Aristotle–The Great American
From reading Aristotle, I discovered he was American in many ways – he was obnoxious, overbearing, boring, and convinced that he was right. I think any American who has taken a vacation to another country has discovered that this is the view held by them. Regardless of whether or not Americans feel it to be true of themselves, it is a commonly held view, and it is one that I definitely hold of Aristotle.
However, America didn’t exist when Aristotle was alive, and so he could not be American. America came after Aristotle, so perhaps we should say that American is Aristotelian. If we view it in that light, we might be able to argue that America’s founding was influenced by Aristotle, and we even feel some of the echoes today, whether they are following in his footsteps or rebelling against him.
While Ancient Greeks tended to pride themselves on courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom, modern Americans were proud of their freedom, opportunity, rule of law, equality, and capitalism. Comparing the two lists could make you wonder how we changed so much over the years, but I don’t think that change really occurred. I think it was more of a slow shift, and I think that by looking at Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics and some of the documents from the founding of America, we can see where the ideas were kept, and where they slowly departed from classical way of thought.
The most basic comparison that can be drawn is between the reason for the founding of America and the founding of Aristotle’s city-state in Politics. Both are started for one reason: happiness. While the city-state founded in Politics doesn’t really exist and is done for the sake of exercise and examination, America really was started with the sole purpose of making its inhabitants happy. The Declaration of Independence mentions happiness twice - “…unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness..” and again “…organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Obviously, happiness was a large influence on the needs of the founders of the country. Aristotle even declares that “it is evident that the best constitution must be that organization in which anyone might do best and live a blessedly happy life” (Politics, 194). Our founding fathers seem to have agreed with Aristotle on that point.
The Declaration of Independence also shows agreement with Aristotle over the concept that tyranny is the worst rule. The statement in The Declaration of Independence says that “a Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people,” which makes a fairly good match with Aristotle in Ethics – “for tyranny is the degenerate condition of monarchy, and the vicious king becomes a tyrant (30).” Aristotle argued that while slaves might be able to be ruled by a tyrant, your average person (especially if that person was Greek), was unable to be held in subjugation as they would naturally and rightfully have the need to both rule and be ruled – “for they rule and are ruled in turn, just as if they had become other people” (Politics, 27). The founders of America seemed to share this concept, feeling that they could find a much better ruling system which would involve taking turns ruling over themselves and each other than that of the tyranny they were living under.
The Federalist Papers (The Federalist No. 1) questions “…whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions by accident and force” (1). This is a question that Aristotle pondered – the question of how governments are formed, and whether good governments can be willingly formed or must be stumbled across. There is no question of how the American government was formed. The government came into being because the people went looking for a government that would fit them – logically, and according to Aristotle as well, this is the best way to find a government. As opposed to trying to enforce a government on an existing group of people, this group of people came up with their own government, which they formed for the happiness of the people. Aristotle would have approved of this: creating a government for the greater good while also looking out for the good of the majority of people, and still managing to find a way to protect the people from their own government.
Further, The Federalist Papers (The Federalist No. 1) even mentions Hamilton’s concern that “another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation…” (Hamilton, 2). This sounds very similar to Aristotle in Ethics when he brings up his worry that those in the “political life” are seeking honor above all else. Like Aristotle, Hamilton saw that many of those who sought office would be doing so because they sought “…to be honored by prudent people…” (Ethics, 4).
The Constitution itself can be seen as a short-hand version of Aristotle’s Politics. Like Politics, it goes over all the rules and concepts that would be important to founding a country (or city-state), and many of rules seem to have been influenced by Aristotle (or by the schools of thought that followed him). This includes the way they divide the power and the fact that they feel that democracy was one of the best systems.
The government that the founding fathers chose was not Aristotle’s favorite, but neither was it one that he held great hatred for. Aristotle actually even supported the idea - “democracy is the least vicious [of the deviations]; for it deviates only slightly from the form of a [genuine] political system” (Ethics, 131). While that might sound like a little less than a ringing endorsement, it has been successful for over two-hundred years now, so something must be good about it.
Like Aristotle, who believed that “the city-state is also prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually, since a whole is necessarily prior to its parts” (Aristotle, Politics, 4), the Americans also believed that they needed government to survive – they had one to get started, and they still needed one when they decided to do away with what they had. Unlike Rousseau, who felt that government is something that came about because of cities, the founders of American appear to show that they want a government first and foremost as part of the founding of the country, not something added on later.
Another similarity between the classical government of Aristotle and the founding of the United States is the value of property. In The Declaration of Independence, there is a list of complaints (Facts) against the King. Five out of the twenty-seven facts involve property in one form or another. In the case of America, the war for independence was all about property, something that Aristotle foresaw when he said, “…for they say that it is over property that everyone creates faction” (Politics, 41).
Continuing to read through The Constitution, more parallels can be drawn between Aristotle and the government. In Politics, Aristotle stated that it was “necessary for the constitution to have been organized with an eye to military power…” (43). Within Section Eight of The Constitution, Clauses 10 through 17 all deal with military power in one form or another. Starting with Clause 10, which gives the ability to the US to punish pirates and other felonies committed “on the high Seas,” to Clause 17 which discusses the US building Forts, arsenals, and “other needful buildings.” There is no question that the founders had an eye towards military power.
The Constitution responded to another of Aristotle’s concerns in Clause 2 of Section 5 when it determined that Members may be punished and even expelled. This could be seen as a direct response to Aristotle in Politics, when he states that it is “better that the senators are not exempt from inspections, as they are at present” (Politics, 53).
Further similarities can be seen in Aristotle’s logic that, “generally speaking, everyone seeks not what is traditional but what is good” (Politics, 48). In a way, that is true. While some laws were kept because of their value, it was not so much that they were traditional that they were good. If they had just been interested in traditional, the US would have gotten a king, instead of the new system of democracy.
Although we don’t actually have any laws that keep the poor from taking office, the system that we have set in place does implicitly stop them. And anyone who can do the math knows of the high number of politicians that are lawyers, which helps to keep the rich, rich. So while we might not explicitly agree with Aristotle when he says that “…the rulers should be chosen not solely on the basis of their merit but also on the basis of their wealth, since poor people cannot afford the leisure necessary to rule well” (Politics, 59), it is obvious that there is tacit consent.
Finally, as Aristotle suggested in Politics when he said that “It would also seem to be bad to allow the same person to hold several offices…” (Politics, 60) We do not let one person hold more than one office. In fact, when someone holds office and then still holds private office (such as in the case of many oil-rich politicians who continue their outside employment), the public gets very suspicious of them.
For all of these similarities, however, there are still differences that need to be addressed.
To start with, Aristotle seemed to believe that the ideal political system would occur if a kingly person could be found, and then “for everyone to obey such a person gladly so that those like him will be permanent kings in their city-states” (Politics, 91). Americans, of course, didn’t see much good in finding a new king. They wanted something different. Kings were not an option, regardless of how wonderful Aristotle thought they might be.
Also, as opposed to Aristotle in Politics, when he says that “a woman and a slave occupy the same position” (Politics, 2), we now are forced by common-day convention to act and react as we don’t believe that men should rule women and that women are inferior. (Admittedly, the founding fathers probably would have agreed with him, but their wives surely didn’t.) Another of Aristotle’s points – that the old are wiser than the young – is another concept that has not been kept. In fact, the old now have more problems getting and keeping jobs than ever before due to the changes in society over time, although our politicians tend to be middle-aged, often because that is when they have gained enough cash and clout. Unlike Aristotle’s “perfect” world (which is similar to Socrates’ world), now we don’t believe in putting people into certain pigeonholes because we think they will do best there. We no longer think that we can guess what is best for someone, although there are still tests in high school that claim to think otherwise. We also no longer believe in slavery.
Finally, in one case, I think that Aristotle was correct, and we are very wrong. Aristotle questioned whether anyone “ought to have lifelong authority in important matters since the mind has its old age as well as the body” (Politics, 53). I can’t help but think of our own Supreme Court. It has come to question before whether or not there should be a retirement age, and I have to say that I agree with Aristotle on this one – the mind most definitely does have an old age, and it isn’t helpful to ignore it.
Overall, as you can see, the ideas held by the founding fathers of America and the ideas held by Aristotle show a number of similarities. Whether or not the founding fathers were directly influenced by Aristotle, I couldn’t say, but there is definitely enough evidence to point to that possibility. The differences that do exist tend to be much more modern than from the founding days, and, as such, can be seen as changes that occurred over time, and possibly even as changes that would have occurred to Aristotle himself if he’d still been alive. To that end, it can be said that while Aristotle might not be a great American, great Americans may indeed be quite Aristotelian.
- Aristotle. Nicomchean Ethics. Trans. Terence Irwin. 2nd Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 1999.
- Aristotle. Politics. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 1998.
- Hamilton, Alexander, Madison, James, and Jay, John. The Federalist, or, the New Constitution. New York: Dutton., 1971.
- U.S. National Archives & Records Administration. The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription. No date. 27 January 2005. <http://www.archives.gov/national_archives_experience/charters>
- United States House of Representatives. The United States Constitution. No date. 27 January 2005. <http://www.house.gov/Constitution/Constitution.html>