Sunday, February 1, 2015

The First Conservative

The place to look for the core principles of the conservative world view is in the works of the original conservative—Aristotle.

He was born in 384 BC in the city of Stagira, located in Thrace. When he reached 17, he left to live in Athens and become a member of Plato's Academy. After Plato's death, Aristotle left Athens. Philip, the King of Macedon, hired Aristotle to tutor his son and heir, Alexander (later known as “the Great”). Alexander eventually conquered the Greek city-states and indeed most of the known work from Greece to eastern India.

Aristotle returned to Athens in 335 BC and formed his own school, which he called the Lyceum. For over ten years he taught in Athens, sometimes refining but more often challenging the doctrines of his own teacher Plato.

When Alexander died in 323 BC, Aristotle anticipated that Athens and other Greek city-states would revolt against Alexander's successors and initiate retribution against anyone associated with Alexander. He left Athens for the city of Chalcis. He died the following year.

Aristotle left behind writings on, metaphysics, physics, biology, zoology, logic, rhetoric, aesthetics, poetry, and--most important for my purposes—ethics and politics.

The two most accessible works, Nichomachean Ethics and The Politics, are interconnected. The former serves as an introduction to the latter. In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle lays out his ideas on what constitutes “the good life.” But no person can live “the good life” alone. Consequently, in The Politics Aristotle explores different types of constitutional arrangements and which ones provide the conditions which enable citizens to live “the good life.”

Now Aristotle did not call himself a conservative in the sense of holding to some specific ideology. He did devote part of The Politics to the question of how to conserve constitutions. And he did describe purposes or ends of government that have served as the basis for conservatism. Moreover, he also described contrary ends or purposes of government that served as the foundation for what became known as liberalism.


CW said...

Ironically, in the years that I’ve been blogging my fiercest debates have not been with liberals but with anti-gov’t libertarians or anarchists. I have an ongoing debate with one lately in which I’ve tried to make him understand that conservatives (at least IMO) recognize that the nurturing and care of society is essential to the future of the individual. Reading this and Aristotle’s thoughts on living “the good life,” I think he was saying something similar. Am I crazy?

RightDetour said...

Hey CW:

You are not crazy--it is your libertarian friend. I will be posting more on Aristotle as time permits as the basis for a conservative philosophy or world view. But you have picked up already on Aristotle's point of view. Human beings cannot reach their potential (or in Aristotle's words- fulfill their nature) outside of organized society. He called man "the political animal, which means one who thrives in a polis or Greek city state. Only there can individuals help each other meet their needs. In addition, it is the job of the statesmen to frame laws to help citizens form habits of virtue so that they can fulfill their nature.

RightDetour said...

Aristotle see liberty as a means to an end; that end is virtue or human excellence. As I understand them, libertarians see liberty as an end in itself and that it is no one's business to what end a person uses his liberty. What they really want is not liberty but autonomy.