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).









One thought on “Parts and Wholes

  1. Good stuff.

    As far as Distributism is concerned, private property is an essential element for political life. This applies, I might add, to those of us at Tradinista! as well. Solidarity stresses the ability of lower levels of society being responsible for what it is competent to oversee. A big part of that is households owning private property and ideally owning the means to their own subsistence. That being said, Aristotle already places the practical reasons for allocating private property in a larger context. It is by no means, the foundation of civil society or the source of natural rights, or whatever role Locke, Hume, Smith, and Bastiat take it to play. Aristotle looks around Greece, weighs his options, and thinks that mostly private property is a good way of going about things.

    Now, the teaching of the Church on these matters takes place after some significant changes from 5th century Mediterranean economic practice. Centesimus Annus names two in particular: 1. The new form of property seen in capital. 2. The new form of permanent labor charactized by wages. (para. 4). Those are game-changers which first brought Rerum Novarum and the entire stream of modern Catholic social thought into existence. This is what Distributists and T! are taking a swing at when they seek to relative the claims of private ownership as sacrosanct.


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