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Americans Should Study ARISTOTLE'S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS (Book Review)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 5, 2011: Each Fourth of July, we Americans remember and celebrate the Declaration of Independence, the rightly famous document that set in motion of rightly famous American experiment in democratic governance through democratically elected representatives.

 

But we may not be so keen of remembering that Thomas Jefferson, who is customarily credited with being the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, also famously spoke of the rise of a natural aristocracy. So we should remember that the American Revolution is best understood as a revolution against hereditary aristocracy, not in principle against aristocracy in all forms and not against the spirit and principle of aristocracy.

 

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In the spirit of one-upmanship, however, President John F. Kennedy went far beyond Thomas Jefferson's imagined natural aristocracy when he (President Kennedy) urged his fellow Americans not to ask what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country. When I was a junior in high school, I published my first op-ed editorial about this line in President Kennedy's inaugural address in 1961. So the present essay is my second op-ed editorial about Kennedy's inaugural address.

 

As Garry Wills has pointed out, President Kennedy was in effect urging American citizens to be aristocrats, the people who are duty bound to ask what they can do for their country. If I were to defend Kennedy's call on all American citizens to be aristocrats, I would argue that American citizenship as such confers a benefits package on American citizens and that people who accept the benefits package are by virtue of accepting the benefits thereby duty bound to act as aristocrats with respect to their fellow American citizens. But if you do not want to be duty bound to act as an aristocrat toward your fellow American citizens, then you should not accept the benefits package and should instead leave the country and go somewhere else. However, if you do accept the benefits package of being an American citizen, then you should act as an aristocrat toward your fellow American citizens, even when many of them seem to be up to no good, as many Republicans today seem to me to be.

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When I speak of the benefits package of American citizenship and the duties that should go with it, I am deliberately echoing an important passage in the Homeric epic the ILIAD, Sarpedon's speech to Glaucon in book 12, lines 310-328. In his big book THE GREEK CONCEPT OF JUSTICE: FROM ITS SHADOW IN HOMER TO ITS SUBSTANCE IN PLATO (Harvard University Press, 1978), the classicist Eric A. Havelock (1903-1988) renders Sarpedon's speech as follows:

 

Glaucus, why have we two been honored most

With seating and meats and cups filled full

In Lycia, and all look at [us] as on gods,

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And we have and hold a section of the banks of Xanthus

Fair with vineyard and plowland for growing grain.

Therefore, now it is necessary, in the front ranks of Lycians being set,

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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