Archive for June, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Second

June 9, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  Second

Second Thesis:  A well-run state must pay attention to the relationship between economic and political power

For if the work done and the benefit accrued are equal, well and good; but if not, there will inevitably be ill-feeling between those who get a good income without doing much work and those who work harder but get no corresponding extra benefit.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book II, chapter V, 1263a8

ABSTRACT:  In discussing both the idealized states proposed by philosophers, and some states of his day widely considered to be well-run, Aristotle examines the role of wealth in society.  He rejects the extreme egalitarianism of Plato and Phaleas, as well as the restrictions put on the wealth of Spartan rulers, as being unbearable as well as impractical.  At the same time, he admits that rivalry between rich and poor can lead to factionalism and instability.  He argues that citizens need enough property to not merely live, but to live well; but he does say the state must have laws and policies to prevent the gulf between the wealthy and the rest from becoming so great that it undermines social unity’

            Book Two of Aristotle’s Politics is a survey of proposed ideal states, as well as some actual constitutions which were widely held to be successful.  Half of the chapters are devoted to criticism of Plato’s theories, particularly regarding property.  Plato himself was very concerned with the relationship between wealth and political power; it is therefore worthwhile to recall Plato’s views in order to see in what sense he and Aristotle might agree, and to better understand the nature of their disagreement.

            Plato’s political speculations in Republic begin with the individual rather than the group.  His Socrates and other characters are debating what sort of life is best for an individual, when Socrates proposes that they look at the State as an individual magnified.  In understanding how a well-run state would function, the group hopes to see how the individual soul should be arranged.  The individual can be said to have reason, passion and appetite; a city-state can be imagined as reflecting this structure.  The majority of people are farmers and other sorts of producers.  They are primarily concerned with material goods and satisfying their appetites.  They have no inclination or patience for higher education, or abstract thought, or for moral concerns beyond what is good for themselves and their households.  If they are drawn to political power, it is only as a business like any other, to enrich themselves.  Others are more drawn to military careers, as they desire honor and fame more than wealth and comfort.  These are the people governed by passion or spirit (Greek:  thumos).  In any society, only a few will be philosophers, lovers of wisdom, primarily governed by reason and desiring nothing more than to learn and understand.

            People seeking power either to feed their material desires, or in a lust for fame, are the least suited to hold power and will inevitably abuse it, putting their own gain before their duties to the State.  Only those who care the least about material comforts or the adoration of the mob can be expected to lead their society responsibly and intelligently.  Thus, the first division Plato proposes is between those who seek wealth and are denied political power, versus those who care little about gaining wealth for themselves and thus can be trusted to protect the rest:  the producers and the guardians.  These guardians are warrior-philosophers, devoted to a lifetime of physical and intellectual training, including martial and gymnastic practice, geometry, music and philosophy.  The producers want wealth and are welcome to pursue it; in exchange, they support the leadership and obey its instructions.  Among the guardians, the younger and more high-spirited individuals serve as auxiliaries, using their military training to enforce the law and to protect against invaders; they are driven by their thumos, and prefer honor over wealth, so they are rewarded with military honors and accolades for their service.  The older and wisest seek neither praise nor wealth, but wish mostly to be allowed to pursue knowledge; these are the leaders who guide the state out of a sense of duty, sharing the fruits of their learning to direct the state justly and wisely.  In return for their service, they are allowed ample time for study and philosophic contemplation.  Neither the guardians nor the auxiliaries are allowed any private property; they are supported entirely by the State, which collects taxes from the producers.  They thus have no incentive to accept bribes, or to engage in aggressive wars to gain loot, or any of the other personal or corporate corruptions that would undermine the smooth running of the state; they simply live peacefully as far as they can, prepared to defend the modest national wealth they possess but otherwise seeing to their own welfare.  Plato’s ideal republic is, in short, a society where those who have money are denied power, and those who have power are denied money but instead “give according to their abilities and receive according to their needs,” as a later philosopher put it.  Furthermore, Plato explicitly links the mixing of economic and political power as the corruption that undermines even the best state and, step by step, leads it to tyranny, where the government is entirely devoted to the profit of the tyrant and his toadies.

            Aristotle is also aware that differences in wealth can undermine a nation, and the desire for wealth can corrupt its leaders; but he rejects Plato’s radical solution of doing away with private wealth (at least for the leadership) altogether.  He agrees that the citizens definitely share some things; “at the very least, a constitution being a form of association, they must share in the territory, the single territory of a single state, of which single state the citizens are sharers.”[1]  But in Plato’s ideal republic, the Guardians are to have literally all things in common:  not only having common meals and sharing all property, but even sharing wives and children.[2]  Aristotle criticizes this excessive unity.  While it is possible to imagine such a society, Aristotle says that in fact the state benefits from being a diverse association.  Different individuals, with different abilities and aims, come together and work together for the benefit of the whole; that is what makes the state more self-sufficient than the individual or even the household.[3]  And while Plato explicitly seeks to break down the natural family relationships among the Guardians so that all will equally care for all the children, Aristotle argues that in fact this will lead to weakening concern for any children.  He makes a similar argument when it comes to property in general.[4]  Where one person is responsible for one household, that person will take care of the people and associated property; there are clearly designated areas of responsibility for each person.  Where everyone is equally responsible for caring for all the children and maintaining all the property, no individual has a specific responsibility to do anything.  When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.  Thus, Aristotle argues, it is better that each man be responsible for his own wife and children, and that the property of the state be divided, some (like temples) for common use and cared for by the people as a whole, while others (such as farms and other means of production) privately owned, the responsibility of particular individuals who will bear the consequences if they neglect their proper work. 

            Aristotle also discusses Plato’s last dialogue, his Laws, wherein he seeks to give more concrete detail to the somewhat abstract idealism of Republic.[5]  While Laws is Plato’s longest dialogue, Aristotle has relatively little to say about it, since it is in many ways a rehashing of RepublicRepublic is an idealized state, and thus lacking on details and not too concerned whether its ideas could be actualized; the Laws keeps most of the original notions of Republic but provides more detail and clarification, attempting to present not just an ideal state but a framework for establishing a state based on those notions.  There are, for example, lengthy discussions of how to arrange households and farms, the role of foreigners such as traveling merchants, details of the education curriculum, and more.  Most of the details which Aristotle discusses have to do with property laws:  how much each citizen would be allowed to own, laws regarding its management, and political implications of these laws, among other matters.  There are two points in particular that appear in this book, and will become recurring themes later in the Politics:  the problem of faction, and the types of political structure.  As to structure, Aristotle mentions monarchy, oligarchy and democracy, and argues that Plato combines elements of oligarchy and democracy into a type Aristotle calls “polity.”  Aristotle in fact prefers so-called “mixed” constitutions over any pure example of the three types, seeing them as having the chance of avoiding the weaknesses peculiar to the pure types while drawing on their strengths.  He will say much more about this later in the Politics.

            Aristotle has more to say about the issues of money and politics.  He points out that a state like Plato proposes, where individual estates are limited by law, will in serious trouble unless population is controlled as well.[6]  In most states, neither births nor property acquisition are strictly regulated; people have as many children as they are able, and sometimes even more than they can support.  This “inevitably causes poverty among the citizens, and poverty produces faction and crime.”  Plato’s Laws would start each producer citizen with an equal estate, and limit the maximum increase of wealth to five times that, with the number of such farming estates firmly established; thus if the population were to grow, there would simply be no way for the excess to start their own households, and seemingly no way to absorb the new population into the economy.  Aristotle goes on to discuss another utopian thinker, Phaleas, who also discusses the social problems related to wealth.[7]  Phaleas too was concerned with how inequalities of wealth can undermine the stability of the state, by breeding crime and factionalism.  His answer was simple and direct:  eliminate differences in wealth.  The factions that so often divide and can even destroy the state are largely conflicts between the poor many and the rich few; eliminate the differences, and you eliminate the chief cause of factionalism.[8]  Poverty would be eliminated, and thus crime would disappear as well, Phaleas claimed, since no one would have to steal to feed themselves.[9] 

            Aristotle appreciates the effort Phaleas makes to head off factionalism, but finds several faults with this plan.  First, Aristotle says Phaleas pays inadequate attention to national defense; we don’t have any evidence to judge this claim, and the question doesn’t seem essential; the issues of foreign relations could be addressed without seriously undermining the internal economics, if equality of property were workable.  Aristotle’s other objections seem more substantial, as they touch on human nature itself, and provide reasons why such equality would be impossible.  Suppose, Aristotle says, it were possible to determine the perfect level of property for everyone, so that no one was either corrupted by luxury or ruined by poverty, but each had enough to live moderately and well; even then, there is no guarantee that everyone would be content.  Unless people’s appetites are also equal, what seems a reasonable allowance to one will seem to be penury to another; thus, unless education is equal so that all have the same characters and expectations, they will become discontent even with equality.  (He does concede that maybe Phaleas has assumed this equality of education, but doesn’t think this is clear.)  Furthermore, people don’t resort to crime merely from poverty; some, perhaps most are trying to get far more than they need, and it is the desire for easy luxury that drives them.  And people do not compete merely for greater wealth, but also for distinction, status and honor. Those who have worked harder, or who have fought bravely in defense of his nation, or who otherwise consider themselves “better” will resent being treated “the same.”  So while Aristotle sees some merit in paying attention to the divisiveness of wealth, he finds this sort of extreme state control of wealth unviable.

            Much of the difference between Aristotle and his mentor Plato is visible in their discussion of the Spartan government.[10]  Plato cites the Spartan as one of the best constitutions, largely because it separates the aristocratic, military leadership from the producers; the leaders strive for honor, while the others are focused on farming and producing goods.  His only fault with the Spartan model is that they don’t practice philosophy; compared to his republic, it is as if the Guardians proper were gone and the Auxiliaries were left in charge, without the benefit of learned, wise, steady leadership.  In Plato’s telling, even the perfect republic would eventually decline, first by abandoning the leadership of the philosophers, and then as a result becoming increasingly interested in money.  First the aristocracy declines to an oligarchy, rule by the rich few; from there it deteriorates to a democracy, where everyone rules and everyone simultaneously pursues their own private wealth, further mixing politics and money-making; and finally it devolves into a tyranny, where the most corrupt and ruthless individual seizes power and turns the state into a money-making enterprise for himself and his cronies.  It is a rationalist explanation, deriving from the principle that corruption of the individual or the state occur when the appetites overrule reason; and it is a somewhat idealized presentation of the Spartan constitution as well.

            Aristotle is much less enthralled with the Spartan ideal and more interested in the Spartan reality.  While Spartan men are supposed to be pure warriors living lives of material simplicity and concerned only with honor, Aristotle says in fact there are great differences in wealth between them, which weakens the nation and in particular leaves the Ephors, magistrates drawn from outside the aristocracy, open to bribery.  And it is not just the Ephors who fail to live up to the ideal of Spartan austerity; Aristotle writes, “They live a life of undue ease, while the rest have a very high degree of austerity in living, so high indeed that they really cannot endure it but secretly get round the law and enjoy the pleasures of the body.”[11]

            On the other hand, Aristotle writes somewhat approvingly of the council of Ephors itself, an institution Plato generally ignores.  While there seems to be no constitution with which he doesn’t find some fault, and he minds much to say about the character and competence of the Ephors, he does agree that they contribute to the stability of the state.  The Ephors were a council of five men, elected from and by the people, who shared power with the Spartan kings.  This clearly is a deviation from the aristocratic ideal, which is likely why Plato ignores it in the Republic; he is presenting a clean typology, while Aristotle is looking closer at actual cases.  In fact, he says, Sparta has this democratic element in its government, which may weaken the aristocratic ideal but does keep the people “quiet because it gives them a share in the highest office…  The point is that if a constitution is to have a good prospect of stability, it must be such that all sections of the state accept it and want it to go on in the same way as before.”[12]  This is a point that Aristotle returns to:  a “mixed” constitution is often better than a “pure” type, because it can draw on the strengths of several types of government.  Aristotle is greatly concerned about the causes of  factionalism and instability in the state, and how to avoid it.  Plato’s solution to the problem of instability is to put the most reasonable people in charge, and preserve them from the corrupting influence of money by forbidding them to own any private property—including even spouses and children.  Those with power, have no wealth; and those who are allowed private property have no power.  Aristotle says this is unbearable, and thus people will circumvent such restrictions if imposed on them; also, no one can practice the virtues of such as liberality, which involve proper use and sharing of wealth, if they have none.  Plato’s republic, or Sparta’s aristocracy, ultimately lead to the corruption of the people by denying them scope to practice the virtuous use of wealth, while allowing them only corrupt opportunities to obtain the wealth that people naturally desire.  So Aristotle argues that it is better to allow people the ability to obtain enough wealth, while also limiting the gap between rich and poor if it threatens social stability.

            Aristotle’s survey of philosophical political theories and of actual constitutions doesn’t focus exclusively on economic policies, but this is at the center of many of his criticisms.  There is advice here that would please the American “right” and “left” wings, which I suppose makes it “centrist” and perhaps even “practical.”  Conservatives would undoubtedly agree with Aristotle’s objection to Plato’s extreme egalitarianism, even communism.  Our conservatives would echo Aristotle’s view that each person will see to their own property better than the society as a whole can manage extensive common property; if you want production and trade to thrive, let specific individuals run their own businesses.  The view that the one who works should see a profit from their labors will also appeal to conservatives in our day.  And Aristotle’s view on the relationship between private wealth and virtue has parallels to conservative arguments against taxpayer-funded social programs.  Conservatives often argue that if society collects taxes to help shelter, feed and cloth the poor, this will undermine morality since it means taking money away from individuals who might have shared it freely, and also because if society as a whole is helping the poor, then no one individual is exercising the virtue of charity or liberality by sharing what specifically is that individual’s own wealth to give away.  Just as Aristotle says it is important that citizens not only have enough to live, but even enough to enjoy and enough to share, American conservatives today would argue that a society with high taxes to fund things like universal health care and tuition-free college not only robs individuals of the incentive to work, but also robs them of the ability to do good, and to be good and virtuous people, by giving personally to help others. 

            Liberals would reply that what matters is that the poor are fed and sheltered, and that if the state can accomplish this better then that is how it should be.  They would applaud Aristotle’s awareness that vast differences in wealth can divide, weaken, and possibly destroy a society.  A government that wishes to last must be a government that provides justice in the eyes of its citizens, and that includes justice for the hungry and cold.  While the rich may claim that they deserve more as the “better people,” everyone has a right to life, which means everyone must have a right to the requirements for life; if a society fails to provide either a chance to earn a living wage or help for those who cannot, that society devolves into a cold war between the rich and the poor, which could eventually go hot and end the society. 

            Aristotle is seeking political structures that avoid either extreme.  He is neither Rand nor Marx, though he could see the point in both perspectives.  Instead, he wants a society that can provide enough to every citizen to live a good life, while giving those who want more a legitimate and socially helpful way to earn it.


[1] Politics, Book II, chapter 1, 1260b36

[2] Plato is often criticized today for his totalitarian tendencies, but it is interesting to note that he treats women as people, with the same rights and responsibilities as men; he says they should have the same education and even be trained for military service.  Aristotle states that women are inferior, and in much of this chapter explicitly treats them as property more than people. 

[3] Politics, Book II, chapter 2

[4] Book II, chapter 5

[5] chapter 6

[6] Book II, chapter 6, 1265a38

[7] Book II, chapter 7

[8] chapter 7, 1266a31

[9] 1267a2

[10] Plato, Republic, book VIII, 542-550; Aristotle, Politics, book II, chapter ix

[11] 1270b28

[12] 1270b17