Foundation Of American Experience
In this thesis, the foundation of the American experience will be brought about in relation to classical Greek philosophy. This will incorporate the ideas of both Plato and Aristotle in relation to the contemporary American experience. The thesis question is therefore, do Plato and Aristotle combine to capture the moral, social and political basis for the contemporary American experience? It is the contention of this essay that both Plato and Aristotle are the philosophical and cultural founders of the contemporary American experience. Therefore, it is thought that it would be best to bring together the ideas of Aristotle and Plato and their notion of happiness and myth. These can be found in the Nicomachean Ethics and Myth of the Metals from the Republic.
The reason for choosing these two texts in relation to the American experience is due to the rising notions regarding the history and culture of America. For example, we can see from Plato’s myth of metals that a myth exists within society and is highlighted as a way for the people to achieve an ideal. The myth that exists here is to do with a pre-ordained system of elite rule inherent to a certain design of person. We can instantly see a relation to the way in which America has rejected this at its core and replaced it with the idea that anyone can be the president and that anyone can attain their dream. For Aristotle, the central issue in the Nicomachean Ethics is that concerning the character and personality of people within the society in relation to morality. Essentially, he asks what it takes for an individual to be a good person. In this, he suggests that every action has a final cause by way of moral intent. He argues that since there can be no infinite regress of extrinsic good, then there must be a ‘highest attainable good’ to which all human action aims itself (Morgan; Ch.2). In this social idealism, Aristotle seems to capture the cultural spirit of the American dream evoked by Plato. This rationale is the premise for the statement that Plato and Aristotle found the contemporary American experience.
From the text Classics of Moral and Political Theory, we can see that Plato’s goal of myth is to bring into being a clear and ‘direct idea’ into the minds of the people. It is from this that they then learn the way in which to value the ‘state’ and all those who they share their realm with (Morgan; Ch.1). Essentially, through such idealism and sharing of values the people come to see their colleagues in a way that replaces materialistic values for those of an idealised nature. Therefore, the people would not come to value the material riches being ‘uncorrupted’ and free from the greed and personal gain (Morgan; Ch.1). This is particular to the American political system as it places idealism above materialism in a society where the worth and value of an individual is measured by their own material wealth. In this we perhaps come across a contradiction. However, when we apply Aristotle, this contradiction diminishes. Essentially, as the citizens share and apply value on a social and personal level based upon an idealised goal, it becomes clear that the property is not the goal. Rather, it is a means to attain the goal; the goal of being morally good. According to Aristotle, all things have a ‘characteristic function‘ (Morgan; Ch.2). This means that they have a purpose in relation to the idealised goal pertaining to greater morality. Therefore, the property and possessions of any individual are only their as a means to attain greater moral purpose. Essentially, the entire function of life is as an activity of the soul that expresses genuine virtue and aspires to excellence in the pursuit of what is attainable, which Aristotle calls happiness. We can see then that both the rejection of pre-ordained materialistic values and the attainment of material values without an idealised purpose are rejected by a mergence of both Plato and Aristotle. Furthermore, we see that through their notions of an idealised pursuit of greater good, the individuals form a society by working together to accomplish happiness in a state of idealistic harmony. This could be said to be the cornerstone of the American experience that runs through the morals, social values and politics of American culture.
However, counter criticism could be applied to this in relation to the disillusionment or fracture of the American dream that was clearly observed in the social revolutions of the 60 and 70s, yet stemming back through many critiques of American mainstream culture. For example, the notion of myths in the construction of society is severely rejected by many leftists in America. Furthermore, with the notions of materialism, social depravity and inequality, many could suggest that the foundations of American society are simply idealistic and not in any way realistic. For example, those from a class background in America in which the construction of goals, aspirations and dreams are limited by such distinctions as class, sex and race could argue that such idealism masks many of the true experiences of America.
Michael L. Morgan ‘’Classics of Moral and Political Theory’’ London: Hackett, 1997.