Nicomachean Ethics as Argument Against Democracy
Winston Churchill once said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute chat with the average voter.” Democracy itself relies heavily upon a moral discipline and sense of reasonable expectation from government that the average voter simply does not possess. For this to come as a revelation in the twenty-first century CE is to belie an ignorance of Aristotle making, if unintentionally, the same point in his discourse of ideal life in Nicomachean Ethics.
Aristotelian morality has at its very core the idea that the happy life is found not through individual actions that make one happy in the short term but in a virtuous life which in turn relies on a constant vigilance against the temptations down the road of gluttony, idleness, and evil. Millennia before there were such ideas as beatniks and organizations like Adbusters, Aristotle himself made the point that one must not be led astray down the path of least resistance.
Sadly this stands at odds with human nature. The landscape of human history is littered with fallen civilizations who fell victim to avarice. Said Thomas Jefferson, “Material abundance without character is the path of destruction.” We cannot rely on human nature to carry the vote of a majority to act in the best interest of society as a whole or even the Adam Smith-like interests of the invisible hand of the market. Sooner or later there will be those willing to promise the world to those who cannot see through the ruse.
Once again Aristotle predicted as much. Indeed, as a product of his Athenian milieu, Aristotle saw with his own eyes that civic virtue and duty which was regarded as the free birthright and solemn responsibility of every man who participated in his governance. None but a fool would risk the wrath of his comrades by arriving at a debate ill-prepared to defend his positions not only in his own interest but in the interest of all those around him. Once again as we in modern society look to the ancients for a shining example of that which we seek to emulate, we have warped and twisted the very nature of those civic institutions to turn democracy into nothing more than the distribution of stolen goods to different owners using the trickery of convincing the foolish that these benefices are conjured productively from raw materials rather than merely crudely recycled through theft.
Such idiocy does not come from a more limited form of government. Aristotle would be appalled and horrified at the monster that democracy has become in the eyes of a society that commands equality without equal merit. Even our attempts at meritocracy are twisted through the funhouse mirrors of “you are all special” and “it's all who you know”. One would almost think such a pair of seemingly mutually exclusive ideas would collapse unto themselves utterly but what it brings in reality is a world where nobody possesses any merit at all and where trying to identify the path to a better life is an exercise in Schrödinger's Cat writ large across the landscape.
All this is to say that a hard examination of Nicomachean Ethics as societal virtue must be revisited. Diversity has created anarchy and chaos as it did in the Roman Empire when the state lost its monopolistic hold on the religious and philosophical ideas of the common people. Unity is essential in holding a society together long-term, keeping that society stable, and ensuring that, freed of the crippling effects of role confusion, the people can strive for their own excellence while unquestioningly belonging to a sense of something greater than themselves.
As a polytheist myself, I must take a moment to interject a touch of neo-classical religious philosophy into the discussion at this point. Polytheism holds as a major advantage over monotheism the guarantee of greater diversity in theological viewpoints when compared against a dogmatic, centralized religion based on commandment and nitpicks over ritual. For the Romans, the freedom of choice left to individuals to choose their house gods (Lares in Latin) meant that while all adherents practiced the same basic religion, one could greatly tailor one's sense of honor to the gods to their personal taste without being accused of heresy or atheism. Meanwhile, the Romans themselves were accepting of most other religious views throughout their empire because the notion of true faith was antithetical to their particular brand of paganism. As a result, the people were freed to direct their natural inclinations toward enforced orthodoxy not towards honoring God (or gods) but toward the true religion of a Roman, which was being a Roman. During the Republic and even during the early Imperium, the Roman citizens and leaders alike practiced a strong sense of civic duty and people would judge each other's worth not by material wealth or by individual expression but by how Roman (in that moral sense of the term) one comported oneself in public affairs.
Contrast this with the politics of modern society. Besides the stark and obvious division of Democrat and Republican, every group, subgroup, subculture, social class, and other means of identification under the sun take precedence over being an American. Furthermore, even with Christianity as what would in theory be our guiding hand as a people were we to decide to dispense with the First Amendment and make the de facto religion of the nation one of de jure, the different brands of Christianity as practiced by Southern Baptists or the Catholics of South Boston or by the Latter-Day Saints of Utah and Nevada are at loggerheads, seen more as divisions than as aspects of a true faith. The wide division in education and intellectual merit between people who are regarded as equal as citizens similarly serves to ensure that our politics creates a sense where all must be satisfied far in excess of the available means of government. If we are truly to salvage our nation we would be wise to look backward into the past, where Aristotelian ethics and the refined practice thereof in Rome worked for several centuries.
If indeed happiness is ensured by the practice of excellence in all aspects of life, we must as a society decide to create a means by which only those who practice the Aristotelian ideal of excellence are granted a voice in the creation of law for all. As that excellence filters down to the greater mass of society, no tolerance for ideas inconsistent with those practices must be tolerated lest discord and bankruptcy both moral and economic be the result. Hollow promises of change and “accountability” are insufficient to keep the nation off the road to perdition, again as Aristotle predicted in his account of the ideal state and ideal mass of humanity.
Some would argue that human nature cannot be subverted in such a manner, that corruption and avarice will soon enough conspire to ensure that society descends into entropy and failure only to be stirred either by barbarian invasion or by internal revolution. Indeed this may be the case. Consider the amount of upheaval required to implement this Aristotelian ideal in the first place; vast swaths of men and women will be disenfranchised, entire segments of the mass media will have to be suppressed, and vast financial resources will have to be redirected in order to build the educational and public infrastructures required that people may properly discourse on the road to excellence. The consumer product market is likely to collapse as materialism gives way to personal striving for enlightenment, entire industries will cease to exist and jobs will need to be redirected into these new industries created in the pursuit of these ideals, and quite a few discussions will have to be held determining the public priorities. Not for nothing did Plato's attempts at republic fall asunder due to logistical issues.
Far from a manifesto, however, Nicomachean ethics and Aristotelian ideals can be used to alter human nature one human at a time. We may never achieve utopia. We can, however, one man, woman, and child at a time, strive to reach in our own endeavors the happy life of excellence. We can read books, study the humanities, impose expectations on the company we keep, and find our gods and our moral compass without dictates from above, build our shrines to honor those gods, and embrace the twin pillars of nicomachean ethics and eudaimonia.
Tying the thesis together, it is perhaps a commentary on the true nature of humanity that given half the chance, the vast bulk of the idiot masses are content to grow fat on shallow creature comforts, discourse on mindless celebrity worship rather than intellectual endeavor, gape at television rather than practice agape, and plow through eros as if it were an endlessly renewable resource rather than finding mutualism in eudaimonic happiness shared with another. Said P.J. O'Rourke in the final sentence of Parliament of Whores: “In a democracy, the whores are us.” We may deserve no better than the broken, indebted, vulgar society in which we live, but I for one hold out hope that we can learn something from the man who imparted wisdom to two of the greatest civilizations ever to occupy the Earth.
Said the professor: "It seems what you desire is less political or religious than the deeper issue of 'virtue', the very idea of which is lost on most citizens of this grand nation. Not many strive for nobility or Greek arete, through the cultivation of humor, mercy, dignity, tenacity, spiritual authority, frugalness, gravity, respectability, humanity, industriousness, dutifulness, prudence, wholesomeness, sterness, truthfulness (the Stoic Marcus Aurelius). Seneca thought all that was needed was prudence. I can't imagine suggesting to an average 19-year-old that she should cultivate prudence, and not be taken as an idiot."
Indeed, that was the crux of my argument, that participatory society fails miserably when those who participate do not practice the required virtue. I aim for (and usually miss, but I keep aiming) Aristotelian virtue in my own life. The nice thing about life is that you don't have to get it right the first time, as long as you get it right before you die.