It has been widely observed that 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. It therefore seems like a good idea to see what the founder of political science — Aristotle — has to say about how civic deliberation should unfold.
Aristotle famously wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.” That means he fulfills his purpose through engaging in a civic dialogue with his fellow citizens regarding the meaning of justice, a dialogue guided by reason. But for Aristotle, this definition is a high water mark for political debate, rarely if ever achieved. Most of the time, Aristotle argues, public debate about justice, equality and who should have political authority can be fractious — can even lead to the break-down of all debate in insurrection and civil war.
Aristotle believes that the biggest and most widespread source of political tension is the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. It is the universal cause of unrest because, while one can be good at math as well as good at cooking, or a talented painter and 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 one and the same time: rich and poor. That’s why they are at logger-heads. We have to address that potential conflict before we even have an opportunity to aim for a higher politics dedicated to promoting virtue, reason and the good life.
This is where Aristotle is 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 indignantly 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, statecraft is about assessing the respects in which people are equal and the respects in which they are unequal, and determining 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 and lack of connections. That is a responsibility of the state, because for Aristotle virtue is meritocratic and not the result of an accident of privileged birth.
This brings me to Aristotle’s key point about how public debate should unfold. Each participant, he observes, argues for a certain conception of a just political order 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 see it today. As Aristotle puts it, each party “fastens on” a degree of truth regarding the different possibilities for ordering a just society, while at the same time the element of truth in their position is inextricable from 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. The idealism and the realism cannot be disentangled. Prudent participants in civic dialogue will be aware of that combination of realism and idealism in others and in themselves, and that awareness should moderate their expectations for the degree to which perfect justice could or even should be actualized.
Aristotle’s understanding of public debate, we might say, is a blend of Hobbes and Kant. It resists the reduction of prudent civic dialogue to either a grasping venal materialism that has no concern for a just society or for the poor and disadvantaged or an ideal of justice that demands of citizens a purity and disregard for their material well-being that is as likely as its opposite extreme to engender hostility and strife. Perhaps the most deleterious political leadership would be from 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, the danger of pure idealism combined with great privilege.
Historical 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 about specific answers or solutions to the concrete policy issues of the day. But it can remind us that political debate should be non-rancorous, 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.