Saturday, January 31, 2009

Aristotle, America and the Reassertion of Nature

I've remarked elsewhere on Aristotle's doctrines concerning the natural slave. Suppose Aristotle is right and that the mass of men are natural slaves fit to be ruled by a master elite. What would this mean for the future of the United States?

We tend to think of freedom in terms of rights rather than nature. We take it as axiomatic that "all men are created equal", endowed by their Creator with certain rights, "among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." We may be endowed with rights, but are we endowed with a nature capable of fulfilling them? I think Aristotle would say in contradiction to the Declaration of Independence: Grant all the rights you wish, it won't matter in the end. The natural slave, even given rights against his master, will seek a state of subjugation - just as water finds its level. It is his nature to do so. And the natural master will seek to subjugate the natural slave - it is his nature to do so. Wisdom for Aristotle involves living in accord with the nature of things rather than trying to defy nature, for nature will ultimately assert itself, even if, for a time, it may appear otherwise. Happiness, in any event, will only be found in a life lived in harmony with nature.

Is the American experiment an attempt to refute Aristotle, not philosophically, but empirically by actually creating a nation of free and equal men for whom the master/slave relationship is transcended or, at least, rendered insignificant? Perhaps a better way to view it is to remember that America was founded by intrepid pioneers willing to leave the relative safety of the Old World for the unknown dangers (and possibilities) of the New. In other words, America was settled by members of the class of natural masters, not the class of natural slaves. (I will leave the institution of chattel slavery out of account, for it is slavery by law rather than nature.) When the Declaration speaks of the men "created equal", endowed with rights, it is stating an empirical rather than a philosophical fact. The men declaring independence were, in fact, from that natural class of masters who, by nature, have the right to rule themselves rather than be ruled by another. King George III was defying nature by denying the right of self-government.

The United States was an historical anomaly in being a nation composed largely of natural masters rather than a mass of natural slaves ruled by a master elite. We could say that the United States "defied nature" in this respect, and continued to do so as long as the conditions supporting it prevailed. The crucial factor was the pioneer character of the American nation. Living on or expanding the frontier requires courage, self-discipline, independence, confidence and prudence - the qualities of the natural master. As long as the frontier was the focus of American life, the United States would be disproportionately a nation of natural masters (at least compared to other countries.) The historical archetype of the American is the cowboy, even though only a tiny percentage of Americans were ever cowboys.

Nature cannot be defied indefinitely, of course, and the frontier would eventually reach the Pacific, eliminating the primary factor supporting the American character as a nation of natural masters. That happened about a century ago, and since then the United States has been reverting to a more natural relationship between natural masters and slaves. This has nothing to do with race; there are natural masters and natural slaves in every race, and no reason to think that the proportion varies in any significant way according to race. Barack Obama, for example, is definitely a natural master. It simply means that the United States is now composed mostly of people who want to be told what to do (however much they may protest otherwise), and only a minority of people who instinctively rebel at the idea that they must submit to the rule of another.

The United States Constitution, with its rights and liberties, was a document written for a nation of natural masters. It no longer fits the character of our population, like a jacket several sizes too large. It gives too much space for maneuver, space suitable for a natural master but in which the natural slave feels anxious because it leaves him "underdetermined." The natural slave will seek a master and feel relieved rather than offended when the natural master arrives and asserts himself. There is no need to amend the Constitution; the natural masters may simply re-interpret it (as in the "living constitution") or just ignore it outright. Natural slaves do not want the rights and liberties of the Constitution; they want security, and instinctively seek domination by a master. In any case, masters do not consult slaves. Instead of the amendment process specified in the Constitution, our masters substitute proclamations of the Supreme Court.

I think we saw a big step in this process with the campaign and election of Barack Obama. Obama did not campaign as a normal candidate, taking various policy positions and defending them against his opponent. Such a campaign implicitly grants the voter the dignity of being a rational actor on the level of the candidate himself; in other words, it implies that the voter is a natural master as well as the candidate. Obama's campaign of "hope and change" studiously avoided any specifics or even saying anything coherent about policy at all. Instead, it focussed on the character of the candidate himself, his self-assurance, his composed and fluid speaking style, his intellectual credentials; in other words, his character as a natural master. To the extent that he said anything about policy at all, he said little more than that he would change things and make them better. That this is a manifestly condescending way to treat voters is just the point. Condescension communicates the security natural slaves seek. They want Obama to condescend to them and not bore them with policy details.

I've painted the picture in bold colors and of course the situation is not as clear as this. For one thing, in a year when conditions favored the Democratic candidate in nearly ever aspect, Obama won a solid but far from overwhelming victory, and was even behind for a time until the banking crisis kicked in during September. And Sarah Palin, a politician cut from traditional American cloth and hailing from the last bit of American frontier in Alaska, was a strong threat until cut down to size by media attacks. 

But the general trend seems to be that we are becoming increasingly comfortable with the de facto erosion of liberty and expansion of government power, to which the mass of citizens offer no resistance and even seem to welcome as blessed relief from the anxiety of freedom. Nature reasserts itself.

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