Aristotle’s Politics – What Living With Other People Leads To

In the first book of the Politics, Aristotle begins with the notion that humans are political and social animals who must live together. In living together, humans all have certain roles that they must play, and these roles are determined by whether a person is a man or woman, adult or child, free person or slave.   

Aristotle’s argument is that states exist to provide people with a good life, and he points out that wealth must have limits in order for that good life to be obtained. Merely chasing after money is not useful, according to him, and despite some ideas that may not hold up under the empirical experiences of modern days, he seems to have identified a problem with modern life. Namely, we are too interested in the medium of exchange and trying to develop wealth without limits rather than natural riches.

“For natural riches and the natural art of wealth getting are a different thing; in their true form, they are part of the management of a household; whereas the retail trade is the art of producing wealth, not in every way, but by exchange.”

In considering households as the basic building block of the state, Aristotle devotes considerable time to household management and wealth creation in this first book. He posits that the household exists to provide for essential needs, villages are created to provide for something more than basic needs, and thus societies are formed. Once enough villages come together, then “the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”

Aristotle begins with the notion that people must live together.

“Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not be mere accident is without a start is either a bad man or above humanity….”

He goes on to show why the state is a creation of nature.

“The proof that that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the while. 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 or a state.”

Having convinced us of the necessity of living together, Aristotle wants to understand how states work by breaking them down into their constituent parts. He regards states as a collection of households, and here he begins to lay out the roles that people must play.

Aristotle looks at families, which he says are comprised of master and slave, husband and wife, father and children. The father and man of the house is the one in charge for Aristotle. He says that some people are “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” 

While slavery is a state of nature for some people, and those people serve as instruments of creating and gathering wealth, others are not meant to be slaves, and to keep them in slavery is a bad idea.

“Hence, where the relation of master and slave between them is natural they are friends and have a common interest, but where it rests merely on law and force, the reverse is true.”

Slavery is an odious institution, and I cannot see a strong argument for it in anyway, but then, that stems from my belief that there is no natural relationship that could create a slave. Power tends to corrupt, and we see petty and large tyrannies everywhere that show people who try to create slaves never have a “natural” relationship with them.

Aristotle even talks about how the “meaner sort of mechanic has a special and separate slavery” and that artisans also have characteristics of slavery. If Aristotle were right that masters are sources of excellence in their slaves, the existence of slavery might be more palatable. But even middle managers routinely fail at creating excellence in this society of free people, so I fail to see how someone who is in a position to be abusive and capricious could possibly maintain excellence in themselves, much less in others they consider beneath them.

Aristotle also believes that men should rule over women and children. Even though a woman can be temperate, brave, and just, that does not mean that these qualities are the same in men and women.

“Clearly, then the moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman are not, as Socrates maintained, the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying.”

Now, I find Aristotle an interesting read, but he and I part company here. Although men and women are different, looking at things empirically, as Aristotle would like us to do, I can’t say that this is correct. Perhaps the difference is in my time, women have be involved in all spheres of life, public and private, while in his time their roles were much more limited. It is interesting to think about what Aristotle would say today, faced with the evidence of our modern society.

However he might change his views on slavery and the roles of men and women if he were to visit modern society, I think that Aristotle would find evidence to support his belief that riches should have limits.

He divides the art of “wealth-getting” into two kinds, unnecessary and necessary. The unnecessary kind is that which is just about accumulating coin through retail trade, as he terms it. He says that virtues are corrupted through this. I think here, Aristotle is correct in that in the past twenty to thirty years, we have seen the best and brightest of our country devote themselves to creating money out of money, rather than building true wealth through the creation of valuable objects or tangible resources. Even things once designed to bring us happiness and inculcate virtue have become marketing tools. Why do Christmas decorations come out in stores during October?

Aristotle would say the United States has gotten out of hand with its search for wealth.

“Those who aim at a good life seek the means of obtaining bodily pleasures; and, since the enjoyment of these appears to depend on property, they are absorbed in getting wealth; and so there arises the second species of wealth-getting. For, as their enjoyment is in excess, they seek an art which produces the excess of enjoyment and it they are not able to supply their pleasure by the art of getting wealth, they try other arts, using in turn every faculty in a manner contrary to nature.”

There is a proper reason for gathering wealth, however, and that is to live a good life.

“Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, in so far as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community of the family or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches; for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited….”

One can only wonder what Aristotle would have thought of credit cards and subprime loans.

Next Time: Plutarch’s Lives — Learning About Ourselves Through the Biographies of Others


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