Aristotle and the Democratic National Convention

written Sept 6, 2012

On Thursday night, President Obama addressed the country at the close of the Democratic National Convention. Speaking a week after the RNC gave him an opportunity to make marked distinctions between the values of his party and those of the opposition.  His speech focused primarily on confronting the economic crisis by investing in America’s future instead of falling back on old, failed, solutions.  He made repeated reference to the importance of protecting middle class families and bettering education.  In The Politics, Aristotle argues that the best form of government is one that promotes justice and preserves itself from revolutions.  He too, asserted the importance of the middle class and education to the preservation of states.


President Obama made an immediate distinction between the two different paths each party envisions for America.  For the Democrats, he said, it “is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known”.  Here it is implied that a large middle class is a positive thing for the economy.  He then went on to promise that he would not take away middle class families’ deductions to help pay for “another millionaire’s tax cut”.  Aristotle too believed that a strong middle class was best for the state.  By applying his concept of the virtuous mean to economics he rationalizes that justice is found in the intermediate and that it must also be virtuous to “possess the gifts of fortune in moderation” (1295b4).  The extremes of poverty and wealth are not conducive to a functioning government.  The rich are not willing submit to authority and the poor are too degraded to lead.  Having a large middle class also prevents revolutions which arise from inequality because it will be harder for either the rich or poor to revolt against that much larger group (1308b30).


Another solution Obama suggested to ease the country’s economic woes, was investing in education. These proposed measures would to help our workers compete with the scientists and engineers coming out of countries like China by recruiting teachers and offering more education and job training for people already in the labor force.  For Aristotle, the best form of government is one that preserves it--and promoting a stable economy can only .  Aristotle believed that one of the most important contribution to the permanence of a constitution was “the adaptation of education to the form of government” (Book V.9).  If citizens are to support their constitution and be motivated to participate in government they have to be taught the merits of such exercises.  Progress in education for Obama, is the means to achieving his goal of protecting the middle class.  He admits that “dducation was the gateway to opportunity for me... And now more than ever, it is the gateway to a middle-class life.”  However, for Aristotle, education wasn’t just a means for wealth-getting; it was an essential part of living the good life and achieving excellence.  Just as any art or faculty requires training and habit, so does practicing excellence.  And excellence is required to be a good citizen (Book VIII.1).


Speaking of good citizenship, another important component of a successful state is one in which people take personal responsibility for the care of themselves and others.  In his speech, the President hoped to counter the misconception that supporting social programs will give people a free ride at the expense of those who work hard. He said that his party knows that “this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations”.  Giving resources to the disadvantaged and protecting the environment can only help our economy in the long run.  Freedom without commitment to others is not freedom at all.  Aristotle agreed with this sentiment.  He asserted that “where absolute freedom is allowed there is nothing to restrain the evil which is inherent in every man”.  Choosing to live together is a kind of friendship and the best, happiest states are those in which “every man [is] responsible to others” (Book VI.4).


For Aristotle the virtuous life is one of moderation, with an education geared towards the cultivation of excellence. If governments can encourage these values by protecting the middle class and investing in education, they will be more likely prevent revolution, and therefore preserve themselves.  Preservation, being the mark of a successful government because “the good of things must be that which preserves them” (1261b10).  President Obama’s speech made many references to these two values and a lot of promises were made.  Perhaps, if he is re-elected, we will get a chance to see if Aristotle’s theoretical conclusions hold up in practice.