The Classical Alternative to Liberal Theory
DECEMBER 19, 2019BY DANIEL BURNS
Once we recognize the insufficiency of liberal political theory, we should turn back to classical political philosophy, which offers us a deeper understanding of the American tradition and invaluable guidance in reforming our contemporary politics.
In my Public Discourse essay yesterday, I expanded on some criticisms of liberal political theory that I had originally offered in an article in National Affairs. As an alternative to liberal theory, my original article had proposed a return to statesmanship. I said that we do not need to replace liberal theory with any other ideology, or any other “theory” as the term generally gets used today.
In a broader sense, of course, no one can avoid having some “theory” of politics. Thoughtful statesmanship cannot help but rely on some intellectual framework, some set of opinions about the nature and purpose of politics. Our love of our country will always be colored by our views on political philosophy.
Many Americans today on both the right and the left have received their intellectual framework for politics from liberal theory in one form or another. Even when liberal theory cannot do justice to their own moral and political opinions, they still tend to interpret those opinions through the lens of liberal theory. So if we reject liberal theory, as I argue we ought to, then what should take its place?
Classical Political Philosophy
If one is looking for sound, statesmanly maxims, based on general observations about the nature of politics, it would be awfully hard to improve on Burke and Tocqueville. But the practical bent of those men’s thought is both their strength and their weakness. At least in their published writings, one does not find the same concern to fit politics into the larger scheme of human life and of the cosmos that one finds in the greatest Western political philosophers: Plato and Aristotle, More and Machiavelli, Locke and Rousseau, Hegel and Marx.
This is why my original article pointed back to the classical educators of statesmen, the most important of whom are Plato and his fellow heirs of Socratic political philosophy: Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch. I am persuaded by Cicero’s assertion that Plato and all his disciples disagree less about politics than might appear at first glance. I would add that, once one allows for different historical conditions, there may be little daylight between the aristocratic liberalism of Burke and Tocqueville and the classical republicanism of Aristotle and Cicero. In any case, classical political philosophy offers us the robust intellectual framework we need for understanding liberal practice without help from liberal theory.
There are many good reasons to study liberal theorists, but we also have every reason to put the burden of proof on them. A thinker who starts by ignoring essential aspects of our humanity, and then rigorously deduces rules for politics that to this day have never been tested in practice, will be prima facie questionable as a guide to political practice. The Socratic framework for politics, by contrast, is vulnerable to none of the criticisms of liberal theory that I summarized in yesterday’s essay. Classical political philosophy offers us solid, practical guidance that fits well into the American political tradition at its best, from George Washington to today’s most interesting policy thinkers.
Classical Political Philosophy in Practice
Of the inadequate fraction of Socratic political thought that has survived the malignity of time, Aristotle’s Politics is the single document that comes closest to offering what we could call a general “theory of politics.” Here then are a few examples from Aristotle of how classical political philosophy could inform our study of American politics.
Aristotle tells us that in every political regime, we see a class of people who dominate the other classes through a combination of custom and force. The ruling class always seeks to justify this dominion, and it always gives reasons that are only partially valid (at best). No regime is then fully just. But a regime is better when the members of its ruling class are better human beings, and it is worse when they are worse human beings.
Thanks to its doctrine of popular sovereignty, liberal theory denies that such class conflict will have any political traction in a properly constructed government. But a glance at our history shows that it has always had plenty of political traction in American governments. And from Charles Murray and J.D. Vanceon the center-right to Robert Putnam and Richard Reeves on the center-left, American intellectuals today have been reviving interest in the political importance of social class. An Aristotelian approach to our politics would ask more explicitly what the characteristic virtues and vices of our ruling class are. Following the lead of Vance, William Deresiewicz, and Ross Douthat, we should be examining (and finding marginal improvements for) the institutions that give that class its moral formation.
Aristotle also tells us that, thanks to these unavoidable class dynamics, every political community contains the seeds of its own destruction. The ruled classes can never be fully persuaded that the rulers deserve their privileges (in part because the rulers never entirely do). And any attempt at greater inclusivity within the ruling class will only be even more irritating to those who remain excluded from it.
Under the rule of law, the irritation of those excluded from the ruling class can usually be contained and channeled. But since law itself inevitably reflects the power balance of the regime, the excluded may eventually get fed up and resort to extralegal violence. The result is civil strife or revolution, which the political scientist views in the same way that the doctor views cardiac arrest: unavoidable sooner or later, but worth putting off for as long as we possibly can.
Confident that it can secure more justice on earth than Aristotle had thought possible, liberal theory believes it has also solved the problem of regime stability. It assumes that a legitimate liberal regime will last indefinitely, at least if that regime is competently managed. Perhaps we could evaluate this assumption if we had ever seen a regime that satisfied liberal theory, much less one that was competently managed. In the meantime, countless articles and books since 2016 show that American intellectuals are finally beginning to recover an awareness—which earlier generations could hardly avoid—that our liberal constitutional structures do not enjoy some unique immortality among political institutions.
Within the soil of American culture, the seeds of civil strife lie dormant, buried but not sterilized. An Aristotelian approach to our politics would do everything in its power to keep them that way. This requires defending the rule of law at virtually all costs. It also requires moderating the dominance of the current ruling class without trying to replace it with a different ruling class. Although Aristotle admits that this latter course of moderation would be the opposite of what actual political parties are usually pushing for, he insists that it is occasionally achievable in practice and is always worth the effort.
Finally, Aristotle tells us that every regime fosters in all its citizens a common way of life based on shared moral opinions—that is, a limited range of individual ways of life, practically all of which share important elements in common. Indeed, to the extent that there is a way of life common to both rulers and ruled, this is one of the major factors holding back the ever-present threat of civil strife. Our common way of life can also be called our national “culture,” a concept whose central importance to political science was memorably highlighted by Samuel Huntington. Our way of life, or culture, gets passed on from one generation to the next through private family life, as well as through educational institutions, religious rituals, civic practices, public discourse, popular works of music and drama, and law itself in its pedagogical function.
For Aristotle, the best regime would be one that inculcated, as widely as possible, the best common way of life available to human beings. It would foster its citizens’ mental health in the fullest sense of the term. (“Mental health,” a concept virtually alien to liberal theory, is arguably the single organizing principle of all classical political philosophy.) And although Aristotle would always want us to hold our own children to a higher human standard than any regime does, he is clear that, even when we try to do so, our efforts will necessarily be circumscribed by the overwhelming power that law and public opinion wield over young minds.
Having pretended that a legitimate regime must not foster any controversial moral opinions or ways of life, liberal theory is compelled to vacillate between denying that a liberal government fosters them and denying that any reasonable person could object to the ones it does foster. This silly game, a more generic version of the Law of Merited Impossibility, is tiresome and does not deserve to be taken seriously—including by liberal theory’s opponents, of whom every new generation seem to think they are the first to discover that no government is “neutral” on questions of the good life.
Instead, an Aristotelian approach to our politics would evaluate frankly how well our American governments promote a reasonable level of human flourishing and mental health (bearing in mind what a rare thing human excellence is, under any regime whatsoever). We need to examine how well our various political and cultural institutions inculcate healthy moral opinions and habits, to reform those institutions so they can better do so, and to enact public policy that encourages their recovery and growth. Aristotle would point especially to educational institutions: he thought highly of their intrinsic importance, and he would also note that American voters enjoy much more leverage over schools and universities than over churches and mass media.
Political Philosophy without Ideology
Aristotelian political thought is what I have called “nonideological.” It does not prescribe any one set of political institutions for human beings in all times and places. Aristotle teaches statesmen within the wide range of political institutions that they may find themselves in, from republics to tyrannies and everything in between, to take advantage of those institutions’ strengths and discreetly shore up their weaknesses. He obviously could not have anticipated many features of our modern world—from the scientific revolution, to the separation of religious from political authority, to women’s liberation. But the Aristotelian framework allows us to appreciate the advantages of these and many other features of modern liberal politics, to recognize the disadvantages unavoidably attached to them, and to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in.
If we must have something called a political theory, it should be derived from Aristotle or his fellow Socratics. I know of no reason to prefer any of their competitors. Nonetheless, I stand by my statement that even Aristotelian political “theory” is not what we today usually mean by a political theory. It is not a blueprint for politics concocted by intellectuals. It is simply a philosophical articulation of what every healthy citizen already senses to be true, and of principles that we all act on whether we admit it or not.
Today, classical political philosophy’s main utility is as an antidote to the liberal and other ideologies that have made it so hard to be honest with ourselves about our own thoughts and actions, both as citizens and as human beings. In that respect it is uniquely valuable, and even indispensable, for Americans who wish to understand and improve our twenty-first-century politics.
About the Author
Daniel E. Burns is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Dallas. He is currently on leave for government service.