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Aristotle: National Conservative?

March 20th, 2024 | 5 min read

By Collin Slowey

Christian conservative media is replete with applications of Aristotle to modern American politics. Recently, the venerable philosopher has been employed to support a more active federal government, one that does not shy away from moral or economic paternalism, under the banner of national conservatism. But this employment may not be altogether appropriate.

On the one hand, Aristotle supplies excellent arguments against the more ideological advocates of small government. This is why many Christians view him as an ally in their internecine conflict with libertarians: his common-sense endorsement of using state power to form the character of citizens fares well when contrasted with classical liberalism’s “vacillat[ion] between denying that a liberal government fosters [moral opinions] and denying that any reasonable person could object to the ones it does foster,” to quote Daniel Burns.

On the other hand, there is a glaring problem with using Aristotle to support a program that goes by the name of national conservatism, which is simply this: the philosopher appears to repudiate “national” government writ large.

In Book VII of the Politics, Aristotle establishes a fundamental principle: bigger is not always better. “Experience shows,” he begins, “that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed.” He then goes further, arguing that beyond a certain size, communities cease to be governable entirely. “A very great multitude,” in his words, “cannot be orderly…. In like manner a state when composed of too few is not, as a state ought to be, self-sufficing; when of too many, though self-sufficing in all mere necessities, as a nation may be, it is not a state” (emphasis added).

For Aristotle, political viability begins to decline when a community grows so large that its voting citizens do not all know each other. This is because “if the citizens…are to judge and to distribute offices according to merit, then they must know each other’s characters.” It is also because citizens who do not know each other are more likely to grant political power to foreigners, who, due whether to unfamiliarity or disloyalty, may not have the community’s best interests at heart.

Social scientists have since estimated that the maximum number of people someone can meaningfully know at a given time is well below 1,500. Beyond this number of voting citizens, it is safe to say Aristotle would consider a polis, or city, to become an ethnos, or nation, which, by his definition, cannot be self-governing. By the philosopher’s own standards, then, our nation of more than 330 million is firmly in the non-state category.

There are those who might argue that Aristotle’s insights are therefore inapplicable to the American system, or to any modern nation, except insofar as those insights throw its shortcomings as an authentic political community into relief. Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, has famously dismissed the idea that the United States should be thought of as a political community at all, arguing that patriotism for a technocratic conglomeration of millions spread across a continent is as ridiculous as pledging love for the phone company. Real politics, per this logic, can only ever be at the local level.

This seems too neat. Aristotle’s philosophy is surely too timeless to be rigidly confined to the constraints of the classical polis, even if its constructive application to modern nations can only ever be indirect or analogical. Christian conservatives’ persuasive use of Aristotelian logic to debunk dogmatic classical liberalism, à la the work of scholars like Burns, certainly suggests as much.

Yet there remains something uncannily prescient about Aristotle’s assertion that genuine meritocracy will inevitably decline as genuine familiarity among citizens fades. How many of us really know the characters of our elected officials? If we are honest, do we not cast our votes more on the hearsay of middlemen—journalists, commentators, campaigners—than on well-informed personal judgments? It seems likely that this disconnect is at least partially responsible for Americans’ nearly universal belief that their government does not “care about the thoughts of people like them.”

All in all, the Politics’ coolness toward large communities rings true enough that Christians should hesitate before throwing their weight, without reserve or qualification, behind national conservatism. The law is a teacher, yes, and we have no reason to heed libertarian invectives that equate “interference in markets” or the “legislation of morality” with tyranny. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s knowledge problem, if not Friedreich Hayek’s, casts legitimate doubt on top-down schemes to rehabilitate American society.

Where does this leave us? One way to square the circle without taking MacIntyre’s line is to import the principle of subsidiarity from Catholic Social Teaching. According to this principle, national and even global levels of government have their place, but only where more local institutions are insufficient to a given task, since the local, as a matter of common sense, is considered the most directly relevant to the formation of citizens.

The Catholic Church itself provides a thought-provoking, if imperfect, example of subsidiarity in practice. Its population of 1.36 billion is called the “city” of God, a moniker in clear tension with the Aristotelian understanding of the polis. But Catholics’ interactions with the Church are consistently mediated through their local parishes, the average size of which is about 1,000. The Church has severe institutional problems, to be sure, but excessive scale is typically not one of them.

What it would take for the United States to operate on similar lines is another question. Washington, D.C. wields so much power that Christians must continue to invest a great deal of time and energy into national efforts, if only to prevent that power from being turned to evil ends. We will not get far, however, if that is all we do. If we are serious about approximating Aristotle’s vision, we must invest even more time and energy into our local communities.

To some, this is a tired refrain that merely conjures images of church potlucks and block parties. But localism need not be so liminal to politics. The organization Strong Towns, for instance, combines an emphatic commitment to subsidiarity with a hard-nosed determination to reform municipal governments nationwide. Though less than two decades old, it is already inspiring sea changes in zoning laws, civil engineering standards, and more, along with renewed concern for the issues faced by small-scale institutions in general.

Of course, Christian conservatives used to following beltway politics may not find these issues particularly exciting. They may not even view them as important, especially when contrasted with crusades to protect the unborn or defending religious freedom at the national level. But that itself may be part of the problem.

After all, small-scale institutions were neither boring nor insignificant to Aristotle. To the contrary, he believed that the local polis is the “highest [community] of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a degree higher than any other, and at the highest good.” We are free to disagree with him. But the weight of our intellectual tradition should give us great pause before doing so.

Collin Slowey

Collin Slowey is an independent writer on politics, culture, and religion whose work has been featured in The American Conservative, The Dallas Morning News, and Public Discourse, among other outlets.