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The head of a stone statue is seen in profile.
Aristotle is considered the founder of political science. He probably wouldn’t be surprised at the state of political discourse in modern times. (Shutterstock)

What would Aristotle think about the current state of politics?

In recent years, political debate has degenerated into ever more aggressive partisan mudslinging and character assassination, with no room for a reasoned and non-rancorous discussion of competing alternatives in assessing the policy issues of the day.

This trend is only likely to intensify as we enter a presidential election season in the United States in the months to come.

As the author of a book about philosophers, Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger, it seemed like a good time to see what the founder of political science — Aristotle — had to say about how civic deliberation should unfold.

Political animals

Aristotle famously wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.”

That means as human beings, we fulfil our purpose through engaging in a civic dialogue with fellow citizens regarding the meaning of justice. Those conversations are meant to be guided by reason.

But for Aristotle, this definition was a high-water mark for political debate, rarely if ever achieved. Most of the time, Aristotle argued, public debate about justice, equality and who should have political authority is fractious — and even leads to the breakdown of all debate in insurrection and civil war.


Read more: America is on the brink of another civil war, this one fuelled by Donald Trump


Aristotle believed that the biggest and most widespread source of political tension is the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. It’s the universal cause of unrest because, while one can be good at math as well as good at cooking, or a talented painter and a talented lawyer, a better doctor than a chess player or a worse violinist than a teacher, there are two things that nobody can be at the same time: rich and poor.

That’s why the haves and have-nots are at loggerheads. Society must address that potential source of conflict before it can aim for a higher politics dedicated to promoting virtue, reason and the good life.

Democrat/oligarch showdowns

This is where Aristotle was at his most revealing about how political debate should take place. He focuses on the two most antagonistic factions, the democrats versus the oligarchs.

The democrats claim that because they are all equal, everyone is equal in every respect. The oligarchs reply that because they have demonstrated their superior virtue by acquiring more property than the democrats, they are superior to them in every way.

But for Aristotle, the state must assess the respects in which people are equal and the respects in which they are unequal, and determine on that basis who should have political authority.

Everyone is fundamentally equal, but society recognizes differing contributions and rewards them with recognition and often with wealth. Society has an obligation to protect everyone’s basic rights and to establish a level playing field, whereby people can compete to get ahead in life unhindered by a disadvantaged background, poverty or a lack of connections.

That is a responsibility of the state, because for Aristotle, virtue was meritocratic and not the result of an accident of privileged birth.

A stone statue with a body of water behind it.
Aristotle didn’t believe in pure idealism or materialism. (Shutterstock)

Idealism versus realism

This brings us to Aristotle’s key point about how public debate should unfold.

Each participant, he observed, argues for a certain idea of a just political system while at the same time seeking to advance their own self-interest.

But the argument they make regarding justice isn’t just an ideological camouflage for their self-interest, as we might regard it today. As Aristotle puts it, each party “fastens on” a degree of truth regarding the different possibilities for devising a just society, while at the same time the element of truth in their position is combined with their desire for a bigger piece of the pie.

In other words, in Aristotle’s view there is no such thing in political life as a pure idealist or a pure materialist. Idealism and realism cannot be disentangled from one another.

Prudent participants in civic dialogue should be aware of that combination of realism and idealism in others and in themselves, Aristotle argued. That awareness should moderate their expectations for the degree to which perfect justice could or even should come to pass.

Hobbes, Kant

Aristotle’s understanding of public debate seems a blend of England’s Thomas Hobbes — who argued that without government, life would be “nasty, brutish and short” — and Germany’s Immanuel Kant, who believed that without freedom, moral appraisal and responsibility would be impossible.

It resists the reduction of prudent civic dialogue to either a grasping materialism that has no concern for a just society or an ideal of justice so pure that it demands citizens put aside any interest in their material well-being. Both extremes are likely to engender hostility and strife.

Perhaps the worst political leadership would be someone who combined a degree of inherited wealth that made them unable to appreciate the everyday economic difficulties most people face with ideological extremism. In short, it would be a leader with the danger of pure idealism combined with great privilege.

Constants remain

Circumstances are of course very different today than in Aristotle’s time.

But some constants remain, especially the potential for violent disagreement between the haves and have-nots.

Like any other theoretical rule of thumb, Aristotle’s advice about political debate cannot guide us to specific answers or solutions to the concrete policy issues of the day.

But it can remind us that political debate should be peaceful, that we should respect the convictions of others as we would like them to respect our own and that we should be realistic enough to understand that self-interest will always be a factor in what the public expects from justice.

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