on January 30, 2001
Just as in most of his other books, in "The Politics", Aristotle becomes the founder of organized, ordered, and systematic thought. Of course, he was not the first philosopher to think about the organization and governance of societies, but his work is the first classification and comparison of different possible systems. As I said in a recent review of Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics", his greatest originality is the stripping off of myth, legend, metaphor and poetics from his exposition of the subject. This is his main difference with his predecessor and teacher, Plato. This makes for a drier reading, but also for a clearer and better organized rendering of his clear thought. It can be said, moreover, that Plato and Aristotle constitute the founding pillars of the two main currents in Western thought: idealism (Plato) vs. realism (Aristotle). Although any tragedies deriving from these sources is, of course, not a responsibility of these great thinkers, it can be said, in general, the following:
The idealist tradition inaugurated by Plato led to the rise of universal, all-encompassing theories. That is, those which assert that there is a single unifying principle tying up together economics, politics, ethics, and social organization, and that this principle (whichever it may be) is suitable for any society at any time and place. Hence, Rousseaunianism, Socialism, Communism.
The "realist" tradition springing from Aristotle simply says that human problems can not be resolved by magical formulas or recipes. Social situations can not be severed from their immediate environment. Aristotle, then, classifies possible types of systems and defines their advantages and disadvantages for different types of societies. His approach, then, is that there can be no universal and general solutions or organizing principles. Aristotle is absolutely practical in his approach, as opposed to the theoretical systems imagined (as opposed to observed) by Plato. Hence: liberalism, Realpolitik, capitalism, democracy (or I should say "capitalisms" and "democracies", since there are very different varieties of these systems). Aristotle examines then distinct kinds of Constitutions, what they require to be effective, and what effects they might bring upon.
Read it, then, for a clear and well-ordered exposition of themes, subthemes, and advice. Here you will find the origin of half of Western political thought. And precisely the half that seems to be winning the race.
on January 27, 2001
Aristotle's Politics is the first serious analytic investigation of various organized states and an excellent exposition in all the basics of political science. While this book does show Aristotle's immense breadth of knowledge about the various constitutions of the Greek-city states, he is not content just to offer basic factual information about their forms of government, but digs deep to try and explain the "how" and "why" of the political order. In doing so, this book is both rich in its theoretical and empirical aspects. Aristotle was pre-eminent in two virtues that allowed him to make pioneering advances in every field of endeavor; first his minute and rigorous attention to detail (the empirical world) combined with a masterful ability to systematize separate spheres of knowledge. Both these virtues shine through in Politics. Moreover, any careful reading of this book shows that the issues that Aristotle dealt with are still relevant and contentious to this day. This book should not be treated as an historical curiosity, but one that can continue to challenge and inspire.
Political science must start with an understanding and knowledge of human nature. What makes men form communities anyway? Aristotle's story is simple, but useful: first, there must a union of those who can not exist without each other, the male and female, who come together not of deliberate purpose, but out of the instinctive urge to make life continue. The family then comes into existence for the supply of men's everyday wants, and when families organize the village comes into existence and when villages come together society has reached its zenith -- the creation of the city-state. While Aristotle definitely thought that the state was a natural institution, this chronology also shows that he thought that the family was natural and an indispensable element in human society. This shows a much deeper understanding of the inclinations in human nature than the modern sociologist who treats the family as an arbitrary and exploitive social convention that can be undone.
The state, according to Aristotle, exists to cultivate virtue in men and encourage excellence in its citizens. Since the state represents the highest formation of a natural community it should not concern itself with imperialistic pursuits (the dream of Alexander's empire was foreign to Aristotle's mind), but only with the welfare of its citizens. In discussing the merits of the state he anticipates Hobbes, "...who first founded the state was the greatest benefactor. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all...the most unholy and savage of animals." The state gives its citizens the capacity for practicing virtue. However, virtue does not exactly mean moral. A political community is made up of men, women, parents, children, leaders, voters, masters, slaves and so on. All these different members of the political community have a separate nature and hence role to perform in the state (or community). Men farm and engage in trade and exchange and women raise the children and take care of the home, masters have the foresight to execute new plans and slaves the strength to carry them out. But since all these members have the same goal in mind, there are no social, class or gender divisions. Their differences allow them to cooperate and work together. Natural differences beget social differences. We can already see how alien this idea is from current sociological theory that regards any division as a source of conflict and wholly arbitrary. Egalitarianism is not only a perversion of nature, but also of virtue.
Aristotle's understanding of the state as an extended natural (ethnic) community allowed him to make keen statements about the cause of revolution within in states. "Another cause of revolution is difference of races that do not at once acquire a common spirit, for a state is not the growth of a day, anymore than it grows out of a multitude brought together by accident. Hence the reception of strangers in colonies, either at the time of their foundation or afterwards, has generally produced revolution." What Aristotle means is that a state is the result of a long process of growth and is the creation of a particular ethnic community, an extended form of blood-kinship, and that the introduction of foreign elements de-stabilizes the community and consequently the state. Historically, this is why large imperialistic regimes finally disintegrate since they attempt to assemble multiple ethnicities under a common political center. Reflecting on this fact, isn't it odd that current wisdom is the exact opposite -- class and gender divisions within a community are seen as latent sources of conflict (although there is no historical evidence for this) and a vast array of differing ethic groups is seen as a national strength (although there is no historical evidence for this either).
There is much more to say about this remarkable book, but many of the issues that Aristotle raised are just as relevant now as they were then. This is truly a first-rate piece of political scholarship, a work that should be studied and mastered.
on January 22, 2015
There are so many consequential ideas in this book that it's amazing it's not required reading in Western classrooms anymore. The Benjamin Jowett translation is easily accessible in many formats (for free) and quite readable. Perhaps just as it was "lost" to the Middle Ages until "rediscovered" and translated into Latin in the 12th century it is lost to today.
Prerequisites for reading this book are Plato's Republic and The Laws, of which I read the former (my review) but skipped the latter. The Republic is the more important of the two as Aristotle spends much time critiquing Socrates' ideal state and the deficiencies of its description and order. There are parallel themes but the many variations of the basic forms of government are explained more clearly by Aristotle, who is not designing so much the "ideal state" as Socrates was. I will read Augustine's City of God later this year, as both works were influential in affecting future thinking about governments by Aquinas and others which, in turn, affected Thomas Jefferson and the Founders. (This is a helpful article on Aristotle and Augustine by Glenn Sunshine.)
I was surprised how much economics was in this book, circa 350 B.C.. At points, it reads quite a bit like Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. It is hard to believe such a gap in years exists between the two works, actually. I'm also surprised by how little of Aristotle's work is mentioned in traditional books on the history of economic thought. Take, for example, Book II's exploration of the importance of property rights. Part V:
"should the citizens of the perfect state have their possessions in common or not?...Property should be in a certain sense common, but, as a general rule, private; for, when everyone has a distinct interest, men will not complain of one another, and they will make more progress, because every one will be attending to his own business. And yet by reason of goodness, and in respect of use, 'Friends,' as the proverb says, 'will have all things common.'.. It is clearly better that property should be
private, but the use of it common; and the special business of the legislator is to create in men this benevolent disposition."
Aristotle responds to those who would argue for common ownership directed by the State:
"there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property. These advantages are lost by excessive unification of the state...Such legislation may have a specious appearance of benevolence; men readily listen to it, and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody's friend, especially when some one is heard denouncing the evils now existing in states, suits about contracts, convictions for perjury, flatteries of rich men and the like, which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, are due to a very different cause- the wickedness of human nature. Indeed, we see that there is much more quarrelling among those who have all things in common, though there are not many of them when compared with the vast numbers who have private property."
Aristotle understood that greed and avarice were inherent in human nature. People were more likely to act in mutual benefit when property is held privately-- Adam Smith's butcher seems to pick up on this theme. Another benefit, according to Aristotle, was greater "temperance toward women" than when they were held in common as prescribed by Socrates in The Republic.
Conservatives everywhere find agreement with Aristotle in arguing from the wisdom of historical precedent when confronted with ideas that challenge the existing order:
"Let us remember that we should not disregard the experience of ages; in the multitude of years these things, if they were good, would certainly not have been unknown; for almost everything has been found out, although sometimes they are not put together; in other cases men do not use the knowledge which they have."
In the above I hear echoes of Solomon's "there is nothing new under the sun," and the modern axiom that those who don't remember their history are condemned to repeat it.
One major critique of Socrates' The Republic is that Socrates established law for the Guardians but does not say what he would do for the lower classes. Aristotle argues that if same laws apply, the people would not have any desire to submit to the government. If all property were held in common there would be no motivation to work the fields. This recognition of property rights creating incentives is an important cornerstone of microeconomics and is too often forgotten by modern policymakers.
Socrates' Guardians were destined to rule for life, but Aristotle states this is dangerous. He also points out that if the government is going to fix the amount of property, it should also fix the number of children, and then you start getting into a critique of central planning that borders on Hayekian. He also asks what should be done with slaves and cites the Cretans as having a "wise" policy of allowing them to have the same institutions as freemen but forbidding physical training or armaments among them. There is a wealth of information about the make-up of institutions in various Greek city-states.
Book III, Part XI:
Socrates examines autocracy, oligarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and describes both theoretical and historical variations on all types. In examining arguments for the various forms, I noted that Aristotle often cites the wisdom of crowds that sounds very Hayekian or at least from the 20th century:
"The principle that the multitude ought to be supreme rather than the few best is one that is maintained, and, though not free from difficulty, yet seems to contain an element of truth. For the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse. For each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together, they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses; that is a figure of their mind and disposition. Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole."
There are also explanations for how governments evolve from one form to another. I found these similar to Socrates' explanations of the same. For example, Book V Part IV:
"Governments also change into oligarchy or into democracy or into a constitutional government because the magistrates, or some other section of the state, increase in power or renown. Thus at Athens the reputation gained by the court of the Areopagus, in the Persian War, seemed to tighten the reins of government. On the other hand, the victory of Salamis, which was gained by the common people who served in the fleet, and won for the Athenians the empire due to command of the sea, strengthened the democracy."
Aristotle writes that laws should not be changed frequently as it takes time for citizens to develop the habits intended under the law. Frequent changes undermine both the basic institute of law and the constitution. This is a good reminder for modern Progressives who chafe against the laborious efforts required to change the law. Why were the powers and rules of the U.S. Senate, for example, so bent toward impeding legal changes? Because the founders knew their Aristotle and, like their European forebears, found wisdom in it. (A reminder that Senators in most states were not even elected by the population until the early 20th century.)
Aristotle examines various nation-states' constitutions and weighs their pros and cons. There is a great question in each government of who should rule and how they should be chosen. Popular election is problematic because the majority of the population is poor and likely to take bribes. It's much better to elect people according to some system or measure of "merit," or "virtue." For details, see Book IV Part XV. I am reminded much of Acemoğlu and Robinson's exhaustive work in Why Nations Fail (in a nutshell, their thesis is that nations fail to develop because certain people gain economic power and erect exclusive political institutions to defend their holds. Extractive economic institutions + exclusive political arrangements = lack of property rights and incentives for the majority population, and hence poverty and unrest).
Aristotle mainly describes and accepts political institutions as the present reality, be it tyranny or democracy. All can have positive elements. But he seems to favor certain forms of democracy as the best, which seems to have been the common Greek belief of his day. But anarchic, populist democracies are the least-preferred of all:
Book V Part IV:
"For two principles are characteristic of democracy, the government of the majority and freedom. Men think that what is just is equal; and that equality is the supremacy of the popular will; and that freedom means the doing what a man likes. In such democracies every one lives as he pleases, or in the words of Euripides, 'according to his fancy.' But this is all wrong; men should not think it slavery to live according to the rule of the constitution; for it is their salvation."
Likewise, Book VI Part II:
"The basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state; this they affirm to be the great end of every democracy. One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn, and indeed democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just. Every citizen, it is said, must have equality, and therefore in a democracy the poor have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme. This, then, is one note of liberty which all democrats affirm to be the principle of their state. Another is that a man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave. This is the second characteristic of democracy, whence has arisen the claim of men to be ruled by none, if possible, or, if this is impossible, to rule and be ruled in turns; and so it contributes to the freedom based upon equality. "
"there is no difficulty in forming a democracy where the mass of the people live by agriculture or tending of cattle. Being poor, they have no leisure, and therefore do not often attend the assembly, and not having the necessaries of life they are always at work, and do not covet the property of others. Indeed, they find their employment pleasanter than the cares of government or office where no great gains can be made out of them, for the many are more desirous of gain than of honor."
Aristotle describes four different kinds of democracy, and apparently favors the first:
"One type of democracy is when farmers and those possessing a moderate amount of property have authority. They govern themselves in accordance with law because their work leaves them little leisure time. They therefore meet in the assembly only as absolutely necessary [to make decisions on matters not covered by the code of law]. A share [in the system of government] is open to anyone as soon as they meet the financial assessment set by law. They cannot be at leisure [for public service in governing] unless there is public revenue [to subsidize their participation]."
He has an apt description of tyrants in Book V Part XI:
"Tyrants are always fond of bad men, because they love to be flattered, but no man who has the spirit of a freeman in him will lower himself by flattery; good men love others, or at any rate do not flatter them. Moreover, the bad are useful for bad purposes; 'nail knocks out nail,' as the proverb says. It is characteristic of a tyrant to dislike every one who has dignity or independence; he wants to be alone in his glory, but any one who claims a like dignity or asserts his independence encroaches upon his prerogative, and is hated by him as an enemy to his power. Another mark of a tyrant is that he likes foreigners better than citizens, and lives with them and invites them to his table; for the one are enemies, but the Others enter into no rivalry with him."
Like Hayek in Road to Serfdom, Aristotle argues for a basic social safety net even in a constitutional democracy with limited government:
Book VI Part V:
"the poor are always receiving and always wanting more and more, for such help is like water poured into a leaky cask. Yet the true friend of the people should see that they be not too poor, for extreme poverty lowers the character of the democracy; measures therefore should be taken which will give them lasting prosperity; and as this is equally the interest of all classes, the proceeds of the public revenues should be accumulated and distributed among its poor, if possible, in such quantities as may enable them to purchase a little farm, or, at any rate, make a beginning in trade or husbandry"
rich should also pay the fees for the assemblies and the religious institutions."
Likewise, he argues, the wealthy should also pay for the fees for the assemblies and the religious institutions. The role of the state, overall, is to maximize the happiness-- read: utility-- of the population. This seems very 18th century. Aristotle then examines what constitutes this happiness. One aspect reminds me of the epistles of the apostles James and Paul. Book VII Part 1 deals with the relationship of material goods and virtue (emphasis mine):
"Some think that a very moderate amount of virtue is enough, but set no limit to their desires of wealth, property, power, reputation, and the like. To whom we reply by an appeal to facts, which easily prove that mankind do not acquire or preserve virtue by the help of external goods, but external goods by the help of virtue, and that happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are most highly cultivated in their mind and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities; and this is not only matter of experience, but, if reflected upon, will easily appear to be in accordance with reason."
... God is a witness to us of this truth, for he is happy and blessed, not by reason of any external good, but in himself and by reason of his own nature. And herein of necessity lies the difference between good fortune and happiness; for external goods come of themselves, and chance is the author of them, but no one is just or temperate by or through chance. In like manner, and by a similar train of argument, the happy state may be shown to be that which is best and which acts rightly; and rightly it cannot act without doing right actions, and neither individual nor state can do right actions without virtue and wisdom. Thus the courage, justice, and wisdom of a state have the same form and nature as the qualities which give the individual who possesses them the name of just, wise, or temperate."
In this I hear Paul's exhortation of contentment in 1 Timothy 6:5-12:
"constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, andc we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness."
It's worth noting that the Church eventually essentially canonized the work of Aristotle, which had problematic results in the area of science just as much as philosophy (just ask Galileo). But could Paul be agreeing with Aristotle here? Another passage that is reminiscent of Paul comes in Book I, when Aristotle is talking about the natural order, including the relationship between men and women, parents and children, masters and slaves:
"Clearly, then, moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained, the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying. And this holds of all other virtues, as will be more clearly seen if we look at them in detail...All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women:
'Silence is a woman's glory,'
but this is not equally the glory of man. "
Another translation I found renders this: "silence is a woman's ornament"- and Sophocles identified as the poet. This immediately reminded me of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35:
"As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church."
likewise, 1 Corinthians 11:13-15
"Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?"
Long hair (or head covering) in conjunction with silent submission seem to be for her "glory" and Paul affirms this to be true both in the Hebrew Law and "nature," the latter of which is referred to in Politics Book I. Fascinating.
Aristotle concludes with a look at what the state should do in regards to children and education in order to maximize the future happiness of the citizenry. Book VIII Part I:
"The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives. For each government has a peculiar character which originally formed and which continues to preserve it. The character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy; and always the better the character, the better the government...Neither must we suppose that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole. In this particular as in some others the Lacedaemonians are to be praised, for they take the greatest pains about their children, and make education the business of the state.
The customary branches of education are in number four; they are- (1) reading and writing, (2) gymnastic exercises, (3) music, to which is sometimes added (4) drawing."
Aristotle calls for public education provided by the state in contrast to the common policy among Greeks to hire private tutors to teach whatever the client wished. Aristotle channels Socrates a bit in discussing an ideal state where people would be forbidden from marrying and procreating too young, or in having children at too old an age in order to prevent "weak" children incapable of defending the state. Children should be allowed to develop a sort of "meanness" in their early years and parents should properly expose them to the cold in order to develop heartiness. (I'm struck how Nordic cultures apparently follow similar practices while those in Eastern Europe keep their children from the cold as much as possible.)
The book closes with interesting comments about the proper teaching of music and rhythm to children. The flute is basically dangerous:
"The flute, or any other instrument which requires great skill, as for example the harp, ought not to be admitted into education, but only such as will make intelligent students of music or of the other parts of education. Besides, the flute is not an instrument which is expressive of moral character; it is too exciting. The proper time for using it is when the performance aims not at instruction, but at the relief of the passions. And there is a further objection; the impediment which the flute presents to the use of the voice detracts from its educational value. The ancients therefore were right in forbidding the flute to youths and freemen... "
This is a classic 5-star book. Everyone should read it, probably in the original Greek.
on August 6, 2014
Aristotle's 'Politics' is a continuation of his earlier work the 'Nichomachean Ethics' (NE) and the two are actually designed to be part of the same general treatise on what makes for the best kind of human living.
The earlier work is designed to be a systematic analysis (arguably the first in world philosophy) of what we would now define as 'ethics' or 'moral philosophy', i.e. what is goodness, what is happiness (or flourishing), how do we judge what actions are right and wrong, etc. The second treatise covers what is now called 'Political Philosophy' or 'Political Science', and examines at what makes for the best in terms of the structure of the general community.
Plato tried to achieve much the same in his famous 'Republic' and this work, while also a great classic in political thought and philosophy, includes questions from many different areas of philosophy (moral philosophy, metaphysics, religion, political philosophy, etc) and does not make the sorts of logical, scientific distinctions that Aristotle's highly systematic scientific mind does.
While the 'Politics' lacks the literary grace and beauty of Plato's prose, I have to disagree that Aristotle 'lacks imagination' or penetrating insight into political matters. If this was the case, why is it Aristotle's thought is so influential down the ages even up to now with thinkers like Rawls, and also during the medieval period, when theologians and religious thinkers tended to side more with Plato? While Plato is arguably an absolute genius, Aristotle's achievement exceeds that of Plato because (as in many areas) in the place of myths, uncritically examined religious traditions and half-baked poetic hand-waving, he offers the first systematic and scientific analysis of political thought, ideas, and also constitutional forms of government.
Clearly for Aristotle politics is not just a descriptive science (as his other scientific treatises were) but also a normative one as well - he aims not just to describe different forms of government, but to form a moral evaluation of what type is best considering the empirical evidence. For this scientific approach, Aristotle deserves recognition for being the first great social and political scientist in the Western tradition.
Clearly Aristotle's ideas and arguments are not flawless - his appeal to God and to biological teleology are clearly antiquated and quaint, and his views about women, slaves and non-Greeks generally would not be taken seriously by anyone today. His ideal community tends to be exactly what Aristotle, Plato and their schools were - a community of aristocratic men who devote their lives to philosophy supported by a large class of slaves, non-Greeks, and a class of subordinate women who only exist to serve men's needs. Yet despite these limitations Aristotle offers insights still relevant today, such as the dangers of tyrannical rule, the need to grant autonomy to families (contra Plato taking children away to be raised in state schools was not a good idea because of the natural love parents have for their children), the risks of both rule of the rich (oligarchy), democracy (popular rule), and what we might now call communism or socialism (absolute state rule). It is also worth mentioning that the biographies of Aristotle demonstrate his general kindness towards his wives and children and servants (Aristotle apparently married twice), something contrary to many of the crueller men of the day. This no doubt is why his works seem to be far more insightful into the realities of family and marriage than the mathematically-inclined Plato, who preferred the ethereal eternal ideal over the messy reality.
Unlike his metaphysical and scientific works which are now only of historical interest, Aristotle's works on ethics and politics are refreshing and read surprisingly well considering their antiquity. Because they are not polished works of prose or dialogues (Aristotle apparently wrote these and they were praised by a figure as respectable as Cicero, but are sadly lost) but are fragmented lecture notes, they can be annoying and repetitive. Still, Aristotle's logical and systematic approach gives them a clarity often lacking in Plato, not to mention subsequent thinkers like Cicero, Augustine, and Hegel.
This is a great classic in political and social thought and no serious student of the Western political tradition can afford to neglect the contribution of Aristotle.