Aristotle, Duty, and the Health of a Nation

Aristotle, Duty, and the Health of a Nation


Having grown-up in the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s, I was the product of the times, and can say beyond a shadow of a doubt, — that I was a self-absorbed idiot, — pretty much a pleasure seeker wondering aimlessly through life, — a harmless fun-loving guy. A mental diet of TV, sports, pop music, and a myriad of after school activities filled those days. School seemed to be almost a byproduct of the others. Then came college, of course. “Everyone goes to college” was the meme of the day. Looking back, what was missing was direction and purpose. I did what was asked of me, but never asked myself “why” I was doing it.

COLLEGE ERA REALITIES

College is a challenging environment, especially when one is not rooted, grounded, and comfortable with their purpose in life. Being open minded and directionless can lead to an acceptance of false teachings and thought. For many, the real learning does not begin until after college. Thoughts, ideas, and perceptions are put to the test. It is sink or swim, and when the hard knocks come, they come hard. If children listen to the wisdom of loving parents early in life, a lot of pain can be avoided. When I thought they were old enough to understand, my own children were told, — “Listen to me for 5 minutes, and I will save you 50 years of grief!” The implication being, “I’ve already made the mistakes!” What followed was 2 evening sessions where we talked about laying the foundations for the rest of their lives. It was the most rewarding time I ever spent with my children.

Earlier, I said I was a “harmless” fun-loving guy. Harmless? Hardly! Therein lies the problem. Being “thoughtless” or “open” to anyone’s agenda is not harmless. No thought, idea, or even thoughtlessness itself, — is without consequences. All actions begin first with a thought, idea, or impulse. After this recent election, I watched many young people protest, riot, and even destroy private property. For the purpose of this essay, it matters not who won. There was a potential for protest on both sides. As I read some of the calls to action by others, I wondered what those who formed this nation would have thought. Insight can be found in the context under which our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written.

OUR FOUNDERS AND THE CLASSICS

Our Founding Fathers studied the classics and Western Classical History specifically. I was surprised to find out that Thomas Jefferson began studying Greek at age nine. The Founders’ interest in classical literature was political and philosophical in nature. They wished to understand constitutions and regimes, — what worked and what didn’t. (Reference: Hillsdale College Preface to Aristotle’s “The Politics”) In reading some of the same documents the Founders referenced, I ran across the following written by Aristotle:

“All people are good at making distinctions about the things they are acquainted with, and each is a good judge of those things. Therefore, good judgment goes along with the way each one is educated, and the one who has been educated about everything has it in an unqualified way. For this reason, it is not appropriate for a young person to be a student of politics, since the young are inexperienced in the actions of life, while these are the things about which politics speaks and from which it reasons. Also, since the young are apt to follow their impulses, they would hear such discourses without purpose or benefit, since their end is not knowing but action. And it makes no difference whether one is young in age or immature in character, for the deficiency doesn’t come from the time, but from living in accord with feeling and following every impulse. For knowledge comes to such people without profit, as it does to those who lack self-restraint; but to those who keep their desires in proportion and act in that way, knowing about these things would be of great benefit.”

Reference: Aristotle, student of Plato, whom was a student of Socrates.

384-322BC / Nicomachean Ethics / Book 1 / Chapter 3

HOW DID OUR FOUNDERS VALUE EXPERIENCE, KNOWLEDGE, AND WISDOM?

Not all positions, ideas, or thoughts are equal. Age, experience, and maturity matters. Is it reason, maturity, and experience that governs our action, or is it youthful impulse and selfish immaturity? One need not be young to be immature, nor one immature if young. It is not the purpose of this essay to generalize, but to ask the broader question that Aristotle is focused on concerning politics, — “If one is young in age and vulnerable to impulse, or immature in character, — is it appropriate that they be a student of politics?” His answer is “no,” as it is “without profit” lacking “self-restraint.” How did our Founders value experience, knowledge, and wisdom? Here are a few quotes. (The headers over each quote are my own and are my interpretation how each relate to Aristotle’s quote.)

Broadening our experiences through study, giving us sound reasoning.

“I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading.” — John Adams

This is the purpose of study.

“You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.” — John Adams

Maturity — study to understand the need for sacrifice & restraint.

“I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy.” — John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, May 12, 1780.

We have a duty to learn in order to support liberty for all.

What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support? — James Madison

Self-governance comes through knowledge & the application of it.

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. — James Madison

Maturity and restraint are the foundations for success & aids purpose.

Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all. — George Washington

Experience has taught individual morality & reason is critical to national preservation.

Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. — George Washington

We can debate at what age it is appropriate to be involved in politics, but this again, is not the point. Immaturity, impulse, and poor judgement is not unique to the young. Politicians can be blinded by ambition. Voters can be tempted by financial hardship, desperation, and envy. A nation can be deluded by an illusion of wealth through debt. Experience, knowledge, maturity, restraint, and dare I say, morality will all play a part in our future, — a lack of them being bad, and an abundance of them for our good. I pray that many will take the time to study our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, and the context in which they were written, — that more take their duties to equality and liberty seriously in the years to come. God Bless America!



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