for himself or friends, or both,” Butler surmised, “and this is the great source from which flows its great venality and corruption.

Wilson saw another possibility.

Strong reasons must induce me to disqualify a good man from office. If you do, you give an opportunity to the dependent or avaricious man to fill it up, for to him offices are objects of desire. If we admit there may be cabal and intrigue between the executive and legislative bodies, the exclusion of one year will not prevent the effects of it. But we ought to hold forth every honorable inducement for men of abilities to enter the service of the public. This is truly a republican principle. Shall talents, which entitle a man to public reward, operate as a punishment? While a member of the legislature, he ought to be excluded from any other office, but no longer.

Evidently Wilson feared that, if it harmed their private interests, men of means (the kind of men both Butler and Wilson wanted to stand for election) might be deterred from seeking office. But, then, in an odd turn, Wilson suggested that by disqualifying “a good man,” they might invite “the dependent or avaricious man to fill it up.” In other words, Wilson admits what he assumes everyone already knows: that the lawyer and real estate developer are no different from the planter and slave holder. All are equally drawn to “cabal and intrigue.” Again, the avenue for achieving the “republican principle” is not to let all who want to serve do so.

Wilson and Butler want men with “talents.”

Most of us solve this riddle of republican rhetoric by concluding that the rhetoric was no more than a ruse, a thin veneer concealing the real aim, which is supposed then to have been the protection of wealth and privilege. Butler, the southern planter, would protect it by keeping the political authorities at bay. Wilson, the real estate developer, would protect it by making sure that all of Congress is, like him, made up of men of talent. If the legislature were made up of individuals “dependent” on others for their means, what would prevent them from viewing their office as simply a means to other ends?

Not surprisingly, this same dual rationale guides present-day lawmakers. But, now we can see that the two are simply the flip side of the same coin. Wealth and privilege disable public institutions to implement their own plutocracy. What has been added is that there is no veneer at all between the “dependent and avaricious man” and the office seeker. They are all the same, res publica be damned.

Allan Bloom is Incoherent

OK, I get that Bloom blames German historicism for vanquishing universal values, first at university, then in American culture at large. But is not his fixation on the GERMAN character of this historicism an illustration of the very principle at which he is directing his venom? It is surely true that nineteenth century Germans reflected more critically than most on the interplay between social action and categories of interpretation and experience. It is also true that this reflection did not cast capitalism in a very positive light. It is surely doubtful whether many Americans thought about these connections with the care they deserve. (It is clear that Mr. Bloom did not give them the attention they deserve.) Yet, Mr. Bloom’s argument is no more than one elegant ad hominem and adds absolutely nothing to our understanding of the real issues at stake. It is incoherent.

Protecting the Republic from Democracy, a lesson from 1787


Elliot’s Debates –Tuesday, June 26, 1787.

As I continue to review my notes for Aristotle in America, I am once again struck by the relevance of the debates in Philadelphia to our current situation. On June 26, 1787 (see link above), the Convention continued to debate the terms, qualifications, and means of electing members to the Senate. At issue was the fear, expressed by James Madison (Virginia), that the landed and wealthy minority, growing ever smaller in relation to the landless and poor majority, would be dispossessed of their property by the majority. Madison was therefore interested in instituting safeguards for the landed and wealthy minority—which he characterizes as “republican.”

We are now to determine whether the republican form shall be the basis of our government. I admit there is weight in the objection of the gentleman from South Carolina [Charles Pinkney]; . . . but we are now forming a body [the Senate] on whose wisdom we mean to rely, and their permanency in office secures a proper field in which they may exert their firmness and knowledge. Democratic communities may be unsteady, and be led to action by the impulse of the moment. Like individuals, they may be sensible of their own weakness, and may desire the counsels and checks of friends, to guard them against the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions. Such are the various pursuits of this life, that, in all civilized countries, the interest of a community will be divided. There will be debtors and creditors, and an unequal possession of property; and hence arise different views and different objects in government. This, indeed, is the groundwork of aristocracy, and we find it blended in every government, both ancient and modern. Even where titles have survived property, we discover the noble beggar haughty and assuming. . . . The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe,–when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures,–will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections? and, unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian-law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The Senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and, to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability. Various have been the propositions; but my opinion is, the longer they continue in office, the better will these views be answered.

New York’s Alexander Hamilton agreed. “This question has already been considered in several points of view. We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism nor the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

We are inclined to view republicanism and democracy as compliments to one another—as, in fact, nearly identical. And, yet, as Madison and Hamilton point out, there is no natural law that says that a democratic majority will protect public interests. Indeed, far more likely is it that a poor and landless majority will find their interests in the rule of a demagogue or tyrant than protect the common wealth along with its public character. So Hamilton warned:

If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy. The difference of property is already great amongst us. Commerce and industry will still increase the disparity. Your government must meet this state of things, or combinations will, in process of time, undermine your system. What was the tribunitial power of Rome? It was instituted by the plebeians, as a guard against the patricians. But was this a sufficient check? No. The only distinction which remained at Rome was, at last, between the rich and poor. The gentleman from Connecticut [Roger Sherman] forgets that the democratic body [the House] is already secure in a representation. As to Connecticut, what were the little objects of their government before the revolution? Colonial concerns merely. They ought now to act on a more extended scale: and dare they do this? Dare they collect the taxes and requisitions of Congress? Such a government may do well, if they do not tax; and this is precisely their situation.

And, so was duplicated the same model as in Great Britain. The U.S. House is the British House of Commons; the U.S. Senate is the British House of Lords.

But, again, what I find striking is the prescience, in this instance, of Hamilton. In the end, it is not the wealthy who will resist taxation, but the poor and landless of Connecticut. And, if Senators do not enjoy independence from “all classes of people,” then how will they resist their demands for “no new taxes”? As Pennsylvania’s James Wilson pointed out, the dangers and instability of democratic rule were in large measure to blame for the reluctance of Europe’s great powers from engaging in trade with the U.S.

If Congress could not guarantee a common, stable currency, if it could not guarantee sufficient receipts to balance its own budget, then how could it guarantee conditions making for reliable trade and commerce?

What is the reason that Great Britain does not enter into a commercial treaty with us? Because Congress has not the power to enforce its observance. But give them those powers, and give them the stability proposed by the motion, and they will have more permanency than a monarchical government. The great objection of many is, that this duration would give birth to views inconsistent with the interests of the Union.

Are Hamilton, Madison, and Wilson right? Given the current impasse over raising the debt ceiling, it would appear so. It is the “democratic body,” the House, that is proving itself intransigent on exercising fiscal responsibility. Likewise, it is the House that is holding firm on its resistance to raising revenues and protecting the public weal.

More to the point, the framers appeared far more realistic than our present-day democratic idealists when they recognized that independence, in this instance, means independence from private money; thus the demand that the Senate receive its compensation not from the States they represent, but from the Federal Treasury.

Republican government—government that protects res publica, the common wealth—requires independence from private enterprise.