This is one of five remarkable quotes on political philosophy by professor Steven B. Smith, from Yale. This one is on Aristotle.
Aristotle’s republic, and I use that term to remind you of Plato as well, is devoted to cultivating a high level of citizen virtue where this means those qualities of mind and heart necessary for self-government. These qualities, he believes, are the preserve of the few, of a minority capable of sharing in the administration of justice and in the offices of a city. It seems to be a very elite teaching. Would you agree? Unappealing to us, perhaps, for that reason, very contrary to our intuitions and the way we have been brought up. Yes? You’ll agree with me.
But before we dismiss Aristotle’s account as insufferably inegalitarian and elitist, we have to ask a difficult question, not just of Aristotle, but more importantly of ourselves. What else is Yale, but an elite institution intended to educate, morally and intellectually, potential members of a leadership class? Think about that. Can anyone get into Yale? Do we have an open admissions policy for all who want to come here? Hardly. Does it not require those qualities of self-control, discipline, and restraint necessary to achieve success here? I will leave aside, for the moment, what happens on Friday and Saturday nights. Is it any coincidence that graduates from this university and a handful of others not unlike it find themselves in high positions of government, of business, of law, and the academy? Is it unfair or unreasonable to describe this class, as Aristotle might, as a natural aristocracy? I leave you with this question to think about. Before we reject Aristotle as an antidemocratic elitist, take a look at yourselves. So are you, or you wouldn’t be sitting here today.