laps name lilies

AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Aristotle’s Criticisms of Others Reveal his Intentions

From Book I of the Politics we know that  the polis is an association that has an end or goal built into it. It is the sovereign association, the highest, most developed form of association because it is directed at the highest good, that is a good life centered around the practice of political wisdom. In the polis we find three forms of rule, all of which are natural according to Aristotle: the rule of men over women and of masters over slaves in the household, and the relation of ruler  and people among the citizenry. The polis is natural because it completes human development. Everything else is there not only for its own sake, but to contribute to the possibility of the polis. Therefore humans are by nature political animals. Nature makes nothing in vain and everything for the best. Nature has given humans language and therefore an ethical sensibility. All of this means that political society is necessary to provide the medium or sphere in which free men act and their actions can be good or fine because they consciously embody moral principles.

What has Aristotle accomplished so far? Against Plato he has asserted that virtue must be political. The philosopher or anyone else can only reach the goal of his development inside the political community and in action rather than (or in addition to) contemplation. To be outside the polis one must be either a beast or a god. Second, against Plato, Aristotle has asserted that politics – in the form of some sort of participation in the decisions and public affairs of the city  -- is the prerogative of all free men. (This doesn’t mean they must all participate in the same way or equally). Third, still against Plato, Aristotle has asserted (more implicitly) that politics is not a craft or art (techne) of bringing social institutions into accord with an ideal pattern, but instead a type of practical relation among free persons in which their freedom is realized in somehow combining the functions of ruling and of being ruled. (This doesn’t mean that “political science” cannot give its students some knowledge about how to craft institutions.)

Against Plato, Aristotle has also asserted that the rulers must not only have a public but a private life (in the household) and that the household (and “household management”) is a natural and necessary condition of political action. But, Aristotle has also justified slavery as natural and necessary to the political association. And he’s done the same thing with the subjection of women. He has done this in the course of affirming that the political association is an organic union of parts defined by their function in the whole.

Before we go on to look at Aristotle’s explicit criticisms of Plato, we should also pause to see what he does in Book I with the institution of private property. Plato’s rulers were not private property owners, nor did they seek it. But for Aristotle, property is an essential condition of the household. His citizens and rulers must be property owners in order to be able to participate in political matters. For Aristotle property has a double aspect: it refers to things that can be used; but it also refers to the exchange value things have. For him, exchange in itself is useful and necessary, and the use of money to facilitate and effect exchanges is unobjectionable. But Aristotle is adamant that the acquisition of money for its own sake is unnatural. He doesn’t mean “hoarding”; he is objecting to a way of life devoted to the limitless acquisition of more.

There are thus two kinds of acquisition:  one is for the sake of the household and its “self-sufficiency”, it’s ability to perform its functions. This has inherent limits given by what is necessary for the household to play its natural role. The second kind is exchange for the sake of unlimited acquisition. Aristotle associates this with the retail trade, but especially with money-lending and usury (the lending of money to be re-paid with interest or especially high rates of interest). Usury is the extreme of exchange for unlimited acquisition: money itself becomes a commodity. When this second way becomes general, according to him, it upsets the balance of society. It instills an undue desire for individual gain, and it is in his eyes the main failing of democratic and commercial cities like Athens.

So, in Book I already, Aristotle has established the position that what is natural for the political association lies somewhere between the Platonic Ideal and the actual degenerate practice of cities like Athens. Like Plato he is a critic of contemporary societies, but unlike Plato, his criticisms are aimed at solutions much closer to what is already in place.

One must see Book II, which is largely composed of criticisms of Plato and  of another Reformer named Phalleas, as laying the groundwork for Aristotle’s own program. Book II is critical of various ideal states, theoretical states or theoretical  proposals . It is also critical of several actual states (such as Sparta) which are often held up as models. But the Most interesting parts have to do with Plato and with Phalleas:

Plato -- Having settled the problem of  what a polis is by nature, Aristotle moves on to the question of constitutions. Which different ones are possible and which is the best. What Aristotle means here by constitution is not a fundamental law setting out the powers and organization of various parts of the government. He instead means the fundamental socio-political structure of a polis. He wants to begin to move towards defining the best constitution by first of all assessing and criticizing ideal constitutions. The basic problem with Plato’s ideal is according to him the “extent” of association. There are three basic possibilities here. In the polis, association can be in everything, in something or in nothing. For Plato, association has to be in everything. Thus Plato’s communism is literally “total”. For Aristotle this is not the appropriate end of the state, and he has three lines of argument to support this: 1. the obsession with unity contradicts the essence of a polis; 2. the means Plato chooses to achieve unity do not even work well to that end; and 3. even if Plato’s goal of complete unity were correct, it cannot work, given “human nature”.

With respect to the first, Aristotle argues that the state is a plurality; a coming together of different kinds of people, and it is maintained as what it is by the interaction of such diversity, where each of the parts retains its own identity. So diversity is of the essence and is necessary for the polis to be “self-sufficient”.

Aristotle’s second point, that the means Plato suggest are inadequate, blend into the third, that human nature will not permit success in achieving the goals Plato is after. According to Aristotle you cannot get rid of selfishness by getting rid of private property. Moreover, people will care more for what is their own and will manage it better than what is held in common. Take as an example the care of children. Plato presents his guardian children as each having a large number of parents (let’s say 1000, for argument’s sake). Aristotle points out that what this would mean instead is that each parent has 1/1000th of a child. By getting rid of the family and property, Plato has actually weakened emotional attachment to and identification with the whole, not strengthened it. Private life and private property are necessary for the life of the individual citizen and are a better way of establishing attachment to the whole. When everyone has something of their own, the whole is valued for protecting what is private. Aristotle seems really upset that Plato could have even thought of advocating communal property, but notice that his arguments are not for an individual right of private property, but for its necessity and usefulness in creating and  sustaining social cohesion and virtue.

Aristotle goes on to complain that under Plato’s scheme you won’t even be able to tell who your parents and (biological) siblings are, and that this will lead to incest, what he calls “breaches of natural piety”. He also thinks that the structure Plato envisions will mean a weak attachment to one’s own generation. (Which might not be such a bad thing for the producers, in his eyes, because it forestalls revolution). Private property and family attachment have their problems, he acknowledges, but the solution is not in getting rid of them but in finding a way to have private ownership and collective use. He goes on to tell us that great pleasures are to be derived from ownership and that moreover, it is needed in order to be able to exercise the virtue of liberality; because liberality is a form of virtue, therefore property is a form of virtue. The evils  attributed to property are really, according to him, not those of property at all, but are caused by the depravity of human nature. And finally there are these arguments: if Plato’s communism were so good and natural, why is it that no examples exist?  As we’ve been told, nature always works for the best, so if we cannot find it to observe in nature, it (in this case the idea of communal institutions) cannot be good. This sort of argument on Aristotle’s part can easily turn into the notion that if something already exists, it must be good.

There are other arguments against Plato’s ideal state, but I’ve been stressing the ones that center around property (and the family which is very much joined up with it), because looking here, we can see Aristotle’s clear insistence that private property is not only necessary, but a good thing.

Phalleas – If his criticisms of Plato show that poperty is for him a good thing, his criticisms of Phalleas show that Aristotle somehow still thinks that it’s a bad thing to try to spread this good thing around too much. Phalleas was someone who put forward a proposal for an egalitarian state. He felt that to move in the direction of equalizing property would minimize the amount of discord and distrust. For this a system of regulation and re-distribution was needed.  One way to do this would be to have the rich pay dowries, but not the poor. Aristotle finds a lot of practical and administrative problems with this proposal. For example, if someone has many children, the dowries won’t amount to much in the way of equalization; this system will interfere with the rational use of land, etc… But the basic objection  is that Phalleas misunderstands the problem. The problem is not in the distribution of wealth, but in the need to  instill self-control. Self-control needs to be learned through law and education (which eventually turn into each other). According to Aristotle, Phalleas’s ideas for property equalization, if they help at all, help with only one minor source of crime and discord. But even if it did help to reduce crime and discord it wouldn’t work for two reasons: first, those who are more accomplished (energetic, skillful, talented, etc…) would be unhappy with an equality of condition; and second, people are, he thinks, insatiable in their wants. To ensure stability, the only way is to use external force to control the insatiable appetites of the majority.

It turns out that Aristotle’s critique of Phalleas is in many ways an extension of his critique of Plato. The basis of all of Aristotle’s criticisms seems to be the ineradicability of private property and the relative goodness of that institution. And this leads us to two related problems with Aristotle. Bringing them up now may help in understanding better his positive program for a good constitution.

The first problem is that one finds in Aristotle a pronounced class bias, masquerading as knowledge of nature. There is his repeated and explicit defense of private property and inequality, together with his criticisms of equalization as a means of achieving justice and social peace. All the problems that might have something to do with systems of  substantially unequal property, Aristotle is content to announce are really and completely due to “human nature”, which is permanent. The main function of education and law seems to be in simply instilling obedience and acceptance of the system proposed. The noble idea of the state as a “plurality of differences” seems in practice to mean the permanence of differentials in power and in wealth.

This first problem of class bias is not unrelated to faults in Aristotle’s method. Organicism (the differences that must come together to form a unity in plurality) are equated with hierarchy.  All of this is defended  with a false inductive reasoning. It is at least arguable that Aristotle moves from specific examples to an incorrect general principle. If you choose your examples carefully, then the principle seems to follow. Aristotle is always arguing that if we can observe something (some institution, some state of affairs), it must be that nature intended it this way. If it exists, then it clearly is as it ought to be. This kind of inductive reasoning can become a pervasive mystification – a mystification and false because it identifies nature and convention. What Aristotle finds pleasing in conventions, becomes the structure and intention of nature.

If this is the case, then the usual contrasts between Plato and Aristotle are somewhat misleading. Plato is usually portrayed as grandly abstract, deducing rules from ultimate universals (the forms as foundations of the actual). Aristotle, on the other hand, supposedly has no such grand schemes in mind. He is a careful, neutral, empirical, scientific investigator. But when these problems in Aristotle’s method are seen, it looks different. Plato is perhaps more honest about what are after all hard political choices not dictated by nature. Almost everything in the ideal city of the Republic follows from the Myth of the Metals, which Plato presents as an unprovable story about what “nature intends”. Plato makes, but shows us he is making, political value judgments. These judgments may be wrong. And in showing that he is making such judgments he is showing that political choices are in large part matters of judgment derived from experience --- which is what Aristotle is supposed to be good and famous for. In Aristotle, what might seem to be a strong empirical case is really a convenient selection of examples, chosen from hidden assumptions, and used to illustrate a grand design that could look very different from other perspectives not interested in preserving the status quo. Aristotle’s empiricism begins to look more abstract: Aristotle seems to be able to find in nature only what he is prepared to accept there.

Back to Lectures Schedule.

York University Copyright © - Asher Horowitz - All rights reserved