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February 2012 Policy Study, Number 12-3


The Idea of "the West" and the Revolt Against It

by Donald Paul Byron Racheter



Meritocracy Versus Democracy



Pangle says a sound republic will then be one in which the ruling offices are distributed as much as possible according to virtuous merit, and in which those who possess such merit are given the freest and fullest opportunity possible to exercise their capacities.[76] Pangle says Thomas Jefferson restated this basic classical republican thesis in his letter to John Adams of October 28, 1813. Jefferson distinguishes between a natural aristocracy among men, based on talents and virtue, and an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birthright. Jefferson says the best form of government will most effectually select the best men of the natural aristocracy to rule and will make provision against the artificial aristocracy’s ascendancy.[77]


Pangle says the best republic would then be ruled by the wisest and meritorious few, who would select their own successors. However, Plato’s Laws demonstrate the rule of the wise and virtuous must be qualified by popular consent. The majority demand is legitimated by their superiority in strength in numbers to the virtuous minority. Since the common good of man lies in the ability to share in political rule, Pangle says Aristotle brings to light a fundamental difficulty in the meaning of the “common good” and in the meaning of virtue understood as dedication to the common good in its highest manifestation. The common good is meant to be in some sense the good of all. It is meant to be a communal life in which all can and have to share in order to participate. This communal life involves the security and prosperity of all. But Pangle says the good life for man is more than being taken care of as pets. He says the peak of this good life that is the common good is honorable activity in accordance with virtue, centered on justice or devotion to the common good.[78]


We can see the tension between the virtuous minority who deserve to rule and the majority demand to share in the rule. Pangle quotes Aristotle’s discussion of the solution. In the best sort of democracy, whose popular foundation is a hardworking and public-spirited yeomanry reluctant to spend its time participating in daily political affairs,


the offices will always be filled by the best, with the consent and without the envy of the people, and this arrangement will satisfy the decent and respectable. For they will not be ruled by those who are worse, and they will themselves rule in a just fashion because they will be subject to audit by others. For to be trammeled, and not to be able to do everything according to one’s own opinion, is advantageous. For the capacity to do whatever one wishes is incapable of guarding against what is base in each of the human beings. The necessary result, then, is what is most advantageous in cities: the decent rule without lapses from decency, and the mass is not demeaned. That this is the best democracy is evidence, and its cause is equally evident: the character of the people.[79]


Pangle says this view of the claim of the majority only underlies the degree to which consent is a distinctly secondary principle of legitimacy. The principle that is first in rank and sovereignty is virtue. Consent must justify itself in terms of aspiration to and qualification for virtue. Pangle says that strictly speaking, “popular sovereignty” is always an abridgment of civic justice—that is, of the sovereignty of the just, of those dedicated to and capable of serving the common good of the society.[80]


Once having found a worthy source of critique in classical political rationalism, Pangle continues in later chapters to challenge democracy. What we immediately see as different in Plato and in his students is that they take seriously that differences exist in man. Plato takes what every child and adult in the West knows to be true and incorporated this teaching that all men are different into his account of the just political regime in order to construct a better life for all. If we continue to ignore our political situation as truly “diverse,” we will never be able to come to ask the question of the good of man and to be able to challenge our political order to seek after the answer.


Following the recognition that all men are unequal in a certain regard, a standard of judgment is constructed such that all men are then ranked according to merit or virtue. Due to this ranking, the best citizens are capable of ruling. Rather than tyranny, this is the best possible situation, as the other citizens’ desire for their best possible political existence.



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