Victor Nuovo, Theorists helped shape our republic
This is the first in a series of essays about political theory. My subjects will be eminent political philosophers, ancient and modern, among them Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau.
Their writings provide definitions and clarifications of fundamental political themes: the origin of the state; reasons for preserving it; abuse of power and its remedies; the nature of political authority, sovereignty, conflict resolution, and the rights and duties of citizens — chief among them are the freedom of expression and the rule of law. Their writings influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution — Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison — as they endeavored to create and perpetuate the American Republic, and it is with them, who were also original political thinkers, that the series will conclude.
There is, I believe, an urgent need to revisit the intellectual heritage that has shaped our government and our politics. We have arrived at a critical moment in our history. Our nation has a new leader, a self-styled golden man, selfish and self-serving, intemperate, contemptuous of truth, prejudiced, demagogic, who feeds on flattery, whose chief interest seems to be in maintaining his public image rather than governing justly, a sometime television star who regards the world as though it were reality TV, who is indifferent to if not ignorant of the tradition of the rule of law.
Our institutions and practices are not self-perpetuating; they require a constant infusion of thought and commitment. The framers of our constitution could not have foreseen what has happened here, but they anticipated it. The task now falls upon us as citizens to rediscover the founding ideas and principles of our republic, to think them through and to apply them anew. In short, what is required of us is a renewal of thought and action.
I begin with Plato and Aristotle. Plato (427–347 BCE) is the founder of political philosophy in the European tradition. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) erected the superstructure. He invented the academic discipline of political science, gave it its name, clarified its themes, and endowed it with concepts and terms that have become the alphabet of political thinking down to the present. Together they bequeathed to posterity, to us, the very idea of Constitutionalism upon which our nation is founded: the idea that the authority of government arises from and is determined by fundamental law, and that the governed and those who govern them are mutually subject to this law as well as its keepers.
A fundamental law is like the foundation of a house: allow it to decay, or undermine it, and the house will collapse.
Plato and Aristotle overlap. Aristotle spent 20 years in Plato’s Academy. He entered as a youth, and left as an adult, a mature philosopher with plans to begin his own school. During these two decades, Plato’s last years, Plato was at work rethinking political theory, which resulted in his book “The Laws.” It is a classic of political philosophy; its central themes are constitutionalism and the rule of law. Aristotle read it and Plato’s earlier work, “The Republic.” He comments on them in his “Politics,” which may also be characterized as a treatise on constitutionalism. But it was not by reading that Aristotle imbibed Plato’s ideas, rather it was through daily contact with the master, first as student, then as associate. What he learned he revised and refashioned to fit his own insights and purposes.
It is noteworthy for us that Plato and Aristotle had a very special object in mind when they engaged in political thinking. It was the polis, the ancient Greek city. The polis was in their thought autonomous, sovereign, and self-sufficient. The term is usually translated as “city-state” to distinguish it from the modern “nation-state.”
In size, situation and mode of government, the Greek polis is like a Vermont town. It is their direct ancestor. Our towns lack sovereignty and have limited autonomy, yet they are an enduring testimony to the importance of local government and the opportunities it provides us to exercise our franchise as citizens.
The ancient polis was a vibrant center of political and social life: not only was it sovereign and autonomous, its legislative scope was all comprehending, encompassing public safety, health and welfare, commerce, education, religion, foreign relations, defense and the moral life. The centrality of the polis in the thought of Greek political thinkers is evident in their key terms: politeia signified the art of governing as well as a city’s constitution or fundamental law, or more generally political theory; polites was a citizen; a politikos was a public official or statesman. Our terms “politics” and “politician” retain the sounds, but have lost much of the meaning. The same may be said of the term “citizen,” which is derived from the Latin civis and civitas.
During the lifetimes of Plato and Aristotle, the Greek polis had become an endangered species. Plato blamed this on commerce and expansion through colonization, which caused rivalry and wars between cities, and a chronic contest for hegemony among them, which evoked fantasies of empire, greed and vain ambition. During Plato’s lifetime, the sovereignty of the polis was in doubt. During Aristotle’s lifetime, its fate was decided.
Aristotle was born in Stagira, a minor city in the NE of Greece, a backwater bordering Macedonia. His father was a physician who served for a time as court physician to Amyntas III, king of Macedon. When he was 17, Aristotle went to Athens to study in Plato’s Academy and remained for 20 years, until Plato’s death in 347 BCE. He left the Academy and Athens because he did not like Plato’s successor, and he sought his fortune elsewhere.
Four years later, Philip II of Macedon, Amyntas’ successor, summoned Aristotle to tutor his son Alexander. Philip had become master of Greece and was instrumental in ending the era of free and independent cities. Alexander, soon to be called “the Great, endeavored to conquer the whole world. Historians use the year of Alexander’s death, 323 BCE, to mark the end of the Classical era and the beginning of the so-called Hellenistic age. The name is significant. Aristotle taught Alexander well, for he was not only an adventurer, who wanted to conquer the world, but a cultural-nationalist who desired to make the nations he conquered Greek, to Hellenize them. The Greeks called their homeland Hellas, the Greek verb hellenizein means to cause someone to speak Greek and to adopt Greek customs and manners.
During the Hellenistic age, the power of Greek cities declined even as new cities were founded. The field of politics became fertile for imperialist adventurers like Alexander, and the seedbed for Rome, whose era followed. When Rome achieved supreme power, its elite prided themselves on the fact that they were fluent in Greek and had studied in Athens, much like elitists of my generation who prided themselves on being fluent in French and having studied at the Sorbonne. The Greek polis, and Athens in particular, became the emblem of past glory and icon of cultural elitism. Aristotle not only lived through this change, but helped shape it.
Postscript: Readers who enjoy visualizing the time and place of great personages should view Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, which can be accessed online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_School_of_Athens
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