Aristotle on Homeland Security

The greatest threats against democracy according to the guy that invented it

Image credit: The Atlantic

Ok, maybe Aristotle technically didn’t invent democracy. But, nearly all of its major practitioners and scholars have looked back to him and Ancient Greece — a seemingly boundless source of wisdom. So, let’s pick up The Politics again and see what this philosopher’s philosopher has to say related to homeland security.

To begin, Aristotle writes, “He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state or anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them.” This both leads him to go way back (like dawn of man back), but it is also a lesson that concepts must be analytically broken down into their elements. Here, for our purposes of homeland security, we are investigating the origins of western democracy, so according to him we are already on the right track. Genius.

Book One is about man, woman, nature, property, etc. Book Two consists of bringing those element together in a community, throwing some shade on Socrates, a comparative constitutional analysis, and inequality. Yes, it’s all amazing and might even have something to do with homeland security, but attention spans aren’t what they used to be so let’s just move on. (Note: if you are a nut job from the let’s change the constitution camp — you’d better circle back here.)

Concluding Book Two, Aristotle writes, “Of those who have treated of governments, some have never taken any part at all in public affairs, but have passed their lives in a private station; about most of them, what was worth telling has been already told.” This is not a big endorsement of businessmen who thing they have all of the answers to public affairs.

Book Three begins by defining citizenship. Alright, homeland security time. Aristotle notes that in common practice a citizen is defined as someone’s who’s parents were citizens. But, he notes an irony: how can the first inhabitants or founders of the state be citizens? Hmmm. He thus prefers a more active definition where by citizens are those that have “the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration” of the state. Citizenship thus is the power to participate. In fact, the best man and the best citizen are one in the same because virtue is serving the state and thus our fellow inhabitants.

Aristotle also touches on boarders, “It is further asked: When are men, living in the same place, to be regarded as a single city — what is the limit? Certainly not the wall of the city, for you might surround all Peloponnesus with a wall.” Citizenship is not just a birthright, and now possibly anti-walls? Let’s withhold judgement and see where this goes.

Aristotle also stresses the importance of economic security at both the individual and collective levels: “And therefore the noble, or free-born, or rich, may with good reason claim office; for holders of offices must be freemen and taxpayers: a state can be no more composed entirely of poor men than entirely of slaves. But if wealth and freedom are necessary elements, justice and valor are equally so; for without the former qualities a state cannot exist at all, without the latter not well.” According to DHS economic security is one of its top issues but it seems we never quite get past terrorism and boarders.

In Book Five, Aristotle gets into the big stuff. Here he discusses existential threats — revolution and destruction — and how they can be avoided. Aristotle makes clear that he views revolution as the most significant internal existential threat to a government and that inequality is always one of the causes. It’s here where he famously concludes that a democracy composed of the middle class “is the safest of the imperfect forms of government.”

How then does a revolution unfold according to Aristotle? First, people want equality and become convinced that they deserve more than those better off than themselves. The growth of this sentiment in a society is the universal and chief cause of a revolutionary feeling. The actual proximate cause that sparks a revolution can be very small as “even trifles are most important when they concern the rulers.” In other words, an entitled public being lead by a volatile and trifling leader. This is increasing getting closer to our present reality.

For democracies revolutions are usually cases of the intemperance of demagogues. Demagogues stir up the disaffected people by rallying them against the elite. More tension is created as the disaffected bond over their desire to take back what they feel they deserve from the elite, while the elite unite around a desire to retain their power.

Aristotle notes that the old way to achieve this was by a military general (who then ends up keeping power and become a tyrant over the masses that rallied behind him). But there was a new fashion, “Whereas in our day, when the art of rhetoric has made such progress, the orators lead the people, but their ignorance of military matters prevents them from usurping power.” Also, Aristotle notes that it is becoming more common that changes also take place through popular elections when the barriers to run for office are lowered (property qualification) and new laws are passed that solidify their newfound power. Now it’s almost freak out time, not an all out military coup, but a popular election based on empty the swamp rhetoric, followed by executive orders and attempts at changing procedural laws and rules. The bright side — if we can call it that — is that now government just devolves and is terribly unjust rather than an all out tyranny.

Image credit: MinnPost

Whereas in our day, when the art of rhetoric has made such progress, the orators lead the people, but their ignorance of military matters prevents them from usurping [total] power.

— Aristotle

Some also argue, that under Aristotle’s typology, the U.S. resembles and oligarchy (i.e, the rule of an elite few versus that of the masses) more that a democracy under some measures. So, to be comprehensive, how does a revolution unfold under an oligarchy? If oligarchs oppress the populace, the populace looks for someone to be their champion, and if the champion is himself a member of the oligarchy that’s even better. Often, this champion is a member of the wealthy class who is excluded from the governing class. The champion penetrates the governing class and it becomes divided and quarrels with itself. A second way is internal in the governing class such as personal rivalry or excessive greed. Either way the result is usually still a oligarchic rule that is worse rather than better. Such revolutions unfold similarly to similar ends as discussed previously. The main difference is that its achieve through elite infighting versus a popular election.

By now one has noticed many uncomfortably close parallels to our times. To recap, according to Aristotle the worst internal threat to the homeland is revolution build on discontent. These threats are not solved by elites that claim to champion the people — rather they are the ones that end up the proximate causes of them.

All is not lost, of course. Aristotle holds that the happiness of the individual and the state are one in the same. So how do we get there? The best course to protect against these threats is to return to the fundamentals. To that end, let’s conclude with some of Aristotle’s principals for fostering a healthy government:

  1. Jealously guarding of the law abiding spirit even in small matters.
  2. Do not succumb to deceiving political devices of wannabe demagogues and tyrants.
  3. Guard those that would be maltreated, excluded from government, wronged in their honor or finances.
  4. Maintain term limits and aim for a fellowship in equal citizenry.
  5. And, above all, do not allow the state to be administered and regulated by law as a way for its officials to make money.


The translation used for this post was MIT’s available here: