Politicians and Aristotle
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POLITICIANS AND ARISTOTLE.
By H. Kelly.
POOR, old Aristotle! What searchings of heart you would have were you alive and able to read those beautiful ethical teachings of yours. To strive for humanity is the highest and noblest aim of man, and as the “politician” is engaged in that glorious occupation, he is surely the “best” man in the community. Using “good” in a purely relative sense, it is true that he who devotes the talents which nature has endowed him with for the benefit of all men represents a higher type than he who limits his activities and impulses to those only who are near and dear to him. Unfortunately for us, the definition of politician is quite different in our day from what it was in Aristotle’s time, and the great Greek philosopher would be the first to recognize how inappropriate his definition is as applied to our Tim Sullivans, “big and little”; Platts, Odells, and others far too numerous to mention. Human nature is so contradictory, and we have drifted so far from first principles, that we are highly amused at the innocence of the man who expects the political leader, for whom he votes, to be honest and the politician to live up to his pre-election promises.
To expect honesty and intelligence, coupled with some sort of civic pride, from those elected to public office, is to write oneself down an ass—yet we calmly vote grafters into office and encourage them in their plundering with all the seriousness of which we are capable.
Those venerable “City Fathers” of ours, whose intelligence and piety prevent this great city from falling into Anarchy and decay, have just given us as fine an example of intelligent and disinterested patriotism as one could wish. Having recently come to the conclusion, after long and serious consideration, that the duties of their office were so very onerous and exacting, and that they were sacrificing themselves upon the altar of the commonweal for less than they were worth, “The Fathers” calmly increased their salaries from one thousand to two thousand dollars a year and adjourned for their vacation. Having a little difference of opinion with these gentlemen, Acting Mayor McGowan, in pursuance of the authority of his office, issued a call for a special meeting of the aforesaid “City Fathers,” to vote on the assessment of taxes for the ensuing year. Voting franchises to Belmont, looking after the hygienic conditions of the East Side with an intelligent but discriminating eye, and attending to political fences is enough to give bigger men the brain fag. Therefore, the majority of our statesmen had retired to Europe, the Adirondacks, and other uninteresting places to recuperate. When the meeting was called to order on Aug. 10th, they were twelve short of a quorum. It was considered a good joke by quite a few of those present, until some inquisitive alderman began digging into the laws governing the Council, and found, to his horror, that all members of that body were subject to forfeiture of office and $500 fine for neglect of duty in failing to authorize the assessments of taxes for the ensuing year, as provided for in the laws governing the Council. Grief mingled with rage and activity spread quickly throughout the chamber as the dread spectre—loss of office and $500 fine—became more and more apparent. To their credit be it said that the “Fathers” worked as statesmen never worked before: a temporary adjournment was taken, all the telephones in sight were commandeered, and a number of sergeants-at-arms were pressed into service and sent forth to scour the city for the truant fathers. It was an anxious and trying time, but, as with all clouds, it had its silver lining, and cheer after cheer rent the air as the last man was brought into the council chamber by a heroic sergeant-at-arms. The country (some good jobs and $500 fines) was saved. The session lasted three minutes; the assessments were voted and the meeting adjourned; the members fled for refreshments after a nerve-destroying and strenuous exhibition of statecraft.
The above incident represents the lighter side of our political ethics; there is another and more serious side. The N. Y. “Sun” of Aug. nth gravely informs its readers that Wm. Travers Jerome is considering the advisability of running this fall as an independent candidate for Governor, and, with all the assurance of an oracle, it adds: “If Mr. Jerome decides to run, Mr. Jerome will be elected.” During his spectacular campaign of last fall, this gentleman told his hearers, again and again, “I stand on my record.” We wonder if he will have the audacity to repeat the same slogan again. It is an open and notorious fact that since this popular idol was elected district attorney of this city, he has unblushingly ranged himself on the side of the corporations he was supposed to prosecute. He has made a virtue of brazen-faced partiality—he so much despises the people who elected him as to expect praise for his ostentatious sale of their interests. He has constituted himself judge and jury on questions pertaining to the prosecution of violators of the law—and his defence of Geo. W. Perkins, Vice-President of the N. Y. Life Insurance Co. (who filched $50,000 of the policy-holders’ money to uphold the policy of the Republican party, to which many of those policy-holders are violently opposed), has become a classic for impudence coupled with dishonesty. It is not stealing to take money which has been placed in your hands for safeguarding, and apply it (without the knowledge or consent of the owner) to perpetuate a political system violently opposed by the owner of the money. And this man Jerome has the audacity to talk of running for Governor. It is an insult to the intelligence of every decent man and woman in the State.
James K. Jones, ex-senator of Arkansas, Chairman of the National Democratic Committee during the Bryan campaigns of 1896 and 1900, trust destroyer, free silverite, and friend of the “common” people, visited Mr. Roosevelt a few days ago as attorney for the Standard Oil Co., to induce the President to override the decision of the Secretary of the Interior concerning the acquisition of oil and timber lands in Indian Territory. Gov. Higgins, of New York, recently wrote to the President to the same effect. Should Secretary Hitchcock’s decision be overruled, the Standard Oil Co. will acquire by it one million five hundred thousand acres of land.
“These considerations will harmonize also with what we said at the commencement, for we assumed the End of Politics to be most excellent. Its principal care is to develop in the members of the community a certain character; that is to say, good and honorable traits.” .... “And by Human Excellence we mean not that of man’s body, but that of his soul; for we call Happiness an exercise of the soul.”
“And if this be true, it follows that some knowledge of the soul is necessary for the politician, just as a knowledge of the body is indispensable for the physician; the more so in proportion as politics is more precious and important than the art of healing.” (Aristotle’s Ethics.)
What a pity it is that Aristotle died without meeting “Pat” McCarren, the “Grocer of Newburg,” Abe Slupsky, Hinky Dink Kenna, and Bath-House Johnny Coughlin. He would have had a chance to revise those beautiful studies of his. Our range of perspective is not great enough to appreciate the genius of our saviors—it is possible we underestimate the benefits they bestow on society.
Harry Kelly, “Politicians and Aristotle,” Mother Earth 1, no. 7 (September 1906): 22-25.