Aristotle is a good source of help in dealing with our current political polarization.
His political philosophy is a friendly criticism of that of his teacher, Plato, whose teacher Socrates created an ideal government in “The Republic.”
Aristotle’s political philosophy is unfailingly practical, in contrast to Plato’s idealism.
There is certainly a time for idealism; U.S. leaders of all political leanings have moved the nation forward through such hopes and dreams.
However, idealism can be dangerous if followed too far. “The Republic” shows how this is so.
In this foundational political work, Socrates and friends describe a perfect utopia. Because a perfect government requires perfect patriotism, Socrates insists that the family must be abolished.
Loving your mother more than your country just won’t do. In the perfect republic, excellent citizens and leaders will be produced through a eugenic mating season once a year.
Although some thinkers take Socrates at his word, others believe he is speaking ironically, telling us a politically perfect place is a place nobody would really want to live.
Aristotle is more straightforward.
He speaks not of a utopia but of the “golden mean” between extremes. This, he says, is the desired approach to challenging political and ethical questions. Courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice and recklessness.
But for Aristotle, politics is not to be approached in a precise, mathematical fashion. The fact that something is good, does not mean it should be taken to its logical extreme. More is not necessarily better.
We know this to be true in other areas. For example, too much of our favorite food will make us sick.
Applied to politics and society, Aristotle would caution against following an ideal to places we do not want to go.
Freedom is exhilarating, but complete freedom is anarchy. Equality is noble, but total equality is communism.
Order is necessary, but totalitarian rule is required for perfect order. Patriotism inspires us, but absolute patriotism demands a sacrifice of faith and family.
Similarly, the fact that a political idea or position is bad does not mean its opposite is necessarily good.
Aristotle reminds us to seek the mean between undesirable extremes. Seen in an Aristotelian light, our system of government is neither utopian nor evil, but a practical mean between extremes.
The federal republic created by our Constitution is a mean between the oppressive monarchy of England and the feeble first American attempt at self-government, the Articles of Confederation.
In the 1990s, an Aristotelian-based political theory known as communitarianism emerged, seeking to correct the extremes of its time: the counterculture of the 1960s and the money culture of the 1980s.
Communitarianism was neither left nor right politically; it sought to remind us how we form our identities, our commitments and our sense of ethical obligation in communities.
In short, this perspective emphasized it takes a village to raise a child and instill character.
For example, wearing a mask is much easier and more likely if it does not require us to take a stand because those around us are wearing masks as well, rather than slandering masks as cowardly.
Communitarianism balances rights with responsibilities, reminding us of our obligations to one another.
Its expression was found in Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan: opportunity, responsibility, community, as well as George W. Bush’s endorsement of a more compassionate conservatism.
Communitarianism did not fail as policy. Rather, it drowned in Clinton’s hypocrisy and character issues, followed by Bush’s “War on Terror.”
The culture wars roared back in the 21st century, and we now find ourselves in an age of extremes. Anyone who questions the most extreme rhetoric or tactics is viewed as insufficiently committed to the cause.
A resuscitation of communitarianism might help us negotiate some of our challenges.
A focus on obligation to the common good would make it easier for the country to come together in support of the wearing of masks, for instance. The personal freedom sacrificed in wearing a mask is infinitely less important than other people’s right to life.
There are challenges to a communitarian revival: The communitarian is not very loud.
Additionally, libertarian critics see communitarianism as the epitome of the nagging nanny state. There is some merit to this claim if we take communitarian ideals too far rather than seeking the Aristotelian mean.
But the communitarian insight is needed.
It gives intellectual credibility to the impulse toward moderation in our age of extremes, and it gives us a chance to learn to live together and work together to solve our problems, rather than endlessly screaming at and about each other.
McKenzie is a Methodist in Calhoun, Georgia, who teaches high school and holds a doctorate in political theory from the University of Florida.