Archive for the ‘Theses Attributable to Aristotle’ Category

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Fourth Thesis

October 28, 2021

Fourth Thesis:  Rule of Law Totally Rules

We begin by asking whether it is more expedient to be ruled by the best man or by the best laws.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter XV, 1286A7

         It has long been debated whether a “benign despotism” is a better form of government than any other.  In this regard, even Plato’s philosopher-king seems to be an example:  take the best, wisest person of all of us, and empower that person to make decisions; by definition the best person will be the one who makes the best decisions, so this wisest and most benevolent despot will make better judgments than any group of lesser souls ever could.  J.S. Mill takes pains to argue against the notion of benign despotism, precisely because it seems so logical and is so often accepted, at least tacitly.  People may say democracy is better because no one person has the wisdom and benevolence to wield unlimited power; but often they go on to say or wish that if such a one did arise, that person should be given sole rule and the power to back up their decrees. [1]  In Christian political thought into the Enlightenment, monarchy was often assumed as both the most natural form of human government, and as reflecting God’s own reign; Jesus is the King of Kings, raised from lowliness and from death to rule, and your local king was Christ’s viceroy.  Whether the secular humanist or theocratic model is preferred, the agreement is that the ideal government would be one where a supremely good person had supreme power as well, and was free to make decisions and set policies for society unchecked either by lesser persons or by the dead letter of the law.  Aristotle, too, discusses such arguments.  He uses the analogy of a doctor; wouldn’t it be better to have a doctor who was well-trained and perceptive who could prescribe treatment based on the unique problem at hand, rather than one who read the treatment from a book? 

         But while there are arguments in favor of the benign despot, Aristotle rejects the notion.  Ultimately, he says, the best society will be one that is run according to written laws and unwritten customs, with individual case-by-case human judgment kept to a minimum.  Returning to the analogy of the doctor, he says, suppose you feared your doctor might have been bribed by your enemies; in that case, wouldn’t you prefer that he treat you according to previously-established rules and procedures?[2]  This is the situation in the state.  The supposedly “benign despot” still has appetites and desires that may run counter to yours, or even to the good of the nation as a whole.  Furthermore, every group has its own interests:  the poor want power given to the many since they outnumber the rich, while the rich want power restricted; the military, the agriculturalists, even the tradesmen all have their own agendas.  A stable government is one that is accepted as just and beneficial by all, or at least by the overwhelming majority.  If the state is run by a king who is furthermore unchecked by laws and customs, each person will fear that the decisions of that king are bought by their competitors.  The law, Aristotle says, is “intellect without appetition.”[3]  It is both general and, usually, long-established, and the same for everyone; it is what has been.  Everyone knows “the rules of the game,” as we say today, and can accept that there’s “nothing personal” when things don’t work out in their favor.  Aristotle even goes so far as to say, “he who asks law to rule is asking god and intelligence and no others to rule; while he who asks for the rule of a human being is importing a wild beast too; for desire is like a wild beast, and anger perverts rules and the very best of men.”  So even though he says elsewhere that if it were possible to have a single morally superlative ruler, that would be like having a god who should be obeyed unquestioned, in fact he claims that in a realistic society with realistic people we should be governed by good laws.  It is these laws which will in turn educate the citizens and leaders, turning them into the kinds of people who can know how best to apply these general principles to actual cases.

         While Aristotle discusses this primarily in relation to monarchy, his comments about rule of law apply to all governments whether they be rule by the one, the few or the many.  A “correct” government is one that rules in the interest of the state as a whole; a “deviant” one rules in the interests of the rulers.[4]  And it is rule of law that protects against arbitrariness and self-serving government.  In fact, the laws (written and customary) reflect the constitution.  Aristotle’s definition of the “constitution” of the state is the organization of the citizen-body:  who has authority, who holds what offices and so on.  The laws reflect this organization, laying down general principles whereby this authority is exercised.[5]  So rule according to the laws precisely is rule that seeks to preserve the state, and thus the only justified government at all. 

         In Aristotle’s time, it was an established practice that someone leaving office would present an account of his tenure; if he was found to have failed or acted corruptly, he could be punished.  In our day, President Trump sought to overthrow those “unwritten” laws, norms and customs of government, as well as many of the written laws, in an attempt to subvert the established principles of our government on January 6th, 2021.  In response, he was impeached by the House, but was not sanctioned by the Senate.  This is despite the words of Mitch McConnell, then leader of the Senate, who said, “”Former President Trump’s actions (preceding) the riot were a disgraceful – disgraceful – dereliction of duty,” and, “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.”[6]  In an Athenian “scrutiny,” this would have been all the cause needed to punish.  In fact, though, the entire administration had been one of ignoring both written and unwritten rules, particularly when the financial profit of some government official was at stake or the political and personal feud of some person was being pursued.  And in fact, there are still many cases when politicians of both parties use government information to profit in the stock market, use their power to protect their personal investments, condemn in their opponents what they praise in their allies and otherwise put the interests of themselves and their faction over the welfare of the state as a whole.  Whereas Aristotle considered the unwritten norms and customs of the state to often be even more crucial in decision-making than were the written laws, today the unwritten norms are shredded if it suits the power of demagogues.  And too often, those who think themselves championed by some demagogue not only tolerate violations of law and custom:  they demand it.  Now, it is largely the “conservatives” who seem least interested in “conserving” our traditions of government; recent polls have indicated more than half of Republican voters are ready to abandon our Constitution’s democracy in favor of some vision of “America” that better suits them.  When I was in college, I heard that same sort of rhetoric from self-professed “liberals,” who referred to the government’s written laws (whether it was student government or national) as a “toolbox” from which the leaders could select whichever “laws” would help them promote their agenda, while leaving the rest aside.  Always, whether it’s liberal or conservative, the impulse to abandon rule of law, norms, and rituals of government represents a faction and its leaders putting themselves ahead of the health of the nation.  There is no true “enlightened” or “benign” despot; anyone with governmental power and office is either a servant and executor of the laws of the nation, or its enemy.


[1] John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, 1861

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter xvi, 1287a32

[3] 1287a23

[4] Politics Book III, chapter vii, 1279a22

[5] Book IV, chapter I, 1289a11

[6] MacKenzie Sadeghi “Fact Check:  Yes, McConnell Said Trump Was ‘Practically and Morally Responsible’ for Capitol Riot;” USA Today February 16, 2021 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2021/02/16/fact-check-mcconnell-said-trump-was-responsible-for-capitol-riot/6767311002/)

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Third Thesis: A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

July 22, 2021

Third Thesis:  A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

But surely men praise the ability to rule and to be ruled, and the virtue of a citizen of repute seems to be just this—to be able to rule and be ruled well.

—–Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter iv, 1277a25

            Aristotle’s Athens and the United States of America have at least one thing in common:  both had to think about what it means to be a “citizen.”  The USA had to think about citizenship because the nation was born out of revolution; and in defining the citizen, the State and the relationship between them, its Founding Fathers drew explicitly on the intellectual history of which Aristotle is an important part.  Aristotle, and the other thinkers of his day, had to reflect on the nature of citizenship because the ancient traditions were not so universally accepted as they had been.  Greece itself was governed by different, often warring city-states, with different political institutions and different views of government and citizenship.  Greek merchants traded with empires and nations that differed even more drastically from the Greek assumptions.  Western philosophy began along the coast of present-day Turkey, where Greek and non-Greek cultures, religions, moral and political assumptions from different nations collided on a daily basis.  At first, the earliest of those we now call “philosophers” primarily focused on scientific questions, such as how the world was made; living in a region where Zeus and Marduk and others all claimed the title “Creator,” some Greeks decided to try to use human reason to answer the question instead of relying on religious traditions and myths alone.  Later, this rational, humanist approach to seeking truth was extended even to morality and politics.  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other great thinkers lived as the Athenian way of democratic government was collapsing; Aristotle’s own student, Alexander the Great, would go on to destroy the independent Greek city-states once and for all.  It was a world in political transition, and transition demands attention.  What is a citizen? 

            Rather than rely solely on tradition, or on the laws of his own city-state, Aristotle sought to look at all the various definitions and to define what “citizen” meant in all of them.  To be a citizen, he said, was to be eligible for “honors,” that is, public office.  One who was a citizen had the right to have a part in making the laws, or in carrying them out by participating in the civic institutions.  This, he said, was what it meant to be a “citizen” whether one lived in a monarchy or some more representative state.[1] 

            At the same time, though, to be a “citizen” in a properly-run state is more than just giving orders and rendering judgments.  Aristotle argued that a properly-run state, whether it was governed by one person, a small group or by the majority, was run according to rule of law.  If the leaders acted according to the state’s constitution and for the good of the nation, it would be a healthy, stable society where its members could practice their personal virtue and strive for eudaimonia as well as their nature was suited; if the leaders acted without regard to the laws and traditions of the society, seeking their own good rather than the good of the society, it was a “deviation.”  Even a monarch needs to rule according to the laws and traditions that define the monarchy; for example, the Spartan kings had clear limits on their power, with institutional checks such as the Ephorate.  A king with no limits is a tyrant, acting only as suits his own whim.  Likewise, a government by “the best” could be an aristocracy, led by the most noble and virtuous persons respected by the society as a whole, or an oligarchy, rich property owners ruling the state in whatever way made themselves more money.  Majority rule could be democracy, where the people vote on whatever pleases them without regard for the overall health of the state and without limits on their fiat; or, Aristotle said, they could vote and govern within the limits laid down by their constitution, following the laws and traditions of the society that would ensure stability and the overall good.  Aristotle describes this sort of nation as a “polity.”  In each case, whether the nation is ruled by one, a few or many, the good option is the one that aims to carry out the laws and constitution, acting on prerogative only where the law is not sufficiently precise; the deviation is where the rulers replace law with their own will.

            Thus, even in a healthy monarchy or aristocracy, a citizen must be someone who is eligible to exercise civic authority, and also obey authority—even the monarch is bound by the constitution.[2]   But this understanding of “citizen” is particularly true in a democracy/polity, where all citizens are equally entitled to office, and the same person alternates between being ruler and ruled.  I myself, in today’s society, could be called to be a juror and thus to carry out the laws of my community, exercising judicial authority; that is one sort of ruling.  I choose the leaders of my society, who act as delegates for me and the other voters; that too is authority.  I could run for office; as we have seen, the requirements for public office today are surprisingly low.  In all these ways even I must alternate between being ruled (most of the time) and ruler.  That is the essence of a democratic polity.  And according to Aristotle, it is also the essence of statesmanship:  only one who is capable of being ruled is fit to rule free citizens.[3] A leader who cannot also obey, who has never known what it was to be under authority, is a tyrant, fit only to rule over slaves, not free people.[4]  Slavemasters or tyrants need not understand those under their command; they need only know how to use them effectively.  The leader of free people must know what is it to be a citizen, and must understand those they lead, in order to exercise authority for the good of the citizens.

            If we take Aristotle’s thoughts seriously, we much that is relevant for understanding democracy in the USA today.  In 1980, at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, Republican strategist and activist Paul Weyrich delivered a speech where he argued against the prevailing wisdom that Americans should support democratic participation in society.[5]  Until then, it had been part of our nation’s culture and education from childhood that to be a citizen was to vote; it was your “patriotic duty.”  Yes, sadly, much of our politics has also involved voter suppression, suppression of immigrants, of Black people and so on; but this was not so much inconsistent as it was a recognition of the principle that to be a citizen was to be a voter—racists and religious bigots didn’t want those “others” to be citizens.  This idea of fighting to keep citizens from exercising their civic duty to vote was the way Republicans should work to win power was different.  Now, people like me, who had attended compulsory Civics courses in state high school so that we’d be good citizens, who had grown up hearing that our nation was “the arsenal of freedom” and “a shining city on a hill,” were now to be kept away from the polls and discouraged from even wanting to vote.  At first, these efforts seemed small; Republicans began fighting against voter registration drives by nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters, they began fighting against candidate debates sponsored by neutral parties and so on, seeking to make it harder for potential voters to learn about candidates or register to vote or become interested in politics, so that the most likely voters would be the older and more reliably Republican base who would, as they said, “crawl over broken glass” to vote against anything labeled “socialism.”  They founded FOX News and other partisan “news” organizations to not so much inform listeners from a particular ideological perspective, but rather to un-inform them, to rouse the emotions rather than feeding the mind.  These were attacks on the spirit of democracy, and attempts to weaken civic engagement in the majority.  These tactics aimed to promote apathy and non-participation, but didn’t directly attack the practice of democracy by people who sought to do so; it was most often a psychological warfare against democracy.  But in the last few years, Republicans have turned from attempting to dissuade people from voting or informing themselves, to actively seeing to stop even qualified and motivated people from voting.  Repeated efforts to “clean up voter registration rolls” or “fight voter fraud” removed tens of thousands of eligible, registered voters in Republican-dominated states.  Research was done to see where non-Republicans were most likely to live and what sorts of identification non-Republicans, and non-whites in general, were likely to carry, and to ban these as proof of voter eligibility; at the same time, gun permits and other sorts of ID which White Republicans were thought more likely to carry were declared the only legally acceptable proof that one was a voter.[6]  From the Republican perspective, this is just politics, doing what you can and must to win.  This is also why Republicans denounce efforts to allow more American citizens to vote as a “partisan power grab;” their own efforts in the opposite direction are a long-term strategy to grab and hold power, not by having the most supporters or even the most voters, but by disallowing and disenfranchising anyone who seems somewhat likely to vote against them.

            But while all of this may seem to Republicans like mere moves in the political game, from the Aristotelian perspective they are changing the constitution of the state itself, and attempting to strip millions of Americans of their citizenship.  The constitution, as Aristotle says, is not just a piece of inscribed parchment in a museum; it is the arrangement of offices in the state:  “the citizen-body is the constitution.”[7]  Who is eligible to hold office, and what those public offices do, is the constitution of the state; and who is eligible to hold office is a citizen of the state.  For most of us, the only public offices to which we aspire and for which we are undoubtedly qualified are voter and juror.  As voters, we delegate our authority to make laws, wage wars, enforce justice and otherwise govern on our behalf to proxies who take oaths of office to act on our behalf, not for their own selfish benefit.  As jurors, we act to give a voice to We The People in how those laws are applied to our fellow citizens.  Stripping someone of their right to vote, whether it’s based on their race, their zip code, or some more subtle method selected, as the courts said, “with surgical precision” to disenfranchise them, is denying them their citizenship.  Republicans like to talk about the Right to Bear Arms as a “sacred” right, enshrined in the Constitution; but the right to vote, and as a registered voter to be eligible for jury duty, are the true sacred rights of citizenship.  They are the very definition of citizenship.  What the Republican Party is engaged in today, with hundreds of bills introduced in state legislatures dominated by Republicans, is nothing less than a strategic campaign to strip citizenship from millions of taxpayers, millions of people who either serve in our military or have family who served, millions of people either born in the this nation as the children of citizens, or who have undertaken to study and learn and withstood an examination of their worthiness more rigorous than any which many Republicans could possibly pass.  It is, as Aristotle says, an attempt to change the constitution, not through the prescribed method of amendment, but through skullduggery, corruption, intimidation and deception.  It is far more serious than what we often think of as “political games,” which reasonable people often ignore; and the results could be far more serious than those who are carrying out this plan want to admit, or even realize.  It is an attempt to drastically curtail, if not eliminate American democracy, all for the sake of winning one more round against the Democrats. 

            If you think democracy is important, if you think it matters, you must do everything possible to break the GOP, to either crush it into dust or to force it to reform itself.  This can only be accomplished if American independent voters, Democratic voters, and even Republican voters who love their country and their democratic (small “d”) heritage, vote straight Democratic in every possible election.  Not voting, or voting third party, will not accomplish this.  Voting for the “good Republican candidate” in the general election is still to vote for someone who made their peace with this decades-long plan to subvert not just the democratic process, but to undermine civic participation and patriotic duty for all citizens.  Whether liberal, moderate or true conservative, we must “mindlessly and mechanically” vote against literally all Republican candidates, including those who run in ostensibly nonpartisan races like School Board but whose public statements or voting record show them to be QAnon, Neoconfederate, “very fine people on both sides” Republicans—because all Republicans, at this point, have declared that both Nazis and anti-Nazis are either equal or the Nazis are better, simply by remaining in a political party where Nazis are welcomed, given tours of the Capitol by sitting Congressional representatives days before attempting a putsch, and whose crimes are covered up by elected Republican officials and their party information/propaganda outlets such as OAN, FOX News, etc.[8] 

            On the other hand, if you don’t value democracy, then perhaps you should continue voting Republican after all.  What, if anything, might Aristotle say to persuade someone on this point?

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter 1, 1275a22

[2] In the United States, and many other nation-states today, the “constitution” is a written document, the founding charter of the nation, spelling out the foundation of the laws and the political institutions.  Aristotle’s definition is looser.  While most states had a historical or mythological lawgiver, Aristotle only specifies that the arrangement of the offices of the country is its constitution; thus even a nation with no written constitution, governed by longstanding tradition and legal precedent, would have a “constitution” in Aristotle’s sense—so, good news for Great Britain.  Also, it is common for authoritarian regimes to have a written “constitution” that promises all sorts of rights, while the reality is very different; in this case, Aristotle would say that the actual constitution is what is actually done. 

[3] Politics book IV, chapter iii, 1277b7

[4] 1277a33

[5] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch September 24, 2015 (https://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/)

[6] Rebecca Leber, “In Texas, You Can Vote with a Concealed Handgun Permit—but not a Student ID;” The New Republic October 20, 2014 (https://newrepublic.com/article/119900/texas-voter-id-allows-handgun-licenses-not-student-ids) ; also Camilla Domonoske, “Supreme Court Declines Republican Bid to Revive North Carolina Voter ID Law;” NPR May 15, 2017 (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/15/528457693/supreme-court-declines-republican-bid-to-revive-north-carolina-voter-id-law), as well as other efforts in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere, which historically have led to tens if not hundreds of thousands of voters being purged, only to subsequently proved only a few hundred were actually ineligible.

[7] Politics Book III, chapter vi, 1278b6

[8] Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, “Boycott the Republican Party;” The Atlantic March 2018 (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/boycott-the-gop/550907/)

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

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: First

April 8, 2021

First Thesis:  The state exists to serve the people, to encourage human flourishing, and any aspect that fails to do that is unjustified

It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, book I, chapter ii, 1253a1

            The Founding Fathers of our American Revolution were deeply influenced by social contract political theory, particularly as described by John Locke.  The essence of Enlightenment-era social contract theory is:  Imagine humans living in a “state of Nature,” an existence without government or laws.  In such a situation, every individual is completely free.  When humans join together in a society, they give up some of those freedoms and rights they had in the state of Nature, ceding that power to the State or Commonwealth to control through laws, magistrates and so on.  However, each individual retains their “inalienable rights:”  those rights which, by their very nature and the nature of the social contract, cannot be logically said to have been given up.  The most obvious is the right to life.  Even Thomas Hobbes, who had the lowest opinion of human nature and thus believed the State needed the most power to control its citizens, still conceded that no one gives up the right to life.  If your government demands your death, you can flee, or resist in any way you can.  The reason you agree to live under the sovereignty of your king and country is to protect your life; if the government can’t or won’t protect your life, the only rational thing to do is try to protect it yourself by any means available.  A State that doesn’t protect the lives of its citizens has broken its side of the social contract, and thus is no government at all. 

            Locke, Rousseau and other social contract philosophers were more influential on the Founding Fathers than was the monarchist Hobbes.  They believed that humans are basically good or at least decent and rational, and therefore include not only life but also personal liberty among the inalienable rights.  Even agreeing to be governed is not so much a surrender of one’s basic freedom, as it is a modification of how it will be expressed:  through voting, and forming a government that reflects the will of the people.  But one point these democratic thinkers shared with Hobbes was their starting point:  the atomistic individual who, though perhaps only an intellectual construct, was the theoretical starting point and thus also the aim of the State.  There was little chance you ever actually made a decision to leave a state of Nature; you were born a citizen.  But still, the social contract thinker takes this idea of the pure individual in the state of pure anarchy as a given, and then proceeds with the thought-experiment of asking why and how a number of such individuals might join together to form a community.  In answering these questions, the social contract philosopher seeks to define the role and the limits of the State, and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen.

            Social contract theory is often based not just on individualism, but on egoism.  Glaucon’s argument in Book II of Plato’s Republic is the classic example.  Glaucon proposes that any individual, if able, will strive to fulfill their ambitions and desires regardless of concerns for morality or justice; but since this results in chaos, the majority band together like sheep seeking the protection of numbers and the shepherd to save them from the wolves.  Humanity is thus divided between the majority of sheep, who make up the State, and the few supremely ambitious and powerful ones, who seek to live as wolves as far as they are able.  In this view, the State is a constraint on the “superior” ones, the cleverest and strongest and most politically adept, which everyone tolerates because the majority prefer its safety but which everyone, if able, would live without.  Hobbes’ argument in Leviathan is similar, and even goes so far as to describe the State as an “artificial person” created by the agreement of a large group of individuals to be welded into one will, that of the sovereign.[1] 

            Aristotle, by contrast, does not see the state as “artificial” or an unwelcome concession to the demands of the mob for protection from their more rapacious neighbors.  He describes the state as entirely natural, the culmination of the needs and desires of the individual and the only way the individual can be truly happy.  In Book I of his Politics he discusses how the individual’s natural desire and need to reproduce requires another and, from this union of male and female, the family is created.  The individual family can’t attain all the goods and security it needs alone, so families come together to form villages.  The village can provide its members with their survival needs, but Aristotle says that more than survival is necessary for happiness/eudaimonia; for the individuals to have what they need to not merely live but to live well, they require a polis, a state, which will have sufficient division of labor, markets, and cultural institutions such as law courts, education, the arts, and so on to allow its citizens to fulfill their human nature as not only living animals, but as rational beings who seek to learn and discuss and guide their lives philosophically.  Thus the natural needs of the individual lead inevitably to the city-state, which finally has the population and the sophistication to be fully self-sufficient.  Aristotle writes:

For all practical purposes the process is now complete; self-sufficiency has been reached, and while the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life.  Therefore every state exists by nature, as the earlier associations too were natural.  This association is the end of those others, and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end product of the coming into existence of any object, that is what we cal its nature…

            It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.[2]

This idea has many possible implications, which will only be fully shown later.  One might guess that if the state exists to secure the good life for the citizen, that the state will tend naturally to some sort of democratic or libertarian structure so as to better achieve its goal of the fulfillment of the individual’s true happiness.  Contrariwise, one might speculate that if the state is the telos of the individual, that something more like the anthill or the Borg collective might be its final structure, with the individual finding fulfillment in losing all sense of individuality.  While both of these guesses will prove wrong, the early indications in the Politics are for the second.  Aristotle accepts as given the existence of both slavery and patriarchy.  He quotes the poet Euripides as authority for the proposition that it is fitting that Greeks should rule all other people, and asserts that non-Greeks are naturally irrational and slavish and thus can only find their fulfillment as slaves to Greeks.  He further claims that women too are not fully rational, and thus are incapable of the sort of happiness which the citizen expects; a woman’s nature is to be guided by her husband.  While the state may exist to enable the citizens to achieve happiness, Aristotle denies that women and non-Greeks are capable of happiness since they lack the rationality essential to it; so they are not in fact citizens.  This, I would say, is the dark side of Aristotle’s way of thinking.  He has a view of human nature, which is largely based on his own nature as an individual and a member of a certain culture; he judges every deviation from that “ideal” as a failure to be fully human.  Social contract theory, by contrast, assumes everyone is essentially equal, whatever political inequalities may arise later.  It is much easier to sacrifice some individuals to the state if the state exists only for the sake of some of its inhabitants, who are deemed “citizens,” while seeing the others only as helpers, tools, adversaries or raw material for the citizens.  Even a Hobbesian social contract has a notion of “inalienable rights” to which all individuals are entitled; if the state denies them these minimal rights, they in turn owe the state no loyalty either. 

            On the other hand, the inherent egoism of much social contract thinking can undermine the community and even destroy it.  This can be seen most clearly in the extreme egoism which underlies much of American conservatism:  the philosophy of Ayn Rand.[3]   Despite the admiration she expresses for Aristotle in books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand utterly rejects his claim that humans are naturally social.  In a journal entry, Rand writes:

For instance, when discussing the social instinct — does it matter whether it had existed in the early savages? Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question) — does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal — isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?

Rand claims that the human individual is innately selfish, and should be; only the life of rationally-pursued selfishness fulfills our human nature as a rational animal.  She strongly doubts the claim put forth by Hume in the 18th Century and by other philosophers and psychologists to this day that humans have any natural social or cooperative sense; she believes this is imposed on us by our upbringing, and the sooner we shake it off, the better.  But even if this is wrong and the social instinct is natural, she still believes it should be rejected.  Only egoism gives proper due to the rational nature and the supreme value of the individual.  Thus, when she discusses the ideal state, it is only the barest of Lockean social contract:  the state as neutral party mediating between neighbors, with even large portions of the legal and penal systems handed off to the private sector.  Aside from maintaining an army for border security and maybe some police to prevent violent crimes, supported by voluntary taxation and service-type fees, everything is to be left to the unfettered capitalist.  In practice, however, attempts to actualize this philosophical libertarian utopia have universally failed.  So far, it hasn’t been as bad as the national attempts to actualize Marxism, but perhaps this is just because it hasn’t been tried on that scale.  Certainly, the attempts to manage Sears according to Rand’s Objectivist philosophy were a disaster leading ultimately to the destruction of one of our nation’s longest-lived retailers; and Honduras, a country largely run on Objectivist-style conservatism since the 2009 coup, has spiraled into poverty, crime and dysfunction where even basic road repair is beyond the government’s capacity, and necessary infrastructure like an airport can’t be built because no individual is willing to shoulder the expense alone.  But despite the failure of these and other attempts to run human affairs according to Rand’s egoistic political philosophy, American conservatives continue to push her views as something more reliable than Gospel. 

            While Rand would say that the progression from men (social animals) to man (the free, independent egoist) is “the only possible progress,” Aristotle would say this would be a disaster.  Gods and brutes may be self-sufficient individuals, but that is not a life for humans; gods can live independently and be happy because they are not animals and have no physical needs, while beasts and brutes like Polyphemus are incapable of happiness because they are uncivilized.  Human nature is only fulfilled, he says, when humans use their human reason and human language to work out how to live together in justice and cooperation. 

            A political philosophy that sees politics as an unfortunate and unwelcome necessity, a yoke laid on the shoulder of the citizen to bridle their natural vitality, is bound to encourage the anarchic egoism we see in American conservatism today.  When “freedom” is described as the individual’s escape from all obligations or regard for neighbors, for laws or for cultural achievements, even democracy can be seen as oppression.[4]  To such a mindset, only anarchy would be truly natural and truly free, fulfilling the individual’s true nature as an independent free-floating atom of humanity.  And in such a state, as the social-contractarian says, life is nasty, poor, brutish and short.  If we are looking for a political philosophy, instead of an anti-political ideology, we need to find one that can guide social cooperation and help determine wise social goals.  Aristotle’s philosophy is one of the earliest attempts to analyze the nature of citizenship and the state, and still offers some advantages over today’s ultra-libertarianism.  At the same time, Aristotle accepts many aspects of his own culture without question which we today would regard as either quixotic (he declares money-lending “unnatural”) or abhorrent (his easy acceptance of racism, sexism, and slavery, among other things).  What we need to consider is if we can learn from Aristotle and find valuable insights which can be separated from the historical dross and repurposed to help create a more functional society today. 

            The state exists to allow the citizens to live their best lives possible.  So, who are these “citizens” who should benefit?  Can we expand citizenship, and the benefits of citizenship, beyond the limits Aristotle imagined?  If we can, and refuse to do so in order to protect the interests of some elite minority, does that represent a failure of our politics, and our justice? 

To be continued….


[1] Hobbes, Leviathan, Book I, chapters 14-16

[2] Aristotle, Politics, book I, 1252b27-1253a1

[3] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour February 16, 2016 (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously)

[4] Andrew Kaczynski and Paul LeBlanc, “Trump’s Fed Pick Stephen Moore is a Self-Described ‘Radical’ who said he’s not a “Big Believer in Democracy’” CNN April 13, 2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/12/politics/stephen-moore-kfile/index.html)

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: introduction

March 30, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  introduction

Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating good (habits) in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure.

—–Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book II, chapter i, 1103b

            From the end of the 20th Century until now, I have seen a lot of division and confusion regarding our politics.  As a child I was largely oblivious to the existence or the end of legal segregation.  As a schoolchild I was part of the struggle over desegregation, and while I could observe the poverty of Black schools and desired that adults would fund all schools better, I was still a child and had little sense of involvement.  As I got older, I began to think more consciously about the relationship between myself and the nation I lived in, between the citizen and the state, the meanings of these terms and the mutual obligations entailed.  Without my quite being aware of it, these social questions that were affecting me, such as court-ordered bussing or draft registration, were parts of one larger question:  the relationship between the individual and the state. 

            Unknown to me at the time, the political parties were defining their different views on this question.  Race and the draft were the two issues that got people out in the streets when I was a child watching television.  We didn’t have as much discussion of things like “wealth gap” in those days, partly because it wasn’t nearly as big an issue; the wealth gap was a fraction of what it is now, and the middle class was strong and growing.  Both liberals and conservatives agreed that a citizen had a duty to vote, and devoted energy to train children to become citizens—-thought it is sadly ironic that there was still a lot of conflict and even violence over whether this citizens’ right and duty to vote should apply to nonwhites.

            My first introduction to philosophy was Walden, and I was particularly influenced by Thoreau’s essay “Economy.”  Thoreau presents his vision of human nature:  the ideal life is one close to Nature, eschewing luxuries, working enough to sustain life but little more, so as to allow ample leisure time for thought, writing and other pursuits to feed the mind and soul.  I don’t remember if I read his essay on civil disobedience at this time, but I still have the book I used and it includes that famous essay so I think I did.  Either way, I was already reading political philosophy at the age of thirteen, including critiques of consumerism and capitalism, representative versus radical democracy, and the general relationship of the individual to society.  Metaphysically and epistemologically, Thoreau is something of a mystic; the believed that God was literally in Nature and could be experienced directly by experiencing Nature, getting away from crowds and civilization.  In the woods, by his beloved pond, Truth gave itself directly to Thoreau.  In the bustle of society, in the ambition of politicians and the pressures to conform and in the strivings of empires, he found only falsehood and sin.

            I think the next major piece of political philosophy I picked up was Plato’s Republic.  Plato too is a mystic; Truth and The Good are transcendent reality, known directly by the mind open to receive them.  And also like Thoreau, Plato was something of an ascetic; he too thought luxuries and the pursuit of profit lead one into greater unhappiness and ignorance, while embracing simplicity in life allowed greater devotion to fullness of thought and spirit.  But whereas Thoreau politically was a cynic and almost an anarchist, Plato was anti-democratic, yearning for a Philosopher-King who would combine the philosophical insights of Athens with the rigid class distinctions and social discipline of Sparta.  In high school I didn’t really notice the disagreement, as I saw Plato’s republic as merely a thought-experiment expressing how reason should rule in the life of the individual; but as time has gone by I have come to see that Plato took this idea of enlightened monarchy seriously.  Plato is not an individualist; he yearned for a society with a wise division of labor, where those who were good thinkers did all the thinking and policy-making while those whose hearts turned towards business devoted themselves to producing and making money and left the running of society to the intellectual elite.  So while Thoreau is heir to Plato in many ways, politically he follows the example of Diogenes the Cynic, the fierce individualist, who rejected political partisanship and creature comforts alike in his pursuit of complete personal freedom. 

            Plato and Diogenes were both students of Socrates, but took different lessons from the teacher’s words and fate.  Which is best:  a well-ordered, stable society where everyone knows his or her place and strives to benefit the whole, or a society which is an aggregate of individuals, each striving to live out their own ideals and pursue their own happiness?  It seems to me that this is a conflict that occurs repeatedly in the history of thought, since it is intrinsic to the project of human social life in general.  China had Confucius and Chuang-Tzu; the Hellenistic Age had the Stoics and the Cynics; the Enlightenment had Hobbes and Locke; nineteenth-century America had the Capitalists and the Transcendentalists.  As societies grow beyond family-groups and clans, we’ve had to turn our brains to intentionally work out the relationship between the individual and the group, with some placing the emphasis on one and some on the other.  Does the individual exist to serve the group, and is the nature of the individual defined primarily as part of the group?  Or does the group exist to serve the individual’s needs, so that anything that does not nurture the individual is to be discarded?

            There’s been something of a resurgence of Aristotle in recent decades.  Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum have been arguing for a return to virtue ethics, and a view of ethics as aiming for some sort of “good life,” some fulfillment of human nature.  On the other hand, political conservatives in the USA have promoted Aquinas and other Aristotelians, as well as Plato’s anti-democratic republicanism, not so much from any intellectual consideration as because they see both Plato and Aristotle as useful cudgels in their ideological war against “liberals.”  I’ve taught Aristotle as part of my Ethics classes for years, but only recently have I become interested in his political philosophy.  I believe he has much to say, and much that would defy the easy liberal-versus-conservative polarities we seem to love so much today.

            Aristotle’s Politics picks up about where Nicomachean Ethics leaves off. Aristotle’s ethics rests on his view that humans are rational animals, and thus not only have needs for basic essentials for life and desires for pleasant sensations while avoiding misery, but more essentially they need to live lives “guided by reason, or not apart from reason.”[1]  To attain this sort of life, one must cultivate habits that contribute to it; these are the virtues.  By contrast, habits that lead away from true human fulfillment (or “eudaimonia,” often translated “happiness”) are termed “vices.”  For Aristotle, the ethical life is a matter of cultivating virtues by acting virtuously, reinforcing those beneficial habits while avoiding acts that would tend towards vices.[2]  And in support of his linkage between morality, character and habit, Aristotle mentions that states themselves often employ legal codes that will shape the character of their citizens by using rewards and punishments to encourage good habits while discouraging bad ones.  For instance, we ourselves seek to be properly brave, neither too reckless nor cowardly, because if we are wise we know that hitting the virtue defined as the proper midpoint between these extreme vices will lead to our own true happiness; and societies seek to encourage bravery, industriousness and other virtues in citizens as a whole for the wellbeing of the community, so they use laws and other social pressures to encourage each individual to become a better person.  Aristotle would say that in doing so, the society is pushing the individual to become not just more socially useful, but also more personally happy.

            So even in his exploration of personal ethics and personal happiness, Aristotle sees an important role for the State.  This certainly distinguishes him from some ethical schools which have been important in American history, such as Transcendentalism; and it distinguishes him from some successors to Socrates, such as the Cynics and the Epicureans.  Today’s successors to Aristotle will likewise be less individualistic, but also concerned about the ultimate fulfillment of the individual; Aristotelians will not sacrifice the individual to the State as a Hobbesian would, since the individual’s happiness is the goal of the individual’s own activity.  Also unlike Hobbes, an Aristotelian will stress the character development of the individual, and stress the importance of cultivating the virtues.  Because of Aristotle’s view of the importance of both the individual and the group, it was natural that he would write both personal ethics and political philosophy, and base the second on the first. 

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book I, 1097b22–1098a20

[2] Nicomachean Ethics, book II