Aristotelian America and American Aristotelianism: On the Middle-Class Virtues and the Maintenance of Republican Government

Leslie Rubin’s portrait of Aristotelian America and American Aristotelianism is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of our situation.

After I finished reading Leslie Rubin’s America, Aristotle, and the Politics of the Middle Class, I turned the television on, tuned to the only channel consistently worth watching—Turner Classic Movies—and found that it was beginning a marathon showing of nearly all of the “Andy Hardy” movies made in the 1930s and ’40s. Set in the idyllic small town of Carvel, somewhere in an unidentified state in the middle of America, the films star Mickey Rooney as Andy, a teenage boy who lives with his parents, older sister, and maiden aunt. 

The Hardys are decidedly middle class. One gets the impression that Andy’s father, Judge James Hardy, could have made a killing in a private law practice, perhaps in the big city, but here in Carvel he is a respected—and elected—public official. While he can afford a large, comfortable house for his family, it is no mansion, and they have no servants. Andy is a harmless scapegrace, forever getting himself into some pickle or other, involving school, cars, money, or girls. Usually what has happened is that Andy has cut an ethical corner somewhere—nothing really vicious, mind you, just something Tom Sawyerish—and he needs to be taught (or just reminded of) some virtue of honesty, integrity, neighborliness, or the value of hard work, in a man-to-man talk with his all-knowing, ever-patient father. 

The success of the Andy Hardy pictures—and, I would say, their continuing appeal—is not owed simply to the effervescent talent of Mickey Rooney, but also to the moral portrait they paint of American life. Carvel has some rich folks who pride themselves on being at the top of the social pecking order, and there are some down-on-their-luck poor folks too. But the Hardys are in the great middle. They and their kind are the preponderant element of the community; they hold the balance there. And the lessons Andy receives, directly from his experiences and didactically from his dad, are the modest virtues of the middle class: thrift, frugality, moderate ambition, square dealing, the courage of one’s convictions, respect for others’ dignity, decency in the relations between the sexes, a refusal to be overawed by anyone else’s airs of superiority, compassion without condescension for the poor, valuing education, honoring the integrity of family life, and public-spiritedness. 

The world of the Hardys in Carvel, USA is one that (subtracting the automobiles, telephones, and other inventions of modern life) the American founders would recognize and applaud. As Leslie Rubin’s book demonstrates, with copious illustrations from the writings of members of the founding generation both famous and obscure, the men who made the American Revolution and fashioned the first continental republic had a vision of a “general happy mediocrity” in the United States (the phrase is Franklin’s). They aimed to create, and hoped their posterity would sustain, a middle-class republic combining egalitarian social mores with a recognition of merit, whose citizens despised idleness but did not idolize wealth, who understood that liberty and virtue are mutually reinforcing, who jostle each other in pursuit of their individual and factional interests but who unite in love of country and devotion to its principles, and who may resent having to pay attention to politics but do pay enough attention to be responsible voters. 

Aristotle’s Politics  

For me—mindful that others know much more about the Philosopher—the real achievement of Rubin’s book is the persuasive case she makes that the American middle-class republic is one that Aristotle (making allowances again for historical changes of various sorts) would recognize and applaud. The orthodox reading of Aristotle’s Politics, so far as I can tell, is that the work ascends from the inferior regimes of the early books to the simply best regime of books seven and eight, in which we find the aristocracy of the wise and good, unmixed by any compromises with the general mediocrity of the city’s inhabitants. 

But Rubin argues that right in the middle of the Politics is the best political regime in Aristotle’s view, the one he calls politeia, which she translates “republic.” This is the polity in which man’s common rational and political nature is most honored—truly in the observance and not the breach—as moderate property holders who can make a contribution to the defense of the city are made collectively responsible for its laws and its administration. The high-toned, well-nigh impossible regimes of kingship and aristocracy are in truth not quite politics at all. They assimilate the city too much to the family, with rulers who are too much like fathers over a household. Aristocracy or kingship infantilizes everyone who has no share in rule—which is most people.  

This is not in keeping with the best understanding of human capacities. And as Rubin notes, “the simply best regime and [its devotion to] virtue are apolitical in an important respect: their essential aims lie beyond politics.” Strange as it may be to say, the political order that works hardest at realizing human potential for the highest, noblest life commits itself to a profound neglect of the human potential of most people, depriving them of any modicum of nobility of their own. 

Readers of the Politics are familiar with the close attention Aristotle pays to the two regimes most commonly seen in the ancient Greek polis—democracy and oligarchy. They could be defined in terms of the number who rule—the majority or minority, the many or the few—but it makes more sense to consider the economic classes involved, and to say that democracy is the rule of the poor who are many, and oligarchy the rule of the rich who are few. The move Aristotle makes of mixing these two classes’ political claims in a single regime, known by the name for all regimes (politeia), elevates a possibility more just than either of the “purer” regime types. 

But the mixture can prove too volatile not to degrade into one of its principal elements or the other. As the elite and the mob contend with each other, it may become difficult to keep them from each other’s throats. Sharing rule, mixing the social elements’ contributions to a complex arrangement of institutions, embodying justice in the rule of law—all of these expedients may fail, if a crisis of some kind pitches the system out of balance and encourages the many and the few to fall out with each other. 

Thus Aristotle turns to the possibility that a “middling element” of citizens neither rich nor poor may become the stabilizing force between the two classes at the extremes. If “those owning a moderate amount of property,” who must perforce keep working to avoid penury and so “have not the leisure for constant political participation,” come to the fore as the class of citizens ruling and being ruled in turn, the balance of justice and the stability of lawful order can be maintained.  

If such a republic “has not often existed,” as Aristotle admits, nevertheless its probability of existing is a great deal higher than that of the simply best regime, which seems available to us only as a “prayer” or a fond dream. And if the middle class becomes the largest class, outweighing the other two combined, so much the better. We might add that this is only possible through the increasing prosperity of many who were formerly poor, not through the relative impoverishment of a great many formerly rich persons—for there aren’t enough of the latter. 

Middle-class citizens are not envied and hated by the poor as the rich are; they are not feared and despised by the rich, as the poor are. They are in the best position as well to learn to avoid these vices themselves, envying, hating, fearing, and despising no one at all. As Rubin observes, moreover, they have middling virtues that are politically significant: “people of moderate means have much in common to encourage friendship among themselves.” 

American Politics 

Turning to the American founders, she finds many of Aristotle’s concerns recapitulated. The Americans aspire to a society fundamentally of equals, with abundant resources and opportunities for growth, lifting all or most men out of poverty and not merely enriching a few. They want to rest political power on the broad shoulders of “men of middling property,” as the Federal Farmer put it. They are concerned with education, the maintenance of republican manners, the support of Christian piety consistent with religious freedom, and a widespread ethic of self-government, in and by upright citizens. If not many had read their Aristotle, and fewer still cited or discussed his thought, still the echoes are unmistakable. And Rubin’s closing thoughts on what we might learn from both the Philosopher and the founders about our own predicament are probing and helpful, never doctrinaire or partisan.  

The impact this book ought to have among students of American politics is to shake some of us up who believed we knew that America’s founders had nothing meaningful in common with the political philosophers of antiquity. The “ancients vs. moderns” framework is a hard one to break out of, if one has been well schooled in it. Current critiques of “liberalism” and its putative failure are bounded on all four sides in this box, supposing that the American founding is altogether modern—meaning that its only relationship to the pre-Hobbesian, pre-Machiavellian world of classical and Christian political and moral thought is a negative one, a relation of utter rejection and rebellion. Famous lines of the founders can be cited for this view: Jefferson on the “chains” in which the world had formerly been held by “monkish ignorance and superstition,” Hamilton on the “horror and disgust” one feels when observing the “history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy.” 

Leslie Rubin’s book does not so much engage in the ongoing debate over the modernity of American liberalism at the level of theory as sidestep it in order to direct our attention to something much more interesting at the level of practice. Fully acknowledging the claims of the founders to have fashioned a new science of politics, one that relied on institutional arrangements to check the passions of citizens and public officials, she directs our attention to their steady and simultaneous concern for the character of the American people—a character shaped by their freedom, their religion, their education, and their moderate prosperity—and the portrait that emerges is much richer, in oils rather than pencil, of a generation of lawgivers whose own relation to what we call “liberalism” was equivocal and complicated. The founders of our country do not sound so univocally modern in her telling. 

By the same token, Aristotle does not appear so ancient and remote from us after we encounter Rubin’s skillful rereading of his political science. He is himself an institutionalist—apparently the first one ever—concerned with the arrangement of offices, the rules of suffrage, power checking power, the sociology of classes, the rule of law, and the economic and political conditions of both stability and disruption. Suddenly Publius’s claim to a new science of politics looks just a little exaggerated. 

If Rubin’s book prompts students of American politics to go back and read or reread their Aristotle with fresh eyes, this alone would be a signal accomplishment. She has given us an American founding less modern than we might have thought, and an Aristotle less ancient. And this parting gift of our late friend is also timely. In an age of anxiety about the condition and future of the American middle class, with deepening social and cultural divisions in our republic, the world of Judge Hardy and his son Andy is not only a relic of an earlier age but seems almost like a picture of another country. In the political science classroom and beyond, Leslie Rubin’s portrait of Aristotelian America and American Aristotelianism is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of our situation. 

Matthew J. Franck is the director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute. This review originated as remarks on a panel discussion of Leslie Rubin’s book, sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, at Princeton University on May 17, 2018. 

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