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.