Stuck in the Middle with Virtue
BY HARVEY MANSFIELD
‘America, Aristotle, and the Politics of a Middle Class’ by Leslie G. Rubin
Here is a fine comparison of America’s founders with Aristotle on the value of a middle class. Aristotle wrote the first treatise on politics, and the world still uses the word “politics” as abundantly as if there were none other that would do. And Aristotle’s politics featured the middle class, which we also call by name but do not praise so markedly. Our liberalism based on individual rights makes us suspicious of politics and of reliance on the virtue of a class. Is the similarity between Aristotle and America merely nominal or has Aristotle stated a truth on which we depend? This is the question of Leslie Rubin’s compact and important study, America, Aristotle, and the Politics of a Middle Class.
It begins by establishing Aristotle’s thought on the middle class. The basis for politics, given at the start of Aristotle’s treatise, is the reasoned speech with which men distinguish good and bad, useful and harmful, just and unjust. With these notions they claim the power to rule their city or country not merely in order to be on top but to be there for a purpose. In that purpose—some view of the good life chosen and defended—lies the nobility of politics as opposed to mere power-seeking. The purpose can be stated in many ways, but the most characteristic difference is between those who want to include all in the city and those who want to prefer the best or strongest or richest. The former are democrats calling as they do today for inclusiveness in the common good; the latter are oligarchs, insisting on recognition of the greater value of their contribution to the common good. Between these two extremes lies the middle class, the “middling element” that is Aristotle’s concern and Leslie Rubin’s topic.
Both democrats and oligarchs seem to have a point, a partial truth that seems opposed to a corresponding partial truth. For how can everyone be included without lowering the standard for inclusion? And if on the other hand the standard is high, how will one supply the needs of the rulers and deal with those who are excluded? Some compromise in the rule of a middle class seems necessary and desirable. But Aristotle in his treatise on ethics, where he describes virtue as a mean, goes further than compromise. The way of virtue is at a mean between too much and too little of a quality, for example the virtue of courage between rashness and timidity. Here the extremes are not two partial truths but two vices, and the mean is not a compromise of extremes but the better way between them of virtue. Applied to politics, the virtuous mean turns democracy and oligarchy into failures. Whether the middle class between rich and poor can reach this standard of moderate virtue is very uncertain, but at least by its middle situation it remains pinched between two classes it fears, eager for self-defense and ready for compromise.
This is the Aristotelian analysis Rubin finds especially in Book 4 of Aristotle’s Politics, devoted to modes of improvement and reform and setting forth the model of “polity,” the standard of reform that stands between oligarchy and democracy. How, then, does America fit this analysis, based on the possible virtue of the middle class? For this Rubin addresses the Founders, but not so much Publius. Publius was the pseudonym of the authors of The Federalist, written in defense of the Constitution and relying on institutions and a large, various country to provide checks and balances. Rubin studies John Adams, John Dickinson, Noah Webster, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, and others describing and promoting in addition to constitutional structure the value of a middle class to a new republic.
Our liberalism, deriving from the thought of John Locke, begins from the state of nature, to escape which government is instituted by consent, rather than from Aristotle’s picture of political argument in an active regime. Liberal “consent” means consent to the rule of others elected to the job rather than ruling oneself or participating in a party of others similar to oneself. Political power is exercised not for a version of the good life but for the defense and security of one’s rights, hence “power” for whatever purpose suits that necessity. Thus Publius in The Federalist speaks most obviously of the dangers of power rather than of its disputable ends: the danger of too much power in the government when one power encroaches on another, or too much power in the people when a majority threatens the rights of individuals or the aggregate interest of the whole people, or too little power when government lacks energy or proves unstable.
As to middle-class virtue, Locke’s liberalism centers on the increase and security of property as the main business of a free people rather than the business of self-government as with Aristotle. The result in America is the fashioning of what is today called “bourgeois virtue”—honesty, reliability, frugality, and industriousness—with the passion for nobility lacking or trimmed down (think “thank you for your service”).