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Aristotle & The Good Ruler

Maxwell Cameron wants politicians to take a lesson from Aristotle’s book.

Odysseus was a good captain, so he took care not to mention the six-headed monster ready to snatch his sailors and devour them alive. He worried that his crew would be so terrified that they would “leave the oars in a panic and huddle down below” (The Odyssey). The goddess Circe had warned him that this beast, Scylla, had “twelve flapping feet, and six necks enormously long, and at the end of each neck a horrible head with three rows of teeth set thick and close, full of black death.” She also advised him that hewing close to Scylla’s cave was better than entering the other side of the channel, where a terrible sea monster, Charybdis, could swallow the entire ship and crew. “To lose six of your crew is much better than to lose them all at once,” she advised.

“My friends,” Odysseus said as their ship approached the strait, “we are not unacquainted with trouble.” He reminded his crew that they had foiled the Cyclops with his ingenious plan, then he told the rowers to “row away like men” and advised his pilot to “pay heed, for you hold our helm in your hands. Keep her well away from the smoke and surge, and hug the cliffs; whatever you do, don’t let her run off in that direction, or we shall all be drowned.” Then Odysseus put on his armor, grabbed his spears, and took to the deck, straining his eyes to see Scylla. Suddenly, Charybdis swallowed up so much water that a deep whirlpool was formed, exposing the rocks and sand of the ocean floor: “As we gazed in our fear at the death on this side, at the same moment Scylla grabbed six of my crew.” Using her long necks like fishing lines, she dragged the men back to her cave, “shrieking and stretching out their hands” and calling Odysseus’ name – a “most pitiable sight.”

Alexander the Great
Mosaic of Alexander from the House of the Faun in Pompeii

Aristotle and the Ship of State

Aristotle (384-322 BC) might well have thought of Odysseus’ predicament when he used the metaphor of sailors on a ship to answer three of the most enduring questions of political thought. They were, firstly, whether “the virtue of a good person and a good citizen is the same or not” (Politics, 1276b 20); secondly, whether “the virtue of the good ruler is the same as that of a good person” (1277a 20); and, finally, whether wisdom and virtue could be taught. “Like the sailor, the citizen is a member of a community,” wrote Aristotle. “Now, sailors have different functions, for one of them is a rower, another a pilot, and a third a look-out, a fourth is described by some similar term; and while the precise definition of each individual’s virtue applies exclusively to that person, there is, at the same time, a common definition applicable to them all. For they all have a common object, which is safety in navigation.” (1276b 25)

Aristotle uses the term ‘virtue’ (arete) in the sense of ‘excellence in performing a function’. What makes a rower excellent is strength and skill with the oars. The pilot, on the other hand, is a master of navigation. While the look-out must have the knowledge and vision to interpret the clouds, winds, tides, and currents. In this context, whether the rowers are generally good people matters less than their particular skill or ability to row well, and the same goes for the others. The captain coordinates these activities for “the good of those committed to his care” (1279a 5). Whereas the rower, pilot, or look-out may be judged on their performance of their particular activities, the captain is to be judged in relation to the aim of bringing the ship safely to port.

It was the good of his crew that motivated Odysseus to take the lesser of two evils. He withheld knowledge of Scylla because he could not expect his crew to equal his bravery. His authority over the sailors was not based on force or rank, but on respect and friendship. They could disobey him. In fact, shortly after escaping Scylla and Charybdis, they overruled his decision to avoid the ‘delectable’ temptations of the island of Helios Hyperion. When Eurylochos, his second-in-command, rebelled and led the crew onto the island, Odysseus said, “I must give way to force. I am one against many.” But Homer made sure to emphasize the consequence of their disobedience. After the crew ate Helios’s food their ship was destroyed, and only Odysseus survived.

Can Virtue be Taught?

I said Odysseus was a good captain even though he deceived his crew. Why?

For one thing, he always put his crew first and never retreated from danger to himself. For another, he made them better sailors. Odysseus worked in partnership not with the more timid or cowardly impulses of his crew, but with their capacity for courage and self-sacrifice. There is no dilemma more difficult than the sacrifice of a few for the safety of many, but the capacity to make and to demand such sacrifice rests on politics’ most precious resource: the idea of the common good and the ability to increase it by modelling excellence. Can we cultivate a capacity for good in both our people and our rulers?

Aristotle was appointed by Philip II of Macedon to tutor his son Alexander; so for him the question ‘Can virtue be taught?’ was not a hypothetical one. In Annabel Lyon’s novel The Golden Mean (2009), Aristotle asks Alexander to name a virtue. Alexander, who aspires to glory, names ‘courage’. Aristotle explains that want of courage is cowardice, while excess of courage is rashness. At first, Alexander mocks his tutor, anticipating his argument that virtue is following a mean or middle path, saying: “You… prize mediocrity.”

“Not at all,” responds Aristotle, “Moderation and mediocrity are not the same. Think of the extremes as caricatures, if that helps. The mean, what we seek, is that which is not a caricature. Mediocrity doesn’t enter into it, you see?”

At this point Alexander mentions his brother, who he is ashamed of due to his cognitive and physical disabilities. “Am I an extreme, next to him?” he asks. Aristotle answers by inviting Alexander to spend a day at the beach with his brother. The lesson is magnanimity – to be moderate toward subordinates (Nichomachean Ethics, 1124b 20). A further lesson is that the virtues reinforce each other, or as Amelie Rorty puts it, they ‘hunt in packs’. Aristotle knew that his young student was vain and cruel. Without magnanimity he could not develop civic courage, which involves feeling shame at what is dishonourable. Understanding this takes character and judgment of the kind that Aristotle called ‘practical wisdom’ (phronesis), which is a person’s “ability to deliberate well about what is good and expedient” and “conducive to the good life in general.” (NE, 1140a 25-30)

Practical wisdom was, for Aristotle, the virtue of virtues, or the master virtue. Without practical wisdom, someone like Alexander might have particular excellences, such as skill in battle, but he would lack the character and judgment to show magnanimity toward those he conquered. This would make him a formidable soldier but a terrible person, and thus a poor ruler. The “virtue of a ruler differs from that of a citizen” (Politics, 1277a 20-25), and they are not equally worthy of praise. The citizen might be a soldier, teacher, sailor, or doctor. Given the diversity of citizens and forms of constitution, not all citizens need be similarly virtuous. Some might possess practical wisdom; but all who rule must.

How does one acquire practical wisdom? Aristotle’s answer was: by practicing moderation in all things.

This is not as easy as it might sound. First is the difficulty in finding the golden middle way, or golden mean. This is not an arithmetic middle, but neither is it inexact. A ship navigating a narrow passage might veer more toward one side; but there will always be a best course for safely reaching port. Second, as the political theorist Ken Sharpe recently wrote to me, “there is no algorithm or rule that the navigator can be taught to find the best passage under the circumstances of changing tides, winds and weather, but the navigator can be taught through practice, apprenticed to an expert who models and coaches how to find the mean in changing circumstances. This is why teachers are so important.” (Personal communication, July 17, 2018).

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer
Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, 1652

Can Ethical Politics be Taught?

Aristotle says that the salvation of the community is the common business of all citizens (Politics, 1276b 30), and to this end they must perform their own business well (40). However, like the captain who must navigate the ship safely to port, the ruler must have the wisdom and virtue to transcend the standpoint of particular citizens and focus on the common good (1287b 5).

The idea that rulers must be wiser and more virtuous than ordinary citizens is alien to our understanding of politics. We do not regard elected officials as exemplary citizens. The strangeness of Aristotle’s view should prompt us to ask why politics has become so debased in our view.

Aristotle understood democracy to involve the direct participation of citizens in public office. Democracy was enabled when a state was “framed upon the principle of equality and likeness”, in which citizens “think that they ought to hold office by turns” (1279a 10). This explains why Aristotle, like many of his contemporaries, viewed democracy as an especially demanding system of government: it required practical wisdom of all citizens, or at least those who held public office – which for Aristotle could in principle be any citizen.

Aristotle’s ship metaphor suggests that those in authority need practical wisdom in order to achieve the common goals they share with those over whom they have responsibility. But notice that Aristotle was concerned with a specific kind of rule: that which “is exercised over free people and equals by birth.” He was thinking not of the relationship between servant and master (for the servant obeys due to necessity, not reason), but of the kind of relationships that exist among free citizens. In such relationships authority requires the practical wisdom to find ways of serving the common good. That is why Aristotle embraced the view that “whosoever has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander” (1277b 10-15). But not every captain, teacher, or ruler has such practical wisdom. And that, Aristotle thought, was a serious problem.

Hannah Arendt also recognized the centrality of practical wisdom to democracy when she argued in The Promise of Politics (2005) that politics is the art by which we navigate our plurality and differences. Each citizen, insofar as she enters the public sphere, must balance diverse aims or goods. Often we are motivated by a cause or an issue; but when we engage in deliberation, judgment, and act freely as equals with others, we face the even greater challenge of balancing our own aims with those of other members of the political community. That takes practical wisdom.

It is therefore deeply troubling that we do not seek to educate either our public or our leaders in the arts of politics and citizenship. Indeed, it’s an astonishing fact of modern life that no effort is made by public institutions to educate politicians in the art of leadership. Alone among activities of consequence for the public good, no opportunities exist for preparing people for entry into practical politics. Political parties sometimes offer some training for candidates prior to elections, and legislatures typically offer basic training to newly-elected legislators, but no standing institutions provide mentoring and coaching for people who aspire to enter politics. Democracies trust amateurs to run the most complex organizations in modern societies, manage the largest budgets, and make decisions involving everything from statutory rules to regulatory minutiae.

Why do we not train politicians?

One reason is the belief that politics can be learned but not taught – that the learning happens on the job, not from reading textbooks or studying.

It is certainly true that, like any practice, politics is acquired through experience; but there are many such practices that are also taught. Much of what politicians do on a day-to-day basis is entirely teachable – including law-making and legislative analysis, budgets, estimates, supply motions and money bills, parliamentary procedures and rules, committee work, caucus work, the roles and offices of the legislature, voting, constituency service, managing a constituency office, political communications, relationships with the civil service, lobbyists, and the media. Moreover, professional schools provide many examples of ways in which practices can be honed through experiential learning, from moot courts in law, to clerkships in medicine, to war games in the military.

A deeper objection is that even if the mechanics (so to speak) of politics can be taught, it is not clear that aspiring politicians can be taught to be good.

It must be conceded that people will be unlikely to learn political virtue from a school of politics unless they enter with at least some sense of calling to public service – for some people enter politics for the wrong reasons, or lack the disposition to become wise practitioners. Yet the same objection could be directed at any other professional school, like a law school or a school of business. The rationale for such schools is precisely to inculcate good practice. A law school that did not cultivate an appreciation for the rule of law, a business school that did not encourage ethical business practices, or a medical school that did not put care of patients at the center, would be regarded as deficient by most practitioners.

Perhaps the most troubling objection people raise is that politics is incorrigibly unethical and irredeemably corrupt, and that any ethical training of politicians would simply disarm them in the face of Machiavellian adversaries.

Whatever one might think about such a dim view of politics (and it is a problematic view in the context of constitutional democracy), the challenge from a teaching perspective is to prepare politicians to make wise judgments in morally ambiguous circumstances. There are times in the life of every politician when their conscience will conflict with the demands of the job, and handling these situations well requires preparation. At the very least, it is worth exploring the possibility that a little preparation could enable politicians to deal with these dilemmas more ethically.

Odysseus Between Scylla and Charybdis
Odysseus Between Scylla and Charybdis by Henry Fuseli, 1794

A Visit to a School for Politicians

A pilot program to test the idea of a school for politicians has been developed at the University of British Columbia. The Institute for Future Legislators is designed to provide practically-oriented learning and opportunities for experimentation in the practice of politics. Participants attend weekend bootcamps in which they hone their political skills and knowledge with coaching from former statespersons. Aspiring politicos are placed in situations in which they have to choose between loyalty to their party, the views of their constituents, and their own consciences. They learn to balance these goods. They are given opportunities to collectively deliberate about such topics as whether to enter the political arena at all. I have been authorized by one participant to describe her experience. I will call her Jasmine.

On day one of the bootcamp, participants were asked why they wanted to enter politics. Many said they wanted to make the world a better place. To get beyond platitudes, they were asked to share personal stories. Jasmine talked about her family, her community, and the years she’d spent in advocacy, working with people struggling with mental health, addiction, homelessness, violence, and poverty. Through this she had come to realize that “we can lobby government as much as we want; that’s not going to get us results.” Having a seat at the table would provide “an opportunity to shift things.” Yet she recognized that she needed to develop her political skills, specifically with respect to when to offer solutions, and when to step back and let others take the lead.

Two weeks later, participants were in the Council Chambers in Vancouver City Hall. A former Mayor was acting as Mayor, and a sitting councillor was acting as City Manager. Participants were debating whether to raise property taxes to generate funds to fill gaps in the response to Vancouver’s opioid crisis. Jasmine was role-playing as a councillor and did a superb job. Later, one of her colleagues nominated her as party leader. She accepted the nomination. When two others were nominated, both males and both more experienced in electoral politics (one was an elected leader of a major union; the other a vice president of a riding association), Jasmine abruptly withdrew. She was asked why by a facilitator. Did she not say she wanted to sit at the table? Did she not think she would be good?

She allowed her name to stand, and was elected.

In the reflective discussion held at the end of the day, Jasmine was encouraged to think about her experience:

Facilitator: You had a moment where you had to decide whether to step up or pull back… Go through the process of thinking about that.

Jasmine: I have this tendency to second guess myself on how much I talk, and how much space I take up… I just thought ‘Oh, there are other people interested in doing this; that’s okay, I’ll just pull back’, not recognizing at the moment that there are other people interested in me doing this [laughs].

Another participant: I’m a strong advocate for you.

Jasmine: I thank you for that. Because I didn’t ever think about it that way. It’s not just me doing something that I want to do, but it’s other people who want me to do it. Right?

The councillor who had acted as City Manager offered the following advice.

Councillor: To this question of ‘Am I taking up too much space?’ You may or may not be, and its going to be contextual, and I cannot really pass judgment on that… You only really then have two options. You either step forward or support some one else to step forward. If what you’re doing is just stepping back, that’s a different thing from saying ‘I’m going to help this other person who has no experience gain experience.’ That’s an active decision as opposed to just pulling back.

The councillor and the other participants reframed the decision so that it was less about ‘Should I step up or pull back? Am I the right person to lead?’ It was rather a decision about how ‘we as a group’ address a need. How to proceed depends on the context, the particulars of the situation, and the aims of the group. Jasmine needed to focus on a shared goal, and then find a path forward. That might involve her stepping up, but it could also involve supporting someone else.

The next day Jasmine spoke with a participant who had a tendency to dominate discussions. She asked him to help her find ways of bringing more voices into the discussions. By guiding him in a direction that would benefit the whole discussion, Jasmine demonstrated that she was acquiring what political practitioners need: practical wisdom. That’s the secret ingredient of good politics.

Democracy and Practical Wisdom

One learns to be the captain of a ship by serving under a captain and having command of a crew (Politics, 1277b 586). Similarly, the ability to govern well depends on skills and knowledge that are best acquired by practicing under the supervision of experienced statespersons. The ancient Greeks understood that cultivating the virtues necessary to be good rulers and citizens was a necessary defense against the sophistry of self-aggrandizing, power-hungry and opportunistic demagogues. We moderns have been less concerned about this danger, at least until recently. Perhaps we have grown too fond of the false dichotomy between a government of laws and one of people, and have forgotten that laws do not enforce themselves, but are enforced by people. When charlatans attain power, our best defense is the characters and judgment of the people around them, not the laws alone. Since the defense of our institutions is in the hands of civil servants and rulers, should we not take care to foster their character and judgment?

If the answer is yes, then training politicians is anything but elitist. It may be more elitist for public institutions to fail to prepare citizens for the exercise of civic duty. We may neglect this task out of a principled reluctance to tell other people how to live their lives, yet one of the most challenging features of democratic citizenship (and a source of tension between democracy and liberalism) is that for democracy to work well, citizens must possess civic virtues.

We are invested in one another, and must rely upon one other. That’s why we need each other to be virtuous. At the very least, democracy demands citizens with the courage to be reliable defenders of democratic institutions. As Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue, the Greeks understood that to be courageous meant “to be someone on whom reliance can be placed.” That kind of courage does not arise spontaneously: it must be cultivated.

If we are to prepare citizens for public life, we must go beyond old-school civic education. Preparing people for democracy should be at the core of the educational mission of public schools and universities. Education must involve habituating aspiring practitioners to feel, deliberate, judge, and act in the service of the common good; it must instill civic virtue by providing opportunities to cultivate the knowledge, skill, and motivation to be good citizens and statespersons; and it must restore the idea that politics is an ennobling activity.

Aristotle complained that politicians were doing too little to teach their fellow citizens how to legislate (NE, 1181a). His lament still resonates over two millennia later.

© Prof. Maxwell A. Cameron 2019

Maxwell A. Cameron is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia, and author of Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is grateful to Joshua Cohen, Philip Resnick, and Kenneth Sharpe for comments and criticisms.

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