Posts Tagged ‘individualism’

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)