Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, April 22, 2011

ARISTOTLE: Politics (Introduction)

In his essay On Studying Jose Ortega y Gasset says Generation after generation the frightening mass of human knowledge which the student must assimilate piles up… Underneath this culture, received but not truly assimilated, man will remain intact as he was; that is to say, he will remain uncultured, a barbarian… Culture may be a “frightening mass of human knowledge” but Ortega still sees education as the key for passing civilization on from one generation to the next. Failure to preserve civilization will lead to catastrophe. Ortega goes on to say that if a whole generation should cease to study, nine-tenths of the human race would die a violent death. We saw that happen in Conrad’s short story about An Outpost of Progress. Two men met violent deaths because their education had not prepared them to survive outside the safety net of their own civilization. Aristotle helps make sense of these ideas in his own writing about Politics. Aristotle was multi-talented and a shrewd observer of human nature. He was also thoroughly trained in biology and took careful note of the world around him. For example, in some of his writings Aristotle drew this distinction between old and young men: Elderly men have lived many years; they have often been taken in and often made mistakes; and life on the whole is a bad business… They “think” but they never “know” and because of their hesitation they always add “possibly” or “perhaps”… their experience makes them distrustful and therefore suspicious of evil. Then he goes on to say that Young men (are different). All their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently… They think they know everything and are always quite sure about it. These are two very different views of the world and two very different views about how to live life. But it should be noted that the same man can have both of these traits at different periods in his life. The brash young playboy hitting the nightclubs may someday grow up to be a cautious old gentleman nodding off in a rocking chair in front of the fire. So what does all this have to do with politics? Young and old men often disagree about what should be done. When it comes to making changes the younger men usually err on the side of bold change and the older men on the side of proceeding more cautiously. Men may be more willing for a country to go to war than are most of the women. Young families may be more interested in public education policy than young singles. But all of these people have one thing in common: they all want to be safe and prosper. And for that reason people tend to band together and form small communities with shared interests. Then small communities band together to form larger cities and states and nations. Aristotle speculates that the state comes into existence originating in the bare needs of life and continues in existence for the sake of a good life. And if the earlier forms of society are natural so is the (modern) state… We start out needing basic things like food, shelter and warm clothing. Then we develop weapons to protect ourselves from outsiders and rules (laws) for living peaceably amongst our neighbors. Once this is accomplished we start developing things like the arts and history and philosophy. Writers like Rousseau and Thoreau believed that civilization is unnatural and forces us to live up to false standards. Aristotle disagrees and uses his biological instincts to view a human city like Paris or New York to be just as “natural” as a bee hive or an ant hill. An art museum is just as natural to Aristotle as Walden Pond was to Thoreau. Thoreau thought we would be better off to get away from the corrupting influences of town and city ways. Aristotle couldn’t disagree more. For Aristotle the man who is unable to live in society or who has no need of society must be either a beast or a god. It’s important for Aristotle that we try to live more like gods and less like beasts. That’s because man, when perfected, is the best of animals. But when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all. One of the primary benefits of living in civilization is to feel safe and be confident that justice will prevail. Aristotle thinks this is the purpose of politics.


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