Problematising “Middle Class Democracy”: A Critical Analysis of Peter Augustine Lawler’s “Higher Education as American Counterculture”

“Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy.”

Aristotle’s Politics

This essay is a critical analysis of an article published in The Imaginative Conservative online magazine by the late political philosopher Peter Lawler which can be found here

Peter Augustine Lawler(1951-2017)

Political philosophers from Aristotle to Machiavelli have for long sung paeans to the virtue of a democracy dominated by the middle classes. Thus it is surprising that political philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler would take aim at middle-class democracy in his article “Higher Education as American Counterculture” Lawler describes middle class democracy as a polity which is composed primarily of “free beings who work”, as opposed to aristocrats or working-classes. The middle class is both autonomous enough to be socially mobile, yet enchained to working for either sustenance or dignity. He then goes onto describe the corrosive effects of such an ethical basis on education, work and philosophy in the USA.


To be middle class is to not be in the median income range in the Aristotelian sense, but to be as free as an aristocrat yet as bound to work as a slave. The accumulation of money becomes an end in itself , since society is neither above wealth (as the aristocrats) or below mobility (as in the servile classes). In such a middle class society, it is argued that only actions which produce wealth are given the hallowed title of work.


For Lawler, democracy implies that no man is better than anyone else. Thus public opinion is sanctified as virtuous since the virtue of Socrates is lesser than the sum of the opinions of the demos. Since we have negated the possibility of eudaimonia for the individual, it follows that the only thought worth pursuing is one that augments the material. Thus science becomes little more than technology; philosophy reduced to logic and art hemmed in as designing. This constant rush for technical solutions prevents us from asking why instead of investigating the “hows” of the matter at hand. Uniformity in thought, taste and opinion is thus the product of middle-class democracy.


Tocqueville talked of two paradoxes in the early American democracy; universal literacy yet no higher education and technological advancement but lack of genuine diversity of thought. Lawler expands this analysis to contemporary USA where there seems to be a fetishism for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), as long as the students are not studying theoretical physics or pure mathematics. He traces the origins of this preference to the middle class democracy which fetishizes techno-vocational education as if it were the sorcery of old since it “produces results”. The uniformity of this polity produces standardized tinkerers subject to the demands of corporations and bureaucracies as opposed to genuine thinkers who would rage against the dying of the light.

While there are some deficiencies in his attribution of many of the ills of contemporary America to democracy, Lawler still reiterates the conformity that a democracy creates amongst its citizenry and brings to light the negation of virtue which democracy necessitates since as Aristotle recognized a man who surpasses all else in a community in virtue will be banished or put to death as the Athenians did Socrates. For Lawler, it is only thinking that can be the panacea for this phenomena and higher education a heresy which can end the dogma of the artificer.  We must thus search for meaning in contemplation aided by the righteous who have crossed into the hereafter; in Plato and Hegel, Kant and Marx, as opposed to our pocketbooks or Facebook statuses. For after all is philosophy not recognizing the following ?

“That work is for leisure, the body is for the soul, that technology serves distinctively human purposes, that the world is the home of the human mind, that there is no reliable route to feeling good except being good, and that seeking and searching—wandering and wondering—should, in principle, occupy all of our lives.”

Published by sathyajithsmanthanath

I am but a gadfly attached to the state

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