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To: POTUS From: Aristotle “Nice Debate. Just Kidding.”

October 18, 2012

“Thus the majority of Greek philosophers, and most of all Aristotle, thought that all things had purposes built into them by nature – ends or goals which they could not but seek to fulfil.”
— Isaiah Berlin, The Power Of Ideas

During the US presidential race, I’ve been a fan of Lex Paulson and his Citizen’s Book Club and his Applied Classics.  If you’ve read any of Paulson’s posts, then you know how fun and how academically funny he can be.  There’s nothing like a good mashup of past and present.  It’s instructive to view contemporary politics in light of ancient history.

But Paulson’s latest — “Aristotle’s Strategy for Obama” — is a disappointment.  He gets Aristotle all wrong.  He forgets his Rhetoric and skips over his Politics.  And he turns the American candidate for president, President Barack Hussein Obama, into a pupil of tactics in the Agon somewhat like Alexander the Great.

Aristotle, according to Paulson, would remind candidate Obama that “Americans should recognize what a gift self-government is. Free men and women serving on boards, debating great questions, fighting for causes, voting their conscience.”

But Aristotle would not have women serving on boards, would not even care to look for them in binders.  And Americans would be barbarians.

Thus, what Aristotle would remind if he talked with a mixed-race Barbarian leader at all (and one whose father’s relatives were too often “natural born slaves”) is this.  Aristotle would remind this “Democrat”:

All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women, “Silence is a woman’s glory,” but this is not equally the glory of man.


For that which can foresee by the exercise of mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and that which can with its body give effect to such foresight is a subject, and by nature a slave; hence master and slave have the same interest. Now nature has distinguished between the female and the slave. For she is not niggardly, like the smith who fashions the Delphian knife for many uses; she makes each thing for a single use, and every instrument is best made when intended for one and not for many uses. But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female. Wherefore the poets say, “It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians;” as if they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one. Out of these two relationships between man and woman, master and slave, the first thing to arise is the family, and Hesiod is right when he says, “First house and wife and an ox for the plough,” for the ox is the poor man’s slave.

Paulson does quote Aristotle’s Politics, but not these quotes above; he does link to a particular Book of the same treatise, but it’s not the Book in which Aristotle establishes his powerful ethno-centric idea of the Greek-free-man-on-top.

Paulson has Aristotle saying, “Positive freedom isn’t just Greek, it’s American.”  And keeps quoting Lincoln, who eventually proclaimed the emancipation of slaves.  And he has Aristotle stressing positive freedom as individual liberty.  But he gives away the fact that “The distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom was brilliantly explained by the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 essay’Two Concepts of Freedom.’  Unfortunately, the Huffington Post webmaster has a broken link to Berlin’s essay, which you should find here.  But when we read (or re-read) Berlin’s essay, we see how Berlin says:  “There seems to be scarcely any discussion of individual liberty as a conscious political ideal (as opposed to its actual existence) in the ancient world.  Condorcet has already remarked that the notion of individual rights is absent from the legal conceptions of the Romans and Greeks.”

So it’s fun to have Aristotle giving rhetorical strategy and political tactical advice to an American presidential candidate.  But as I was reading Paulson’s Aristotle’s advice, I kept waiting for the end, where the Greek philosopher says to the American President:  “Nice Debate.  Here’s exactly what Abraham Lincoln and Isaiah Berlin would tell you.  And that’s simply what I advised them. …. Just kidding.”

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