Of History, Regimes, and their Laws

Bk. III contains the famous passage concerning the forms and cycles of political regimes. I would like to focus on how Aristotle’s analysis is at the same time historical, conceptual, and predictive in nature.

  1. Experience and Structure

His analysis is historical in the sense that it draws from accounts, stories, poems, and contemporary experience as being legitimate sources for data. We see him citing Homer, as well as accounts of political life in Sparta and Syracuse, and even analogies drawn from the practice of other arts like medicine. This forms the empirical element of Aristotle’s science of politics and we should note that unlike the ‘raw data’ of our modern physical or social sciences, for Aristotle the relevant data is already formed and informed within concrete genres of story-telling, travel literature, and the practical wisdom of day-to-day problem solving. But what governs this accumulation and relevance of this data?

I would offer that what guides Aristotle’s selection of data is the same principle which allows him to conceptualize it. Namely, the specific question he wants to answer about human organization. Ultimately, Bk. IV will take up the question of the ideal regime, but the comprehensive search for and comparison of political models is a natural prerequisite to this question. For Aristotle, the study of Greek constitutions is primarily a study of organizational models because ultimately the two are convertible realities. “So we are back again with law, for organization is law.”( γὰρ τάξις νόμος) These forms of organization are subjected to dialectical questioning which range from the weighing the relative merits of written laws or personal sovereignty, to the question of personal and communal vulnerability to corruption.

In the course of answering these questions, he presents reasons why he thinks some regimes are likely to follow others in way which is also historically viable. The prevalence of monarchy in ancient times is ascribed to the scarcity of virtuous men. When enough good men were living in the city, they demanded a more communal model or an aristocracy. From there we have the familiar list of aristocracy to oligarchy, oligarchy to tyranny, and tyranny to democracy. Each model or constitution has a degraded and noble form. But the particular degradations and successions of constitution do not happen randomly in Aristotle’s account. Each structure contains unique vulnerabilities that make the manner of its demise likely to happen in specific manner and likely to bring forth a specific alternative model.

My contention is that Aristotle intends this passage not as Just-So story for the purposes of historical reconstruction but as an explanatory schema for understanding and predicting the causes of political realities. I think that just as we understand the Nicomachean Ethics as theoretical elaboration meant to direct concrete ethical action, so also we should take the Politics as a unified theory for the sake of political action. I would even go so far as to call this passage an account of the laws of historical development inherent in political forms. These are not laws in the sense of geometrical demonstrations, but laws in the sense of directive tendencies inherent in organizational forms. As mentioned before, for Aristotle laws, constitutions, and organizations, and forms are convertible realities because they are reducible to various types of intelligibility. “Hence law is intelligence without appetition.”( διόπερ ἄνευ ὀρέξεως νοῦς  νόμος ἐστίν)

  1. Political Structure and Economics

Focusing on the transition from aristocracy for a moment, we find Aristotle’ account to be very specific.

But the good men did not remain good: they began to make money out of that which was the common property of all. And to some such development we may plausibly ascribe the origin of oligarchies, since men made wealth a thing of honor.

This should lead us to recall from Bk. I both the distinction between use-value and exchange-value as well as the distinction between managing the goods of the household and the art of acquiring wealth. Aristotle locates the downfall of aristocracy to be precisely this shift from valuing goods for concrete purposes to the valuing of wealth for its own sake. It is at the same time an ethical and political judgement. The things that are good are also the things that are necessary for political stability “for the struggle to get rich tended to reduce numbers” i.e. wealth was extremely concentrated in the hands of a few “and so increased the power of the multitude, who rose up and formed democracies.”

Aristotle thought that history contained the elements necessary for philosophical analysis of political structures. In turn, the material conditions these structures engender (concentrations of wealth, inequality, etc) have a natural directedness which we can use for predictive purposes. This, I think, should lead us to a greater appreciation for the Aristotelian roots of Karl Marx’s treatment of political economy. The secondary literature on this subject is wide-ranging (see Scott Meikle or Karl Polanyi) but even more importantly, Marx himself makes explicit use of Aristotle whom he calls the greatest of ancient philosophers. We must understand his approach of dialectical historical materialism within the tradition of Aristotle’s treatment of the sciences. The laws of history are, as in Aristotle, an analysis of social forms. It is no more deterministic to talk of the general law of accumulation in capitalism than it is to identify a structural vulnerability to wealth-accumulation in aristocracy. Materialism, when understood as primarily being defined by organization, law, and form, does not remove human agency, but rather allows the human spirit to enter the ethical and political realm with greater purpose and understanding.


Amasis’ Foot-Pan and the Meaning of Coverture

Coverture perhaps ranks first among the old-timey villains of contemporary law professors. It supposedly represents an antiquated misogynistic habit to systematically oppress women by “covering” their legal personhood with that of their husband, and its demise with the Married Women’s Property Acts is seen as an important victory against the nefarious patriarchy. However, as we must never assume that our ancestors were so cartoonishly unjust, we owe it to them to briefly examine what the purpose of coverture might have been.

Because this blog has, up to this point, dealt with a reading of Aristotle, we will examine some of Aristotle’s thoughts regarding the place of the family in the polis and the role of the husband in the family. These issues will provide an introduction to some of the theoretical concerns potentially undergirding coverture. Then we will actually define coverture and try to figure out what its purpose actually was.

Aristotle gives the family a primary significance in his Politics in that it is the fundamental unit of all human society. As he says, “In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue.” (Politics 1251a 26-28.) Without it the human race ceases, so Aristotle places it at the foundation of human society. The family is established “for the supply of men’s everyday wants.” (id. 1252b 12-13.) Families band together in a village to aim at the supply of “something more than daily needs.” (id. 1252b 15-17.) The family, then, is necessarily the smallest unit of society, but in order to interact even on the village level it will need some way to act as some unified whole.

If the family (as opposed to the individual) is the smallest societal unit, then it must have a way to interact within the polis as a whole. Each family first requires unity within itself, to which end a single figurehead, generally the father, represented the family. (id. 1252b 22-25.) The husband heads the family as an equal to the wife, as his relationship to her is not “royal” (as it is with his children) but a “constitutional rule” (i.e. the rule of a balanced commonwealth). (id. 1259a 40-41.)

As the man and the woman are equals, Aristotle makes an analogy to explain how the man may exercise headship:

Nevertheless, when one rules and the other is ruled we endeavor to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect, which may be illustrated by the saying of Amasis about his foot-pan. The relation of the male to the female is of this kind . . . .

(id. 1259b 7-9.) The saying about Amasis comes from Herodotus, where Amasis, after becoming ruler of Egypt, found people grumbling against him because he had once been a commoner like them. He proceeded to refashion a foot-pan in which people had washed their feet as an idol, and, seeing the people marvel at it, he told them that he was like the idol in that he was once common but had been refashioned as their ruler. The Egyptians then accepted him as their ruler. (Histories ii 172.)

Aristotle appears to be saying that the unity of the family under the headship of the husband is necessary because any group of people (including a family as much as the Egyptian people) needs a head in order to act as a whole and that will lead the members of that body toward the good. It is true that Aristotle does distinguish between the virtues of a man and a woman. (Politics 1260a 20-31.) But we do not have to accept Aristotle’s thoughts on the virtues particular to man and woman, or that a man is by nature “fitter” to govern the family, to recognize the practicality, if not the necessity, in having a single head to the political unit of the family. (id. 1259b 1-7, 1260a 20-30.)

With Aristotle’s thoughts on marriage in mind, let us turn to Blackstone’s definition of coverture:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protecture, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law-french a feme-covert, foemina viro co-operata; it is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection of the husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during the marriage is known as her coverture

(Commentaries, 441-442.) The abolition the wife qua legal entity seems rather severe. Consider the situation further, though. As Blackstone continues to tell us, “a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into a covenant with her. . . .” (id., 442.) This only describes the outward effects of a husband and wife’s particular legal unity, and prevents the husband from escaping debts by granting his possessions to his wife. Similarly, the common law obliged a husband marrying a wife with debts to pay those debts himself, thereby preventing the parties from using marriage as a way to avoid debts. (id., 443.) Coverture, then, did not deprive the wife of rights so much as unite the woman and the man for the more efficient management of the household under the somewhat arbitrary headship of the husband. (See Politics 1259a 37, 1259b 1-10.) 

These restrictions are not unique to English law, either. Under Roman law, neither husband or wife could make grants to each other during the marriage. (Studies in Roman Law, 103.) Similarly under Roman law, the wife’s property came entirely under the husband’s control. (id., 101.)

Under Scottish law the wife remained nominally independent in a number of ways, but her husband’s consent was generally required in matters relating to real property. (id., 114.) In Scotland, the husband would still be the administrator of those lands for the duration of the marriage. (id., 114.) Indeed, the common law of Scotland remained much the same as that of England, and gave the husband the vast majority of the wife’s property at the time of the marriage. (id., 114-115.) Again we see the woman united legally united to the man for the duration of the marriage for more efficient, and just, management of the household.

What we see from in Aristotle as much as under Roman and English law is a tendency to unite the legal personhood of the wife and the husband into one entity. This protected the family from being preyed upon as individuals, and consolidated the possession and debts of both under headship of a single individual. Of course this doctrine could potentially be abused, as, for example, a profligate husband could sometime fritter away the wealth he gained from marrying his wife, or a woman could be denied a suit in tort for her husband beating her (though this also applied vice versa). But the occasional misuse of a law does not make a law unjust. 

Our ancestors who formulated the idea of coverture were addressing a complex problem, and their answer would inevitably be imperfect. Reflecting on this now defunct notion, though, should not be an occasion to rejoice at the march of progress. Rather, we ought to turn our attention to contemporary legal and societal notions of marriage, and the ways we may have gone too far in another direction while dealing while addressing the ills of coverture


Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941).

William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England: Vol. 1 Including Books I & II (Chicago: Callaghan and Company, 1884).

Herodotus, The Histories trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt (London: Penguin Books, 2003).
Donald MacKenzie, Studies in Roman Law (William Blackwood and Sons: Edinburgh, 1915).

A Polity, Not a Democracy: Book IV of Aristotle’s Politics

Reading Aritotle’s Politics for me is akin to walking unexpectedly into a time machine set for the spring of 2010 and the place, Hillsdale College. There in our American Heritage classrooms we bright-eyed, young freshman listened eagerly as our professors explained how the Founders drew upon a host of classical writers and their ideas in order to create a strong political body for the new federation of states. Among the authors mentioned, Aristotle enjoyed a particular prominence for his ideas about moderation, the separation of powers, and how he played an effective and convincing role as an authority for the justification of a strict, clear understanding of the enumerated powers of the U.S. Constitution. Now, older, while I cannot say for certain that Book IV in particular was the guide to which the Founders looked for the best form of government for the new republic, many of the ideas contained in it appear to be exactly the same ideas which our professors pointed to as the particulars of Aristotle upon which the Founders drew.  Likewise, much of what Aristotle discusses in this particular book is immediately relevant to the political state of the U.S. today. I hope in the following post to identify and discuss these points and to provide a semi-competent, interesting commentary.

Thus far, Aristotle has been speaking about the various classifications of constitutions and by the end of Book III has wrapped up a lengthy and comprehensive look at the five kinds of Monarchy, drawing upon real-world examples of these varying kinds in order to give his readers a hands-on picture of what he means. At the beginning of Book IV, Aristotle steps out of his discussion on types of constitutions in order to visit the question of what objects the political science should study. For example, should political science explore the nature of the ideal yet unrealizable perfect state, as Plato does in his Republic, or should it concern itself only with the realistic and practical? Aristotle argues that any science is only complete when it considers all that pertains to that given subject. This sounds tautological at first, but there are many in our day who would argue that while comprehensive and complete knowledge is important in areas like physics and biology, knowledge of the perfect political state, of the finer distinctions in grammar, or of dead languages do not produce real results and are therefore not worthy objects of study. For Aristotle, one cannot truly understand a science unless one is willing to study all aspects of that science. Therefore, in order to understand the science of politics, one must study all of politics, even the idealistic, unrealizeable aspects of the science. I think Aristotle would argue, were one to challenge him on this point,  that just as in the exploration of the Good in the Nichomachean ethics it is important to know as best as possible the highest good (we, like archers after all, need something at which to aim), so too in the political realm it is best to know the most ideal or idealistic state so we may conform our states to that ideal as best as possible. Aristotle goes on to affirm practicality as the second object of political science: “The true legislator and statesman ought to be acquainted, not only with that which is best in the abstract, but also with that which is best relative to the circumstances.” Having firmly established the scope and reason for political science, Aristotle returns to his discussion of the various types of constitutions by looking at its last forms: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.

While the discussion of these types of governments have much to offer the reader, perhaps the most interesting point in the book appears just before 1293b, when Aristotle adds a fifth form of government to the ranks of monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, and aristocracy which he names “polity”, or “constitutional government”. This government is an amalgamation of oligarchy and democracy and in practice is the reconciliation of the freedom of the poor with the wealth of the rich into a kind of civil harmony. Aristotle argues that there are three legitimate grounds on which men can lay claim to an equal share of government, these being freedom, wealth, and virtue. Polity is the unification of the first two claims, and as such most governments are actually polities with another governmental type’s name slapped across their surface. The constitution of the state is organized in such a way that the various bodies of power represent the interests of the oligarchical and monarchical factions respectively and tend to offset one another, making it a de facto polity. For example, in the United States universal suffrage and the election of representatives is a democratic element of the constitution while the fact that the choices of suitable candidates for office most often consist of people of wealth, high standing, or influence in society is an oligarchical aspect (I should note that what I mean by “constitution” here is not the U.S. Constitution, but rather the broader, de facto environment in which we conduct politics).

If Aristotelian ethics can be summarized by the principle of “The Golden Mean”, that is to say, that every vice is an absence or excess of a particular virtue which occupies a roughly middle position in the scope of possible action or disposition, Aristotelian politics and what makes ideal state, in the thus far little space to which Aristotle has devoted any time to laying out a comprehensive plan of such a thing, consists of a city whose middle class wields significant influence and power: “Wherefore the city which is composed of middle-class citizens is necessarily best constituted in respect of the elements of which we say the fabric of the state naturally consists” (1295b, L. 29). As I would imagine it does for most of us, what makes the middle class the middle class for Aristotle is its level of wealth. Aristotle notes, however, that this condition creates in these citizens a tendency towards moderation in action and therefore a tendency towards the exercise of virtue. While a destitute mob has nothing to lose but their miserable lives and everything to gain by rebelling against the wealthy oligarchs, the middle class has enough for their comfort and therefore something to risk losing should they rebel. This moderates their political action in conjunction with the poor against the wealthy. Likewise, while a wealthy individual in the oligarchic party has the money and influence and therefore the temptation to plot against his fellow oligarchs and make their goods his own, the citizen of the middle class does not, generally speaking, desire his neighbor’s property nor plots against him. He stands nothing to gain from oppressing the poor and therefore is disinclined to work alongside the oligarchs to do so. The middle class then for Aristotle becomes the lynch pin which holds the state together in peace by culling through its own political power the excesses of the other classes. The state desiring longevity and peace ought to look to fostering its middle class.

One particular quote from Aristotle in this section on the middle class stands out: “The mean condition of states is clearly the best, for no other is free from faction; and where the middle class is large, there are least likely to be factions and dissensions.” One can certainly indite the U.S. as suffering from faction at this point in its history, but before having that discussion, it would be beneficial firstly to give some context. By faction, I do not take Aristotle to mean having two political parties or several different camps of random citizens all disagreeing about the solution to a particular problem. I think that when Aristotle speaks of faction he is talking about a quality bound within the very constitution of the state wherein those parts which makeup the state are naturally inclined to disagree. To give a silly example, a country consisting of fish-men and of bird-men would naturally be factious, as the fish-men’s desired political actions on the part of the state would be automatically opposed to the nature of the bird-men. To give a more serious example, a dichotomous state consisting of destitute plebs and their wealthy overseers will be prone to faction precisely because every political action which is good for the plebs is automatically bad for the overseers and vice-versa. Thus, Aristotle would not look at the U.S. and say that it is factious because it has Republicans and Democrats, nor would he look at the U.K. and say it is factious because it has Tories, Liberals, Lib-Dems (perhaps not so much), the SNP and UKIP. Rather, he would claim the U.S. is factious on the grounds of something more naturally factious like the much-discussed rift between rural and urban interests in the country. Some disagreements between the Republican and Democratic parties are the accidental effects of a more fundamental disagreement between City Mouse and Country Mouse which translate to disagreements between those political parties. Likewise, looking at the U.K., Aristotle would point to faction arising naturally from cultural and physical qualities. The Scots understand themselves to be a people separate from the English, and they have a geographic place which goes along with that cultural separation. The same could be said of the Welsh and the Irish. This naturally leads to faction in the British Parliament. It is from Aristotle’s discussion of faction that the Founders gained affirmation of their deep distaste for it and desire to avoid it wherever possible (indeed, to the then-freshman author, it seemed as though the fear of faction in the Federalist Papers on the part of Madison bordered on paranoia). Thus for Aristotle the ideal state, insofar as he speaks of one, consists of a large middle class disinclined to the excesses of the other classes, and the ideal state avoids fostering faction, which, one should note, engenders the passions and ideological fervor which lead to actions of excess.

In conclusion, Book V particularly puts forth several ideas germane to our understanding of politics today and to our understanding of our own constitution. It is particularly interesting to see the topics discussed by the Founders show up here on the pages of the Politics, and I think that, coupled with its relevance today speaks of the timelessness of this subject matter. Of all the books about which we have thus far posted, I think this one in particular shows the confluence in Aristotle’s understanding of the natures of the two sciences of politics and ethics whose very being, good, and perseverance are grounded in the idea of the middling way, the Golden Mean.

King Charles Wore White: Some Aristotelian Reflections on Absolute Monarchy

After discussing certain varieties of citizenship, Aristotle identifies the six categories of good and perverted governments in Bk. III, Ch. 7. Throughout the rest of this book Aristotle considers the common government of monarchy. Aristotle lists four sorts of monarchy with some containment by law: (1) Spartan generalship/religious headship, (2) a barbaric kingship over “natural slaves, (3) the sort of elected tyranny present in Athens, or (4) the sort of heroic kingship present in the days of old when kings conquered land for their people (Bk. III Ch. 14). The kind of kingship that interests me most, however, is Aristotle’s fifth type of kingship, which rules the nation as a household is ruled (1284b 29). I would like to dwell on Aristotle’s analogy here in comparing the authority in the largest unit of society (i.e. the polis) to the smallest (i.e. the family).

The Philosopher states that the only forms of monarchy worth considering are the Lacedaemonian and the “absolute” kingship (i.e. kingship as “control of the household” 1285b 31). This type of kingship corresponds to the rule of the family, so Bk. I should provide some illustrations of its appearance. There Aristotle explains “there is one rule exercised over subjects who are by nature free, another over subjects who are by nature slaves.” (1255b 17-18.) Additionally, “[t]he master is not called a master because he has a science, but because he is of a certain character [i.e. a virtuous one], and the same remark applies to the slave and the freeman.” (1255b 20-22). By analogy, then, this absolute monarch rules over free men, as well as of slaves, as the king has “disposal of all.” (See 1285b 29, see also 1253b 1-14 for the various elements of household rule.) The four preceding types of kings fail to attain complete authority as the head has over a household.

Lacedaemonian kingship has stripped the king of all his power so he only leads the people into battle and offers sacrifice; this would, by analogy, be a purely representative father who only represents his family outside the home and says (some of) the prayers inside the home. The king of the barbarians rules over his people as slaves, though he has the love and support of his people (See 1285a 26, the barbarian king’s bodyguard is composed “of citizens”). The relationship between the barbarian king and the fifth type of kingship is analogous not to the head of the household and the household, but to a master and his slaves. Athens’ elected dictatorship (a “presidential” kingship) cannot coincide with this fifth type, as no child can elect his father. The heroic kingship is almost a kingship of utility: the king brings glory to his people, so his people allow his rule until “at a later date [the kings] relinquished several of those privileges, and others the people took from them, until in some states nothing was left to them but the sacrifices.” (1285b 15-17.) (Athens provides an excellent example of the eroded powers of this kingship in the archon basileus.)

After providing his readers with examples of the four “mixed” kingships, Aristotle fails to provide his readers with an example of what his fifth kingship looks like. What is fascinating about this kingship, though, is its relation between the king as head of household and the people, as drawing the analogy out would appear to make the king husband of the polis and father of his people. Thankfully, examples exist outside of Ancient Greece.

The Christian West, inheriting a great deal of pagan baggage of kings with priestly duties, frequently equated coronation to the appointing of bishops. This priest king, though, is not congruent with this fifth type of kingship. The fifth kind of kingship demands the king be husband to the polis and father to his people, not the divine interlocutor of the nation. We have at least one episode of a king treating the office of kingship as such a marital duty:

If it is desired to make a comparison between [coronation] and any other rite of the Church, it is the marriage rite which is really the closest to it. So King Charles I felt, of whom we are told that” His Majesty on that day was cloathed [sic] in white contrary to the custom of his predecessors who were on that day clad in purple. And this he did . . . at his own choice only, to declare that Virgin Purity with which he came to be espoused unto his kingdom.” In marriage a covenant is made with vows between the two contracting parties. To the covenant so made the Church adds her benediction.

(Maxwell Reginald Woolley 197-198.) Putting aside the many other virtues and vices of Charles I, his actions treating his coronation as a marriage illustrate this fifth type of kingship: kingship as husband and father. This kingship has great authority, but the vows made at the coronation limit the kingship within certain contractual bounds.


There is a great deal more that can be said about Aristotle’s subsequent thoughts on the difficulties of a monarchy “with the disposal of all,” though this poignant analogy between the king and a husband and father should provide a basis for further thought, particularly as we work through Bk. IV on revolutions. For, if the king is in position as a father, how much the more unnatural to throw him off?

There is still much to talk about in this book, including the potentially somewhat narrow line to be drawn between the kingship of the barbarians and the kingship “with disposal of all.”

For the source of the block quote, see:

Woolley, Reginald Maxwell. Coronation Rites. Cabridge: University Press, 1915.

From Book I: Unpacking Aristotle’s Economics

In approaching Aristotle’s economics, one must keep in mind at all times that for Aristotle  man achieves his chief end, happiness, by living in accordance with nature. In Aristotelian ethics, the nature of a thing provides the key for its proper use. In Book I, Aristotle discusses the nature of wealth and its development in its complexity, paralleling his description of the development of the family into the village and from the village into the state, the arena in which man is most capable of living a good life. From his explanation of wealth and its proper use, it is clear that his conception of good economics contains several points at variance with modern economics and the disposing of wealth in our times.

Things, Aristotle explains, have two uses: what we will call the manufacted use, and a usefulness for exchange. The manufacted use of thing is that use for which the thing was specifically made and which the thing, owing to its particular qualities, can accomplish well. For example, a shoe has been made to fit my foot, to secure my comfort, and to protect my foot from harm. These are the proper uses of a shoe. However, a shoe has a second use, that of exchange. Exchange arises naturally, Aristotle points out, as a means by which men may secure the things which they lack. I, having in my possession two pairs of shoes and no coat can use one of those pairs to exchange with my neighbor for an extra coat. One should note that this exchange, and all other natural arising exchanges, uses the shoes to secure what is ultimately a manufacted use: that of the coat. The natural form of all exchange then is that kind of exchange whose ends are the fulfillment of the material purposes of the final goods secured by the exchange.

Economics comes from the Greek word oikonomía, meaning “management of a household”. Economics naturally begins for man at the level of his household – the day-to-day securing of his goods and disposing them to meet his needs and the needs of his family. Within the household, then, the natural form of what Aristotle terms “wealth-getting” arises. That wealth is natural and good which comes from a skilled and prudent oikonomía, and its end is the material comfort of the household. A well-run household will prosper and multiply a man’s material possessions, and by this natural means he increases his wealth. In order to facilitate this oikonomía, exchange came about when different households traded the material things they had in surplus for those of which they had a dearth. As towns and cities developed, men made use of metals as a means to better facilitate this exchange, giving rise to money. However, money’s object remained the same as bartered goods before: to secure some other object otherwise impossible or impractical to produce in the household/town/city. Where I once exchanged extra shoes for a coat that I might fulfill the material need satisfied by the coat, I now exchange coins for a coat, but still that I might fulfill the material need satisfied by the coat.

The prevalence of money introduced what Aristotle considers to be the second kind of wealth-getting: exchange. This is an unnatural form of acquiring wealth, as the object becomes not the needs and comforts of a man’s physical state but rather becomes money itself. The unnaturalness and indeed the vice of this type of wealth-getting lies in the fact that what was once a means to other ends becomes an end in and of itself, and an artificial and therefore unnatural end. Were I to acquire all the shoes and coats which I could, and did so not to wear them but rather just to possess them, this would clearly be an unvirtuous and absurd act. I do not own coats to have them; I own them to use them for their created purpose. If I acquire as many little pieces of metal, not so I can secure my needs or exercise the virtue of liberality, but rather that I may have lots of little pieces of metal, I have lost sight of the object and have acted outside of nature. Aristotle recognizes a class of people arising from the merchanting exchange of cities who make the second sort of wealth-getting their profession and chief end.

The final aspect of Aristotle’s economics which I would like to examine is that of charging interest. Aristotle views the charging of interest as a vice and as an unnatural act. In the act of lending, money whose natural object was exchange for the sake of other good things has been directed towards the end of gaining more money. If I lend my friend ten coins, it follows naturally that he could exchange those ten coins for something he needs. It does not follow naturally that those ten coins could multiply into fifteen or twenty, especially when the “agent” of that multiplication is mere time. Were I to lend a cow and a bull to my neighbor and a year later he returned to me a cow, a bull, and a calf, this multiplication of goods lent has clearly risen from something natural, but my ten coins are not copulating, and as such I cannot expect to have multiplied over time by any natural process. Indeed, Aristotle calls interest the birth of money by money, that is to say, the breading of money. Alas, were it that easy.

Such are Aristotle’s economics. Now, it would be interesting to place Aristotle in a room with a modern economist and hear how the former would respond to the idea that interest is not so much a multiplication or breeding of money as it is charging someone for the use of money, a rent, if you will, in exchange for the immediate benefit foregone by the lender. I cannot imagine that Aristotle would have been unaware of this argument or that someone in his day and age would not have tried to make that argument, but I do not see in his writings any indication that he had considered that possible definition of interest. Perhaps my fellow bloggers can enlighten me in those regards. I am inclined to disagree with Aristotle on the point of interest, as it seems perfectly natural to me to ask my neighbor to pay me for the use of my possessions. Likewise, his position of the unnaturalness inherent in interest seems logically to lead to the unnaturalness of any kind of rent, and I think that the “interest as the payment to the lender for giving up immediate benefit” argument to be a sufficient defense of the lending practice. Of course, one must also always keep in mind that our modern view of currency as fiat may cloud our judgment of Aristotle: we create money based on promise and goodwill, so of course we can create money by lending.

Parts and Wholes

Aristotle begins his first Book of The Politics with the origins of the state and to what are the ends of the state. Kuiper aptly points out in his first post that “the life of virtue” is part of the duty of the state. Continuing this thought to Book II, Aristotle states that his purpose for the second book of The Politics is “to consider what form of political community is best of all for those who are most able to realize their ideal of life.” (1260b.27). Inherent in this quest for the ideal political community/state is the assumption that the ideal state exists for those who “realize their ideal of life.” As we remember from The Ethics, the ideal of life is “happiness.” In this way, Aristotle criticizes Socrates’ republic for “depriving the guardians of happiness” (1264b.17) and later, the Lacedaemonian state whose certain laws are “adverse to the happiness of the state.” (1269b.13). Using this rule, Aristotle spends Book II evaluating the constitutions of particular city states (Sparta, Crete, Corinth) and “any theoretical forms which are held in esteem” (Socrates’ ideal republic).

While his analysis of the ideal state concludes with a particular state’s ability to inculcate virtue and happiness in its citizens, Aristotle finds the “natural beginning of the subject” in the question of material distribution: whether property and woman and children should be held in common. (1260b.37). A state that inappropriately orders these things among its citizens is adverse to promoting virtue and happiness. Here, Aristotle assumes two important precepts: 1) a state is made up of “different kinds of men,” and 2) what is the good for an individual is the good of the state as a whole. The Corinthian, Spartan, and Cretan states have three general classes of men: the king, the elders, and the helots. Socrates’ republic has the guardians, husbandman, and the artisans. Aristotle’s main criticism of these states is that their laws make ideal citizens only among the ruling classes; therefore, their laws governing communism only emphasize what is good for the ruling classes while neglecting to apply the same laws to the husbandman and the artisans. Put differently, since a state is made of “different kinds of men” (guardians, husbandman, artisans), an ideal state should, therefore, have the same laws apply to each kind. This is the fundamental difference between Aristotle and Plato’s view of an ideal state: the former assumes that an ideal state is made up of ideal parts, the latter assumes what is best for the whole is good for the parts:

Again, he deprives the guardians even of happiness, and says that the legislator ought to make the whole state happy. But the whole cannot be happy unless most, or all, or some of its parts enjoy happiness. (1264b.16).

Before continuing with Socrates, I will offer a brief word on the difference between the Republic of Plato and Aristotle’s project. In the Republic, Socrates brings up his ideal state as an analogy to a single man. The Republic begins with Socrates and Glaucon discussing Justice and of what profit it is to a man. Because justice is difficult to analyze in a single man, Socrates offers a city which is “bigger than one man:”

So then, perhaps there would be more justice in the bigger and it would be easier to observe closely. If you want, first we’ll investigate what justice is like in the cities. Then, we’ll also go on to consider it in individuals, considering the likeness of the bigger in the idea of the littler? Plato’s Republic, 369a (Allen Bloom translation).

One could argue fairly that Aristotle is unduly harsh on Socrates since his whole project of constructing an ideal state is merely an illustration used to make a larger point. Nevertheless, Aristotle never addresses this point (at least, nowhere in Book II), and is content with the confines of Socrates’ analogy of an ideal republic to contrast with his own ideal state.

Regarding property laws, Aristotle criticizes Socrates who argues “that it is the best for the whole state to be as unified as possible.” (1261a.16). Here, unity with regards to property means communism of property: Socrates desires the claim “this is mine” conjoined with the claim “this is not mine” to the greatest degree possible. (1261a.19). This includes wives and children. Repulsed by this concept, Aristotle exclaims, “how much better is it to be the real cousin of somebody than to be a son after Plato’s fashion!” (1262a.13). No one will know whose son is whose; affection cannot exist, and “love will be diluted.” (1262b.15). However, as sad and mopey as the neglected sons are, worse is holding property in common. “Property should be in a certain sense common, but, as a general rule, private.” (1262b.25). Aristotle concludes that, without some semblance of private ownership you cannot have virtue- for, without private ownership, one is without “an example of liberality.” (1263a.13). Again, this gets back to Aristotle’s fundamental disagreement with Socrates/Plato about parts and wholes- there cannot be a communism of property because there are different kinds of men. Each must be able to liberally achieve virtue according to their own position. However, in the Republic, this is not possible:

If, like the guardians, they are to have all things in common, in what do they differ from them, or what will they gain by submitting to their government? . . . Must it not contain two states in one, each hostile to the other? He makes the guardians into a mere occupying garrison, while the husbandmen and artisans and the rest are real citizens . . . what will be the education, form of government, laws of the lower class, Socrates has nowhere determined. (1264a.17-40).

Aristotle desires the same laws to apply, not just to different classes, but also to woman. In this way, he criticizes the Lacedaemonians who have laws that promote “hardiness” for the men “but has neglected the women, who live in every sort of intemperance and luxury.” (1269b.20). Thus, “the licence of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state.” (Id. at b.13). Again, the main issue is the reality that there are different kinds of men (and woman). Thus, unity for unity’s sake “would be the destruction of the state.” (1261.22).

The final 15 pages (by the Cambridge edition) compares and contrasts the varying constitutions and laws of other Achaean city states.

Pardon the vary long introduction to Book II above. Here are some brief thoughts on the applicability of the text to our current project.

My first (excited) takeaway was Aristotle’s heavy influence on the individual and the family- the state as a whole is not ideal, it is not a “happy state”- without laws that encourage happiness in the individual. My inner Dietrich von Hildebrand is ready to say, “yes! the dignity of man! In imago dei!” Hildebrand was frightened by the two predominate political movements in Germany- one communism, the other nationalist-fascism- because he saw them both sacrificing the good of the person for the good of the whole. Hildebrand saw them both flawed, both an evil. While our present-day American politics are by no means the same dichotomy, I think there is a similar impulse to sacrifice the dignity of the human person for the whole (conservative-nationalists on the one hand, progressive-socialists on the other).

Thoughts? What does this mean for our distributism tendencies? (I’m looking at you Kuiper).








A quick note on slavery

Since Aristotle’s notes on slavery frequently attract controversy, it may be well worth it to spend some time figuring out exactly what he means.

Even before Aristotle starts talking about slavery, he quotes “the poets” to whom he ascribes the dictum, “It is meet that the Hellenes should rule over the barbarians.” (1.2.8) Aristotle quotes this in a section wherein he considers proper place of slaves and women within a society, and this appears to lay the foundation for his slightly later discussion on slavery. Aristotle starts, then, by illustrating with the example of Greek dominion over barbarians the rightfulness of a slave’s disordered soul to the more ordered soul of his master.

The Philosopher spends a while describing instrumentality through the slave and various justifications of slavery, after which he arrives at an analogy: just as some are born with the bodies of slaves and some are born with the bodies of freemen, so are some born with the minds of slaves and some born with the minds of freemen. Aristotle concludes thusly:

And if this is true of the body, how much more just that a similar distinction should exist in the soul? but the beauty of the body is seen, whereas the beauty of the soul is not seen. It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.

(1.5.36-40) That is to say, so much as some may have a body intended for servitude, and some a body intended for the work of a freeman, even more so are free and slave distinguished in their souls.

Chapter 6 contains a discussion on relative freedom and nobility, according to which Greeks are reluctant to deign anyone a slave but barbarians, save when in the barbarians’ own land. Concluding that both Greek and barbarian believe that “from good men a good man springs,” (1.6.40-42) the Philosopher continues to discern a relationship between slave and master the abuse of which constitutes an injury to both.

Aquinas comments on a “good man” springing from other “good men” in the following:

And sons may also differ from parents in goodness or wickedness not only because of natural bodily disposition but also because of an aspect that does not necessarily result from a natural inclination. And so human beings who are similar to their parents in natural disposition may also, because of a different education and upbringing, be dissimilar even in morals. Therefore, if the children of good parents are good, they will be both reputedly and really good. But if the sons of good parents are wicked, they will be reputedly noble but actually base. And the converse is true about the sons of wicked parents.

Then [Aristotle] shows how it is expedient or inexpedient for some to be slaves, summarily concluding form the foregoing that the difficulty previously posed has some plausibility. And so there is in some cases a distinction between freedom and slavery by law, not by nature. But in other cases, there is a distinction between the two by nature, and it is advantageous in such cases for one person to be a slave and another to be his master. And this is also just.

(Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, comment on 1255a3-b15.)

Thomas earlier quotes the more succinct and poignant passage from Proverbs: “The stupid will serve the wise.” (Prov. 11:29)

This indicates that slavery, as imagined by Aristotle and briefed by Thomas, is entirely just when dealing with the submission of lazy or wicked souls to better souls. This, it appears, is why Aristotle includes a discussion of the natural subservience of barbarians – as imagined as disordered souls – at the beginning of Politics. The barbarians described at 1.2.8 have no order, and so no ability to establish a polis in which they might work towards the Good. When Aristotle considers the arguments for and against slavery starting in 1.4, he finds a middle ground between slavery by human law and absolute abolition in finding that some people are indeed less suited for for freedom owing to the quality of their souls. As Aristotle believes it is just that someone establish dominion over the barbarians to inculcate virtue within them, so it is just that less ordered souls within a polis be led toward virtue by “masters.”

Those are only some quick thoughts that throw out some terms such as “justice” and “virtue” that may require further background in Politics or Nicomachean Ethics, thought I welcome and encourage additional thoughts on this.