Aristotle's Lessons for a Political Animal

Lorraine Smith Pangle

Fall 2023

Discussions of liberal democracy's crisis abound. On the shelf before me sit Democracy's Discontent, Why Liberalism Failed, How Democracies Die, Liberalism and Its Discontents, and The Fractured Republic. The much-discussed ills of our own democracy include deepening divides between left and right, rich and poor, and more and less educated; gridlock in Congress; growing vitriol; broken trust in our institutions; and a waning belief in liberal democracy itself among our ever more lonely, anxious, and troubled youth. Proposed culprits include globalization, the post-industrial economy, tax policy, meritocracy, out-of-touch elites, the primary system, irresponsible populists, gerrymandering, erosion of norms and mediating institutions, entrenched racism, identity politics, and social media. All have plausibility, and for many of them sensible remedies have been proposed. But most ominous is the decline of a common purpose — the dissolution of a shared American vision of human thriving, of the kind of country that deserves our dedication, and of the kind of citizens we should be striving to be. If we had this, we could navigate our differences constructively, but we do not.

While always imperfect, for most of our history we have had a broader consensus around core principles: equality under law, equality of opportunity, and a limited government whose first task is to protect Americans' freedom and rights, leaving us free to shape our own lives and choose our own religions. At the same time, most Americans did belong to a religious group that provided moral education while supporting democracy and accepting pluralism, and most were in broad agreement on the moral character of a good life. Our nation has argued from the start about the precise function and limits of government, but our worst divisions have come not around our basic principles, but in our failure to extend them to all Americans.

We still share a commitment to equality and liberty and rights, but we no longer agree on what they mean. Is the equality that matters equality of opportunity to compete and achieve unequal results, or equal prosperity for all, or equal representation of each ascriptive group in every profession and organization? Or is the love of equality at bottom just a hatred for elites? Does freedom mean minimal government interference in individual choices, or vigorous state intervention to protect formerly excluded and newly self-defining groups? Do rights include the right to life or to abortion, to own guns or to be secure from violence, to earn and spend as we choose or to receive assistance with all life's basic needs? Our very agreements have become the questions around which we are most divided.

In this perplexity it may help to consult a neglected source of wisdom, one outside but also a distant wellspring of our American tradition: the classical republican Aristotle. In his political writings, Aristotle attends less to specific policies and institutions than to regimes and questions of character, which he sees as closely related. For a regime, in Aristotle's understanding, is an ordering of government, but even more a certain understanding of justice and a particular way of life, exemplified by a characteristic human type — the gentleman farmer, the warrior aristocrat, the independent yeoman, the industrious small businessman or worker — whose virtues define the community and whose education is crucial to its success or failure. Aristotle would urge us to think harder about the character we seek to instill in our children through the education we give them and, as a people forged by a set of propositions about human nature and natural rights, especially about our foundational understanding of human nature.


Three paradoxes underlie our contemporary predicament, and all call for the kind of reflection that Aristotle can offer. The first is that our constitutional system has worked well on the basis of faulty premises about human nature. Developing lessons they learned from Enlightenment thinkers, our founders devised an enormously beneficial system of government. Such commitments as the rule of law and equality under the law; such innovations as representative democracy and federalism across an extended republic; such constitutional provisions as the separation of powers, bicameralism, an independent judiciary, and checks and balances; and such protections for economic and individual liberties as the Constitution provides have given us a life of outstanding stability, security against oppression, freedom from religious warfare, and prosperity.

At the heart of this project was a new teaching on natural rights, grounded in a teaching on humans' natural condition or "state of nature," and a new determination to turn philosophy to the conquest of nature and the relief of man's estate. Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and Montesquieu each gives a different version of the state of nature, sometimes presenting it as the prehistory of the whole human race, sometimes as an exceptional but especially revealing recurring condition. But all contend that to grasp this state is to comprehend the deepest truth about human beings: By nature we are detached, self-interested, acquisitive individuals; we have no natural end or perfection; we are equal because we are equally vulnerable to violent death and starvation and equally endowed with a right to self-defense and to acquire property. These and other basic rights are the possessions of individuals prior to society, the protection of which is their purpose in forming governments. On these premises, Enlightenment thinkers justified the liberal project of resting government on the low but solid foundations of self-interest and directing it to the protection of rights and to comfortable self-preservation.

The paradox is that today, and for many years now, no one has believed in the state of nature. It seems implausible now as a historical reality, for modern anthropology and evolutionary science have confirmed that Homo sapiens is naturally an intensely social being. It is likewise not compelling as a source of normative guidance: Finding this nature silent on the higher aspirations of the human spirit, subsequent thinkers sought norms chiefly in history, but this effort has exhausted itself. For a time the absence of a convincing grounding for our political principles did not seem to matter; we proceeded as if they needed no support. But as our consensus about the meaning of the American project erodes, this foundational deficit becomes more of a problem.

A second paradox is that the Enlightenment premises about human nature, though faulty, have proved powerful, making us increasingly like the atomized beings they assume we naturally are. Without accepting the state of nature as a historical reality, we have come to believe the story it teaches us about ourselves as self-interested, competitive, rights-bearing individuals, each on our own to make whatever we can of life. This idea resonated with a frontier people, fostering a love of freedom but also a tendency to disengage from the wider society. It ultimately produced a narrow self-absorption that Alexis de Tocqueville dubbed "individualism."

Tocqueville found individualism effectively moderated by Americans' commitment to local and voluntary associations, but this balance has failed to hold. From Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart to Mary Ann Glendon's Rights Talk to Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic and Richard Haass's Bill of Obligations, recent commentators have observed the consequences: social isolation, a harsh discourse of non-negotiable rights unaccompanied by acknowledged bonds of obligation, and a fraying social fabric. Especially influential is Patrick Deneen, who argues in Why Liberalism Failed that our founders' fundamentally Lockean project of liberating individuals from the institutions and traditions that once constrained them has left Americans increasingly isolated, weak, and helpless in the face of a powerful government. While Deneen is wrong to suggest that the founders intended this outcome, he is right about our need to recover other, non-Lockean sources of wisdom.

A third paradox is that liberalism's project of building government on the foundations of self-interest worked as long and as well as it did only because it was supplemented by other, less individualistic and often loftier commitments and habits. Enlightenment liberalism did not provide them and was even in tension with them, but they also inspired our founders, who in their eclecticism exhibited a more capacious wisdom than their Enlightenment teachers. These additional supports include the Christian faith, inherited ideals of public service and civic leadership harking back to Greece and Rome, characteristically American habits of collective self-help and volunteerism, and the traditional family.

Even rugged individualism depended on a spirit of proud resilience and a suite of virtues — courage, moderation, and patriotism — nourished from springs other than the Enlightenment teaching about human self-interestedness and the natural fear of violent death. Indeed, our focus on comfortable self-preservation itself draws on more generous concerns than meet the eye, for now that the growth in our standard of living has appeared to stall, it becomes clear that the hope that our children might have a better life than we have was all along a crucial source of dedication to the American project.

Now nature seems to give no guidance at all. Modern natural science teaches us that nature is blind, and much of modern social science denies that humans even have a nature. In the absence of a clear understanding of nature as prescriptive, reason appears to have failed us, too: It presents as thin, at best instrumental, and inadequate to the task of guiding life. Reason has apparently taught that, from knowledge of what is, nothing follows about what ought to be. Direction comes only from faiths we increasingly do not share or from personal preferences we cannot defend.

For a time, many tried to ground our political principles in relativism, assuming that if there is no truth about what is right and good, it is just to be tolerant and to leave each free to pursue the good as he sees it. But such a view, apart from its illogic, has proved too thin a gruel for the human spirit. Human beings need causes to believe in. Now on both the left and right we see a new moral fervor but with an impoverished moral vocabulary — a parlance not of virtues well articulated, but of grievances and assertions of non-negotiable rights. At the moment a majority of us still embrace democracy. But as we reject guidance from nature, do we have any grounds for our belief in the equal dignity of human beings and in equal political rights except feelings? And are not feelings an especially easy thing to change?

I submit that much of what ails us could be improved, and much of what is good about America could be better supported and guided, by consulting another, older source of our tradition: ancient republicanism, and especially Aristotle, beginning with his different and richer anthropology. If we could enlist Aristotle as a consultant, he would likely say that nature is more robust and offers more guidance than we believe: We might think of ourselves as isolated individuals, but by nature we are political. We think of our relations with one another in terms of rights and (if we remember to add) corresponding duties, but it is better to think of moral and political relations in terms of virtues that are the perfection of our natures and in reference to a common good that is also based on human nature.

To be sure, Aristotle is no democrat. But he does reflect deeply on democracy and on how its strengths may be deployed and its faults tempered in a mixed regime. True, he does not teach that human beings were created simply equal, but he does argue that nature made us all equally human, and he gives that concept a rich meaning that supports a commitment to human dignity. But is not Aristotle's teaching on nature fatally flawed by an outdated teleology? So it might seem. Yet a close look at his claims about nature — especially in the Politics — shows a wily teacher at work, who repeatedly offers sunny portraits of nature as a benevolent goddess only to cast shadows over them with remarks on what nature "wishes" but fails to do, and with concessions that what is natural actually requires extensive human thought and effort to achieve.

What survives these qualifications, running through both his political and scientific works, is a sober account of nature as not necessarily the work of intelligent purpose, but as an ordered realm of beings belonging to classes with definite characteristics and, in the case of living beings, functions and specific ways of thriving that reveal not only what is, but what is good. To understand what a heart is means to comprehend what a healthy heart is and does. To know what a beaver is means to grasp its thriving existence as a being that builds dams and eats bark and raises young, for which it is good to do these things and good to have the clean water and trees and freedom that they require. Something analogous, though much more complex, is true for human beings.


What, then, is human? In Aristotle's famous definition, a human being is a rational, political animal. This means first that we are animals too — living beings with needs, desires, and vulnerabilities, who can be healthy or sick, for whom health is good. We are shaped and defined by the bodily characteristics of the species, including its way of reproducing. Even this earthiest layer of our being gives us direction and meaning: We are beings that naturally seek to overcome our mortality by leaving behind others like ourselves. It is part of ancient realism to accept our biological nature and to be respectful of the deep ways it defines though never determines us. It is part of the classical approach to take the natural health of the body as a model and to try to understand the health of the soul in a similar way.

Second, a human is a political animal. By this Aristotle means not only that humans are gregarious like the herd animals, but also that we are social in a particular way that unites us in ordered wholes. From birth we are embedded in families that we come to love as our own; we naturally love our closest kin and friends as other selves; we form particular groups that range against other groups, consisting of leaders and followers. We share a profound human inclination to join others in purposeful action, first for defense but also for higher activities that give life meaning and a share in the noble. Thus our groups naturally grow and coalesce until they form self-sufficient, sovereign political communities under regimes that profoundly shape all the smaller associations within them. Finally, to call humans political is to say that human nature is most fully realized in one particular kind of sovereign community, a polis or free city, large enough to maintain its independence but small enough to unite its citizens with strong bonds of affection and to govern itself through collective, face-to-face deliberations. And so we see illustrated the paradoxical meaning of nature in Aristotelian political philosophy, for the polis is both a natural perfection and a rare achievement.

Aristotle connects our political nature to our third and highest defining characteristic, reason. He says in the Politics:

It is clear, then, that a human being is more of a political animal than is any bee or than are any of those animals that live in herds. For nature, as we say, makes nothing in vain, and humans are the only animals who possess reasoned speech [logos]. Voice, of course, serves to indicate what is painful and pleasant; that is why it is also found in the other animals, because their nature has reached the point where they can perceive what is painful and pleasant and express these to each other. But speech serves to make plain what is advantageous and harmful and so also what is just and unjust. For it is a peculiarity of humans, in contrast to the other animals, to have perception of good and bad, just and unjust, and the like; and community in these things makes a household and a city.

Essential to our political nature but also transcending it is our yearning for the noble, for a meaning that lifts us above our animal existence with its bodily needs and pleasures. This longing directs us to public service and heroism, to piety, and to philosophy, yet this very orientation toward the noble also brings us into conflicts. It leads societies to embrace common faiths, stories, and authoritative accounts of life's meaning, to try to put these beyond question — and to challenge these accounts.

The fact that we are given to arguing and challenging one another is part of what it means to be political, but is also tied to something else in human nature: We are in one way political and even more communal than other animals including bees, but in another way more independent. In fact, Aristotle says in the History of Animals, a human being is one of the animals that "dualizes" — we are both political and separate or solitary. He stresses our political nature in his Ethics and Politics, however, the two of which are aimed at giving guidance for citizens, educators, and statesmen. We all know how self-interested we are by nature; what we need to understand better to live well is our political nature and the unique needs it gives us, as well as the uniquely human fulfillment it makes possible.

In the Politics, Aristotle does allude to the potential for human nature to take a solitary direction, and at first in a dichotomous way: "[A]nyone who lacks the capacity to share in community, or has no need to because of his self-sufficiency, is no part of the city and as a result is either a beast or a god." But soon he makes clear that all actual humans need an education through law if they are not to fall below the level of humanity:

By nature, then, the desire for such a community exists in everyone, but the first to set one up is the cause of the greatest of goods. For as human beings are the best of all animals when perfected, so they are the worst of all when divorced from law and right. For injustice is most difficult to deal with when furnished with weapons, and the weapons a human being has are meant by nature to go along with prudence and virtue, but it is only too possible to turn them to contrary uses. Consequently, if a human being lacks virtue, he is a most unholy and savage thing, and when it comes to sex and food, the worst. But justice is something political, for right is the ordering of a political community, and justice is judgment of what is right.

A key feature of our political nature is thus the need for law — to constrain our worst impulses, to protect us against harm, but also to instill virtue and to give order to our higher strivings for a shared life with a common purpose. For we form political communities together not only for the sake of life, but the good life and the noble. Law, classically understood, is constraining but also guiding, community-forging, and meaning-defining.

To say that humans are naturally political is not to say that we all want to be actively involved in ruling. But it is to say that we are social in a specific way. We are concerned with what is good and bad not only for ourselves but for others we care about. We want to belong to a community that lives justly and stands for justice. To live fully, we need to be engaged with others on a small or large scale in working for ends we affirm as our own and recognize as good.


If nature gives us a need for meaning and a need for justice, does it tell us what these are? The question of meaning is especially hard. Nature does not teach us the meaning we crave, but it gives us clues — first in our very needs for community, and hence for the civic virtue to sustain it. Aristotle's most serious teaching on virtue, however, is that it is not primarily what society needs of us, but what we need ourselves to thrive as the complex individual, social, political, and rational beings that we are. The active, intelligent exercise of virtue is, according to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the core of happiness. It is not the whole of it; it is impossible to be happy if one is suffering torture, or if one's loved ones are. Virtue for its fullest exercise needs equipment and opportunities, beginning with a good education. But Aristotle insists that the core of a good life consists in developing and exercising the virtues, both moral and intellectual.

Virtue, like the polis, has a complex relation to nature in Aristotle's teaching. Virtue is the perfection of nature, but a perfection — unlike the unfolding of a rose or the leaping of a tiger — that nature itself does not simply provide. Even wild creatures rarely reach their ultimate fulfillment: Few acorns become magnificent oak trees. But the perfection of humans through virtue needs not just luck, but deliberate teaching and habituation, supported by law. Yet we still can say that virtue is natural in the same way that athletic excellence is, actualizing in an impressive and satisfying way the potential that nature provides.

Virtue is harder to achieve than athletic skill because it requires overcoming not just laziness, but greed and quarrelsome, violent impulses that are not good even for us. Nature does not make life simple for us as it does for beavers. We have to invent our dams and argue with each other and even with ourselves about how to do it. But nature does provide the foundations for virtue, in a natural goodwill for others and concern for the common good, in the capacity for reason, in a rudimentary natural sense of justice and a concern with dignity that need to be educated but that give education crucial material to work with, and in the satisfactions of developing all these things well.

Reflecting our complex natures, good character needs sophisticated supports. It cannot be instilled merely by force and fear. It requires the careful cultivation of the passions, with habituation, love, and inspiring examples. It needs practical reasoning to guide it, which again requires education and practice. But it also needs the sanction and majesty of law as an ultimate support.

Aristotle offers a paradoxical teaching on law, the noble, and virtue in the last chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics, as he turns from the question of what virtue is to the question of how to promote it. His first word here is that those well raised to love what is noble need only reminders and exhortations, while those badly brought up need compulsion. But then it turns out that to be good and stay good all of us need the kind of compulsion that comes from law. Why would the love of the noble alone not be enough, at least in those properly educated? How can virtue be our natural perfection and its exercise the core of happiness if it also needs compulsion? Every society's need for laws with teeth is an unfortunate reflection of the power of narrowly selfish and violent propensities in human nature, but especially in the case of those who are best raised it has more interesting implications. The civic virtues are ones that we must exercise together. Our political nature is fulfilled only when we act together for a common good and push ourselves not just individually but collectively to be good.

Consider the way decent people are willing to pay taxes and even happy to do their part — but only if others do theirs too. Good people do not want to be freeloaders but they want even less to be exploited; they want to be part of a community that is working for everyone. Or consider brave people like the Ukrainians, fighting willingly and nobly for their freedom and for freedom everywhere. Even Ukraine, with the best cause in the world, needed to stop men from fleeing the country at the start of the war, and like every army theirs needs military discipline. But precisely in pulling together with the help of good laws to do what is best, they are exercising their political freedom together in the best kind of way. Finally, virtue needs law behind it because laws in the classical understanding embody a community's most solemn, even sacred recognition of the justice that has a claim on each member. As political beings it is almost impossible for us to maintain moral seriousness about things that the law treats as a matter of indifference.

For all these reasons, Aristotle denies that acting well depends simply on individual choice or free will. People think it is entirely up to them to be good or bad, he says, but it is not. We are profoundly shaped by those who raise us, by those around us, by the laws, and by our sense of how seriously our community takes them. We all know that a young person who grows up in a broken family in a neighborhood where crime is out of control has a poor chance of turning out well, but Aristotle would say we tend not to draw the right conclusions from this. He would criticize equally the liberals who want the laws to be enforced more leniently and the conservatives who imagine that the community's responsibility ends with law enforcement and fail to take seriously its obligation to prevent people from going wrong in the first place.

In sum, for Aristotle government, law, and political action are not primarily the creatures and tools of our desires and preferences, as modern political science teaches, but something noble that we do together and can only do together. This teaching about humans' political nature is controversial; it is not one of the premises of modern liberalism. But the crisis of modern liberalism is due in no small part to our neglect of its importance. It has many implications, but because leaders and examples are so important, Aristotle might begin with this one: We should attend to the character even more than to the policy preferences of those whom we elect to offices of trust. The language of virtue has become alien to us, but the present is a clarifying moment. If we ever imagined that a well-designed political order would run itself without any need for virtue in its citizens and leaders, it has become obvious that it is not so.


With this account of human nature, what might Aristotle say to Thomas Jefferson's stirring, regime-defining statement in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal?

In some crucial respects, the robust view of human nature that informs Aristotle's classical republicanism actually offers a better way of grounding the principle of equal human dignity and the equal claims of citizens on one another than social-contract theory does. True, Aristotle is keenly aware of the ways humans are unequal. He argues that an important form of justice consists in giving unequal honors and offices for people's unequal merits and contributions. He finds in wisdom and virtue the highest titles to rule. And if his best practicable regime is partly democratic, it is also partly aristocratic. But Jefferson like Aristotle judges it a crucial task of government to bring the natural aristoi into positions of authority, and Aristotle agrees with Jefferson that sound rule requires consent.

For Jefferson, the necessity for consent is indeed the core meaning of "created equal." As he explains in an 1826 letter to Roger Weightman, the fundamental thought of the Declaration of Independence is that "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god." Aristotle's anthropology supplements this negative claim about equality with a teaching on the profound ways in which we are equally human. We share not only lower needs of the body but higher needs of the soul. Our capacities differ in degree but they are the same in kind. We all share a nature that can be perfected and that needs to be perfected by the virtues of character through education. We all need good laws. We all share a natural curiosity and a capacity to reason both about what is and about what ought to be, and in every one of us reason needs education to develop and to guide it. We all share a political nature that thrives best in a free community, with a share in dignity and authority but also with good leaders. And in a free society we all need one another to be well educated to become sensible and good partners.

Balancing the disparate claims of simple equality and proportional equality on the basis of merit, Aristotle recommends mixing the aristocracy and democracy that vied for control in the Greece of his time to create a regime that would give a share in dignity and authority to all citizens and the best chance for wise and virtuous individuals to lead. In our much more democratic world, our best path is to try to approach Aristotle's mixed regime from the other side, elevating democracy to reach as closely as possible a universal aristocracy. To aim at universal aristocracy would mean turning our best efforts to developing reason and the capacity for virtue as far as possible in everyone, and teaching young citizens that citizenship means first and foremost not the right to have their desires prevail but the responsibility to help choose decent, sensible, and patriotic men and women for positions of trust. We are equal at bottom because we all need one another. This means that there must be no dismissing others as deplorables, as un-American and so beyond the pale, or, short of actual sedition, as political enemies that we should turn our best energies to defeating.


What, then, would Aristotle say to our commitment to equal, individual rights? Aristotle is the fountainhead of the idea of natural right or what is "just by nature" (dikaion phusikon). From this springs both the natural-law teaching developed in classic form by St. Thomas Aquinas and the modern teaching on natural rights. But Aristotelian natural right differs in critical ways from both.

In keeping with Aristotle's focus on virtue, in the Nicomachean Ethics justice (dikaiosune) comes to sight as a virtue and indeed a crowning one, or complete virtue practiced toward others. Justice is, to be sure, a most challenging virtue to attain, sometimes so hard that it seems to be merely "the good of another." This is a crucial reason we need law. But if justice is a true virtue and the practice of virtue is the core of happiness, meeting the challenges of justice and being a source of good in the way just citizens and leaders are must also bring fulfillment to a core element in our natures.

For the political community, the just or right manifests especially as fairness, which again turns out to be problematic, for fairness takes various forms and these can be in tension. As we have seen, the simple equality demanded by all citizens in a democracy can conflict with proportional equality based on merit, and Aristotle discusses similar complexities in criminal justice and the justice of commercial exchange. Thus the just is a standard that is ascertainable by reason yet comprises distinct strands pulling in different directions.

But the most fundamental meaning of justice, which weaves all these others together, is the common good of the whole political community. Thus justice is both the virtue of a moderate, generous, well-ordered soul intent on securing a common good with others wherever it can be found, and the virtue of a well-ordered polity that pursues the common good under the guidance of practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is essential because the good is so complex, but at the same time practical wisdom is possible because the good is knowable, as an ordered hierarchy of essential but lower goods, such as safety and health and prosperity, and higher goods of the soul, such as love and friendship and the moral and intellectual virtues.

So complex is right and so much do laws and conceptions of it vary, Aristotle acknowledges at the outset of his famous chapter on natural right in the Ethics, that some people claim that it is all conventional and not by nature. He grants that part of it is: the particular enactments that vary from place to place. These are just if they achieve a common good, but conventional inasmuch as their specific provisions are arbitrary. But against the conventionalists, Aristotle insists that behind or above all such laws is a natural part of right that "has the same power everywhere" and is not dependent on what people believe or enact. Yet, perplexingly, he says that even this natural part is "altogether changeable."

What is the power of right, and why is it changeable? Natural right for Aristotle has the same power everywhere because it is the common good of a community and because in every community that has not utterly broken down there is a common good to be found — seldom perfect, sometimes quite limited, never reducible to uniform rules, but usually substantial and always worth pursuing. To say that natural right has the same power everywhere means that in all places there are ultimate costs to disregarding it. It means that justice is in every situation applicable, that there is always a best thing to do, even if it is hard to find, and that the best thing to do is the right thing to do. It means that justice does not demand the impossible and that it is never wrong to do the best possible, even if it is the lesser of grave evils.

Natural right is changeable because right in real life on the ground is a messy matter of balancing competing claims — of different citizens, distinct kinds of good, and varied parts of justice itself. It is changeable because in the shifting exigencies of political life these tensions need to be managed differently at different times. It is changeable, moreover, because right is relative to the regime, and if there is only one best regime in principle, there is more than one just regime. For justice, again, does not demand changes that are impossible, but it does demand that we become the best version of ourselves that we can be.

Aristotle's statement that natural right is altogether changeable is a denial that natural right can take the form of natural law, for it implies that there are exceptions to any uniform rule we might try to frame, while it is of the essence of law to be categorical. St. Thomas, in insisting that there is a natural law, argues that it rests on an eternal law given by God, promulgated through the conscience, and enforced both here and hereafter. Aristotle does allude to a moral sense, but it seems to draw as much from custom as from nature, and he never calls it a law, divine or otherwise. What he stresses as the proper source of guidance for action is practical wisdom, informed by the moral sense but also by education, practical experience, and reason. It is this that he says judges and statesmen need if they are to apply blunt laws equitably; it is also this that they need if they are to know when in extreme cases to suspend them, as Abraham Lincoln did with habeas corpus in wartime.

Nor is Aristotelian natural right a matter of natural rights understood as individual, pre-political possessions. Justice as a virtue is the virtue of a political being. The just as the common good is a shared and not an individual good, involving trade-offs and requiring flexibility. Natural right as part of political right is something that nature helps us identify but that a political community must secure. In Aristotelian terms, individual rights are not possessions we bring to society, then, but are perhaps best conceived as powers that a wise society places in individual hands, chiefly to prevent oppression. So understood, rights are neither simply dictated by nature nor simply rooted in tradition, but human enactments grounded in a knowledge of our natures, our particular political community, and what is possible for us.

The United States has tried to enshrine rights in this spirit but lacks the categories for thinking about it well, and so the efforts erode. Most obviously, the Second Amendment freedom to bear arms was originally conceived thus, as a power the community was relegating to individuals to allow them to take part in the collective self-defense project of a local militia, but it has devolved into a merely individual claim. In fact the First Amendment is best understood this way as well, as a series of checks that shield individuals against certain kinds of prosecutions, certainly for the benefit of those individuals, but even more importantly to create a thriving sphere for political and intellectual discussion and organization and religious life for everyone. Reconsidering rights under the guidance of Aristotle would mean giving up absolutist claims and entering into more open negotiations, focused on the multiple goods we seek to protect and the real but limited contribution each asserted right can make to the common good of the nation.

All of these considerations put Aristotle largely on the side of strong political communities, preferably small and homogeneous ones, with rich local traditions, shared religions, widespread political participation, and citizen armies. But while Aristotle is not a liberal, he has in several important ways a surprising sympathy with liberalism, tied to his judgment that humans are one of the animals that dualize. This dual character is what makes us not just political but selfish in many problematic ways. But it also has some more positive meanings.

One of these is Aristotle's recognition that humans thrive best when we have a degree of self-sufficiency. Aristotle saw independent farmers with their self-reliance as the backbone of a good republic, an idea that Jefferson adopted with his embrace of yeoman farmers and Benjamin Franklin adapted with his encouragement of self-reliant skilled tradesmen and small-business owners. This celebration of self-sufficiency is an important part of the American ethos; our task is not to overcome it but to nurture it wisely and to balance it with richer sources of connection.

Another meaning of our dualizing for Aristotle is that the very highest human perfections and fulfillments transcend the political community. The virtue that a city can inculcate is not complete virtue, nor is the city the highest thing. What is highest, Aristotle says, is the divine — he calls it the unmoved mover — and the closest human life can come to the divine is in philosophic contemplation. Only individuals can contemplate, in private and in ways necessarily in tension with a healthy community, because philosophy entails radical questioning. This tension Aristotle thinks must be managed and cannot ever be simply overcome, but his respect for both sides of it gives him more of an affinity for an open liberal society like Athens and less of an affinity for a closed, communal society like Sparta than we might otherwise suppose.


What, then, might Aristotle say is the best version of our nation that we should aim to become? We embrace freedom; this is our great strength. Freedom rethought with the help of Aristotle can be a good organizing principle for our shared pursuit of dignity and meaning. Freedom for us has always meant both the freedom of individuals to choose their own direction in life and the freedom of communities to govern themselves. But we tend increasingly to think of individual freedom as the liberty to do whatever we want and to be whoever we want, with the fewest possible constraints and the least possible judgments from anyone.

When such freedom comes into conflict with the community's attempt to set norms collectively, we clash and do not know how to resolve the dispute. Indeed, we have a bad conscience about even trying to set norms. We are confident in defending collective actions only to protect individuals from harm or from infringements on their rights, not to make life more meaningful or our communities stronger or ourselves more virtuous. We are especially suspicious of efforts to promote virtue. Is this not what morality police do in repressive regimes like the one in Iran? Should virtue not be a private matter?

Aristotle would encourage us to think of freedom differently, as something both nobler and more demanding. True freedom is more than an absence of constraint or willful self-assertion. People indulging addictions and moved by delusional rage are clearly not free; Aristotle would say that they are slaves to blind passions. But so, he would say, is everyone who is led blindly by appetites or fashion or vanity or even raw ambition. True freedom means being master of one's own ship, and for this one must know the ship, know where one is going and where it is worthwhile to go, and know how to manage one's own passions. Genuine freedom requires virtues of heart and mind that in turn necessitate an intensive education and a community of like-minded people to sustain the effort.

Iran, Aristotle would say, is not free and is not a healthy community that is governing itself well; its authoritarian regime is a small, extremist party using the forces of the modern state and modern technology to oppress a people who do not share its ideology. A free community upholds its own norms and nurtures the higher life of the spirit in its own way. The most meaningful freedom always involves a balance of self-assertion and reverence, as a people charts its own course and gives itself laws, looking to standards that we do not make up but in the best case discover through reflection and through consulting the deepest, most abiding concerns of the heart.

But even if Americans could agree that what matters is not just the goods of the body or the liberty of being left alone, even if we could agree that a good life needs meaning and meaningful connections, what do we do about the fact that ours is a diverse society whose members do not agree on what that meaning should be? Perhaps we can begin by thinking more deeply about the value of liberty itself as a richer thing that needs more deliberate cultivation than we have been in the habit of supposing, and on that basis agree to dedicate ourselves more seriously to education.

A project of equipping all the young and especially the disadvantaged for genuine freedom would be a major undertaking, but it is one that left and right might both get behind. Does a serious dedication to equal opportunity not require that all young citizens have the resources to compete well, and does a sensible dedication to equal results not demand that we raise everyone to a high minimum standard, not only of income but of healthy human thriving, beginning but not ending with economic self-sufficiency? As it is, only 25% of American 18-year-olds meet the Army's requirements for physical and mental health, academic achievement, and a clean criminal record. If Aristotle's healthy republic includes a citizen army, ours must include at least an army-qualified citizenry.

This project would require serious dedication to giving every child basic intellectual competency, and vocational training and apprenticeships for those who do not attend college. Many liberal democracies such as Finland, Germany, and South Korea do these things well, and the best tend to be ones in which the teaching profession is highly paid relative to their countries' median incomes. American liberals are foolish to allow teachers' unions to block progress, but conservatives are equally foolish to allow a passion for low taxes to obstruct the investments whose absence makes a travesty of equal opportunity, or to imagine that the teaching profession can be reformed without winning over the teachers. Our only way forward is to elevate teaching to an esteemed, competitive profession. If we are too incorrigibly unwise to value the profession that forms minds and guides souls on a par with the one that merely cures bodies, we should at least aspire to narrow the gap.

This project would require at its heart a better moral and civic education. It would involve cultivating democratic versions of justice, patriotism, and humanity. It would mean instilling the moderation citizens need to have healthy bodies and a sexuality directed to find its optimal fulfillment in healthy families. It would include building democratic versions of courage and honor: not only the great courage to dedicate blood and treasure for freedom, but the lesser courage of personal resiliency and grit and the willingness to stand up for unpopular and politically costly truths. It would entail fostering a democratic version of practical wisdom: the intellectual virtues of respect for truth and truthfulness, independent judgment combined with a reasonable respect for science and expertise, and moral seriousness combined with openness, none of which comes naturally to human beings.

We need citizens who are vigilant in defense of their liberty and know how to recognize tyranny under all its guises, as Jefferson always urged. But as George Washington reflected in his first annual address to Congress, the people also have to learn "to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority...[uniting] a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws." In contemporary terms, that is, we need not only a measure of critical thinking but an equal measure of respectful thinking or indeed reverence toward our laws and what is best in our tradition and our national life. This is a hard balance to strike. Without it, attempts to teach critical thinking have become positively corrosive, breeding on the left a cynicism about our own history that fuels self-hatred and racial divisions, on the right a suspicion of liberal elites that spins off conspiracy theories, and on all sides a disenchantment with our democracy.

To correct these errors and support these virtues, we need especially the right story to tell about ourselves, about what America has been and is trying to be, about what the human spirit needs to thrive and why the American experiment is a promising way to provide it. We need a story of our history that models honesty and balance. It needs to help students understand the mixed motives of human beings and the mixture of selfishness and decency that has shaped our nation. It needs to teach sober realism but especially hope, including dark unvarnished facts but also stories of inspiring individuals who have made us better. Wilfred McClay's Land of Hope is a fine example of a history textbook that a great civic education could be based on.

But do our divisions not make agreeing on any such narrative impossible? And without good common public schools, can we ever have a common civic faith? This is an acute problem, but we have a resource precisely in our American habits of pursuing liberty in different ways on different levels, with our tradition of federalism, localism, and First Amendment protections of assembly and of religious communities.

An Aristotelian reform might take advantage of our tradition of localism to find laboratories for better civic education. It might build on Jefferson's idea of small, parent-run public schools, which he advocated to provide both education for the children and practice in collective self-government for parents. Why not expand charter schools and even have systems of all charter schools, including parochial ones, each with its own character, from which parents could choose and which they would help to run? Unless managed carefully, such a system could deepen our divisions, but charters could be made conditional not only on schools providing strong academics but also on their delivering an essential core of civic education that would promote understanding across our divides.

More important, an all-charter system should include a strong contingent of neighborhood common schools in which moral and civic education at the elementary level would be confined to the core principles on which all the parents could agree, and at the secondary level would present controversies in a way the majority at least could agree is balanced. If our schools become simply separate bubbles, then just as when we read only partisan media and send polarized members to Congress, our republic will suffer. But if we can restore a strong center to each of these spheres, diversity can be constructive.

In other ways as well, an Aristotelian reform might give special thought and support to all the small associations Tocqueville identifies as schools for democracy — neighborhood and civic associations; churches, synagogues, and mosques; trade unions and professional organizations; book clubs and charitable groups — all of which make up the sphere of civil society between the public sphere of government and the private sphere of individuals and families. Aristotle's principles do not support a liberalism understood as merely a framework to protect the private sphere so that we can each make money and live as we please. But they do support liberalism understood as a system of layered liberties, a framework for protecting the private sphere but especially for protecting and fostering the small communities of meaning that we need to pursue the higher goods of the soul, by choice, together.

Starting with a few charter schools and a few common schools, we could develop under Aristotle's guidance a revitalized American civic creed. It would begin with the understandings of human equality and rights sketched above. It would teach that America is a pluralistic nation, and that this is a virtue. It would instruct that America is a free nation, and our freedom can be both good and noble, but to be so we must use it well. We have an equal claim to partake in a shared prosperity that gives us all a decent floor and equips us to rise, but this is not enough; we all have needs of the soul as well as needs of the body.

This new civic creed would also teach that our freedom requires lawfulness, civility, and willingness to live and let live — but this is not enough either. We are incomplete as human beings unless we develop higher virtues that are harder to cultivate, and that almost always require for their cultivation membership in one or more of the smaller communities of meaning that allow us to pursue our distinctive visions of human flourishing. Our laws cannot dictate specific answers to the question of life's ultimate meaning without becoming oppressive, because these answers are contested. But full membership in the American republic requires engagement with fellow citizens in one or more of these smaller communities.

To give serious support to this last thought, we might also pursue an oft-proposed idea, a system of universal youth service after high school or college. Again making a virtue of diversity, we could allow each individual to choose how and where to serve, whether in the National Guard or in an environmental group or in a school or faith-based charity, but everyone would be expected to serve and encouraged to continue doing so afterward. This project too could profitably be started on a small, voluntary basis. But drawing on Aristotle's thought about the importance of law as the expression of a people's most solemn standards and commitments, it would be best required of all. If we are to reimagine our national project as a framework of layered liberties to foster communities of meaning, government must recognize these communities' vital importance with charters and grants to support the schools and social services they offer and with an insistence that it is each citizen's responsibility in some way to serve them.


Democratic self-government is not easy. It is rather one of the hardest things any people has tried to do. But then human beings need challenges to thrive, and this one is worth our efforts. If it were easy we might have reached the end of history with the end of the Cold War, as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed, and then we would be in danger of becoming Friedrich Nietzsche's "last men." But if Aristotle is right instead, nature gives its rational political animals an inexhaustible source of noble challenges, simply in the task of living together well.

Lorraine Smith Pangle is professor of government and co-director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas at the University of Texas at Austin.


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