Aristotelian Politics: Dangerous for Liberty?

In his reaction essay, “Strauss and National Greatness,” Damon Linker makes the following claim:

The Aristotelian outlook that shapes neocon thinking (by way of Strauss’s influence) is nowhere near as sinister or radical as Thompson would have us believe. It may well be wrong—unsuitable for understanding political life in modern, highly differentiated societies. But that doesn’t make it threatening.

This may be so. It depends on to what one is comparing the Aristotelian outlook. But if, as I noted in my reaction essay, “Neoconservatism, Leo Strauss, and the Foundations for Liberty,” the Aristotelian outlook is guilty of not differentiating between the function of societies or communities and that of the state, because its basic term of analysis—polis—conflates society or community with state, then there is a basic problem in the Straussian neoconservative approach to politics. This approach simply assumes that whatever is good, worthwhile, or indeed perfective of human well-being is in principle the aim of the state. This form of political theorizing slides without argument from politics qua social or community to politics qua state, and it leads to “The Perfectionist Approach to Politics.” To wit:

A) Politics is concerned with the promotion of human flourishing or well being.

B) Human flourishing or well being consists in the development and/or use of certain human capabilities.

C) A given capability, call it X, is an example of something necessary for human flourishing or well being.

Therefore, this X must be politically secured.

There is much debate about premise B. Such tough questions as: “What is involved in the lists of capabilities whose development constitutes human flourishing?” and “How does one validate such lists?” Further, there is much debate about what laws and government policies best secure a given capability as well as how to pay for such policies. It is especially in regard to this latter issue that most political debates takes place. Yet there is an important question that only a few have noted—namely, “What is the basis for premise A? The Straussian neoconservatives, as well as many contemporary “liberals,” simply assume that premise A is true, but they offer no argument on its behalf.

Nevertheless, what is it that legitimates a political/legal order? What is the nature of the connection between the ethical order and the political/legal order? There is a prima facie difference between claiming (i) that doing M is good or right (bad or wrong) and ought to be done (ought not to be done) and claiming (ii) that doing M ought to be politically/legally required (prohibited). These claims are not semantically equal, and (i) does not, by itself, imply (ii). Or, as Aquinas suggests: there are demands of justice that are morally binding and there are demands of justice that are morally and legally binding. Indeed, the datum explanandum of political philosophy is what, if anything, entitles one to move from the ethical to the political—from (i) to (ii). What is it that connects these two claims?

One begs the question if one simply assumes that the aim of the political/legal order is soulcraft. There are alternatives. Most importantly, there is the idea that defines the American political tradition—namely, establishing a political regime that secures individual rights.

When libertarians or classical liberals are drawn into debates in political philosophy with those on the left or the right, it is often done in a context in which premise A is just assumed. This is like fighting with one arm tied behind one’s back. This argumentative arena is in large part due to the heritage that the Aristotelian outlook provides for politics. Such an arena is dangerous for liberty.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Neoconservative intellectuals often describe themselves as having a particular mode of thinking — maybe even just a “mood.” C. Bradley Thompson argues that neoconservatism is much more than that. Its key philosophical inspiration of comes from Irving Kristol, and particularly from Kristol’s engagement with the philosopher Leo Strauss. Thompson argues that, under Straussian influence, neoconservatives champion the rule of a philosophically cunning elite over a population that will never be able to understand their intellectual masters. Instead, the populace is steered toward self-sacrifice, war, and nationalism — as well as a set of religious and moral beliefs that the elites in no way share. Such a doctrine, Thompson charges, points disturbingly toward fascism.

Response Essays

  • Douglas Rasmussen argues that post-Lockean natural rights theory does not entail nihilism, as Strauss seems to have feared. A further error of Straussian neoconservatism, Rasmussen argues, is that it often conflates society with the state. Although the members of a civil society may rightly desire that society’s continuance, it does not follow that the state must coerce people into being good. Statecraft is not soulcraft; governing consists of setting ground rules that leave individuals free to seek the good.

  • Patrick Deneen disagrees that neoconservatism is alien to the American political tradition. In particular, founders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton envisioned politics as a realm where men of extraordinary wisdom and talent would shape the course of the new nation. The idea that commerce may corrode the morals is certainly present at the founding, as are civic virtue, self-sacrifice, and concern for the public good, the latter to be divined by wise statesmen. The neoconservative claim to Americanism is as strong, if not stronger, than Thompson’s preferred libertarian ideology.

  • Damon Linker argues that, although Thompson’s treatment of neoconservatism has considerable value, he errs in his characterization of Leo Strauss and his followers’ political theory. Strauss was an Aristotelian, Linker argues, and Aristotelian political thought is comparatively benign. Linker also argues that national greatness conservatism—a staple of today’s neoconservatives—is a 1990s addendum to the philosophy with little relation to Strauss, Irving Kristol, or the other early lights of neoconservatism.