Plato, Aristotle, and the 2000 Election

Who do you like better, Plato or Aristotle? The answer may determine your vote in this year’s presidential election. Chatterbox reached this tentative conclusion after poring over a 1995 book by Lynne Cheney, wife of Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney, titled Telling the Truth. Buried within Telling the Truth–a somewhat plodding jeremiad against political correctness, moral relativism, and other neoconservative bugaboos–is a passage denouncing the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, Al Gore, for disrespecting the Enlightenment in his book, Earth in the Balance:

Overlooking the fact that these thinkers were a major source of inspiration for the founders of our country, Gore describes them as the source of almost everything that has gone wrong with the world. Their emphasis on reason and their insistence on objectivity-on standing apart from what is being studied and evaluating it disinterestedly-have caused us to become, Gore says, a “dysfunctional civilization,” obsessed with consuming, prone to polluting, and deeply unhappy. As Gore describes it, the worldview that led to the scientific revolution has been responsible for everything bad (including “the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin”) and nothing good, which does cause one to wonder what worldview the vice president imagines gave rise to anesthesia, the polio vaccine, and-his pet project-the information superhighway.

The claim that Gore sees “the worldview that led to the scientific revolution” as being “responsible for everything bad” and “nothing good” is a distortion that’s characteristic of Cheney’s thuggish approach to intellectual discourse. But Cheney is right that Gore’s book criticizes Enlightenment thinkers like Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon. Earth in the Balance is a somewhat sophomoric exercise in philosophical discourse, but when you strip away its grandiosity and show-offy rhetoric, its arguments tend to be more commonsensical than Cheney lets on. What Cheney caricatures as a wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment is really an attempt on Gore’s part to engage some of its bigger questions. Here is a summary of Gore’s “what’s wrong with the Enlightenment” argument:

1.) The Judeo-Christian tradition, in establishing mankind’s “dominion” over the earth, also charged mankind with environmental stewardship. (The same passage in Genesis that mentions “dominion,” Gore points out, also requires humans to “replenish”-i.e., care for–the earth.)

2.) When the Enlightenment came along, Descartes remembered “dominion,” but breezed past the idea of stewardship. This allowed Descartes to place the idealized world of rational thought on a higher plane than nature. In this sense, Descartes was emulating Plato and yielding to what Cheney’s fellow neoconservative, Michael Novak, has called the “great temptation of the West.”

3.) Bacon then did Descartes one better by separating science from religion.

4.) Instead, Descartes and Bacon should have emulated Gore’s favorite Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Where Plato thought “the thinker is separate from the world he thinks about,” Aristotle thought “everything in our intellect comes from the senses, and thus the thinker is powerfully connected to the world he thinks about.” Aristotle, in other words, understood that man had both dominion over and stewardship of the earth.

Even Chatterbox, who is an atheist (and therefore inclined to look more favorably than Gore on Bacon’s secularism), can’t really quarrel with Gore’s basic point here that the realm of rational thought should be connected to the realms of morality and nature. To Cheney, though, Gore has positioned himself as enemy of the western canon. This is nonsense. Aristotle is as much a part of the western canon as Plato is; so is Genesis. If Chatterbox were as irresponsible as Cheney, he might accuse her of positioning herself against the Bible!

George W. Bush, like Cheney, seems to embrace a Platonic rather than an Aristotelian view of the universe. He has a terrible environmental record in Texas. When he talks about what he’d do as president, he almost always spouts generalities. He famously can’t remember the names of world leaders. Gore, on the other hand, is Aristotelian. He wants to reduce emission of greenhouse gases. He has an oppressively specific set of policy proposals, and tends to bore in on (sometimes irrelevant) minutiae when attacking rival proposals. He knows everybody’s name. If you like Plato, vote for Bush. If you like Aristotle, vote for Gore.