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Hell to Pay: Classics and Radical Inclusion in W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Of the Ruling of Men”

In an address on the education of African Americans in 1930, W.E.B. Du Bois articulated the relationship between Classical Education and commitment to political participation: “Fill the heads of these children with Latin and Greek and highfalutin’ notions of rights and political power, and hell will be to pay” (1973: 64). While scholars typically associate Du Bois’s attention to the Western Classics with his early interest in educating a class of leaders for the African American community (Aldridge 2008), I argue that, in Du Bois’s political thought, the Classical Tradition was not simply a path to elite status. By examining Du Bois’s engagement with Aristotle’s Politics in his 1920 essay “Of the Ruling of Men,” I demonstrate that Du Bois employed classical arguments for democracy in the service of a radically inclusive conception of citizenship.

Urging his readers “to examine the roots of democracy,” Du Bois asks “Who may be excluded from a share in the ruling of men?” (1920: 138-39). The question of which members of a society should take part in communal decision-making is a central problem in Aristotle’s Politics. While Du Bois does not cite Aristotle in this particular essay, he was deeply familiar with Aristotelian philosophy (Shaw 2013). Aristotle categorizes constitutions according to who rules and in whose interests the rulers govern (1279a25-1279b10), and he claims that not all members of a community are necessarily entitled to a share of sovereign power (1277b33-1278a7), yet he ultimately argues in favor of the wisdom of crowds. Even though each member of a given body may not be capable of making the best decisions, their collective knowledge and capacity for judgment allows them to arrive at better choices than any individual could make by himself (1281a39ff; Waldron 1999): “it is possible for the be better than [the excellent] when they come together...not individually, but altogether...because when there are many, each has a share of excellence and prudence, and the multitude, when they come together, are like one man” (τοὺς γὰρ πολλούς…ἐνδέχεται συνελθόντας εἶναι βελτίους ἐκείνων, οὐχ ὡς ἕκαστον ἀλλ᾽ ὡς σύμπαντας…πολλῶν γὰρ ὄντων ἕκαστον μόριον ἔχειν ἀρετῆς καὶ φρονήσεως, καὶ γίνεσθαι συνελθόντας ὥσπερ ἕνα ἄνθρωπον τὸ πλῆθος, 1281b1-6). Aristotle wants to identify the institutions and practices that will limit the dangerous tendencies of democracy (as he sees them), but he is nonetheless sensitive to the advantages of a broadly defined citizen body.

Like Aristotle, Du Bois distinguishes types of government according to who holds power: he sees “the method of the benevolent tyrant; the method of the select few; the method of the excluded groups” as problematic efforts to ensure government in the service of justice (1920: 142). Du Bois also identifies the wisdom of the people deliberating in common as the chief benefit of democracy: each nation “holds in the heads and hearts of its individual citizens the vast mine of knowledge, out of which it may build a just government” (143). In order to realize the benefits of the collective intelligence, emotions, and experience of its citizens, a community must give all its members, rich and poor, white and black, men and women, “a voice in the body politic” (145). It is true that Du Bois is far more optimistic than Aristotle about the dedication of the common people to the political process (cf. Politics 1308b31ff.). Nevertheless, Du Bois’s arguments for inclusive democracy and an expansive model of citizenship emerge from an Aristotelian understanding of how the polity can best produce political wisdom. Du Bois makes a place for his own ideas in an ancient tradition of democratic thought, and shows how this tradition could expand the thinking of his contemporaries on who ought to be a citizen.