Plato, Aristotle, Bush, Gore, and the FTC

Last month, Chatterbox explained that this year’s presidential race revives the ancient argument between Plato and Aristotle. George W. Bush is the Platonic candidate. Al Gore is the Aristotelian candidate. Plato, Chatterbox explained, is the source of the Enlightenment idea (which Gore rejects) that human beings, because they can engage in rational thought, are superior to nature. Aristotle, Chatterbox explained, is the source of the New Age doctrine (which Bush would reject were anyone to explain it to him) that human beings, in spite of their capacity for rational thought, are subordinate to nature. Think of Plato as Athens’ most prominent mall developer and Aristotle as the president of its local Earth First! chapter.

This scheme is obviously a crude oversimplification of arguments set forth in Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics. But it has the virtue of being faithful to Gore’s potted intellectual history in Earth in the Balance and to Lynne Cheney’s heavy-handed critique of same in Telling the Truth. The distinction also gets a small credibility boost in The Intellectual Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy, a newly published work by the late Douglass G. Adair, professor of history at the College of William & Mary. Adair’s book identifies Aristotle as the source of Thomas Jefferson’s idea that America should be a republic of farmers–i.e., people intimately connected to nature. No doubt some readers will have the bad manners to point out that Jefferson was an Enlightenment thinker and that Dubya, as the candidate promoting limited government, is more Jeffersonian than Gore is. Still, Chatterbox has his formula, and he’s sticking with it.

The twilight struggle between Plato and Aristotle is a handy prism through which to view the politics surrounding the Federal Trade Commission’s new report condemning Hollywood for marketing violent films to minors. Gore has praised it. Clinton (who ordered up the report after the Columbine High School shootings) has praised it. Dubya has questioned Gore’s moral standing to praise it. (To read Bush’s press release, click here and select “9/11/2000: Gore’s Hypocrisy on Hollywood Violence.”) What does this all mean? To Chatterbox, it means that Gore, confident that he has the Aristotelian vote sewn up, is making a bold raid on Dubya’s base–the Platonists.

Chatterbox is not going to examine the merits of the FTC report (he’ll leave that to Judith Shulevitz and Jack Shafer, who are slugging it out in a SlateDialogue“). Rather, Chatterbox is going to consider which philosopher Clinton invoked yesterday when endorsing the FTC report:

[T]his is, in some ways, the newest of issues, and in some ways, the oldest of issues. Plato [italics Chatterbox’s] said thousands of years ago, “Those who tell the story rule society.”

Plato, you may recall, had some rather more severe things to say about artists in The Republic. To wit:

[W]e are ready to acknowledge that Homer is the greatest of poets and first of tragedy writers; but we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State. For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State.

This was not, last time Chatterbox checked, the prevailing view at the National Endowment for the Arts, and it certainly isn’t a pitch to whip out the checkbooks at a Hollywood fund-raiser. But most of the money for this election has been raised already, and besides, where are the Aristotelians going to go? Better to go after the Platonists! The moment is especially ripe because of Dubya’s now-famous “rats” ad, which is causing a furor over whether the weird appearance of the word “rats” is a deliberate attempt at subliminal politics. (The Bush campaign denies it.) As Adam Lehner pointed out three years ago in Slate, subliminal advertising, that great myth of the 1950s, became a staple of commercial advertising in the 1980s with the advent of MTV. And given Plato’s worries about the State’s corruption by “the honeyed muse,” it’s safe to say that subliminal political advertising represents any self-respecting Platonist’s worst nightmare.

For Bush, though, all is not lost. On Sept. 13, the Senate Commerce committee will hold a hearing on the new FTC report. (To watch it live, click here.) Joe Lieberman will testify, but so will Lynne Cheney–who, as chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1982 to 1992, may have come closer than any other American in history to making Plato’s Republic the basis of this nation’s arts policy. Who will win the contest for the hearts and minds of American Platonists, Gore-Lieberman or Bush-Cheney? Let the gladiators step forth …