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  • Notes on the Old Political Science for the Present Age
  • Stephen L. Elkin

In the effort to understand present day democracy, contemporary political science pays little attention to the old political science, that is, to the tradition of political science that originated with Plato and Aristotle. The arguments that these two thinkers initiated were taken up by the moderns, theorists such as Rousseau and Burke, and by their successors among whom may be counted Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. If any attention is paid by contemporary political science, it usually takes the form of saying that there is something to learn from these theorists - a few footnotes scattered through the text is meant to indicate that this is so - and then the discussion moves on happily, as if what the footnotes point to isn't really all that important. The little serious attention that is paid takes its bearings from people writing as philosophers working in philosophy departments, John Rawls being the obvious example. By and large, these philosophers take their bearings from Kant and Bentham, and it is striking how little attention is paid in their work to theorists like Machiavelli, Locke, and Montesquieu (although some pay attention to Aristotle, but that is another story), theorists that are central to the tradition of political theory. Thus, whether because of a lack of real interest in the old political science or because it has to some degree been displaced by academic philosophers' conception of how to think about political life, this older body of systematic reflection plays little role in contemporary political science's understanding of modern democracy. Much of fundamental importance is lost through this neglect and my purpose here is to suggest the extent of the damage to our understanding of a regime built around popular self-government.

A standard comment about the central concerns of the old political science is that in its ancient guise it talks of fostering virtue, while in the form it takes among moderns focuses on liberty and commodious living. The focus on virtue is part of a deeper concern among the Greeks for human excellence, and for the life of the highest excellence, or the best life, that is, a life dedicated to philosophy. There is a strong aristocratic element in the ancient political science that has its apotheosis perhaps in the idea that the best regime creates a secure place for philosophy. In short, the modern version of the old political science is said to have a more modest and mundane horizon than classical thought. This is true as far as it goes, but too much is left out. If, for example, we look at Tocqueville, a theorist who thought of himself as carrying on the work of the old political science, we see someone who is deeply concerned with understanding how aristocratic elements must be at work in democratic regimes if these regimes are to flourish. (The old political science, in its modern guise points to something characteristic of contemporary political science, what might thus be called an immoderate enthusiasm for strong democracy.) [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4]

But is Tocqueville correct? A useful way to see the power of his argument is to note the central feature of democratic regimes: that while the people are to rule they should not rule just as they please. The most common way of making this point is to note the need to secure rights against majority rule. What is not often made clear in this context is the assumption, to put it in an old-fashioned way, that nothing needs to be done to the souls of democratic men and women. They will find it in themselves to limit themselves. A second assumption, perhaps even less examined, is that, to the degree that democratic souls cannot do the job, institutional design can. This is sometimes said, for example, to be Madison's tack, and this is, of course, correct. But even Madison worried about democratic souls, although rather obliquely it must be said. At any rate, there is some reason to think that a well-ordered democracy does, in fact, need to have aristocratic elements, features that on occasion supersede in...


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