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Thursday, February 03, 2005

Aristotle's POLITICS


Blogger SMJ said...

The subject of Aristotle's treatise Politics is the Greek city-state (polis). There is no modern equivalent to "polis" but the word "township" is adequate to convey a proper sense of scale and civic mindfulness. As with the Nichomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle describes the "end" or ultimate goal of man (happiness), and explains how to achieve it (the practice of virtue); in the Politics, Aristotle considers the polis and demonstrates both why it exists and what its ultimate purpose should be.

To begin with, Aristotle believes that nature is teleological (purposeful) and does nothing in vain. He reasons that ideas grounded in nature are both true and verifiable; and insofar as you move away from nature, you bask in an ephemeral air, floating on a cloud of half-truths and delusion. Man is part of nature, but he is superior to all other creatures. He is superior because he has the capacity to reason and the power of speech, and these attributes give him dominion over all other animals.

Long before there was government, man lived in isolation, apart from others in the wilderness. But his desire for progeny ("to leave behind an image of himself") results in the establishment of family. And so the rise of the Greek polis or "state" is but the end of a natural progression from this original social unit (the family) which evolves to a larger unit (the village), until reaching the final stage of development as a city-state. Yet the state only exists because it provides the opportunity for a better life. And the kind of better life which Aristotle has in mind is the one which most benefits his character—the life of the mind, or, as he explains in the Nichomachean Ethics, a life devoted to the pursuit of virtue.

Virtue, which is the highest good attainable by man, is possible only through the political association of a state. As long as man lives confined to a household or village, he cannot develop his rational potential. In pre-political societies (family or village), man is concerned only with the rudiments of survival. Over time, a transition to political society occurs with the institution of law, following the creation of government. Only with the cooperation of individuals like himself ("by nature superior...and free") is government (the administration of law) even possible. Yet the end or purpose of government is not mere survival, as Hobbes will later argue, but to provide the conditions necessary for man's spiritual and philosophical development. Just as Socrates believed the "unexamined life is not worth living," Aristotle believes that man, living apart in a state of nature, is nothing more than a beast ("the most unholy and savage of animals").

Just as "the soul must rule the body," a state (or polis), guided by "rational principle," must rule over man. A properly governed state provides several ingredients necessary to rational pursuits (i.e., philosophy or the pursuit of virtue): It provides security through its institution of laws; it provides culture through the encouragement of the arts; it provides economic stability through its markets; it provides education through its schools; and, most importantly, it provides a sanctuary in which a devotion to truth and virtue is taken seriously. In this way, Aristotle's conception of the polis resembles the monastic devotion to a holy life. For him, the pursuit of virtue (or truth) requires a sanctuary, a kind of sacred space in which to establish and maintain contact with divine creation. This is why philosophy (or religious faith) should not become corrupted with politics ("the soul rules the body...whereas the intellect rules the appetites".

Aristotle sees the genuine conflict between philosophy and politics, but he does not seem to accept that a conflict exists between the philosopher and the city. He feels the city is a creation of nature because it represents a natural (real) development of man's need to control his appetites. Although the city is a creation of nature, it is no longer subject to the bodily demands of nature's creatures. The rise of the polis represents the birth of philosophy, and the abandonment of household concerns (the concerns of the body).

But not for everyone. The economic concerns of the household cannot be abandoned entirely. Man, as the head of the household, can only pursue philosophy if his economic affairs are managed properly. And this management requires the use of slaves.

The justification for slavery is one of the more controversial aspects of Aristotle's Politics. Although he defends the practice of slavery as being in accordance with nature, Aristotle does not advocate slavery on racial or ethnic grounds. In fact, if technology evolved sufficiently to obviate the need for slaves, "the chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves." In other words, the "instruments of production" could just as well be furnished by other means than slavery. Yet, in Aristotle's time, slavery was an economic institution was well established in the human population. It was made possible (and necessary) because of the hierarchical ordering of human potential.

According to Aristotle, it is natural for some creatures to rule others because some are endowed with rational potential and others are not. He offers no clear mechanism by which this potential can be recognized, other than to say "from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule." Yet, he acknowledges that some forms of slavery are unjust..."no one would ever say that he is a slave who is unworthy to be a slave." If, for example, a man, who is naturally suited to rule others, becomes captured in war and enslaved, then he is a slave only by convention, not by nature. Slavery by convention is unjust, according to Aristotle. Rather, his idea of the state is an aristocracy in which an elite few (the good or virtuous) rule over the many who are not good (lacking in virtue). Such an arrangement is found in nature ("it originates in the constitution of the universe"), and should be the model for human society.

Even if slavery is supported by nature, Aristotle does not explain how virtue is discovered "at birth." Since the master is "not called a master because he has science, but because he is of a certain character," the question must be asked, when and how is a man's character determined? Fortunately, this question has already been answered in his treatise, Nichomachean Ethics. There, Aristotle describes a program for self-improvement wherein a man can attain virtue if he has the potential for acquiring it. But if he lacks the potential for living a virtuous life, then no amount of moral instruction can give it to him.

Sadly, this argument reduces to a reductio ad absurdum in which a slave is a slave because he lacks the capacity to be a master. If we are "marked at birth" to be a master or slave, then presumably the genetic material in our blood determines our natural place in society. But if virtue is about character, and character only develops properly in the right environment (the realm of freedom), then it is hard to see how slaves can be identified at birth. Finally, this contradiction exposes the problem of justifying slavery on natural grounds. Virtue (the pursuit and practice of excellence) cannot live in balance with injustice. Unless government is in the hands of men qualified to rule, then justice will not prevail.

Aristotle's claim to provide a philosophical basis for slavery collapses from his failure to provide a rational means of identifying virtue. The argument that the best men should rule over the worst is not controversial, nor is it wrong. The problem is with identifying who the best men are. Most, if not all, problems of democratic government can be summarized as the attempt to find able men with ability and virtue.

Though Aristotle says "from good men a good man springs," he is forced to concede that virtue is not an inheritable trait..."But this is what nature, though she may intend it, cannot always accomplish." No natural cause can account for virtue because virtue exists only in the arena of free men. And in the realm of freedom, pride and human fallibility will always walk hand in hand.

2/03/2005 12:44 PM  

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