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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 2/15/11

The Ghost of Ancient Hellas

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As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Use and Abuse of History, "Man . . . cannot learn to forget, but hangs on the past: however far or fast he runs, that chain runs with him."

Yet there are so many Americans today whose knowledge of our nation's past runs to a few platitudes from our nation's Founders and Framers barely remembered from history class, and the misquotes of their favorite radio or TV pundits. Their lack of real knowledge about our nation's history, and about its Founders, allows them to be manipulated by mountebanks like David Barton and Congressman Paul Ryan into believing their lies and misstatements, and voting against their own best interests.

One of these misstatements involves the fear and contempt with which men like Washington, Madison and Adams purportedly viewed democracy, and the existence of factions.

Much of the source of this fear arose from the Founders' reading (and misreading) of Aristotle's Politics, together with their study of the histories of Plutarch, Thucydides, Livy and other classical authors, and those authors' descriptions of the political turmoil in ancient Athens and Rome.

What did not occur to our Founding Fathers was to question either the personal biases of those ancient authors, or to carefully define for some future reader what they meant when they used the terms "democracy" and "faction" in their writings and speeches.

I don't think the Founders could have foreseen a day when "educated" individuals would never have read any of the works of classical Greek and Roman authors. Nor could they foresee that their own thoughts would be abused and misappropriated by unscrupulous individuals for their own gain.

In this they were probably being somewhat naà ve.

When Aristotle wrote of democracy, a careful reading of his Politics shows that he was writing of government by the poor, or "mob rule" as some would say in modern parlance, not what we mean when we use democracy in its modern context.

When we speak of democracy today, we are speaking of a constitutionally limited government, in either a form of a federal republic, a limited monarchy, a parliamentary system with proportional representation, or some combination of the three. In all of these cases, the government at all levels is dependent upon either a direct or indirect form of democratic election for most if not all of its offices and legislative representatives.

Aristotle in his Politics wrote of the constitutionally limited government as being the best form of government available. There was a caveat to this. The state had to have a middle class which could either by itself, or with the aid of one of the other two classes (rich and poor, although the middle class being able to accomplish this by itself was his ideal), keep the other class from changing the state into an oligarchy (if the rich dominated) or mob rule (if the poor dominated). The innate relationship between a strong, vibrant middle class and a stable constitutional government was one of Aristotle's axiomatic ideas, which he delved into deeply:

"Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes [poor or rich], or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant. The reason [for failure of these states when established] is that the middle class is seldom numerous in them, and whichever party, whether the rich or the common people [poor], transgresses the mean and predominates, draws the constitution its own way, and thus arises either oligarchy or democracy [mob rule]." Aristotle, Politics, Book IV, Chapter 11; translated by Benjamin Jowett.

I was fortunate enough to read Politics on my own as a junior in High School. The relationship between a strong, vibrant middle class and a stable, constitutionally limited, democratically elected, representative republic underlies the foundation of much of my political thought and philosophy. The expansion of that economic class to include the largest percentage of our nation's population possible is one of my ultimate political goals.

I would argue that there are five, not three, different economic classes that exist within a society. They are: the poor; the lower-middle or working class; the middle or small business/managerial class; the upper-middle or professional class; and the wealthy or upper class. (I could possibly use a variation of Karl Marx's descriptions of poor, proletariat, petite bourgeois, bourgeois, and capitalist classes, but I do not think that they are fully descriptive of today's economic reality.

The size, income and power of these classes vary significantly according to both historical era and geography, and the names that I have given to them are not fully descriptive of their actual economic function or demonstrable ability. A factory worker who solders the same ten connections together, or forms the same sheet metal car fender using a stamping machine, should at this time be considered lower middle class, not poor, in my estimation. But a century ago, such a menial, repetitive position would have counted him among the poor.

I believe that it is our ability to aspire to a real choice for better things for ourselves, our class, and our children, which actually spells the real difference between the attitudes of the five classes -- especially the working and professional classes -- more than any other circumstance.

When the lower middle or working class is hopeful; when it sees a bright future for itself and its posterity; then it is indeed part of the middle class. When the upper middle class sees that it is growing in size; and that there is real upward mobility though out the system; and there is real turnover in the upper class and it is not a hidebound aristocracy of a few families of old money; then it too is part of a thriving middle class.

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Richard Girard is a polymath and autodidact whose greatest desire in life is to be his generations' Thomas Paine. He is an FDR Democrat, which probably puts him with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in the current political spectrum. His answer to (more...)

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