Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

ARISTOTLE: Politics (Taxes and Education)

In our last reading Ortega pointed out that “man by himself would never be a student, just as man by himself would never be a taxpayer.  He must pay taxes, he has to study, but he is by nature neither a taxpayer nor a student.”  Aristotle has a different opinion.  He thinks man is, by nature, a taxpayer.  And a student.  And many other things besides.  Paying taxes and studying may not grow naturally like an arm or a leg; but they are activities that develop within us as we grow and find our place in society.  Aristotle follows biology and believes in the principle that “what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature.”  For him government is not simply some abstract theory created by man.  Instead he says “the state is a creation of nature and man is by nature a political animal.”  A man may not particularly enjoy paying taxes or studying history but that’s the price we pay to live in civilized society with other people.  It’s not the only way to live.  A man may choose to live apart from society and become a pirate, for example.  But Aristotle thinks living in civilized society is the only place where a man can live a good life. 

Why is this?  Why can’t a pirate live a full and satisfying life?  According to Aristotle a pirate has his priorities wrong because “mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think is good.”  A pirate wants money, which is all well and good.  However, he wants to get it by robbing people, which is not good.  It may be good for him.  But it’s not good for everyone else.  That’s why we have government.  Aristotle admits that “governments differ in kind” and States come in various forms: monarchies or aristocracies or democracies.  But in Aristotle’s view they all have this much in common: “the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”  Everyone needs the basic necessities of life.  Beyond that we often disagree on what “the good life” consists of.  Some say this, some say that, and in this sense the Great Books program is one long discussion about what it means to live the good life.  But again Aristotle thinks we need to get our priorities right.  He says “The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual.”  Does Aristotle mean the state is more important than me or my family?  Apparently so.  Using a biological example we can think of it this way.  The body can survive the loss of an arm.  But an arm can’t survive apart from the body.  The state can survive the loss of me or my family.  But we wouldn’t survive very long apart from the state. 

Think of Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress” (IGB 1-15).  Kayerts and Carlier, like most of us, couldn’t make it on their own.  Nor, in Aristotle’s opinion, were we meant to.  Following the dictates of biology he believes “the final cause and end of a thing is best.”  That’s why a pirate can’t live a full and satisfying life.  The “final cause and end” of man is to live in a civilized political society.  A pirate doesn’t pay taxes or study or do any of those things which make us full participants in a political community.  A pirate, in Homer’s words, is a “tribeless, lawless, hearthless one.”  Man’s natural state is to live among neighbors, obey the laws of his country, and enjoy peace in his own home.  A pirate has no neighbor, follows no law, has no home.  Both Aristotle and Ortega agree that this is not the way to live a good life.  Modern Americans may have different views than an ancient Greek and a modern Spaniard.  But we face the same questions they faced: what is the good life?  What kind of education do our children need in order to live the good life?  And how much are we willing to pay for it?  These are tough questions which must ultimately be settled in the political arena.  They’re tough problems but not beyond our powers.  They’re precisely the kinds of questions Ortega thinks we should be asking.  And they’re precisely the kinds of questions Aristotle thinks we were born to answer.


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