Stuck in the Middle with Virtue

Harvey Mansfield, "Stuck in the Middle with Virtue," Weekly Standard, May 11, 2018.

Harvey Mansfield reviews Leslie Rubin’s America, Aristotle, and the Politics of a Middle Class.


Here is a fine comparison of America’s founders with Aristotle on the value of a middle class. Aristotle wrote the first treatise on politics, and the world still uses the word “politics” as abundantly as if there were none other that would do. And Aristotle’s politics featured the middle class, which we also call by name but do not praise so markedly. Our liberalism based on individual rights makes us suspicious of politics and of reliance on the virtue of a class. Is the similarity between Aristotle and America merely nominal or has Aristotle stated a truth on which we depend? This is the question of Leslie Rubin’s compact and important study, America, Aristotle, and the Politics of a Middle Class.

It begins by establishing Aristotle’s thought on the middle class. The basis for politics, given at the start of Aristotle’s treatise, is the reasoned speech with which men distinguish good and bad, useful and harmful, just and unjust. With these notions they claim the power to rule their city or country not merely in order to be on top but to be there for a purpose. In that purpose—some view of the good life chosen and defended—lies the nobility of politics as opposed to mere power-seeking. The purpose can be stated in many ways, but the most characteristic difference is between those who want to include all in the city and those who want to prefer the best or strongest or richest. The former are democrats calling as they do today for inclusiveness in the common good; the latter are oligarchs, insisting on recognition of the greater value of their contribution to the common good. Between these two extremes lies the middle class, the “middling element” that is Aristotle’s concern and Leslie Rubin’s topic.

Weekly Standard