How to Throttle Aristotle

Aristotle’s Politics has undergone at least nine English translations in the last few decades.[1] Over the centuries, its advocates have included those who enslaved American Indians and those who overthrew monarchies in 1848. More recently, amazing work on Aristotle’s political philosophy has been published by Mary P. Nichols, Harvey Mansfield, Ronna Burger, Aristide Tessitore, Clifford Bates, Harry Jaffa, and the team of Susan Collins and Robert Bartlett, among others.

Evidence of the benefit of Aristotle for America is in the work of the Founders, not least of them Thomas Jefferson. In an 1825 letter written near the end of his life, Jefferson named Aristotle along with “Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c” as among the “harmonizing sentiments of the day” that gave the Declaration of Independence its “authority.” The eminent historian Douglass Adair attributed Jefferson’s republicanism and agrarianism to his reading of the middle books of the Politics. And Leo Strauss, in “On Classical Philosophy,” chose to exemplify the best regime of Aristotle by Jefferson’s description of the best government—not as the one that governs least but the one that gets the “natural aristoi” into office.

Whatever their differences, the Founders and Aristotle agreed that to understand politics, serious men need to discern its purpose. This means the centrality of the regime for political science. The regime is not just a constitution (as politeia is sometimes mistranslated), an arrangement of offices and powers, but its avowed purpose, its soul. How does each regime bring about the highest human activity of happiness (as in “the pursuit of happiness”) or flourishing (eudaimonia) in the souls of its citizens? Is, for example, military excellence, piety, or wealth most honored?

Aristotle’s practicality comes to sight in his observations of how regimes might transform themselves or maintain their characters. He advises how the just regimes of kingship, aristocracy, and polity (which favor the common good) might be protected from or even produced from the unjust regimes of tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy (which favor the ruler or ruling class). Displaying what a contemporary reader might call Machiavellian cunning, he indicates how a mixture of democratic and oligarchic elements might produce a polity (politeia), a particular regime which serves the common good combining the self-interests of its oligarchic and democratic citizens.

By combining two forms of injustice, justice might arise! But these cunning political transformations (or revolutions) should have as their ultimate purposes the production of regime-specific virtues in its citizens such as courage, liberality, and piety. Compare Madison’s Federalist 10 scheme: Because of the republic’s large size, factions proliferate, which prevents majority faction, while still preserving popular government. Much of the remainder of the Federalist is an elaboration of how republican virtues might be produced from a regime that bears some resemblance to the polity formed of democracy and oligarchy.

The first book of the Politics, amazing as it may sound, describes American politics with the clarity of a John Wayne Western. Civilization requires the strength and brutality of pre-political men. Aristotle studies the political community through his dual definition of human being—as the being with logos (reason or rational speech) and as by nature the political animal. What does it mean for man both to reason and to rule? Does the relationship between soul and body demand monarchy, patriarchy, slaveholding, or republicanism (a relation of ruling and being ruled)? How are the relationships within the family related to the community beyond clans and village? How are human pre-political needs, including security, sex, and wealth, related to what makes a person truly human, civilized and self-governing? That is, how do civilized people fend off unforgiving nature, both about them and within them, so they can realize their higher, more fulfilled nature?

The political community is neither a market nor an armed camp, but it cannot survive without features of both. The comprehensive political association, the polis, comes into being for the sake of life; it continues existence for the sake of its notion of the good life. Such an inquiry helps us understand the American Founding, the nation’s expansion, and its Civil War.

Presenting a rather different Aristotle, Thomas Pangle, the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, provides a rich, intriguing understanding of the Politics in light of a series of tensions. These tensions come forth as a dialectic, often poetically expressed (“didactic rhetoric”), that presents a struggle between two things: philosophy as the search for truth and politics as the striving for civic virtue. In other words, the Politics, Pangle argues, must be read as a Socratic work presenting the inquisitive reader with a series of challenges and forcing him to realize that one must choose between philosophy and politics. His concluding sentence puts this tension well:

We have been shown with some precision how and why the city at its republican best, how civic virtue, is essentially or by nature limited in its openness to the virtues of the life of the mind, the life of philosophy; and we have thereby been given a substantial introduction to Aristotle’s philosophic and political science of the human soul.

We see here Pangle’s contrast between “civic virtue,” on the one hand, and “the life of philosophy” on the other. The “spiritual liberation” he seeks will produce a man divided between his rationality and his political nature.

Of course politics (as with art or other human endeavors) receives its ultimate worth from what it serves, and that must come from one or both of the two highest activities: philosophy or theology. Yet politics has its own intrinsic worth, and the intellectual virtue of prudence would be empty without having political and moral life to shape. Pangle’s contempt for politics shines through and ultimately reduces political philosophy to philosophy’s attempt to shield itself, psychologically and analytically, from politics. His denigration of politics—of spiritedness, friendship, the American regime, of the noble and the moral virtue that strives for what is noble—would distort those phenomena and philosophizing itself.

We might proceed from his statement of Aristotle’s purpose:

Aristotle’s deepest aim in posing these riddles is to awaken his readers to the conceptual necessities that, if truly grasped, transform the confused, contradictory moral thinking with which we all begin into clarified and rigorously consistent thinking. Only by such a transformation in our conceptualization does moral and political reality emerge into full clarification out of the mental and emotional fog generated by our passions, habits, and authoritative traditions.

Pangle’s Aristotle seeks to replace the morality emanating from our “mental and emotional fog” with “full clarification.” But what is this “moral and political reality”? Given his references to Aristotle’s judo throws, his sighing, his diverse roles including “wry docent,” “sportive sage,” and “prankster,” one wonders which appellation does not apply to Pangle himself. [2]

Political-moral life is unintelligible without an account of what citizens hold to be noble. For Aristotle, the practical art of politics (politike, often mistranslated as political science) concerns itself with noble or splendid (kalon) and just (dikaion) matters (Ethics, I.3). The noble is the object of moral virtue. The purpose of political life is to seek the noble and the just. The moral virtues are habits of the soul ranging from courage and self-control, to liberality and pride, to wittiness. We see these virtues whether displayed on an ordinary plane or a heroic one. We see hard-working family men and know the example of George Washington.

But for Pangle, the noble arises as a beautiful but necessary delusion. The noble and the true are necessarily at odds. “Aristotle will put in the foreground and defend, while more quietly examining and correcting, the noble or beautiful way of seeing and articulating political life,” he writes. “Aristotle’s beautifying account” of political life, while appearing to be a defense against Platonic extremism, is in fact “a new, rationalist poetry, meant to partially eclipse—at least for a few gentlemanly readers—the traditionally pious poetry, and thereby provide a way station where a gentleman friendly to philosophy might spiritually dwell.” So, if Aristotle refers to beauty or the noble, the thoughtful reader should always look more closely—Socrates’ ugly mug will appear.

Pangle’s proclivity to look past beauty comports with his treatment of the art of acquisition; he never fails to recall its grubby roots. Thus, he speaks here of “the universal mental derangement through business,” which recalls his earlier work on the American Founding displaying contempt for the role of commerce and wealth creation.[3] After all, the businessman, who seeks profit, cannot, on Pangle’s terms, be confused with the “gentleman”—that is, the kaloskagathos, the beautiful and good man.

Given the American focus on wealth acquisition, it is hard to see who might qualify as a gentleman in America. George Washington (who sought land)? Abraham Lincoln (the successful lawyer)? Wouldn’t Pangle’s implicit defense of old wealth lead to oligarchy? Incidentally, throughout Aristotle’s Teaching in the Politics, Pangle mentions Lincoln several times but always in combination with other political figures. The most exceptional American, not noteworthy by himself? [4]

The author’s failure to appreciate the respective places of the noble and the necessary in politics puts morality and politics in a curious position. He degrades spiritedness: “Moral virtue at its peak, centered psychologically on spiritedness, is susceptible to intense moral indignation and harsh punitiveness toward friends and comrades as a result of the moral soul’s passionate conviction.” Consequently, “It would appear doubtful whether moral virtue by itself is a sufficient counter to, or education of, spiritedness.” Spiritedness can lead to civil war.

True enough. But Aristotle also reminds us that spiritedness (thumos) is the psychological support not only for courage and political freedom but for deep friendship. Without spiritedness, we would lack the basis for moral virtue and its goal of splendor but also for the friendship that enhances all the virtues—including the friendship that makes philosophical discussions possible. Without spiritedness we would lack for true friends and our patriotism would dissolve. Recall the Gettysburg Address. [5]

Pangle shortchanges friendship because he does not fully grasp the best regime. Friendship is a crucial theme of ancient political philosophy whose significance becomes clear in the modern substitutes for the political friendship of the best regime, such as the general will and social man. The slighting of friendship for the regime—also known as patriotism—is evident in the paradox Pangle tries to produce between an individual’s self-interest in philosophizing and his service to his country. He sees a soul divided between self-interest and patriotism. He finds a “basic contradiction in the very heart of what we mean by political virtue and nobility.” Similarly, he finds in the description of the best practicable regime a “subtly comical” struggle on Aristotle’s part “to articulate the best republican regime.” Rather, the tensions within political life are implicit in the best regime, a model with practical merit even if it is not fully reachable.

Aristotle leads us to compare what is good for our own country with what is good generally and ultimately what is the best. He wants us to ask what is the relationship between being a good human being generally and a good citizen in a specific regime (e.g., a good Russian citizen)? And would the best regime be the rule of one overweening, good man? Or would it be an aristocracy, of a few good men, who rule but also are ruled in turn?

Pangle would make it more difficult for us to see America through Aristotle. Early in the book, he denies that Aristotle wrote for his own times, though later he notes that Aristotle thought that democracies would prevail. While an Aristotelian would protest a “recourse to history” by a philosopher or by a power-hungry leader in order to impose a “mythic teleology” against free men, Pangle nonetheless contends that “The spiritual shallowness and atomization that was the inevitable outcome of the new liberal constitutionalism gave rise to the turn, in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, to ‘History’.”

To say that liberal constitutionalism inevitably produced “spiritual shallowness and atomization” is to give away the game. For in fighting one form of historicism or historical relativism, Pangle has adopted another as an explanation of his own country. [6]

He does not seem to allow for the Aristotelian element already present in America, which Jefferson and other Founders exemplify. Would not an Aristotelian approach call for a refinement of the opinions of the noble, the best regime, and political friendship that already exist? As Seth Benardete once remarked in class, an Aristotle treatise is a series of “tumbling analogies.”

This slighting of American exceptionalism is of a piece with the way he reduces the dynamic tension between reason and revelation, a tension that created Western civilization, to the quarrel between philosophy and poetry. For Pangle, poetry creates the gods or divine—not just the Homeric gods but the God of the Bible as well:

Aristotle’s beautifying account is a new, rationalist poetry, meant to partially eclipse—at least for a few gentlemanly readers—the traditionally pious poetry, and thereby to provide a way station where a gentleman friendly to philosophy might spiritually dwell. Aristotle’s poetry liberates from humble dependence on traditional deities, and exalts proudly human and naturally communal “self-sufficiency.”

For Pangle, Aristotle’s Politics is a kind of prelude to an individual liberation from conventions, whether in morality, piety, or patriotism. Answering his own questions, Pangle declares that Aristotle’s “didactic rhetoric is in some measure aimed at helping fathers and sons to liberate themselves, and others, from positive law.” Presumably he also means that fathers and sons might liberate themselves from each other—recall, for example, Princeton President Woodrow Wilson’s determination to make sons as little like their fathers as possible. This “spiritual liberation” is a call for “submission to that unwritten, quasi-natural ‘law’ that governs the morally serious in all times and places” and enjoys “a kind of codification” in Aristotle’s Ethics. In the Politics, “the alert and reflective reader discovers the full and strained civic implications.”

This “spiritual liberation” must not be mistaken for the American freedom the real Aristotle helped prepare the ground for. Pangle’s degradation of the noble, friendship, and America in the name of an alleged “rationalism” not only distorts politics; it thereby distorts philosophy.

1 That’s counting revisions of older translations and the late Laurence Berns’s as-yet-unpublished manuscript. The best published translations are by Carnes Lord (University of Chicago, second edition, 2013) and Peter L. Phillips Simpson (University of North Carolina, 1997).

2 We see Pangle reiterate the same themes as in his introduction to Leo Strauss’s Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (1983). Pangle made daring statements such as, “the truly free man will continue to dwell among and profit from his deluded neighbors; but spiritually he will live a life apart” (Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, 12), which drew Jaffa’s ire. See Jaffa and Pangle, Crisis of the Strauss Divided (2012); the exchange previously appeared in The Claremont Review of Books (Fall 1984 http://www.claremont.org/publications/pageid.2096/default.asp and Spring 1985 http://www.claremont.org/publications/pageid.2098/default.asp ).

The background of this dispute is better understood from contemporaneous notes of an earlier, acrimonious exchange between Pangle and Jaffa in Claremont. http://ashbrook.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/TP_-_HJ_Dialogue_1982.pdf Pangle’s provocative remark, “Socrates didn’t give a [hoot] about Athens,” set the stage for the subsequent exchanges. The status of morality and patriotism, its dignity and worth, is one of the great issues at the heart of the quarrel between the West and East Coast Straussians. For more on this divide see “Straussian Geography,” the first chapter in Jaffa’s Crisis of the Strauss Divided.

Mark Blitz’s review in The Claremont Review of Books (Fall, 2013) raises a host of questions, in particular about Pangle’s rhetoric. He observes that “one hardly expects to discover that Aristotle is Nietzsche in disguise.” Review can be found here.

3 Note how comparatively well Charles Beard comes off, in relation to, say, Hannah Arendt in Pangle’s Spirit of Modern Republicanism (1988).

4 Pangle makes an error similar to the one made by some Catholic critics of the American founding, such as Patrick Deneen, who blame growing secularism on flaws in the founding. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/a-catholic-showdown-worth-watching/

5 The model for using classical political philosophy to understand America is Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (1959), with, for example, its comparisons between Aristotle’s descriptions of political men’s souls and Abraham Lincoln. See as well the Jaffa essay on the Politics, reprinted in his The Conditions of Freedom (1975).

6 See 194 on what for Pangle would constitute “a starting point for an authentic Aristotelian analysis of the American founders’ regime.”

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on April 18, 2014 at 18:03:13 pm

All right. I have suspended my decision to purchase Mr. Pangle's book until such time that you recommend a more suitable translation-- something perhaps a little less asphyxiating.

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on April 26, 2014 at 12:15:54 pm

It's a commentary, not a translation, though he translates many important passages. Lord, Simpson, and Joe Sachs all have useful translations.

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Ken Masugi
on April 26, 2014 at 13:12:05 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the review -- justifiably critical of Pangel's argument fairly presented, without being hostile to the author.

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Image of Harvey
on April 26, 2014 at 14:07:16 pm

I'm interested in both philosophy and politics, and read this piece with what I thought was a reasonable level of attention. But I didn't manage to follow its flow, and frequently failed to grasp the intent of individual paragraphs. Of hundreds of pieces I have read online, I think this was the most difficult for me to follow.

Of course I'm only one data point, quite plausibly unique in the difficulties I had here, and perhaps outside the intended audience to boot. All that said, this is one person's reaction, for any use you might want to make of it.

Thank you for spending the effort to put your thoughts on this topic on the web.

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Image of Dexter
on May 02, 2014 at 21:38:49 pm

Dexter, I just noticed your comment. I apologize for my lack of clarity. You're right that this is a kind of intramural treatment, but I did strive to make it more generally accessible.
In sum: Start with my title. Aristotle had a great influence on political thought (and practice), and particularly on America. Pangle wrote a book that shows detailed knowledge of Aristotle's Politics but seemingly little appreciation of the prudence that Aristotle teaches and has taught for millenia. One might take this to be Pangle's "platonization" of Aristotle, but I think it betrays a contempt for politics that also distorts Aristotle's political philosophy.

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Image of Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi
on May 02, 2014 at 21:39:07 pm

Thanks, Harvey. Much appreciated.

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Ken Masugi

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.