Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Aristotle and Nature

Aristotle is interesting. But he raises questions about the nature of man which are not really addressed by his ideas on politics. I think Aristotle believes that man is a political animal, whose nature is to live within society and formulate laws by which rational men choose to live. That is all well and good. But he skips over the whole problem of what is really "natural" and how man fits into a scheme of nature while remaining apart from it. Because we know from political theory (Hobbes, for example), that man in a state of nature is not significantly more than an upright beast. We know that at some point in history, one portion of humanity decided to remove itself from the insecurity of nature (the so-called wilderness), and live instead within an enclosed space which we call a city. Without walls, no city can offer much protection from either bandits or beasts. So, it became "natural" for cities to establish boundaries which extended as far as the walls reached.

Early in the history of civilization, there arose two kinds of people: those who roamed over the face of the earth searching for something to eat (or steal); and those who lived within cities. People who lived in cities soon figured out how to grow things so they developed agriculture. People who were constantly on the move (nomads, vagabonds, gypsies, etc.), figured out how to ride horses and made a living for themselves by stealing other people's food and taking whatever they wanted. They were basically hunters.

Aristotle seems to believe that only people who live in cities are "natural." Therefore, all other people must be unnatural. But this is silly. Insofar as people share a common origin, they are all natural.  As Rousseau would point out, what we have in common is the undisputed fact that human beings started out living in trees and eating fruit. Then, just like other monkeys, we climbed down out of the trees and figured out how to find food by walking from one place to another. Somewhere along the way, we got tired of just eating nuts and berries, and we developed a taste for meat. So, we figured out how to make spears and tools to help us kill other animals so we didn't have to rely on berries. At this point in time, I guess Aristotle would say that man was not yet civilized.  But he was very much a product of nature.  So, when and where did man begin to lose his connection with nature?  It seems to me that the first stage was our transition from climbing trees to walking about on the ground.  The next stage was when some men decided that living in cities was preferable to wandering around looking for food. So, the development of agriculture made living in cities possible, which also made it possible for man to separate himself from nature.

Once you have cities, you find out pretty soon that you need some form of government. Over time, customs evolve and laws are instituted.  The idea of a "good life" becomes associated with living in a city with all its rules and bureaucracy. But throughout history, there have always been people who feel suffocated by fences, rules, ordinances, laws and all the elements of bureaucracy. They prefer to live outside cities on their own. It wasn't just Genghis Khan who objected to living inside a walled city. The average American farmer used to prefer the open country to living inside metropolitan areas. What about all those people who were explorers and wanderers? The American cowboy living out in the wide open prairie. Many people (like Thoreau or Davy Crockett) would consider living inside a city as something less than natural. So, when Aristotle says that the "good life" is only possible within a republic or a city, he is really talking about a particular kind of good life.

The designation of what is "natural" versus artificial is quite arbitrary. Aristotle has a particular idea of nature but it is not the only possible version. Rousseau would argue that living behind city walls is about as unnatural as you can get. All man made laws are made out of convenience. The notion that man is "by nature" a taxpayer is pretty ludicrous. There is nothing natural about taxes. Nietzsche would say that only the weak man, who is incapable of feeding himself in the wilderness, would conceive of an arrangement whereby some men voluntarily give up a portion of their wealth (or as Adam Smith would say, their "produce") to a government agency to distribute funds (or social welfare) to their neighbor. What a strange idea!

All of these laws and institutions for justice are justified in the larger scheme or desire for the so-called "good life." Modern psychology would say that the concept of a "good life" is nothing more than our childish desire for things that we are not able to obtain with our own power. On the other hand, it is certainly true that most Americans have a much higher standard of living than people in Somalia or Afghanistan. You can only desire something if you believe that it exists.  If you are born into poverty and slavery, and everyone around you is in the same condition, its hard to believe that such a thing as freedom even exists. And yet, the idea of freedom persists even when the reality is gone. But is it natural to believe in freedom, or is it an idea that came into existence only when the practice of slavery was introduced? In other words, do our ideas and beliefs depend on some memory of an earlier condition in nature? Animals don't enslave one another. They eat one another for food. But only people believe in ideas like civilization, freedom, and good versus evil. Nevertheless, many people in the world today continue to oppose the idea of freedom; they embrace an ideology of slavery (or obedience) as being a natural condition for other people to bear. Aristotle himself defended the practice of slavery as being consistent with the natural order of things. So, it is not clear to me that Aristotle is a reliable authority for us on what is truly desirable or "natural" in life.


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