In the annals of human history there are few figures whose contributions were so profound, the remnants of their work continue to shape our lives after millennia. Whether it be the creation of the scientific method, shaping man’s perpetual search for meaning and what is a good life?, or even the proper structure and role of government, Aristotle and the lasting influence of his work cemented his place in history as such a figure.
Aristotle was perhaps best known for being Plato’s greatest student at The Academy. For those unfamiliar with the philosophers and institutions of classical Greece, Plato’s Academy was the Vatican of Education and its founder revered in a correspondingly papal manner.
Which is why the intellectual courage Aristotle showed in challenging his deified teacher, only further enhanced the drama surrounding the split. He single-handedly shifted the paradigm of the human experience and how we interpret it.
While the split between Plato and Aristotle may not seem relevant upon first glance, the importance of it lives on in this very election cycle.
Democrats, Republicans, progressives, and conservatives all share a desire to move society toward an imagined and superior destination. Democrats speak of a future destination they will use the government to progress society toward. Republicans speak of the past and going back to a destination that never existed. The only difference between the two major parties lies in the design of their intended destination.
What does this election have to do with Plato and a Aristotle?
First, we must understand the basis for their philosophical rift. On the matter of how best to structure a government in order to benefit all and protect against corruption, Plato advocated for an elite ruling class of philosopher kings who, hypothetically, would have discovered a higher level of knowledge. This knowledge would allow them to properly lead and organize society in a way best suited for man to pursue a virtuous life. These philosopher kings would not run for election, but rather be forced to lead as Plato believed the pursuit of power was a sign of one’s ill-fittedness to hold it.
The appeal of Plato’s system is evident to even the most democratic among us. It is idealistic, orderly, and safe guarded against the emotional tendencies and tyranny of mob rule. Despite being in opposition to the tenets of libertarianism, in a world where the majority of voters adore Kardashian-style reality television yet cannot name the Vice President. The allure of a society overseen and administered by well-informed elites or a philosopher king, with little appetite for power, is self-evident.
However, if history has taught us anything, it is that the pursuit of such a grandiose system like Plato’s, is best suited to the theoretical realm. In practice, such systems of government inevitably descend into tyranny.
Aristotle’s rejection of Plato, and his insistence on the necessity of beginning the search for knowledge and reason within our physical world, served as the foundation for his beliefs, including the ideal structure of government.
Whereas Plato started with a blank slate and pursued perfection in designing his ideal system, Aristotle began by examining human nature and various types of government systems and along with their histories. In doing so, he not only categorized the different types, he laid out the the best and worst case scenarios for each.
Aristotle, by beginning with the world as it exists and researching the past, learned to be far more cautious about the concentration of power.
He was well aware of the benefits each system offered, but remained cognizant of the potential downsides. While researching, he discovered a pattern: the historical trend of government toward corruption and tyranny.
While not blind to the appeal of his teacher’s philosopher king society, his learned cautiousness, when combined with the future being bound to chance, he settled on a polity or ademocratic republic with highly informed citizens.
Aristotle wagered that centralizing power in the hands of one or a few, rather than the many, was the safest bet.
He understood that the freedom of individuals, while still susceptible to the tyranny of the majority in a democracy, remained far safer in many hands, rather than a select few theoretical individuals possessing special knowledge.
Aristotle’s aversion to centralized power and insistence on using the physical world to discover knowledge are two principles desperately missing from our current political climate.
Our political discourse revolves around solving societal problems with government. Unfortunately for Libertarians, Americans are conditioned to viewing the government as a vehicle for driving us toward a better destination that remains perpetually beyond reach. “Good” government remains that seductive mirage in the distance.
The acceptance of reality, societal problems and all, is where Libertarians split from Republicans and Democrats. While we too dream about a future where individuals have greater freedom and equality, we reject the idea that a government system is the vehicle best suited for taking society towards such a destination. We accept the realities of drug use, mounting debt, and hostile enemies. Why?
We have witnessed where the pursuit of perfection leads:
- The War on Drugs
- Praying for a Keynesian economic miracle allowing us to pay off our debt
- World peace through intervention and in the name of liberation
If history has taught us anything, it is the fact that concentrated power leads to futile, while perhaps well intended, attempts at perfecting the human condition. Which is why Libertarians, rather than grasping at the mirage of a perfect world, accept the existence of flaws.
We, like Aristotle, have studied the history of government, and are well aware of its tendency to descend into tyranny. Our reality confirms that tendency and we know Aristotle’s wager was right, look at our government.
It is Plato’s.
We failed to remember the lessons of Aristotle’s wager, and while many may not immediately recognize that as a bad thing, come this election day, I pray the reality of electing Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to lead a government befit for one of Plato’s Philosopher-Kings finally sets in…
One can only imagine that were Aristotle alive today and eligible to vote, he would have a new wager:
Clinton and Trump may be the safest bet to win, but the safest bet to slow the United States government’s descent into tyranny is to vote Libertarian.