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Dr. Larry Arnn Begins In Aristotle’s Politics

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HH: It is time for the Hillsdale Dialogue. Every Friday, I deal either with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, or one of his colleagues on one of the great works of the West. And what a week with which to talk about Aristotle with Dr. Arnn. Dr. Arnn, welcome, always a pleasure, good to talk to you.

LA: How are you, Hugh?

HH: I’m great. I have to tell you, I got off the boat in Norway last week, and was greeted by three travelers with a sign which we’ve posted over at, which was tongue in cheek. It was funny. It said greetings to Dennis Prager. It had my picture. But they were wonderful people, Kåre, Alexis and their son, Elias, and they’d driven three hours to tell me how much they love the show. And then Kåre, the dad, made a special point to say please thank Dr. Arnn for the Hillsdale Dialogues. They enrich his life dramatically.

LA: Wow.

HH: Isn’t that amazing what technology allows?

LA: You know, I was just in Norway. I wish I’d known.

HH: Oh, now they’re going to, they would have greeted you with a picture, welcome Dennis Prager.

LA: That may be more contact than they wish for, though, Hugh.

HH: No, they are both graduates of a wonderful small college in Minnesota called Northwestern College.

LA: Yeah.

HH: But they live in Norway, and she is an American, and he is a Norwegian, and their kids are dual citizens, and they just love this dialogue hour.

LA: Wow.

HH: And so I just wanted to pass that on to you that all around the world, we’re advancing the study of the great texts, so I’m pleased with that. Now I’m not pleased, though, with what the Supreme Court did this week. And in the context of the Politics by Aristotle, the rule, the one, the few, and the many, what is this decision, Larry Arnn?

LA: Well, in that context, you know, Aristotle takes issue in the second book of the Politics with the regime that Socrates creates in the Republic. And in this regime, Socrates, I think, the Republic is on one level, it’s a though experiment. How would you make a perfect regime? And he says, and they set out to do that. And one of the features of it is the family goes away. And sex is a matter of state policy, and it’s anonymous, and the children are raised in common. And Aristotle protests against that, as by the way, Socrates himself does in the Laws, and other writings, because the family is a natural unit. And the city, or the political entity, cannot become just a simple unity, because human beings are not made that way. And Aristotle even says it’s an attempt to make it into a household. And the family is a very stubborn thing, and it isn’t going to go away in America. It may be compromised, but that will harm the nation fundamentally, because that word nature itself comes from the Latin word for birth. We human beings have a way of growing. And we, just like oak trees grow in a certain way and require certain things about them to grow to be strong and healthy, so human beings have a way that they grow. And the biological facts about human beings are very stubborn. On the one hand, we have more discretion over our procreation than any other being, and yet our procreation is more demanding than other living beings, almost any of them, because human babies take a very long time to raise. And there’s all kinds of data about what happens when they’re raised outside a monogamous family headed by a mother and a father. And cases of divorce, even, have bad outcomes for, on the average, much more commonly for the offspring than in united families. So we’re tampering with something very fundamental now, and we’re reducing politics from the natural rights of human beings to the will, to whatever we prefer. And goodness knows how far that can go.

HH: Now it’s interesting you went immediately to the central dilemma by going to book two of the Politics. I was thinking more about the latter books, because the means of the decision by which we have so cavalierly walked away from this natural family came from the ruling of five individuals, and…or actually, six if one considers the district court judge. And I have to ask before I forget if you have had a chance, yet, to read the withering footnote by Justice Alito in dissent about the conduct of Judge Walker’s district court trial on Proposition 8? One of the things he singles out for ridicule is Judge Walker’s dismissal of the great ancient thoughts and texts on marriage, because those individuals could not be produced in the courtroom. Have you read that, yet?

LA: (laughing) And yet, no I have not, and the reason is I knew I would be talking to a highly-skilled attorney, and so I thought I’d leave that to you.

HH: Well, I will tell you, you will love the fact that we can’t use Aristotle and Plato in the discussion of marriage, because they can’t show up in the now-retired Judge Walker courtroom. And Justice Alito just rips him for this. But I was talking more about not the substance of the decision, though that’s where you went, and we should, but the fact that a court made it, Dr. Arnn. Does that bring us to the rule, the corrupt rule of the few? What is that? It doesn’t fit in the taxonomy of governments that Aristotle gives us.

LA: Well, it does, too. It reduces, you know, tyranny, the bad forms of government, the worst, the most extreme form of the bad forms is tyranny, and it is the rule of will over the rule of law. And so these judges are rightly very powerful, and it’s worth reminding people why they should be. If the Congress passes a law, and the president signs it, and it violates the Constitution of the United States, when it gets applied to you and me, and any individual or group, then they have an appeal to the Constitution. And so it has to be, the judges have this power. They don’t have the power to make policy, they have the power to decide cases, right? And that means that this case is settled, this particular thing that came before them is settled, and no one can tamper with that unless the Court changes its mind in some future case. But even that won’t reverse this case. It won’t change the effect on the parties of this case. But when they advance a theory, as they have done, the four liberals and Kennedy, that the Constitution of the United States requires the equal treatment of different forms of what’s called family, well, the Constitution doesn’t say that, and would not have been read that way in any previous age. Now think about that district court judge that you just named in that footnote. If Aristotle and Plato cannot be present in the courtroom, and of course, they can be present in the courtroom. They’re present in this conversation.

HH: Interesting.

LA: They wrote things, and you can read them.

HH: But I know where you’re going. Then the…

LA: The Constitution can’t be present, either.

HH: Exactly. Oh, I had not thought of that. I’ll bet you Justice Alito didn’t think of that. But that is right.

LA: James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and all of them are all dead, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: So…

HH: So that means we are just living purely as will at this point.

LA: That’s it, and that’s what’s dangerous here, see, because it isn’t just that the law is reduced to will. In addition, the argument by which it is dismisses any standard outside will by which to judge. So it really does, where it’s going to work itself out. It can’t stop where it is, all of this, because there aren’t gay and straight. There’s at least six or eight of them now…

HH: Classifications of sexual orientation.

LA: Yeah, polyamorous questioning…

HH: Yeah.

LA: Transsexual, right?

HH: Right.

LA: What about recognition for all of them? What about, you know, what about recognition for, in the law, for every kind of wish that people can have?

HH: In fact, I want to make this very carefully so I’m not misunderstood. But the grounds on which the original LDS Church was outlawed, and in fact decertified in the 19th Century, and war made upon them, was because they were polygamous. But under the Court’s ruling, one state now could readopt polygamy. I’m not saying that the Mormons want to do that. I don’t wish to be misunderstood in that regard in any way, shape or form.

LA: No.

HH: But under the Court’s reasoning, if Utah changed its mind back to what it originally believed, which it has no intention of doing, but if it did, the federal government would be obliged to accept it.

LA: Correct. And see, that’s where we go, right? And see, there’s all kinds of things to do, that in my opinion, are good things to do to protect the contractual rights of people who choose to live together, gay or straight, by the way. Like one of the, you know, there’s some inequity in the law, in my opinion, right now, that should be addressed. If a couple of people, a couple of brothers, a couple of sisters, a couple of anybody, a couple of brothers and sisters, if they decide to live together in a house and make their lives together and take care of each other, then why shouldn’t the law recognize that they can visit each other in hospitals and leave their property to each other, and a whole bunch of stuff like that, right?

HH: Right.

LA: And the gay community, and I think, by the way, the law should allow for that. Everybody’s getting older, anyway. These problems are going to become more common as life goes on here.

— – –

HH: But now, we are in the Politics, and we do so in a week in which the very nature of American government is on the minds and the lips of everyone talking. The Sunday shows will be full of conversation about Supreme Court decisions dealing with the most important issues in American public life, and not merely the marriage cases, but also the question of property rights and of voting rights. And the Supreme Court acted on all of these things. And Dr. Arnn, the Politics is about how regimes ought to be organized. And I can remember long ago and far away when Harvey Mansfield took up this book, I reacted to it the way you reacted when your teacher brought up the Ethics, because I said wow, this just lays it out. Here’s a roadmap for me. There’s monarchy, and there’s aristocracy, and there’s democracy, and then there are corrupt versions, and now here’s what happens over time, and this is why slavery doesn’t work, and this is why Plato and all the time we spent reading it makes no sense. It’s a wonderful book, and it’s relevant this very hour.

LA: Yeah, well, the first thing to know about the Politics is you can be a political scientist, and if you’re a citizen, you should be, because you exercise authority as a citizen that requires you to understand. And the Politics is like any really great book, of course, full of complexity and richness, and one could study it for a lifetime. But in addition, it’s simple to start with.

HH: Yes, for lawyers.

LA: It lays out…

HH: It’s written for lawyers.

LA: Yeah, you know, that’s right. That’s right, and you know, there’s a friend of mine, by the way, a good friend, a man that I admire very greatly, who happens to be a politician here in Washington, and I’m forever saying to him something I’ve said to you in the past. You have to stop talking like a lawyer. He is really skilled. I’m not going to say his name, but he’s a really skilled lawyer, and he’s a great guy. And I’ll say nope, sounds like a lawyer, don’t say that. So the Politics is not written like a lawyer’s document, although it’s written so that lawyers can understand it.

HH: Exactly. Exactly right. Perfect. Now you have gotten many arrows out of your quiver at once there.

LA: All right therre.

HH: I think you’re going to…

LA: All right there, yeah. So you know, here’s a first thing to know. There really are two main things to know, and then you can start thinking. One is politics is natural, because human beings naturally live in communities. There are several forms of these communities, and among the earthly communities, which is the only kind Aristotle talks about, having been lived a long time before Jesus Christ, the supreme, or superior or highest one is the political community. And it’s the one that’s organized for us to achieve together our ultimate aims. And so the first thing is, the political community, politics, by the way, if somebody asked you to define the word politics, remember that it’s a form of community. Start with that, right? Students always say it’s a study, because to them, everything is a study. They’re studying everything. But it isn’t. It’s a way of people living together. And so once you know that, and know that it’s a natural way, human life is only complete when it’s lived under law in political communities, then once you know that, then the second kind of thing you have to know is what kinds are they?

HH: And how best to live under them. That’s the citizenship part, isn’t it?

LA: That’s right. But let’s do the typology, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: Because it’s simple, and it’s very important. You just mentioned what it is. There are two categories of things by which you understand political communities. The first category is are they good or not? And if they’re good, then rule is exercised in the public interest, and the interest of all. And if they’re bad, rule is exercised in the interest of the rulers. So good regimes and bad regimes, right?

HH: Right.

LA: I believe that the danger in America right now, for example, is that it’s becoming a regime exercised in the interest of an elite administrative class.

HH: I don’t know if you heard this, by the way, Dr. Arnn. Yesterday, Congressman John Campbell announced his retirement on this show. And he doesn’t have to retire. He’s retiring because he’s done 14 years in public life, and he’s said it’s time to go, I’m 58, and it’s time to make way, and he doesn’t need to make a living, and he’s made a contribution. But I asked him since you’re free of all self-interest now, what is the absolute most important thing? And he said the government is becoming onerous and self-actualizing. It is acting on its own behalf.

LA: That’s it, and it’s a very large class of people, not just those in the government, but people who are in the class of person, the administrative class. It’s very large, and the clients of that class. And the city, I happen to be in Washington, D.C. at our Kirby Center right now, and it’s full of those people, and it’s a physical change. 40 years ago, 50 years ago, it wasn’t full of such people. There weren’t so many such people.

HH: Interesting.

LA: So if you just look at the architecture around, it’s one of my favorite things to say, if it’s ugly, it’s new, and the thing going on inside it is questionable.

HH: Interesting.

LA: If it’s beautiful, you know, go around the National Mall. I’m an old man now, and when I used to come to the city in the beginning, it was all open and quiet around the National Mall. It really bustles now, and it’s full of business, and it’s full of all kinds of things that impinge on the old monuments.

HH: What about your proposition, though, that all that is old is beautiful if we look at the building in which the Supreme Court sits, and all that goes on within it is good in light of what we saw this week?

LA: But of course, it’s a different court now, right? And it acts differently. And you know, you look at…

HH: I thought you were going to say that it originally met in the Congress.

LA: Yeah, well, it did, but you know, the Court building is not that old, but the Court is original, and should be, needs to be. And the building that the Court is in is actually a very worthy building, a rare modern thing that looks good. There are some others, too, some in the federal triangle which were started by Calvin Coolidge, by the way.

HH: But your point is well taken, and David Brinkley, when he wrote When Washington Went To War, commented on how from 1940 forward, the city has gone through exponential growth, which I think continues in our time.

LA: That’s right. Yeah, oh, very, it’s crazy. And you know, it’s the one housing market that has been basically unaffected by the housing crisis. And it’s thriving and it’s growing like wildfire. Why is that? You know, a friend of mine looked it up. He once got an old phone book from Washington, D.C. from 1962. No Fortune 500 company had a listing in the D.C. phone book in 1962.

HH: Wow.

LA: And you know, everybody’s here now.

HH: Everybody’s there. They must be there.

LA: Yeah, you’ve got to be.

HH: You have no choice.

LA: It’s where the power is, see? And that’s a regime change, right? That’s something going on that’s of fundamental importance, and alters everything, just like this Court decision we’re talking about.

— – – –

HH: You know, Dr. Arnn, I’m such a bad student, because I have so many things I want to ask you, and I get you off track. But I do want to know, at the conclusion of this week, with these decisions on marriage, and the conversation about good regimes and bad regimes before we go back to the typology of the Politics, are you, do you think we are anywhere near the sort of Constitutional crisis, and I do not mean civil war, but the sort of de-legitimization of the government that confronted Lincoln when he returned to active political life in the 1850s?

LA: In principle, that is established, and has been for quite some time. And it’s an old problem, you have to remember, because modern liberalism, which is a 19th Century phenomenon in America, late 19th Century, so it’s more than a hundred years old now, begins with a rejection of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in favor, in words of Woodrow Wilson, of an evolutionary society, not a natural society, and an evolutionary government, not a Constitutional government. And those are explicit claims by those guys, and they have gone, and this has gone very far now. And it’s getting to the place now where some choice has got to be made, or either by default we’re going to go down this place where we have a new kind of regime, and the regime is basically engaged in an engineering project to remake the society, in which case we are subjects of the project instead of people whose natural rights are protected by a government that we own.

HH: So the regime that is at the end of that road on which we are traveling, how would Aristotle have classified it in the typology of the Politics?

LA: Okay, I’ll just finish the typology quickly, and then I’ll tell you. The second question, first of all, is it a good regime is the first question, and the second question is how many rule in that regime, and in virtue of what principle do they rule? And there’s only three options about how many. There’s either or there’s few, or there’s many. And so if you just think about it, if you take one category of two, and one category of three, you get six possibilities.

HH: Yup.

LA: So you can have monarchy, that’s the rule of one in the interest of all. You can have tyranny, the rule of one in the interest of the one. You can have aristocracy, the rule of a few in the interest of all. You can have oligarchy, the rule of a few in the interest of a few. And you can have democracy, which is either good or bad, depending on whether it’s in the rule just of the majority, the mob, or in the interest of all. And so those are the six kinds of regimes. What we’re building, I think, is nearest to an oligarchy, that is a professional elite beholden to science, to modern advancement. That footnote that you referred to from the district court decision, that’s a statement that new knowledge is better than old knowledge, because new knowledge has been recently created.

HH: Yes.

LA: And that word creation is very important. Science, which comes from an old word which means to know, now means to make as much as it means to know. And so we are making things according to how we want them to be. And so we tend to an oligarchic form of government now.

HH: And what did Aristotle say about the natural pathway of these regimes, and the cyclical nature of how they evolve or replace one another?

LA: Well, he says that the just regimes are much more stable than the unjust regimes. You know, the Constitution of the United States is the longest enduring thing of its kind in all history. He says that the unjust regimes are very unstable, and they can…because the friction of injustice produces crises all the time. It’s not right. You know, go look at Scott Rasmussen. He’s my favorite pollster, and I know him, and I admire him very much, think he’s really smart. And go look on his webpage. People are hugely disaffected with the way of the government, and the direction of it, and they feel left out by it. And then my opinion is that’s because they are. And so also, something very instructive and ominous should be understood. There’s a long passage in the Politics where Aristotle says when tyrannies are long-lived, how do they achieve that? And the way they do it is they combat every form of excellence and prominence and worthiness outside themselves. They tear down any rival, especially if it’s worthy and good.

— – – –

HH: When we went to break, Dr. Arnn, you were talking about a passage in Aristotle’s Politics about how tyranny endures. Would you repeat that and then expand on how that is illustrative for our times?

LA: Well, you know, like one thing that goes on in our politics is politics is very dirty. And they tend to be very dirty in times like these when fundamental things are pending, because both sides, and especially the despotic side, has an interest in making everything else look low, because then, there’s no alternative to it, right? There’s that famous story of the tyrant who goes and visits another successful tyrant, and he’s out in a field. And he says how have you lasted so long? And while they’re talking, the tyrant who’s being visited takes a sickle, and he’s cutting off the tops of all of the tall stalks of grain.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And that’s, you see, what happened in, like, look in, and you know, I’m not saying we’re in the condition of the Soviet Union. We’re in a crisis that could lead to that. But what did they do, right? Like the dissidents who were heroic people, many of their names are known. Solzhenitsyn is one of them.

HH: Sakharov, yeah. Bukovsky.

LA: Yeah, one of the things they did was they would commit those people to insane asylums.

HH: Yeah, Vladimir Bukovsky.

LA: They called them crazy, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And they would make up things about them to make them look low. And in a healthy society, what happens is people have differences, and they argue them. And the argument is about those differences, right? And in a really healthy society, it is a fact that the characters of the people arguing are good. And many, by the way, on both sides in our country today, are so. And then they’re not talking about themselves. They’re talking about what’s the right thing. What is the truth of the matter? What is the expedient thing to do given good principle and justice? And in a tyranny, you get away from that. And of course, another thing that’s characteristic of tyrannies, especially when they endure, is spies. People are turned against each other. And everything you do is monitored, you know. I mean, I know of a business lately, I’m not going to say who it is, because they’re friends of mine, but they have lately declined to testify in a hearing about a regulatory agency, because the board said we could be harmed, right? Now those are free people invited to go before their elected representatives and tell their story about how their business is regulated, and they’re afraid to do it.

HH: Because of antics like those we have seen coming out of the Internal Revenue Service, for which…

LA: Precisely so, right?

HH: Yeah, for which recompense, I mean, they come after you. They just pay you back.

LA: That’s right, and you know, there are mobs of people who go after you, something you know a lot about on the internet, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: And they call your, you know, they fiddle with your finances, and they besmirch your reputation, and you are attacked. And that’s a bad sign when that’s going on, and you know, that’s the kind of thing that was going on in the lead up to the Civil War. And that’s the kind of thing that was going on in the American Revolution, and in fundamental times, that’s pretty common.

HH: But because we do not have a bloody Kansas, and because we do not have a Levatorvo (?), I believe it’s called, prison or the hospital where Bukovsky was committed, or the gulag. People say that’s not really what’s going on, we’re overstating the nature of the regime crisis. But I think you’ve been very careful to say the crisis that we have is a political crisis, not one of violence that is imminent, but one of choices that must be made.

LA: That’s right. And you know, my belief, and I maintain it in public as the best language I can, my belief is that the safety against that kind of thing is limited in Constitutional rule built on the natural rights of everyone, and that we will discard that safety and maneuver ourselves into much more dire times if we lose those blessings.

HH: Do you believe this is why Rand Paul resonates, by the way, because he speaks something about this, and why Ted Cruz, who speaks explicitly about it resonates, and why some people who do not do so well, typically don’t get this?

LA: That’s right. Yeah, you know, I think both of those men are onto this. Cruz, I happen to know pretty well, Rand Paul a little bit. And Cruz is very sharp and a very serious man. And he does talk about these things, and you know, he’s an elite fancy-pants lawyer like you, Hugh, and yet still seems to know a lot.

HH: Has he, has his commencement address at Hillsdale been published in Imprimus, yet?

LA: It is. Yeah, it’s just out.

HH: Oh, people need to go to and sign up for Imprimus just to get that. How’s the reaction to that?

LA: Oh, good, and he got the only standing ovation I’ve ever seen at commencement. And I’m very leery of having politicians speak at commencement. Our experience with that has not always been good. And I was, and so I was worried about this. And he did a great job. It wasn’t at all a partisan speech. It was careful. He thought hard about it. He delivered it carefully. And he gave himself to the experience in ways that in my opinion were very praiseworthy, and people liked it.

HH: Let me conclude by asking you in a minute, and the Politics we have barely touched on, 35 years ago, when I attended my commencement, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave an address, A World Split Apart. 35 years later, I went back for my reunion, and Oprah gave the commencement. Any comment?

LA: A microcosm of our time.

HH: But it’s almost unbelievable, isn’t it?

LA: Yeah.

HH: And I think she’s a great communicator. Don’t get me wrong.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Along with Rush, she has the greatest sustained audience in the world. So she’s a talented…

LA: No, I know nearly nothing about Oprah, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched her show. But I pick up in the culture, and there’s a lot of good about her, right?

HH: Oh, absolutely.

LA: Yeah.

HH: But it says something about where we have come over 35 years that Harvard has changed Solzhenitsyn for Oprah.

LA: (laughing)

HH: And that’s why what we do here each week with the Hillsdale Dialogues is so countercultural, and why I love it so. Dr. Larry Arnn, thank you, my friend. We talk next week about Lincoln, America. Do not miss it. Really, don’t miss it, because along with Churchill, Lincoln looms large in the life and the mind and the thinking of Hillsdale College, as do all of the greats in the West, so don’t miss next week. Dr. Larry Arnn, thank you.

End of interview.


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