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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

Tony Blair claimed with almost evangelical fervour that it was ‘right’ to side with America in deciding to attack Iraq and went on: ‘I had to take this decision as Prime Minister. It was a huge responsibility.’

3 February 2010

2:00 PM

3 February 2010

2:00 PM

Tony Blair claimed with almost evangelical fervour that it was ‘right’ to side with America in deciding to attack Iraq and went on: ‘I had to take this decision as Prime Minister. It was a huge responsibility.’

Tony Blair claimed with almost evangelical fervour that it was ‘right’ to side with America in deciding to attack Iraq and went on: ‘I had to take this decision as Prime Minister. It was a huge responsibility.’ Aristotle would have had some questions to ask about this.


Aristotle (384-322 bc) raises a major problem in asking how one should lead the good life, and argues that it could be lived only in the context of a community, and most importantly a community in which one played an active political part. He then goes on to discuss the various types of community available in terms of their political constitution, and comes to the conclusion that, in theory at least, absolute kingship would be the best answer, as against an oligarchy (the equivalent of the aristocracy) or democracy (rule by the many).

His argument for absolute kingship is based on the assumption that a man could emerge so superior to everyone else in moral, political and philosophical virtue that no one else’s virtue could be comparable. But he sees two insuperable problems. First, he would have to be of such superhuman excellence that he would have to be nothing less than a god — a person ‘not easy to find’, he says drily. Second, qua god, he would automatically be above the law. But since that would mean that citizens could not engage in political activity, i.e. law-making, they could not lead the good life. So absolute monarchy is not the answer; and a monarch ruled by the law is not really a monarch at all, but rather a sort of executive officer. 

His solution (though he does not lay down specifics) is a case-by-case, uneasy compromise between oligarchic features, e.g. election to office, property qualifications and punishment for not attending legislative assemblies and juries, and democratic, the reverse (selection by lot, payment for civic duties, etc.).

Since it is out of a jumble of such features that our constitution, such as it is, is made up (including a monarchic element too), Aristotle would wonder how Mr Blair could say that he had taken upon himself alone a decision to lead the country into war anyway, let alone one which most authorities consider illegal. There would surely be only one conclusion he could reach: such a man, not only of incomparable virtue but far above everyday human law, must have been a divinity.

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