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Dr. Larry Arnn Begins In Aristotle’s Politics

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HH: It’s time for a Hillsdale Dialogue, an hour that we set aside each week at this time for me to talk with Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College and/or members of his colleagues on the faculty there. This week, and for the next few weeks, it’s just going to be Dr. Arnn and me, because we are talking about one of his favorite authors, Aristotle. And we’re going to move through at least two of the great philosopher’s works, The Ethics and The Politics. Dr. Arnn, welcome, good to talk to you.

LA: How are you, Hugh?

HH: I’m good. I am confused, though, as to the order in which we are attacking Aristotle, but let’s begin by just setting him up generally. He lived from 384-322BC, so he got a lot done in his 60 years.

LA: Right.

HH: And he was a tutor to Alexander, and I want to spend just a touch of time on that. Why would the greatest philosopher end up being the tutor, even to an important young royal boy?

LA: Well, it has something to do with what Aristotle teaches about education. Alexander was an important man, and Aristotle believed that politics is natural to the human being. And so to teach a future ruler is a good use of his time.

HH: Now you see, would you think anyone would do that now? Do you think the world’s greatest philosopher would, for example, go off and find Prince Harry or Prince William, or someone named Bush or Obama, and invest themselves individually in that individual?

LA: Well, philosophers today are a dime a dozen, and of course, they flock to Washington, D.C. to give all kinds of administrative advice. But a really great one? I think they would have to think that the person was worthy.

HH: And so how long would it take him to figure that out? I’m just very curious about this. We don’t know much about this, obviously. In fact, did Aristotle write anything about Alexander?

LA: No. And it would be, you know, I mean, first of all, the great news is the rise of Macedon, and Alexander’s father, Philip, the eventual conqueror of the rest of Greece, all the Greek city-states. And Macedon is up in the north, you know, and they were particularly adept at heavy cavalry. And Alexander used that in a very short-lived life to conquer pretty much the known world. And so Philip of Macedon was a very important guy. And his son, to be asked to teach his son, might be an attempt to defend philosophy and spread civilization.

HH: At the same time, I want the audience to know, if they’re not already familiar with it, last week, we were talking about Plato, who was the student of Socrates. Aristotle was the student of Plato. And as you discussed with Dr. West in our last Hillsdale Dialogue, Socrates was put on trial in the time of Athens’ decline. That decline accelerates, Macedon rises, and Aristotle goes off and starts teaching the heir to the throne of the rising state. Otherwise, the philosophers have their eye on the world through the whole sequence here.

LA: Oh, yeah. Tom West has claimed, I wish he were here just right now to back this up, but he’s claimed that one of the things that happened in Plato’s academy was that young men were trained to go out and have influence in various regimes in order to make them better.

HH: So that Aristotle would not be unique? He just happened to draw either the shortest or the longest straw, however one would consider it, and go off to equip Alexander to rule?

LA: And of course, he was, you know, Aristotle was the man. He was a very great mind, and he was known to be so at that time.

HH: But if he taught moderation in everything, and that’s the summary of Aristotle, Alexander was what, the least moderate of men?

LA: It’s hard to say that. But it’s certainly true that his ambition was so global that he took his armies places none had ever been, and beyond, in the end, where they were willing to go. So yeah, I think there was some, there were important failures as a man of moderation in Alexander. But you wouldn’t say that you could simply summarize Aristotle as moderation in all things. For example, Harry Jaffa, a great Aristotle teacher, and my teacher of Aristotle, wrote Barry Goldwater’s extremism in defense of liberty speech, and he regarded it as a summary of Aristotle when he said extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.

HH: So moderation may not be properly understood these days.

LA: Yeah, moderation in all things, including moderation.

HH: Moderation.

LA: (laughing)

HH: I think it was you who told me that upon introducing you to the book, Professor Jaffa said now here is a book. Is that correct?

LA: Well, the first graduate class I was ever in was on Aristotle’s Ethics, and I can remember it like yesterday, and I can remember everything Professor Jaffa said to start this class. And he said when people get to be old men like me, and I’m now a little older than he was then, they start making a list of the hundred greatest books. And life is much too short to read 100 books. That’s why you, Hugh, commit some folly when you always want me to talk about 30 philosophers or a hundred philosophers, or all of that. But he said I have a list of the three greatest books. And then he was ambiguous what he meant. He said these things. He said the Bible is a different kind of thing. He said Plato’s Republic would have to be included. Then he said the word Shakespeare. That’s all he said about him. And then he said Aristotle’s Politics would require some correction for the conditions of modern politics. And then he held up The Ethics, and said this is a perfect book, and in this class, we’re going to read this book.

HH: This is a perfect book.

LA: He said that, yeah.

HH: That’s quite a claim, isn’t it?

LA: It is a, you know, I don’t regard myself as profound enough to claim it’s a perfect book. But I have been reading it for, you know, almost 40 years now, and teach it frequently, and I never cease to marvel at it.

HH: Now put it in the context of his other works. We’re going to say a couple of words about The Politics first, but give us an overview. And if you don’t mind, your understanding of the relationship of Aristotle and Plato, not their works, but their individual lives.

LA: Well, by report, first of all, there’s a claim. Mark Blitz, a friend of mine who teaches in Claremont, apparently claims that there are two philosophers in all of history who have attempted to explain everything. And one of them is Aristotle, and one of them is Hegel, the modern philosopher. And they should be taken with particular seriousness because of that. Now with Aristotle, the works we have of him are truncated, and many of the texts are not great. Most of them, or many of them, at least, come to us through the Arab world, where certain Arab scholars preserved them, and then they were translated into Latin, which is why Thomas Aquinas, who didn’t read Greek, was able to be a great master of Aristotle. And of course, he’s the great doctor who brought the classics, especially Aristotle, into the Christian world. But Aristotle’s works are about everything, about physics, about the movement of the planets, about metaphysics, about the highest causes of all movement and all being, about the parts of animals, about the soul, about political subjects, especially ethics, politics, rhetoric and poetics. And so Aristotle wrote a great deal, and we don’t have dialogues by Aristotle. And so Tom West praised Plato for his dialogues, and now I will praise Aristotle for his treatises, because Aristotle sets out to explain things. And the explanations are both beautiful, a terribly important word to Aristotle, and also extremely rewarding to read. And they’re a wonderful corrective, in my opinion, to the chief ills that beset us today in thought. And now that’s, the reason I want to begin in a certain way, is because I think that about Aristotle, and I want us to have that corrective.

HH: Then let me ask you before, and we’ll come to the break, and we’ll start with the quotes from The Politics which you brought to my attention, but begin by telling the chief ills that we have in thinking today, what are those?

LA: Well, we think that moral things are relative and subjective. We think the question of the good has actually been settled, that we know what the good is. The good is whatever we think it is. Each one of us, or each society of us, or each time or age of us, but that it has no real being outside human opinion. And we think that it’s just automatic if you, we beat it out of the students here at Hillsdale College, and seem to be so effective at it that now even our applicants don’t do it so much. But if you ask an 18 year old, 17 year old, it’s easy to get into a conversation with him about why they do things or what they do. And eventually, soon enough, they will call it good. And then if you ask them what good is, they will almost always say according to whom, or do you want my opinion. And I have these conversations for a living, so I always reply, you know, I don’t really care about your opinion. What about the good? That’s a different question, right? Why do you want to turn this into a question about you? So Aristotle is a corrective to that.

— – – –

HH: And a little backstory for the audience. We go back and forth with the agency of one of Dr. Arnn’s fine students, Kyle Murnen, and we decide what we’re going to attack, and in which order we’re going to attack. And I had set up my line of attack for Aristotle to begin with The Politics and then go to The Ethics. All upended today by Dr. Arnn, who wants to begin with a little bit of Politics, and then go to The Ethics. And so why that order before we even go to your quotes?

LA: Well, there’s a reason, but you have to begin by admitting that it almost doesn’t matter, too, because the end of The Ethics by Aristotle, we have to know what that word means, ethics, says that you can’t have good people without good laws. And so the end of The Ethics points to the beginning of The Politics. But then when you get to The Politics, you learn that the last chapters are about education, and they’re built on the view that you can’t have good laws without good people. And that means that these two subjects are profoundly connected. And it also means something for contemporary politics, because there’s two schools of thought. There’s the ones who think that we should work in the culture, because the culture makes the law, and the ones who think we should work in the law, because the law makes the culture. And come to find out, they’re both wrong, because they make each other. And that means, by the way, that the problems are more serious than you might otherwise think, because if you, you know, like everybody was trying to work in the culture, I guess, in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn was certainly trying to do that. And the difficulty was that you might get shot for it. And meanwhile, the culture declined under the weight of a tyranny. We’ll talk about why tyrannies are bad for people, why they destroy their souls, why they compromise them as human beings, and why they destroy the culture, whereas justice builds those things up. So really, the two things are profoundly connected and reinforcing of each other, and that can be really good news, or that can be really bad news. And I even believe right now we’re living in a time where the news is mixed. That is to say some elements of the law, and some elements of the culture are strong and good, especially in the culture, but many elements of both are bad, and the badness in them are having effects upon each other.

HH: You know, I have to tell you this. I had planned to begin at the end of the book of Politics, in Chapter 8 about music, as a way of enticing the audience to listen more, because I thought they would be surprised to learn that Aristotle pays a great deal of attention to music, and that music, “tends to be productive of virtue, having a power as gymnastic exercises have to form the body in a certain way, to influence the manner so as to accustom its professors to rejoice rightly.” And I was going to use that as a hook for younger people, especially, to be very, very aware that for 2,400 years, people have been talking about the power of music in their lives. It’s not just their parents shouting at them to turn it down. And so to a certain extent, this is timeless. But it is surprising how you can pick up Aristotle at any place and immediately say this has applicability right now.

LA: Oh, sure, and you know, those sections on music at the end of the book, especially, are terribly important. They recur through the book, and through The Politics, but they’re terribly important for a lot of reasons. But one of them is Aristotle expresses strong disagreements with Plato and Plato’s Republic about his restrictions on music. He agrees with Plato, and with Socrates, as Plato reports Socrates, he agrees that it’s important for music to be of a kind to build the character. But he also believes that it’s important for us to each contribute. That is to say we can like our kind, and when we sing together, and he thinks we all very much should sing together, we don’t all have to sing in unison. We can each sing our part. And that ties to a difference that Aristotle has with Plato’s Republic, with the ideal regime built in Plato’s Republic, about the relationship between the city and the citizen.

HH: Do you regulate the music at Hillsdale?

LA: Well, I don’t know. I guess a little. We don’t, if somebody’s playing loudly very foul music, we might, any kind of music, we might tell them to hush it up. And if it’s very foul, we might tell them to hush it up for a different reason. And also, the best band we’ve ever had, student band, I should make it nationally famous now, just graduated many of them, and I’m even flying some of them back here next year. They’re called the Pickled Beats, and they were really great, and they’re a country band. And we don’t regulate them except to promote them.

HH: I’m just curious, because you are building a city to a certain extent, and the city you have built is a college that exists within another city, the city of Hillsdale, which exists in another state, with which exists within another country. And so I’m sure curious as a lawmaker what you do about this. Now let’s go back to the beginning of Politics, to the quote you wanted to begin with from book one. Tell people of it.

LA: Okay, well, this is from book one of The Politics, and it’s an extremely important quote. And this will tell you, if we can get it clear, what the difference is between all your listeners and a pig is. What is it about a human being that makes it a human? Here’s the quote. “Why a human being is an animal first, meant for a city, more than any every sort of bee and every sort of herd animal is clear.” So the argument is we are more meant for each other, Aristotle is saying, for gregarious life, which is a word that comes from the Greek word for flock, even than bees, which are hive animals, and even then horses, which are herd animals. “For nature, as we claim, does nothing uselessly,” Aristotle continues. “And a human being alone among the animals has speech. We can talk. And while the voice is a sign of pain and pleasure, and belongs also to the other animals on that account,” in other words, when you hear animals cry out or beckon, they’re expressing pain and pleasure, “speech is for disclosing what is advantageous and what is harmful. And so, too, what is just and what is unjust.” So the distinctive thing about human beings is that we can talk. Now this word for speech in Greek, the word is logos, and that is also the word for reason. And it’s a very important Christian word, because in the Gospel of John in the first verse of the first chapter, “In the beginning was the Word,” that’s a reference to Jesus, and that word is logos. Logos is what, Jesus is what God has to say. So we are creatures who can say things. And you have to think for a minute how that’s possible for us to do. And here, I’m going to state an argument that I think is terribly important. How much time do we have before the break?

HH: 30 seconds.

LA: Okay, so when we get back, I’m going to try to explain to you what it is that makes us able to talk. And when we see that, we will see A) what the good is, and B) why we are social, and therefore, C) why we are political.

HH: Don’t go anywhere if that intrigues you, and it ought to, as it has intrigued interesting men and women for 2,300 years.

— – –

HH: We are particularly pleased with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, that after five months of training, he now is aware of timing and breaks, and this is itself an enormous advance in the history of radio.

LA: (laughing)

HH: And as we moved up to the break in expert fashion, you said when we come back, you will tell people what it is about speech that allows us, that necessitates that we are unique and human.

LA: So okay, so the question is how do we talk? You and me, Hugh, how are we talking? And the answer to that is, to understand the answer to that, you have to understand the phenomenon of the common noun. So if I say pig, horse, cat, we all know what those are automatically. And we all have an idea of what a cat is. In my house, we have two cats. One is very old, and one’s very fat and young and lazy. And they look different, although they’re both black. And the point is if Tashi was The cat, Echo would not be a cat. And that’s an odd problem, isn’t it?

HH: Yes.

LA: If this bottle I’m holder were The bottle, the next bottle you see with any slight difference would not be a bottle. And we never really look at index cards that teach us what all the bottles are like, and we don’t need to. And that means that we are recognizing something called bottleness, cupness, pigness. And you couldn’t speak without the use of it. You can’t make a sentence without the use of a common noun. And you can think of the exception automatically, that is the verb sentence and the imperative mood go, or shut up, period. But those are just a trick, because there’s lots of ways of going, and there’s lots of ways of shutting up. And we know what those are. And that’s because we perceive these common nouns. And that’s the human gift. That’s what rationality does for us, according to Aristotle. Now add in one more point. If you took, say, a water bottle, it’s easy to imagine one of those, cap on the top, flat bottom on the bottom, and turn it upside down, or don’t turn it upside down, leave it right side up, but punch a hole in the middle of the bottle. Now all of a sudden, it’s not a very good water bottle anymore. Take another step, and if you’d see it, you’d say somebody wrecked that water bottle. Turn it upside down and cut the bottom off, and take the cap off. And then all of a sudden, somebody might look at it and say look, they’ve taken that water bottle, and they’ve turned it into a funnel. As it was losing the good of the water bottle, it was losing the being of the water bottle. And Aristotle writes that the good and being are convertible terms. When you recognize common nouns, you are recognizing kinds of being, and they are distinguished by their goodness, having the good of that thing. That’s why late in his life, people, especially when he decayed, one of my examples of the human being, Hitler, he was shaky and cranky, and he ranted, and he couldn’t really perceive the things around him, and he was yet more openly murderous. And people began to refer to him as a monster. Or take an ordinary chair and take the back off of it. Now, it’s a stool. It’s losing the good of the chair. It’s becoming a stool. And so the statement, and everybody should write down this statement and think about what it must mean. Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas say the good and being are convertible terms. It is by seeing the good of a thing that we recognize that it is a thing. And that is the faculty that permits us to talk with one another. And these arguments in Aristotle are more concise and more beautiful than anywhere I’ve read. And they also explain the connection between us, and that is an extremely powerful thing, because we are the beings made for each other because of these perceptions. Aristotle says in the quote that I read you that speech lets us disclose what is advantageous and what is harmful, and so, too, what is just and what is unjust. In other words, this gift of speech, the ordinary ability of human beings to talk, permits us to address ourselves to the virtues, justice being the main, by the way, moral virtue having to do with men living together.

HH: The most important thing.

LA: That’s it. That’s it. And see, all of the virtues are terribly important. And so we see them, and that’s why we can talk.

— – –

HH: If you are like I was, and am, you wish things were to be repeated more often. And my guest, Dr. Larry Arnn, has taught enough students that he knows that repetition is a good thing. And in this Hillsdale Dialogue, I want him to repeat why the good and the being are convertible terms, since that was the essence of the last segment.

LA: Okay, so that’s, and everybody should write that phrase down and think about it, because it’s been extremely helpful to me in my life to do that. So what’s being mean? You know, remember Bill Clinton once famously said to a prosecuting attorney, it depends on what is, is.

HH: Yes.

LA: Well, is this, is just whatever a thing is, right, so look at the table or the chair or the room around you, and you’ll see a bunch of stuff, and you can recognize what all of it is. And my table, my desk where I’m sitting in my office, there’s a frame, and it is a picture of Abraham Lincoln. There are two pens. They’re very different from all the other pens sitting on the desk, and yet I can see that they’re all pens, although they’re very different looking. There’s a picture of a very beautiful woman, to whom I happen to be married. So I’ve got what, one, two, three frames, and they’re all frames. And there isness, their being, is that they are frames for pictures to go in, and to set them off. Now if they weren’t good frames, then you might have trouble recognizing them. Now let’s say that the frames were simply clear so you couldn’t tell they were there. What if they were exactly the same color as the wall behind it? You might think just the picture was there by itself. In other words, it wouldn’t be doing the work of framing. It wouldn’t have the being of the frame. And therefore, you might not think it a very good frame. There are two ink bottles on my desk. If they were leaking, they wouldn’t be good. And in fact, you’d think either they’re spoiled and they’re no good anymore, or else you might think somebody has adapted them for some other purpose like dribbling stuff out or something.

HH: All right, now someone is driving right now. Many, many hundreds of thousands of people are driving right now, and they have their hands on a steering wheel. So the being of that wheel is not that it is a wheel, but that it is a driving wheel.

LA: That’s it. And it’s not, you know, the tires are wheels, but nobody mistakes them for steering wheels. And steering wheels look, are really different now. Like for example, I was in an old car not long ago, and the steering wheel was made out of really hard-baked like stuff, kind of some baked-on clay, I think is that that is, and it was around some metal. And it was really hard, right? And the modern ones are softer and padded, so they won’t hurt you in part. And also, they’re better to hold onto. But they’re all steering wheels, right? And when you see them in their place and look at their shape, something about them tells you what they are. In fact, they are good at being the thing they’re designed to be, or else you would not be able to recognize them. Think about a four year old child, and they show them index cards to teach them vocabulary. So let’s say they show them pig and cow. And there’s a little picture of a pig and the word pig, and a little picture of a cow and the word cow. Lead them out into a field where there’s a real pig and a real cow. And you’d think what they might do is think that the index cards go together, and they do as index cards, and that the two living, three-dimensional, snorting, stinky farm animals go together, and they do, as farm animals. But the kid will quickly associate the picture of the pig in two dimensions and tiny with a real live pig, and the picture of the cow, in two dimensions and tiny, with a real big, stinking, milk-giving cow. And that’s because they can see the isness, the being of the thing, and therefore, the good of the thing. And that’s how we talk.

HH: So then before we run out of time on this Hillsdale Dialogue, the second quote from the Politics has to be why we have to do this together.

LA: Well then, once you see that this issue of the good and being, and their association, is the basis of the human capacity, from it rises, first of all, a radical kind of sociability. We are all talking right now, and we have a strong sense, you know, like I have a sense of what your listeners are like, because they listen to you. You know, they’ve got to be strange people. And then they have a sense of what we are like. And when they call in and talk to us, we get a much livelier sense. We humans are amazingly connected. In class sometimes, let me tell you about my wife, I’ll say. And I talk about how sweet she is, you know, because she’s a very nice person. And she is tireless in her service to others. And when I just start describing such a person, I’ve been married to the woman for 33 years. But everybody else knows her, right? That sociability is very radical on us, more than horses and bees. But then add to that, that that capacity that we have that connects us connects us also to the good, and therefore to the moral distinctions. We are a people made to talk about right and wrong. And that is why we are political in our nature.

HH: So you quote, “Since we see that every city is some kind of association, and every association is organized for the sake of some good, since everything everyone does is for the sake of something seeming to be good, it is clear that all associations aim at something good, and that the one that is most sovereign and encompasses all the others aims at the most sovereign of all goods. And this is the one called the city, the political association.”

LA: That’s it. So it is as natural to man to have laws, and live in the city, as it is natural, more natural than it is for horses to run in herds, or buffalos, or bees to gather in hives.

HH: And so it is also natural that we would study the best way to organize that living together.

LA: Because remember best is the superlative form of the word good. And everything we do, we’re going to turn to the Ethics next, and we’ll see that Aristotle’s claim is that everything we do aims for the good, and that therefore, everything we do draws us together in some sense. We’ll talk about the political community as the natural community, and then we’ll talk about friendship as the highest form of the human association before we are done with Aristotle.

HH: And we continue with Aristotle next week, America. Don’t miss the next Hillsdale Dialogue. For all that have gone before, go to, or get any of their lectures on Western Civilization, or anything that we’ve done, or go to, or

End of interview.


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