On Aristotle, Thomas More, and the U.S. Founding Fathers

Bust of AristotleI meet weekly via Zoom to discuss ideas with a group of friends who have many years in Aikido among them. A couple of weeks ago, one them (a philosopher as well as an Aikido sensei) was taken aback when she came across a comment that our U.S. founding fathers did not come here for freedom and were not interested in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The person who made those observations was referring back to slavery, of course, but my friend compared it to saying that Aristotle was not a great thinker because women during his time couldn’t own property. Since the Greece of Aristotle’s time, like the U.S. today, is often touted as the birthplace of democracy, it is worth noting that women had almost no rights there, which is one of the things that makes Aristophanes’s plays Lysistrata and Congresswomen so funny.

The commentary got me to thinking about how we should look at great thinkers and art in an age when many of us are no longer willing to accept racism, misogyny, and other practices that assume some, or even most, people exist only to serve the elite.

I recently read a discussion of Thomas More’s Utopia in which it is mentioned that the perfect fictional land included slavery. I haven’t read the book in many years and that fact had somehow not stayed with me. However, having looked up a summary of the book, I think I still need to go back and re-read it, because there are some important concepts in there, one of them dealing with the importance of the commons.

This is a roundabout response, but my point is that there is both value and harm in what was done by those who settled this country (many of them my direct ancestors, at least from the 1700s on). In the same vein, both More and Aristotle had important things to say, but there are things they missed.

I am more reluctant than I used to be to attribute things missed to “they were people of their times.” I can’t speak to Aristotle or even More, but I will note that Thomas Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and yet continued to benefit from it personally and let it damage the country he was building. I do not know if it would have made any difference to the country if he had acted differently.

I think the founding fathers of our country were committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for themselves and people they thought of as like themselves. That is, they wanted those things for some men, and perhaps a wider variety of men than could attain them under British rule.

I don’t think we can discount the effect of the American Revolution on the world politics of the time. Flawed as it was, it set a standard.

But it is way past time we recognized that the settlement of both North and South America was part of European empire-building and involved genocide and the stealing of land that belonged to others. We gloss over that regularly. And the wealth that led to the powerful U.S. of the 20th century is rooted in slavery.

We need to teach history in a more complex way, to recognize those elements as well as the best of the ideals that were built into our Bill of Rights and the post-Civil-War amendments to the Constitution that dramatically changed who was considered a citizen. (We could still use an Equal Rights Amendment that prohibits discrimination based on gender on a Constitutional level.)

In thinking about what to take from Aristotle or Thomas More or, for that matter, from Euripides and Aristophanes and Will Shakespeare, I am reminded that I once heard our Aikido teacher Mitsugi Saotome Sensei reject the idea that one should treat one’s teacher as a guru who could do no wrong. I took this to heart.

I suspect that at times he didn’t like it that his students didn’t always treat him as all-knowing, but I still know I got that understanding from him. That is the way I approach the great philosophers of the past: they have valuable ideas to offer, but do not take everything they say without question.

I doubt that anyone will ever create a perfect piece of philosophy or literature or even build a utopia that is good for us all. I do think striving toward that goal is good, and that to do it we must pay attention to the mistakes of the past and the ones of our present.

Right now in this country we must deal with the white supremacy that is intertwined in our history. If we do that and embrace the demographic changes that are going on, we might really become something closer to the myth we tell ourselves of being a beacon of democracy.

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