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Aristotle: Father of political conservatism

Posted By Ellis Washington On 08/14/2010 @ 12:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Man is by nature a political animal.

~ Aristotle

Like Aristotle, conservatives generally accept the world as it is; they distrust the politics of abstract reason – that is, reason divorced from experience.

~ Benjamin Wiker

Dr. Benjamin Wiker, in his new opus, “10 Books every Conservative Must Read,” refers to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle as the father of political conservatism. Citing Aristotle’s work “Politics,” Wiker lists two primary reasons: First, Aristotle understood that the essential political argument happens between those who recognize that political life and morality are natural (from God) as opposed to those who believe that political life and morality are entirely manmade, like the Sophists and Epicureans of Aristotle’s day.

Secondly, conservatives, like Aristotle, lean toward political suspicion, since they believe mankind is not infinitely malleable, and they understand that morality is objective and places restrictions on what human beings can and should do in a civilized society.

From the beginning of “Politics,” Aristotle draws a distinction between his ideas and that of the Sophists – the liberals and moral relativists of his times – regarding the natural foundation of political life and society, claiming it lies in the natural union of husband and wife, the family. Aristotle thought that humans are social and political by nature; therefore politics should not be about acquisition of power but about “acting out and perfecting our human nature insofar as that is possible.” However, perfecting our human nature is not Aristotle favoring some utopian socialism, but that our political existence must be in accord with our human nature – Natural Law.

Aristotle systematically outlines the building blocks of society being derivative of the family, which is a husband and wife having children. Several families form a small village. Several villages make a city and several cities a nation. While the village was too small and the nation too large for “the full flowering of our nature,” Aristotle believed that the city-state was ideal in size and resources to achieve the fulfillment of our nature.

According to Wiker, Aristotle maintained that “society doesn’t rest on some kind of social contract that guarantees abstract rights, but on the natural union of husband and wife that binds the past and present to the future with children.”

In the spirit of modern deconstructionism, liberals of today will crow about Aristotle favoring slavery, subordination of women, abortion and infanticide as being “natural.” Of course, Aristotle was wrong on these issues, and thankfully Christianity historically allowed for those corrections of Aristotle in regards to slavery, abortion and infanticide to be made. Yet, contrary to deconstructionists of today who want to eradicate the legacy of Western civilization, particularly white males, conservatives and most rational people can accept the singular genius of Aristotle while disregarding his philosophical excesses.

The central premise of Aristotle’s “Politics” lay in his division of political regimes into different types according to the number who rule, and what kind of rule, good or bad:

  • Kingly – one person rules for the true common good;

  • Tyranny – one person rules for his own advantage;
  • Aristocracy – a few rule for the true common good;
  • Oligarchy – a few rule only for their own advantage;
  • Polity [Republic] – majority rule for the sake of the true common good;
  • Democracy – majority rule for their own private advantage rather than the common good.

Aristotle’s government-rule paradigm seems a bit counterintuitive today because we have been taught in our state-controlled public schools that democracy is the epitome of just government, but Wiker states, “Aristotle takes the quite sensible position that the majority can be as selfish, foolish and tyrannical as any tyrant or oligarch. Therefore, he calls democracy a perversion.” The constitutional framers agreed with Aristotle and understood the diabolical nature of democracy, considering it to be “mobocracy” – the tyranny of the majority.

For Aristotle, the “greatest factional split is perhaps that between virtue and depravity.” Morality is the cement that holds the republic together. When war is waged on morality and depravity trumps virtue and replaces it in the marketplace of ideas, then a good government quickly devolves into a bad one.

For example, Aristotle cites “demagogues, in order to make themselves popular” so as to manipulate the electorate, assert that the will of the people is supreme over the law, which in American politics means that popular social programs like Social Security, Medicare and welfare can overrule the Constitution.

Admittedly, Aristotle was a Greek pagan who believed in a pantheon of gods; nevertheless, the singular genius of his philosophical worldview allowed for the understanding that all governments of men absent virtue were doomed to collapse into utter failure and tyranny. On this point Wiker commented:

The reality of wickedness, or sin, makes the creation of perfect political regimes humanly impossible, and it ensures that any imprudent attempts to create political perfection, or utopia, will end in disaster. Conservatives believe in original sin – or the simple reality of human wickedness – and understand that this limits what good politics can achieve.

Throughout Aristotle’s “Politics” is a relentless striving for the perfecting of our human nature, that our political life has to comport with our nature and Natural Law; yet Aristotle was not some utopian socialist who believed that man was a tabula rasa (blank slate) upon which a perfect nature could be written.

Aristotle was a practical man who understood that the best way to understand humanity is to study the past. Aristotle loved the family and saw this institution as both the fundamental economic entity as well as the singular disseminator of morality. This explains why since the Enlightenment Age liberals and utopian socialists have been so hell-bent to undermine and destroy the family at every opportunity – destroy the family and you will destroy the nation.

Aristotle’s political worldview understood that without virtue and a republic based on morality, the most savage men will devolve from political animals (Natural Law) to savage political beasts (survival of the fittest). Therefore, I agree with Dr. Wiker that Aristotle is indeed the father of political conservatism.


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