Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Aristotle & Abraham Lincoln

Here is another old post from my political blog.  It concerns an exchange with Larry Arnhart over Aristotle and Abraham Lincoln.  

Longtime readers of this blog (there are such people!) will know that I have an interest in Darwinian biology and its application to questions of political science and political theory. I recently published an article on Darwin and Lincoln: "Natural Right and The Origin of Species" in Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 39, January-March, 2010, pp. 12-19. 

My friend and occasional collaborator Larry Arnhart has responded to my article on his wonderful blog: Darwinian Conservatism. Here is the link to the specific post. Larry and I agree on a lot, so it is fun to find the occasional disagreement. 

If you are interested in this at all, go to the second link above and read Larry's comments. They were very thought-provoking, and I have written a reply. I am going to send it to him tomorrow, after I have had time to give it a second reading. Meanwhile, here it is, submitted, as Rod Serling liked to say on the Twilight Zone, for your approval. 

Aristotle and Abraham: a Reply to Larry Arnhart 

Lincoln stamp Larry Arnhart and I agree on so much, so often, that I am wary of apparent disagreements. They may or may not be genuine. In his very kind comments on my recent Lincoln/Darwin essay, he does take issue with me on a couple of points. In my account, Arnhart thinks, Lincoln and Aristotle come out too much alike. He thinks their natural right doctrines need to be clearly distinguished, and in connection with this he objects to something I said about libertarians. 

With regard to the subject I focused on, I do not believe there is any significant difference between Lincoln's natural right argument against slavery, and Aristotle's natural right argument about slavery. Consider this: 

The next day in Janesville, Wisconsin, Mr. Lincoln returned to the legacy of the Declaration of Independence in establishing the rights of blacks as well as white: "Mr. Lincoln said that he had failed to find a man who five years ago had expressed it his belief that the declaration of independence did not embrace the colored man. But the public mind had become debauched by the popular sovereignty dogma of Judge Douglas. The first step down the hill is the denial of the Negro's rights as a human being. The rest comes easy. Classing the colored race with brutes frees from all embarrassment the idea that slavery is right if it only has the endorsement the idea that slavery is right if it only has the endorsement of the popular will. Douglas has said that in a conflict between the white man and the Negro, he is for the white man, but in a conflict between the white and the Negro, he is for the white man; but in a conflict between the negro and the crocodile, he is for the negro. Or the matter might be put in this shape. As the white man is to the Negro, so is the Negro to the crocodile! (Applause and laughter). [Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 484-486 (Speech at Janesville, Wisconsin. October 1, 1859).] 

Compare that with Aristotle's Politics, Bk 1.5: 

We may firstly observe in living creatures both a despotical and a constitutional rule; for the soul rules the body with a despotical rule, whereas the intellect rules the appetites with a constitutional and royal rule. And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful. The same holds good of animals in relation to men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved. Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind. 
Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. For he who can be, and therefore is, another's and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature. 

Lincoln's argument and Aristotle's are in perfect agreement regarding the standard of natural justice at issue here. If the Negro was to the White Man what the alligator is to the Negro, then perhaps Aristotle's standard of natural slavery would be met. He ain't.
I certainly agree with Larry that Lincoln's modern natural right argument,taken as a whole, is not identical to Aristotle's ancient view; however, I think that difference is frequently exaggerated. I acknowledged the difference between Aristotle's view that political powers ought to be distributed according to virtue, and Lincoln's modern view that they are to be distributed according to the consent of the governed. But surely, like Aristotle, we would want both our rulers and ourselves to be as virtuous as practically possible. 

One big difference between the classical view (Plato and Aristotle) and the modern view (Lincoln and Jefferson) is that the former took as their model of political virtue the heroic warrior while the latter took instead the heroic farmer. That is a difference in tastes, but it surely has a big impact on the respective political theories. 

The biggest difference, however, is that the moderns explicitly focused on and answered a question that the ancients were a lot quieter about. Plato's two longest works are about founding new cities, but in both cases a pre-existing political authority is supposed. Platonic republics, like Darwinian organism, seem always to be the offspring of their own kind. 

Where does political authority come from in the first place? Perhaps the ancients were bashful about this question because the answer was unpalatable and tended to undermine all political authority. That was certainly the conclusion reached by Machiavelli: all political authority originates in criminal violence. 

Lockean natural right, by contrast, begins with the obvious fact that all authority requires the willing support of some group of human beings strong enough to sustain it. Founding legitimate government on the consent of the governed begins by making that fact explicit, and by that means points the way to establishing political authority without the necessity of crime. Likewise, Lockean economic liberty removes the necessity for slavery, something that had morally compromised all ancient regimes just as it compromised the legitimacy of the early American republic. 

Aristotle produced an account of slavery that, when you think it through, condemns all slavery as it is actually practiced. But as he could see no possibility of civilized life without slavery, he chose not to explicitly state that conclusion. Lincoln, living in a modern regime, could afford to make it explicit. 

So, while I acknowledge that Lincoln's modern natural right and Aristotle's ancient natural right do differ in significant ways, I do not view this difference as an opposition. I think that the case is rather analogous to Aristotle's biology: he gets most of it right, astonishingly so, considering what he has to work with. We moderns have had the good fortune to solve a lot of political and scientific problems that Aristotle could not solve. 

Finally, Larry defends libertarianism against Aristotle in the following way. Aristotle thought that the regime was responsible for ensuring that people be as good as possible. The regime included the society as a whole, but a society as structured by the political authority. Libertarian natural right, as Larry sees it, distinguishes between the state and society, and thinks that social institutions alone ought to be responsible for making people better. The role of government should be confined to the ends listed by Adam Smith: 

military defense, security against force and fraud, enforcing contracts, and certain public works and institutions. 

Larry thinks that this libertarian view is Lincoln's view. I reply yes, and no. He brings into court the sophist Lycophron as a witness against me. 

Contrast this with what Aristotle says in the Politics (1280b1-12). He attributes to the sophist Lycophron the teaching that the purpose of law is to protect citizens against force and fraud and to secure commercial exchange, and thus law should be "a contract, a guarantor among one another of the just things, but not the sort of thing to make citizens good and just." Aristotle rejects this, because he believes a polis is not just for the sake of living but also for the sake of living well, and for living well, a polis must shape the moral and intellectual virtues that constitute the human good. 

Aristotle's point was that the political community is not just a business arrangement. It is a partnership in something more noble and lofty than that. In a business arrangement, the partners need not like each other or share any other interest other than the mutual benefit of the contract. In Lycophron's view, the citizens are like two states whose alliance reflects nothing more than mutual peril. 

I am sure that, for most purposes, Lincoln would largely agree with Adam Smith's list. So would I. But did Lincoln really send hundreds of thousands of men into battle for the sake of a mere business arrangement? He certainly didn't talk that way. Was Lincoln's life's work not as much concerned with preserving American virtues as with anything else? Let me return to the first quote. 

Mr. Lincoln said that he had failed to find a man who five years ago had expressed it his belief that the declaration of independence did not embrace the colored man. But the public mind had become debauched by the popular sovereignty dogma of Judge Douglas. The first step down the hill is the denial of the Negro's rights as a human being. 

Lincoln saved the union not once but twice. Before he saved it from secessionism, he saved it from the moral "debauchery" that Stephen Douglas was abetting. That was a profoundly political act, and it was an act by and for the regime, in an Aristotelian sense. 

Let me say that some of my best friends are libertarians. I am not sure that we wouldn't be a lot better off if our laws were a lot more libertarian in design. But if Lycophron is indeed a good spokesman for libertarianism, it is surely incomplete. Just as surely, it cannot explain Lincoln's great actions. 

I didn't know until Larry's thoughtful comments provoked me to think about it, whether I believed that Lincolnian natural right and Aristotelian natural right were the same. I think I am now prepared to say that they are the same on the most important questions.

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