First Principles

Grim Lessons from Aristotle on the Causes of Civil War

Why aren’t we challenging our cozy assumptions that things can’t get worse?

Is the United States headed for a civil war? Every new partisan battle feels like the battle to end all battles.

But contemplating apocalyptic violence and massive upheaval brings doubt: even with all the current acrimony, could it really be the case that the most successful nation on earth is spiraling towards internal war? Isn’t intense partisanship a hallmark of American democracy? At what point does intense partisanship threaten to devolve into civil war? And how would we know—especially when so many of our intuitions are bolstered by unfounded hopes and the assumption that things can’t change?

Let’s step away from the moment’s heat and look at things from an outsider’s point of view. Aristotle is a helpful guide. Not only did the ancient Greek philosopher think deeply about the numerous civil wars that took place in the tumultuous world of ancient Greece, but he also grasped a profound point that’s easily lost on us: civil wars don’t show up like some surprising and alien virus attacking an otherwise healthy body. Civil war takes place because familiar forces wear down the healthy civic bonds that hold citizens together until some crisis finally triggers action. 

That’s what makes reading Book V of the Politics so unnerving. When we consider the seven long-term causes Aristotle identifies as having the potential to transform otherwise peaceful citizens into would-be factionalizers, it’s startling to find that so many of the well-known proclivities of our contemporary ruling class are exactly those that Aristotle thought would undermine political cohesion and make civil war more likely.

Changing the Political Landscape Through Demographics 

Aristotle understood that there is some truth behind the claims such as “personnel is policy” and “demography is destiny.” Character and cultural norms structure basic expectations about how people should live together, and so inevitably influence political views. Indeed, this was the idea behind the prediction of an emerging Democratic majority in American politics: “fast-growing” and “dynamic” populations would result in a progressive lock on power precisely because the cultural norms of those groups would motivate left-leaning voting.

What Aristotle reminds us, however, is that quickly transforming a political order through demographics can be incredibly dangerous. For it dispenses with the notion that politics is a realm for discussion about justice and the good and instead inaugurates a process whereby citizens invested in the existing constitution are simply overpowered. Stunningly, many who rule in western liberal democracies have deliberately embraced this tactic.

Andrew Nether, the now-famous former advisor to Tony Blair, made the point bluntly: while the huge increase of migrants to Britain was given cover by talk of economic benefits, the actual goal was to “rub the Right’s nose in diversity.” Nether, like the other globalists who embraced such explicitly non-political means to effect major political change, was well aware that this upheaval would produce discomfort, create fissures, and sow the seeds of conflict.

Unjust Distribution of Wealth 

The reason so many politicians accepted such change was, as Nether indicated, the promise of increased communal wealth. That is a powerful reason: for procuring wealth has always been, and surely always will be, one of the main reasons people seek membership in any community.

But the mere increase in total GDP achieved through immigration has not led to a shared sense of economic security: for our decision-makers flooded markets with cheap labor at exactly the same time that they incentivized offshoring, cheered on technological creative destruction, and introduced rafts of regulations that increased living costs and inhibited business formation. As a result, as the extreme cases of California and New York illustrate, our rulers have ended up promoting the very conditions that Aristotle took to be the most volatile: a political situation featuring a few dynastic oligarchs who feel entitled to power, a far larger group of vulnerable poor who believe they’re being treated unfairly, and a struggling middle class that otherwise might have acted as a buffer between them.

Unjust Distributions of Honor 

It’s a mistake to fixate exclusively on these familiar issues of wealth distribution. Commentators too often assume that money alone explains human action in the political realm. Aristotle reminds us that this is dangerously myopic: people don’t come together in a political community merely to achieve a basic income; they make the effort of living together because they believe they’ll have the chance to enjoy beautiful things and attain some level of respect. Aristotle documents many cases where rich citizens, who have plenty of money, unhesitatingly initiate civil war against other rich citizens because they believe their wealthy adversaries were making it impossible for them to find proper respect in their community.

We should take note. Honor is not some archaic value, and our own cultural elites obviously dole out major awards, highlight positions of prestige, and publicly celebrate specific kinds of citizens for emulation and approval. Indeed, anyone who leans Right has long learned to live with the fact that most cultural honors are reserved for progressives. Nevertheless, though this partisan distribution of honor was always perceived as unjust, it was tolerated: for those on the Right could still go about enjoying their lives, cheering on and supporting their own heroes overlooked by elites. But times have changed.

Progressives in positions of cultural power are no longer content merely to reserve honors for the Left; they have decided it is time for those on the Right to be actively dishonored.  All public statues and symbols revered by the Right must now be toppled and desecrated. Conservatives and Republicans must be “deplatformed” from college campuses, corporate boards, and social media because they should not only be deprived of the honor of speaking but need to be publicly shamed.


Such shaming is closely related to what Aristotle called “arrogance.” This isn’t merely a matter of believing oneself to be better than others. It’s a disposition to enjoy humiliating those with less social status, and it’s not hard to understand why Aristotle took it to be a cause of civil war.

The arrogance of elites doesn’t merely signal to others that they are unworthy of participation in the community—that’s accomplished by dishonoring. Rather, it shows that elites care nothing of the suffering of those beneath them in the social hierarchy.

Now you would hope that our own American upper class would at least be wise enough to be discreet in its arrogance for the sake of social harmony. But, astonishingly, we live in a time when our credentialed class flaunts it.

Watch any of the popular comedy or news shows designed to flatter college graduates who are desperate to prove their membership in the managerial professional class. They openly mock the general populace for its stupidity. They whole-heartedly laugh at the backward manners of fly-over country. They celebrate casting cherished icons in pee or feces or flames. They know full well these acts will cause pain in those for whom those symbols have meaning. Making people feel humiliated is the cruel goal of their humor and art.


In fact, things have gotten so out of control that a vocal contingent of the Left won’t even stop with dishonoring and humiliation. They wish to produce some level of terror in the heart of anyone who questions their views. Consider how extraordinary it is that David Plouffe, a famous, elite democratic advisor felt completely comfortable tweeting, “It is not enough to simply beat Trump. He must be destroyed thoroughly. His kind must not rise again.” What does that communicate to Trump supporters?

And it’s not as if even more direct actions, such as hounding people out of restaurants, are reserved only for those who question fundamental values of the Left. Even those who disagree with the Left on some fairly technical policy matter (e.g. Net Neutrality of the Internet) are considered fair targets of public harassment, doxxing, threats of job loss, physical menacing, and social isolation.

Indeed, the groups now setting up violent autonomous zones in Seattle and Portland declare that by simply owning a home or running a business, one has sinned and is therefore marked for attack. The message in all of this is clear: even basic goods like wealth and safety that initially motivate membership in political society should be taken from those who depart from the new orthodoxy.


One might wonder: how could highly educated professionals not expect some pushback from such gratuitous cultural shaming, humiliating, and even scare tactics? The answer is that they sincerely believe there is an insurmountably large competency gap between themselves and everyone else. Much like ancient oligarchs, our cultural elites have what Aristotle calls “contempt” for those beneath them. They genuinely believe that “deplorables” in the lower social ranks are simply too disorganized, chaotic, and emotion-driven to amount to anything, while they see themselves as supremely competent and judge their coordinated decision making as indisputably beneficial for the common good.

Perhaps there was a time when average people had such high regard for the competency of elites that they wouldn’t have minded a few hurtful excesses of status signaling. The problem, however, is that many Americas are increasingly having their own deep doubts as to whether our powerful institutions are filled with people worthy of their vast influence.

All things considered, how impressive was our foreign policy establishment in comprehending the threat of China? How inspired has the performance of the CDC, the NIH, and the FDA been over the last 30 years, let alone in this current pandemic? How much quality education is being delivered given the levels of debt students incur? How farsighted were our elites in predicting the actual effects of global trade? How scrupulous have the FBI and CIA been in upholding the highest standards of integrity while wielding unimaginable power? How consistent have our elites been in even being able to live by the same basic rules they set for the rest of us?


With growing contempt for our elites, an ever-increasing number of Americans are beginning to think that their own judgments and mores, while admittedly untutored and uncultured, are superior to those in charge.  When the “thought leaders” selected by our major institutions seem psychologically incapable of comprehending a world beyond whatever greasy professional pole they’re climbing, average people turn away from such “experts” and actively back those who ignore them.

Aristotle didn’t think that these seven factors guarantee civil war in some kind of deterministic formula, and he also had interesting ideas about mitigating them that could be explored in further essays. But surely this astonishing list of familiar spectacles should give us pause.

If Aristotle is right that these are the sorts of things that make civil war more likely, why shouldn’t we be worried? Why aren’t we challenging our cozy assumptions that things couldn’t get worse?