The Relevance of Aristotle to Modern Politics
“What if Aristotle were elected president by a large popular majority and his political party took both houses of Congress?”
By William Shaub, Online Editor
In Politica, the first great classic of political science, Aristotle famously surveys a wide variety of socioeconomic systems. Of all the types he explores, one can conclude that Aristotle finds democracy “the most tolerable” (Book 4).
Aristotle’s support of democracy, however, is limited to his belief in restriction of the poor’s tendency to “covet their neighbor’s goods.” He asserts that if wealth is concentrated among elites within a democracy, the poor will inherently use their majority power to redistribute wealth in an egalitarian fashion. This was, to him, a major flaw in democracy. In Book 4, Chapter 11, he writes, “In democracies the rich should be spared; not only should their property not be divided, but their incomes too should be protected.”
The renowned ‘father of the U.S Constitution’, James Madison, envisioned a nation based on Aristotle’s version of democracy. He held that “the wealth of the nation–the more capable set of men” should claim positions of power within a modern political society for the same reasons given by Aristotle. Madison warned his colleagues of the ‘flaws’ of democracy, making the case that if elections were open to all classes of people, the population would then use its voting rights to redistribute wealth.
Despite the similarities between Madison, the most influential Founding Father, and Aristotle, an unparalleled Greek scholar, a crucial difference lies within their respective ways of dealing with the ‘flaws’ of democracy. They both agreed on the symptoms of what real democracy entails, but drew completely different responses to the ‘problem’.
Aristotle believed that the best way of suppressing the natural egalitarian urges of the poor was to reduce inequality. Despite the appearance here of an ideological agreement with American liberalism on the surface, Aristotle argues for a legitimate social welfare state: For democracy to really function, “Measures should be taken which will give all people lasting prosperity” (Politica, Book 4). He recommends that “proceeds of the public revenues should be accumulated and distributed among its poor” and proposes “common meals” and even “public land” (Book 5).
A severely different approach was taken by Madison. His solution was to restrict democracy by removing it from those who simply were not “the wealth of the nation.” While recognizing what Aristotle found to be natural egalitarian urges of the poor to be at the forefront of real democracy, he arranged a system designed to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”
If one carefully reads the Constitution, substantial elements of this approach can be found. Several Madisonian historians, in fact, view it as a Madisonian document that’s been rather consistently interpreted throughout U.S history from his perspective on limiting democracy. Jennifer Nedelsky in Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalist: The Madisonian Framework and its Legacy describes it as “Delivering power to a ‘better sort’ of people and excluding those who were not rich, well born, or prominent from exercising political power.”
Madison’s solution, I believe, can be accurately described by Adam Smith’s definition of civil government:
“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” – Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, pg. 236)
Therefore, if we accept Madison’s approach to be that which is implemented successfully in modern politics, the current political system is quite dire. This situation is one in which egalitarian values are subsequently buried and the “wealth of the nation” is more powerful than ever.