Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

ARISTOTLE: Politics (Bk. 1, 8-13)

A big part of The American Dream includes going to college.  Many students take on loads of debt so they can further their education.  Why?  Do so many young kids really want to be highly educated?  No doubt many of them do; but no doubt many of them also just want a chance to make more money.  And many of them also want a job working in an air-conditioned office; with good benefits too.  This is not so far removed from Aristotle’s view in the ancient Greek world.  In Aristotle’s day, just as in our own, many people shied away from doing hard manual labor: those who are in a position which places them above toil have stewards who attend to their households while they occupy themselves with philosophy or with politics… Let somebody else clean the house and cut the grass.  I’m too busy studying philosophy or working the latest political campaign.  In other words: I have better things to do.  It wasn’t always this way.  Many American Presidents (think of George Washington and John Adams) worked hard with their own hands in their own gardens on their own farms.  They invested personal sweat and were pleased with the fruit of their own labors; apples and cabbages or peanuts.  But for Aristotle this was slave’s work.  It’s not that Aristotle thought he was too good to work.  It’s just that he had a different notion of what kind of work he ought to be doing.  He compares the purpose of human work to animals living in the natural world: …There are many sorts of food, and therefore there are many kinds of lives both of animals and men; they must all have food, and the differences in their food have made differences in their ways of life. For of beasts, some are gregarious, others are solitary; they live in the way which is best adapted to sustain them…  And this is the reason so many kids go to college.  They want to make a living in a way best adapted to sustain them for a lifetime.  They need to make money to buy food and pay their bills.  On this point John Adams was closer to Aristotle: they both knew where their food came from and it wasn’t the grocery store.  They also didn’t confuse having lots of money with being wealthy.  Aristotle puts wealth in its proper perspective with this observation: Originating in the use of coins, the art of getting wealth is generally thought to be chiefly concerned with it, and to be the art which produces riches and wealth; having to consider how they may be accumulated.  A modern college student thinks of wealth in terms of debit cards and ATMs rather than coins, but the principle is the same.  Aristotle examines this idea a little closer: wealth is assumed by many to be only a quantity of money, because the arts of getting wealth and retail trade are concerned with money. If I have enough money I can just buy whatever I need.  Normally that’s true.  But Aristotle again wants to keep things in perspective: Others maintain that coined money is a mere sham, a thing not natural, but conventional only, because, if the users substitute another commodity for it, it is worthless, and because it is not useful as a means to any of the necessities of life, and, indeed, he who is rich in money may often be in want of necessary food.  This is Aristotle’s point: what good is money to a man like Robinson Crusoe?  He was stranded on a desert island.  Money was worthless to him; what he needed was food and tools and shoes.  This is the whole point of getting wealth: to supply our basic needs for food, shelter and clothing.  And here’s where many people go wrong.  According to Aristotle some persons are led to believe that getting wealth is the object of household management, and the whole idea of their lives is that they ought either to increase their money without limit, or at any rate not to lose it. The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only and not upon living well; and, as their desires are unlimited they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit.  In today’s language we call this living beyond our means.  Making money is not the same thing as living well; for Aristotle living well means using money properly without waste.  Family budgets are good at this and the state is made up of families; so he calls this concept “politics.”


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