Friday, October 9, 2020

Questioning Aristotle on Democracy


Alice C. Linsley

A proper understanding of Aristotle's view of democracy requires recognizing his assertion that the Polis, or city-state, is prior to family and the individual. He sees this as a natural development along with nature's endowment of humans with speech and the ability to articulate moral concepts such as justice. As human beings are by nature political animals, we seek positions of power from which we can shape our communities.

The ideal of democracy is that we should be fair in the exercise of power. Yet "democracy" is elusive. No political system exists that is entirely fair. Further, the democracies of the world do not share a common political system.

This leads to another of Aristotle's questions: Does "democratic behavior" refer to actions that are pleasing to world democracies, or to actions that preserve world democracies?

If democratic behavior refers to actions that are pleasing to world democracies, some common substance must be universal to the ideal. What is that common substance? Is it that all are equal before the law? Sadly, that often is not the case in the best political environments. Is it that each citizen's vote counts for something? Unfortunately, sometimes those who scream the loudest about democracy manipulate voting. Perhaps the ideal of democracy is a nose ring by which the citizenry is yanked about?

Given Aristotle's view of government and human nature, it is likely that "democratic behavior" refers to actions that preserve the state. By this definition, insurrections and revolutions pose a grave threat to democracy. Too often they lead to unchecked power by those who take control. Congress is a community of communities, each working to tilt the balance in their favor. Winning the votes, passing the pork bill, getting the dirt on one's opponent - these non-democratic behaviors break bonds of friendship.

True democracy entails power sharing, conscientious public service, and mutual respect. These are fundamental. For Aristotle, the polis is held together by friendship. He regarded men with many friendships as good men. Today friendship in Washington is less important than politically advantageous alliances, and sharing power is rare because there is no trust between the parties.

Beyond these democratic behaviors, there is the necessity of a common vision of a good society. As we near the November 2020 presidential election it is clear that the Democratic and Republican parties have very different notions of what makes a society good. 

Related reading: Thoughts on Democracy; What Makes a Good Society?; When a Riot Becomes a Revolution

No comments: