ARISTOTLE AND THE BREAKDOWN OF ORDER
Richard Ned Lebow
Increasingly, the United States is divided between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, healthy and obese, secular and religious, liberal and conservative, gun toting and gun opposing, and many, if not most, of these cleavages are reinforcing. It is no exaggeration to say that two distinct cultures are emerging, characterized by different, and arguably incompatible, beliefs, values and expectations. This division accounts for the striking polarization of American politics that became visibly pronounced in the 1980s.
The very fabric of the American social and political order is being stressed. Research suggests that economic gains for the rich have resulted in losses for the middle class as the latter spends beyond its means to imitate the life style of the wealthy (Frank 2007; Bertrand and Morse 2013; Piketty 2014). It is incumbent upon us to develop a better understanding of the nature of order, the conditions under which it forms, and most importantly, how and why it unravels and what might be done to retard or forestall stasis. Even partial answers to these questions would provide useful theoretical and practical insights.
The ancient Greeks - notably Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle - have important things to say about all of these questions, but in this chapter, I am only going to address the problem of breakdown. It is the aspect of order most relevant to contemporary America and one into which Greek thought is strikingly at odds with the conventional wisdom.