It is always easy to point out flaws. To prove this, just look at whatever is hot in the news media right now: the police and race, terrorism, the job rating of the president or Congress, the Republican primary process, the Iran vote – the list can be nearly endless.
It is human nature to see the flaws in whatever human activity we are engaged in. This is called deconstruction. And its seems that the more highly educated or skilled a person may be, the greater the ability a person has to point out weaknesses.
My last high school principal had some pretty sage advice to his faculty and staff: if we wanted to come in to complain about something, we should also come in with suggestions on how the complaint could/should be resolved.
The goal at the recent three-week National Academy for Civics and Government I attended in Los Angeles was not to deconstruct. My presiding professor, Will Harris, announced his approach during the academy on the first night: our goal was to look for what was useful for our Constitution’s historic and philosophic foundations: Aristotle, Cicero, the Bible, Hobbes, Locke or Madison.
We were not to ignore the flaws; we were to put them in the background in our search for insight and wisdom.
Sometimes deconstructing things is helpful. The problem is that the experts who deconstruct don’t finish the job. The second half requires that they put things back together in a better, more efficient way.
To demonstrate my point, I typed “criticism of Aristotle” into a search engine. There are literally hundreds of articles and papers describing what’s wrong with Aristotle’s thinking when he discussed the need for virtue and finding balance and moderation in all human action.
As a second example, Professor Harris looked at themes from Aristotle’s writings in his book “Politics.” The book deals with the importance of equality in a well-functioning government. Aristotle noted that where there is equality there is justice.
His idea of equality, though different from Thomas Jefferson’s view, eventually worked its way down to Jefferson, the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson chose to ignore Aristotle’s selective view of equality: “Equality (is) for those who are equal but not for all.” Women and slaves, because they did not have the time to serve in government, did not have the same status as free men. When Jefferson stated, “All men are created equal,” he meant to include slaves and women in that statement.
My continuing concern in this column about a diminishing middle class and the rising power of the elites comes from Aristotle’s thoughts: “The best form of political association is one where power is vested in the middle class…. Where the middle class is large, there is less likelihood of faction and dissension than in any other constitution…. In addition, factious disputes and struggles readily arise between the masses and the rich: and the side, whichever it is, that wins the day, instead of establishing a constitution based on the common interest and the principle of equality, exacts as the prize of victory a greater share in the constitution.”
Aristotle, who wrote in the mid-three hundreds B.C., had a deep understanding of what worked and what didn’t in government. There is much to learn from his thought that applies to us today. To focus only on criticism of his writings misses the opportunity to glean the good and insightful.
There are deep lessons to learn from the study of the Ancients. These provide a caution to our modern culture’s tendency to tear down and destroy – to deconstruct – without also spending the time to reconstruct new frameworks of thought that provide insight for our people and our government.
Think about this cultural tendency to deconstruct when you read the news, or deal with your boss, your spouse or your children and learn instead the wisdom of history. We learn more from positive examples than from the constant emphasis on what is wrong.