A review of Politics by Aristotle

I was surprised to discover that Aristotle was an idiot. I curated my list hoping to stock it with the good stuff and I thought Aristotle was a shoe-in in this category. But nope. Total doddering old buffoon. I hope he does better on Poetics, which is also on the list, but I’m miles from optimistic. At least that book is shorter. Aristotle is wrong and wrong-headed in so many ways and on so many fronts, it made for extremely difficult reading, exhausted as I was from the high volume of eye-rolling it required. But for example here are several of the more prevalent types of idiocy stinking up the page:

  • Human Body Analogies. For Aristotle, the most important thing is always to break things down into its component parts, so one of his favorite ways to discredit something is to compare it to the human body. Of course you can’t have an excessively large magistrate, because that would be like someone having a 4-foot nose. The man is the head of a household and his slaves are the hands, and without the head the hands would just sit there, amirite? He goes on and on like this, and you just want to break him down into his component parts.
  • Nonsensical assertions. Aristotle is a great lover of the bald-faced assertion, which he presumably used often for things he felt were self-evident, but more often he just uses it to cap off an argument he wants to be finished with. As an early example that tells you exactly the kind of ride you’re in for: “Thus the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part [queue the body analogy!]; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand.” I mean, say what?
  • Self-justification. Aristotle was a part of the ruling elite as well as a man of his time, and it’s hard to hold too much of this against him, but he undermines himself every times he opens his mouth to talk about the rightness of slavery and the inherent superiority of the elite, which in a book about a subject that is substantially about the rights of property happens quite a bit. “But is there anyone thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule, and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjegation, others for rule.” Happily for him, he was born on the right side of the equation, but it tends to undermine is authority when he speaks of things like justice, virtue, and honor.

The book is a detailed exploration of the subject of the state, how and why they exist, what forms they take, and how they evolve and disintegrate. I just had the pleasure of exploring this topic with Rousseau, who approaches the subject with a sort of pure philosophical zeal, and now got to have Aristotle blithely dissect topics into component parts to be analyzed, analogized, and put to service in support of his own biases about what the perfect state should be.

According to Aristotle there are three ideal forms of government, each of which is susceptible to its corresponding perverted form, making a matched set of each. I have to admit, this is a nice construction. The three governments and their perverted forms are:

  • Monarchy. This is the rule of a single person, and is a great way to go if you have a ruler who is exceptionally virtuous, and can manage to let the public interest guide his decisions. As this ruler moves his own interested to the center, this form of government becomes Tyranny.
  • Aristocracy. This is the rule of an elite class of virtuous people. I can’t recall if he points out that philosophers make ideal aristocrats, but it’s clearly what he’s thinking. He does not go into the mechanics of identifying those with sufficient virtue, but in the absence of such virtue, this form becomes Oligarchy, which is the rule of a few for self-interest as opposed to the public good.
  • Constitutional Government. This is one in which rule is distributed to some benevolent ruling class, which adheres to the rule of law for the common good. When this goes bad it becomes Democracy, which clearly scared the hell out of Aristotle.

Baked into the center of each of these ideals is the same one we find at the center of Rousseau’s political philosophy, which is the common good. The purpose of the state is to ensure to each person living within that state the opportunity to pursue the good life, and that the ideal state is one which maximizes that opportunity among as many as possible, rather than for the few. Much of the discussion concerns property, and how it is distributed and regulated through the state, and this itself is pretty much always about the divide between the rich and the poor. It reminded me of Livy, where there were perennial battles between the nobles and the plebes, and it was similar to Rousseau, that is so centrally related to the question of how society can help a guy can hang on to his stuff.

Aristotle was very taken with the notion of virtue and its ability to guide the affairs of men, but he was also clear-eyed about the tendency of men to let their baser passions carry the day, and spends much time talking about the specific ways that different noble constitutions are perverted by the avarice of men. These variations, and the need for strong constutions, all spring from a central source that Aristotle covers early in the text:

A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worse of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with the arms of intelligence and with moral qualities which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he not have virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, and the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle order in political society.

When he goes on to run through the dangers to the state, it starts to sound like Livy, with military leaders, key families, factions of the rich and salt of the earth masses all vying for advantage in the affairs of state. States begin in pursuit of the good life for whoever is writing the constitution, and they are able to succeed in relation to their ability to satisfy enough people sufficiently for equilibrium to be maintained. Often this means the rich enjoying everything and the poor enjoying just enough. But sometimes this means one family enjoying everything and everyone else hating their guts until they get a chance to strike. But in either case, it’s about ordering things to make the good life possible, until some faction or demagogue comes along to pervert the system and make it serve some new end unrelated to the good life. Whenever the demagogues show up you know you’re in trouble.

Just like with Rousseau, Aristotle seems to see the state as synoymous with a city-state of tens of thousands but not millions of people, which limits their utility to me as a reader hoping to understand the dynamics of larger political systems, but also flies in the face of the way the world worked as both of these authors well knew. Aristotle was teacher to Alexander the Great, who built an empire before Aristotle wrote this book, but you’d never know it, as all of his states and examples have to do with cities, and states consisting of 5,000 or 20,000 people.

It made me wonder at how exciting it must have been to live in such a time, in such a city, where you might construct a new social contract, write a constitution, and participate in a society that you helped define. Aristotle seemed to have personal experience with many of such cases, so I gather that back in the day it was common enough to chuck everything out and start a new system. He speaks with the stern experience of a master craftsman when he warns of the deficiencies common to weak constitutions, and the principles found in constitutions that can lead to a durable state. Don’t have too great a disparity between rich and poor. Make everyone hold office, and none permanently. Keep laws simple and few. What must life have been like when this could be viewed as practical advice. After all, Aristotle was a paid consultant to states writing constitutions. Talk about an interesting niche.

Most of my highlighted passages are flagging some of the outrageously inane things Aristotle, but occasionally he gets out a goody, most notably in the first paragraph:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think is good.

I like this, and I like to believe it myself. Every man works toward what he views as the good, and the world is only as deranged as it is because people are generally too thick to see the difference between good and craptastic, and it mucks up all the works. Case in point, I think, is Aristotle himself, who spent a life pursuing what he must have felt to be the good, but only ended up creating a big steamy mess of nonsense that I am heartily glad to be done with.


 

Highlighted passages:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think is good.

 

Thus the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example if the whole body be destroyed, these will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand.

 

The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is no self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god; he is no part of a state.

 

A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worse of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with the arms of intelligence and with moral qualities which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he not have virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, and the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle order in political society.

 

But is there anyone thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule, and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjugation, others for rule.

 

Virtue, when furnished with means, is deemed to have the greatest power of doing violence; and as superior pwer is only found when there is superior excellence of some kind, power is thought to imply virtue. But does it likewise imply justice?—That is the question.

 

A question may indeed be raised, whether there is any excellence at all in a slave beyond merely the instrumental qualities of a servant—whether he can have the virtues of temperance, courage, justice, and the like; or whether slaves possess only the bodily qualities of a servant. Whichever way we answer the question, a difficulty arises; for, if they have virtue, in what will they differ from freemen? On the other hand, since they are men and share in reason, it seems absurd to say that they have no virtue. A similar question may be raised about women and children, whether they too have virtues: ought a woman to be temperate and brace and just, and is a child to be called temperate and intemperate, or not?

 

For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature. So it must necessarily be with the moral virtues also; all may be supposed to partake of them, but only in such manner and degree as is required by each for the fulfillment of his duty.

 

Now we determined that a slave is useful for the wants of life, and therefore he will obviously require only so much virtue as will prevent him from failing in his duty through cowardice and intemperance.

 

It is not the possessions but the desires of mankind which require to be equalized.

 

But want is not the sole incentive to crime; men also desire to gratify some passion which preys on them, or they are eager to gratify some passion which preys on them, or they are eager to enjoy some pleasure unaccompanied with pain, and therefore they commit crimes.

 

For the law has no power to command obedience except that of habit, which can only be given it by time.

 

Besides, if there were no other difficulty, the management of slaves is a troublesome affair; for, if not kept in hand, they are insolent, and think that they are as good as their masters, and, if harshly treated, they hate and conspire against them.

 

It is evident, then, that all those governments which have a common good in view are rightly established and strictly just, but those who have in view only the good of the rulers are all founded on wrong principles, and are widely different from what a government ought to be, for they are tyranny over slaves, whereas a city is a community of freemen.

 

But if this distinction is to be made between every people and every general assembly, and some few men of consequence, it may be doubtful whether it is true; nay, it is clear enough that, with respect to a few, it is not; since the same conclusion might be applied even to brutes: and indeed wherein do some men differ from brutes? Not but that nothing prevents what I have said being true of the people in some states. The doubt then which we have lately proposed, with all its consequences, may be settled in this manner; it is necessary that the freemen who compose the bulk of the people should have absolute power in some things; but as they are neither men of property, nor act uniformly upon principles of virtue, it is not safe to trust them with the first offices in the state, both on account of their iniquity and their ignorance; from the one of which they will do what is wrong, from the other they will mistake: and yet it is dangerous to allow them no power or share in the government; for when there are many poor people who are incapable of acquiring the honours of their country, the state must necessarily have many enemies in it; let them then be permitted to vote in the public assemblies and to determine causes; for which reason Socrates, and some other legislators, gave them the power of electing the officers of the state, and also of inquiring into their conduct when they came out of office, and only prevented their being magistrates by themselves; for the multitude when they are collected together have all of them sufficient understanding for these purposes, and, mixing among those of higher rank, are serviceable to the city, as some things, which alone are improper for food, when mixed with others make the whole more wholesome than a few of them would be.

 

The discussion of the previous question shows nothing so clearly as that laws, when good, should be supreme; and that the magistrate or magistrates should regulate only those matters on which the laws are unable to speak with precision, owing to the difficulty of any general principle embracing all particulars.

 

In all sciences and arts the end is a good, especially and above all in the highest science of all, which is the political science. Of this the good is justice, in other words, the common interest.

 

Another reason they have is that those who are sprung from better ancestors are likely to be better men, for nobility is excellence of race.

 

However, when a whole family, or some individual, happens to be so pre-eminent in virtue as to surpass all others, then it is just that they should be the royal family and supreme over all, or that the one citizen should be king of the whole people.

 

Any change in government which has to be introduced should be one which men are both willing and able to adopt, since there is quite as much trouble in the reformation of an old constitution as in the establishment of a new one, even as to unlearn is as hard as to learn.

 

The laws are not to be confounded with the principles of the constitution; they are the rules according to which the magistrates should administer the state, and proceed against offenders.

 

For Aristocracy is considered to be a kind of oligarchy, being the rule of the few, and the so-called constitutional government really a democracy; just as among the winds we make the west a variation of the north wind, and the east of the south. Similarly of modes in music there are said to be two, the Dorian and the Phrygian.

 

Nor again is oligarchy that form of government in which few are sovereign. Suppose the whole population of a city to be 1,300, and of these 1,000 are rich, who do not allow the remaining 300, who are poor but free and in all other respects their equals, a share in the government.

 

So with the forms of government which have been described, States, as I have repeatedly said, are composed not of one but of many elements. One element is the food-producing class, who are called farmers; a second, the class of craftsmen, who practice the arts without which a city cannot exist—some of them are absolutely necessary, other contribute to luxury or to the grace of life. The third class is that of traders, and by traders I mean those who are engaged in buying and selling, either in commerce or retail trade. A fourth class is that of serfs or laborers. The soldiers make up the fifth class, and they are as necessary as any of the others, if the country is not to be the slave of every invader.

 

Again, because the rich are generally few in number, while the poor are many, they appear to be antagonistic, and as the one or the other prevails they form the government. Hence arises the common opinion that there are but two kinds of government, democracy and oligarchy.

 

The decrees of the populace correspond to the edicts of the tyrant; and the demagogue is to the one what the flatterer is to the other. Both have great power—the flatterer with the tyrant, the demagogue with democracies of the kind we are describing.

 

Now within all states there are three elements; one class is very rich, another very poor, and a third in the mean. It is admitted that moderation and the mean are best, and therefore it will clearly be best to possess the gifts of fortune in moderation; for in that condition of life men are most ready to listen to reason. But he who greatly excels in beauty, strength, birth, or wealth, or on the other hand who is very poor, or very weak, or very much disgraced, finds it difficult to follow reason. Of these two kinds, the former grow into violent and great criminals, the latter into rogues and petty rascals. And two sorts of offenses correspond to them, the one committed by violence, the other by roguery.

 

Above all things that ought not to be forgotten which many governments now corrupted neglect; namely, to preserve a mean. For many things seemingly favourable to a democracy destroy a democracy, and many things seemingly favourable to an oligarchy destroy an oligarchy. Those who think this the only virtue extend it to excess, not considering that as a nose which varies a little from perfect straightness, either towards a hook nose or a flat one, may yet be beautiful and agreeable to look at; but if this particularity is extended beyond measure, first of all the properties of the part is lost, but at last it can hardly be admitted to be a nose at all, on account of the excess of the rise or sinking: thus it is with other parts of the human body; so also the same thing is true with respect to states; for both an oligarchy and a democracy may something vary from their most perfect form and yet be well constituted; but if any one endeavours to extend either of them too far, at first he will make the government the worse for it, but at last there will be no government at all remaining.

 

but this is wrong, for no one ought to think it slavery to live in subjection to government, but protection. [rousseau said the same thing]

 

These two species of monarchies arise from principles contrary to each other: a kingdom is formed to protect the better sort of people against the multitude, and kings are appointed out of those, who are chosen either for their superior virtue and actions flowing from virtuous principles, or else from their noble descent; but a tyrant is chosen out of the meanest populace; an enemy to the better sort, that the common people may not be oppressed by them.

 

A king desires to be the guardian of his people, that those who have property may be secure in the possession of it, and that the people in general meet with no injury; but a tyrant, as has been often said, has no regard to the common good, except for his own advantage; his only object is pleasure, but a king’s is virtue: what a tyrant therefore is ambitious of engrossing is wealth, but a king rather honour. The guards too of a king are citizens, a tyrant’s foreigners.

 

Subjects attack their sovereigns out of fear or contemp or because they have been unjustly treated by them. Of injustice, the most common form is insult, another is confiscation of property.

 

Kingdoms are seldom destroyed by any outward attack; for which reason they are generally very stable; but they have many causes of subversion within; of which two are the principal; one is when those who are in power [1313a] excite a sedition, the other when they endeavour to establish a tyranny by assuming greater power than the law gives them. A kingdom, indeed, is not what we ever see erected in our times, but rather monarchies and tyrannies; for a kingly government is one that is voluntarily submitted to, and its supreme power admitted upon great occasions: but where many are equal, and there are none in any respect so much better than another as to be qualified for the greatness and dignity of government over them, then these equals will not willingly submit to be commanded; but if any one assumes the government, either by force or fraud, this is a tyranny.

 

Let us acknowledge then that each one has just so much of happiness as he has of virtue and wisdom, and of good and wise action. God is a witness to us of this truth, for he is happy and blessed, not by reason of any external good, but in himself and by reason of his own nature. And herein must lie the difference between good fortune and happiness. For external goods come of themselves, and chance is the author of them, but no one is just or temperate by or through chance.

 

Experience shows, moreover, that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed; since all cities which have a reputation for good government have a limited population.

 

Since every political society is composed of rulers and subjects, let us consider whether the relations of one to the other should interchange or be permanent. For the education of the citizens will necessarily vary with the answer given to this question. Now, if some men excelled others in the same degree in which gods and heroes are supposed to excel mankind in general, being in the first place far more perfect even in their bodies , and, also, in their minds, so that the superiority of the governors over subjects was patent and undisputed, it could clearly be better that one class should rule and others serve. But since this is impossible, and kinds have no marked superiority over their subjects, such as Scylax affirms to be the case among the Indians, it is obviously necessary on many grounds that all citizens alike should take their turn at governing and being governed.

 

War must be for the sake of peace, business for the sake of leisure, things useful and necessary for the sake of things honorable.

 

Neither should men study war with a view to the enslavement of those who do not deserve to be enslaved. First of all they should provide against their own enslavement, and in the second place obtain empire for the good of the governed, and not to exercise a despotism. In the third place, they should seek to be masters only over those who deserve to be slaves.

 

But as the body is prior in order of growth to the soul, so the irrational is prior to the rational.

 

Women should marry when they are about eighteen years of age, and men at thirty-seven; then they are in the prime of life, and the decline in the powers of both will coincide.

 

Women who are with child should be careful of themselves; they should take exercise and have a nourishing diet. The first of these prescriptions the lawgiver will easily carry into effect by requiring them to take a walk daily to some temple, where they can worship the gods who preside over birth. Their minds, however, unlike their bodies, they ought to keep unexercised. Offspring derive their natures from their mothers as plants do from the earth.

As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live. But where there are too many children (for in our state population has a limit) they must not be exposed solely for that reason. When couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begin.

 

Let the rulers see that there is no image or picture representing unseemly actions, except in the temples of those gods at whose festivals the law permits ribaldry, and whom the law also orders shall be worshipped by persons of mature age on behalf of themselves, their children, and their wives. But the lawgiver should not allow youth to be spectators of comedy until they are of an age to sit at the public tables and drink strong wine. By that time education will have armed them against the evil influences of such representations.

 

And since the entire state has one end, manifestly education should be one and the same for all, and should be public, and not private. It should no be as at present, when everyone looks adter his own children separately, and gives separate instruction of the sort he thinks best. The training in things of common interest should be the same for all.

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