The trireme Olympias
Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Aristotle—Politics

Here’s another picture of the trireme Olympias. There’s a bit more justification for the picture here than for the one that accompanies the Ethics.

Rather than doing separate blog entries for each chunk of reading, I think I’ll simply update here, and put the date at the beginning of each new chunk.

In Book I Aristotle discusses the origin of the state. After a brief discussion he then raises the question of slavery. Now it needs to be emphasized that slavery in the Classical world, and possibly even slavery as practiced by the Jewish contemporaries of the classical civilizations, was vastly different from Black slavery as practiced in America under the Spaniards, French, and English. The classical model, particularly in Greece, was nowhere near as harsh as that practiced in America. In cases of enslavement as a result of war it simply seems to have been regarded as one of those things that can happen to a man. In America, particularly in the U. S., slavery was racially based. Ultimately, when Darwinism became an intellectual fashion, it was used to justify segregation on the grounds that Blacks were more primitive, and less developed than whites. Classical slavery was free of the stain of racism. Aristotle does accept slavery as being natural, and postulates that some men are naturally masters, and others are naturally slaves.

He also maintains that the husband is the head of the household. This appeals to me on male chauvinistic grounds, but I won't let my wife know about this.

Aristotle condemns usury. We all know, from having read The Merchant of Venice multiple times in high school and college, that the Church condemned usury, and it was the Jews who acted as moneylenders. I was slightly surprised to see Aristotle's condemnation of usury.

In Book II, Aristotle addresses the concept of the ideal state. He does not care for the Platonic idea, advanced in The Republic, of a commonality of wives. I have to admit that this is a lecher's dream, and is more likely to appeal to the male teenager than to a more accomplished adult. (Though I should add for the benefit of any women out there that men tend to remain teenagers for a very long time. I've been 19 for 43 years.) Nor does he like the idea of the commonality of children "For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few. Each citizen will have a thousand sons who will not be his sons individually but anybody will be equally the son of anybody, and will therefore be neglected by all alike." Well! So much for It Takes a Village.

October 24, 2007–In Book II: 5 Aristotle considers the ways that property can be allocated. He considers that the soil can be appropriated (privately owned), but the product put into a common stock for consumption; the soil can be common property, but the produce allocated for private consumption; both soil and produce can be common. Aristotle is against the idea of common ownership, and against the dispersion of wealth through allocating consumption. "No one, when men have all things in common, will any longer set an example of liberality or do any liberal action; for liberality consists in the use which is made of property." When I worked for the federal government they would have annual campaigns for the Combined Federal Campaign. A common complaint was "Why should I give any money? The government has all these programs to help people. Let them go there." Aristotle points out that the social legislation provides a fake appearance of charity. "Such legislation may have a specious appearance of benevolence; men readily listen to it, and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody's friend, especially when some one is heard denouncing the evils now existing in states, suits about contracts, convictions for perjury, flatteries of rich men and the like, which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, are due to a very different cause -- the wickedness of human nature. Indeed, we see that there is much more quarrelling among those who have all things in common, though there are not many of them when compared with the vast numbers who have private property." In the phrase "the wickedness of human nature," we have a perception that fits in nicely with the idea of original sin. We want to do good, but have an innate tendency to evil.

In II:6 there is some discussion of the size of a city. 5,000 citizens is considered large. Aristotle says a city of that many citizens would require as much territory as Babylon. I presume that 5,000 citizens represents a much larger number of inhabitants including women, children, and slaves.

In II:9 Aristotle discusses the Spartans. He is against life time tenure for judges: "But that judges of important causes should hold office for life is a disputable thing, for the mind grows old as well as the body." So the nine old men on the hill should, according to Aristotle, be forced into retirement.

He is also against direct election, "Further, the mode in which the Spartans elect their elders is childish; and it is improper that the person to be elected should canvass for the office; the worthiest should be appointed, whether he chooses or not." This anti-democratic impulse is the root of the electoral college in the U. S., and of the indirect election of senators prior to the 17th amendment. It is arguable that every attempt to democratize the electoral process in this country has in fact succeeded in rendering the people less involved in political life. As the politician has to garner the support of more people in the state, instead of the state legislature; and in the primaries, instead of smoke filled rooms, the political process has become more expensive. This has forced a greater reliance on large contributors. It has also forced the man of modest means out of the political arena. So I would join Aristotle in resisting the spread of democracy in our political life.

In III:1 Aristotle considers the definition of a state and the definition of a citizen. He eventually arrives at a provisional answer in III:5. The gentle reader may peruse a copy of Politics, and find out for himself what the definition is.

We'll pick up about III:10 or so tomorrow

October 25, 2007—In III:10 Aristotle considers that justice is the course of action that the the moral aim of the state requires. III:11 through 13 considers who should be the ultimate rulers of the state. Is it to be the few or the many?

III:14 through 18 are devoted to a discussion of monarchy, which Aristotle divides into 5 kinds, Spartan, Barbarian, elective, Heroic, and Absolute. Aristotle contends that the last might be the best if the king embodies the law. He frequently makes the distinction between the rule of men, and the rule of law.

I'm using Benjamin Jowett's translation of the Politics in the second Aristotle volume of The Great Books of the Western World. In this version Books VI, VIII, and VII have been re-assigned as Books IV through VI. The Bekker numbers are consecutive, so I assume that they're that way in Bekker's edition of Aristotle's text.

Book IV is not as interesting, to my mind, as the first two books. Aristotle considers the various types of constitutions. He contends that some types of states are inherently bad. Democracy is prone to degenerate into a a rule of the people that overrides all law. This may have been the case with the Weimar republic. A demagogue manages to use democratic institutions to gain supreme power, and he does this by substituting the will of the people, summed up in his own will, for the rule of the law.

Will resume tomorrow at IV:10 (1295a).

October 26, 2007—In IV:10 Aristotle begins a discussion of tyranny. He asserts that there are three kinds of tyranny, and that the third kind is the worst, "There is also a third kind of tyranny, which is the most typical form, and is the counterpart of the perfect monarchy. This tyranny is just that arbitrary power of an individual which is responsible to no one, and governs all alike, whether equals or better, with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects, and therefore against their will. No freeman, if he can escape from it, will endure such a government."

In Book V Aristotle considers the relations of rich, poor, and middle class. (I don't know if middle class is Jowett's 19th century term for something that for Aristotle had different connotations, but let's take it Aristotle as meaning something similar to our understanding of middle class.)

Aristotle begins book V by discussing equality, which he maintains is of two kinds numerical and proportional. One is either equal in number or size, or one is equal with respect to a ratio. Having a government drawn from the middle class is the safest of the imperfect forms of government. "And we may further remark that a government which is composed of the middle class more nearly approximates to democracy than to oligarchy, and is the safest of the imperfect forms of government."

In V:2 Aristotle considers that "The universal and chief cause of this revolutionary feeling has been already mentioned; viz., the desire of equality, when men think that they are equal to others who have more than themselves; or, again, the desire of inequality and superiority, when conceiving themselves to be superior they think that they have not more but the same or less than their inferiors; pretensions which may and may not be just. Inferiors revolt in order that they may be equal, and equals that they may be superior. Such is the state of mind which creates revolutions. " If I'm not mistaken Nietzsche would recognize this as ressentiment. What Aristotle identifies as the desire for equality, works its way out as anti-Semitism, "I am a failure. It is because of the Jews;" as socialism, "I am a failure. It is because of the capitalists;" and in various other social maladies.

Aristotle also notes that a disproportionate increase in part of the state can cause a revolution. An increase in the number of rich will move the country to an oligarchy. Does this hold true for a professional class as well? As the number of lawyers in this country has increased, has rule moved more and more to the lawyers?

We'll pick up again tomorrow at V:5.

Addendum on IV:16—Aristotle describes 8 kinds of law courts: "One is the court of audits or scrutinies; a second takes cognizance of ordinary offenses against the state; a third is concerned with treason against the constitution; the fourth determines disputes respecting penalties, whether raised by magistrates or by private persons; the fifth decides the more important civil cases; the sixth tries cases of homicide, which are of various kinds, (a) premeditated, (b) involuntary, (c) cases in which the guilt is confessed but the justice is disputed; and there may be a fourth court (d) in which murderers who have fled from justice are tried after their return; such as the Court of Phreatto is said to be at Athens. But cases of this sort rarely happen at all even in large cities. The different kinds of homicide may be tried either by the same or by different courts. (7) There are courts for strangers: of these there are two subdivisions, (a) for the settlement of their disputes with one another, (b) for the settlement of disputes between them and the citizens. And besides all these there must be (8) courts for small suits about sums of a drachma up to five drachmas, or a little more, which have to be determined, but they do not require many judges." The court of audits has disappeared, at least in the U. S. Ordinary offenses, treason, and murder are tried in ordinary courts. The appellate process handles disputes about penalties, and is not a separate type of court. Small claims are generally a separate branch of the local court system. Aristotles 8 different types have been consolidated so that one court hears many types of cases. While not completely true on the lower levels, i.e., there are separate courts for bankruptcy, a tax court, a FISA court, and so on, at the appellate level it is true. October 27, 2007 9:33 PM

October 27, 2007 10:37 PM—In V:5 Aristotle discusses revolutions in democracies. One cause of a revolution is a lack of property qualification, "for where there is a popular election of the magistrates and no property qualification, the aspirants for office get hold of the people, and contrive at last even to set them above the laws. A more or less complete cure for this state of things is for the separate tribes, and not the whole people, to elect the magistrates." Aristotle apparently means that the demagogues persuade the people to set themselves above the law. The remedy that he proposes is probably appropriate to a 4th century BC Greek city-state, but singularly inappropriate to a large nation. I think this kind of reasoning may lay behind the indirect election process for president and for senator (prior to the wretched 17th amendment).

In V:8 Aristotle considers how constitutions may be preserved. One method recommended for democracies is that the term of office should be short. "Hence, if the governing class are numerous, many democratic institutions are useful; for example, the restriction of the tenure of offices to six months, that all those who are of equal rank may share in them. Indeed, equals or peers when they are numerous become a kind of democracy, and therefore demagogues are very likely to arise among them, as I have already remarked. The short tenure of office prevents oligarchies and aristocracies from falling into the hands of families; it is not easy for a person to do any great harm when his tenure of office is short, whereas long possession begets tyranny in oligarchies and democracies. For the aspirants to tyranny are either the principal men of the state, who in democracies are demagogues and in oligarchies members of ruling houses, or those who hold great offices, and have a long tenure of them." Here we have a rationale for the relatively short terms of representatives. Did the founders envision a more rapid turnover than we have at present? It's not unusual to find an incumbent congressman who has been in office for 30 years or longer, and in the Senate the longevity in office of a Kennedy or a Thurmond in office is simply ridiculous. So there is a rational case to be made for term limits.

In V:9 Aristotle gives the qualifications for those who should fill the highest offices: "(1) first of all, loyalty to the established constitution; (2) the greatest administrative capacity; (3) virtue and justice of the kind proper to each form of government; for, if what is just is not the same in all governments, the quality of justice must also differ." In recent history we've had the virtue of several candidates questioned. (Keep in mind that virtue in this instance is not just sexual morality, it also includes questions of courage and integrity.)

At V:11 Aristotle describes the method of preserving a tyranny.

In Book VI Aristotle turns to the establishment of each kind of government. He contends that, "The basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state; this they affirm to be the great end of every democracy." Aristotle envisions a democracy in which each man is able to hold office in turn. Again, this is something that is suitable for Athens of his time, but probably not for the U. S. of today.

In VI:3 he raises the question, "How is this equality to be obtained?" He then discusses a case in which the there are 10 rich men and 20 poor men. A measure is approved by 6 rich and 15 poor (21) and opposed by 4 rich and 5 poor. Both the oligarch and the democrat would agree that the majority should rule.'

In VI:4 he distinguishes 4 types of democracy. The worst is "that in which all share alike."The more general causes which tend to destroy this or other kinds of government have been pretty fully considered. In order to constitute such a democracy and strengthen the people, the leaders have been in the habit including as many as they can, and making citizens not only of those who are legitimate, but even of the illegitimate, and of those who have only one parent a citizen, whether father or mother; for nothing of this sort comes amiss to such a democracy. This is the way in which demagogues proceed." This is interesting in light of its fit to the problem of illegal immigration. In this view the partisans of the illegal immigrant, are demagogues seeking to strengthen their position.

VI:8 deals with the composition of the military forces. This is of historical interest, but it's not immediately applicable to the present. In Aristotle's day the military was formed of men who supplied their own weapons and armor. The rich man would furnish a horse, while those of lesser income would furnish infantry. In the present day the horse is largely relegated to ceremonial duties, and heavy equipment is provided by the state.

Tomorrow we'll start with VII:1.

October 28, 2007 10:03 PM—In Book VII Aristotle begins by considering the kind of life that is best for the state, and concludes that the best life for individuals and states is the life of virtue. In VII:2 he moves on to consider "whether the happiness of the individual is the same as that of the state, or different." He holds that they are the same. VII:3 addresses the question of praxis, i.e., what is the best way in which to practice this life of virtue. He suggests there are two ways, that of the freeman, and that of the statesman. The "first class are right in affirming that the life of the freeman is better than the life of the despot; for there is nothing grand or noble in having the use of a slave, in so far as he is a slave; or in issuing commands about necessary things. But it is an error to suppose that every sort of rule is despotic like that of a master over slaves, for there is as great a difference between the rule over freemen and the rule over slaves as there is between slavery by nature and freedom by nature, about which I have said enough at the commencement of this treatise. And it is equally a mistake to place inactivity above action, for happiness is activity, and the actions of the just and wise are the realization of much that is noble." He maintains that "we are right in our view, and happiness is assumed to be virtuous activity, the active life will be the best, both for every city collectively, and for individuals."

VII:4 moves on to a consideration of the size of the polis. Here Aristotle is writing from the perspective of 4th century BC Greek, so he thinks the size should be small both in terms of population, and in terms of area.

VII:8 mentions a care of religion. The state and religion were intertwined to an extent that is not possible in modern Western societies. Whether the expulsion of religion from the public forum is a good thing is open to debate. On the one hand the compartmentalization of religion and politics has meant that there is a fragmentation within the public square, and that certain parties are ruled out of being heard because of this separation of religion and politics. This is reflected in the fragmentation of the personality so that one's political principles and ethics may run sharply counter to his religious principles and ethics. One example of this can be found in politicians who say their private ethics are against X, while their public ethics are in favor of X. This may also be a case of a malformed conscience.

VII:9 considers the kinds of occupations, and who should hold them. The priestly office, which is a political and religious function, should be held by retired warriors and councillors.

VII:13 begins the consideration of education, which continues into Book VIII. He puts the age for marriage at 37 for males and 18 for females in VII:16. (The Romans, according to Augustine in The Confessions, put the age for females at 10. Augustine's would be wife was 8 when he met her.)

Aristotle's age put a different value on infants. He advocates exposing crippled children, and couples who "have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation." I think Aristotle is saying here that the abortion should take place before quickening, i.e., about the 4th or 5th month. This position is not acceptable to a Christian who believes that life begins at the moment of conception. (There's a place in The Rhetoric, if I recall correctly, in which he makes an argument based on regression back through time. A similar argument can be made with regards to abortion. If you are who you are today, and you are the same person as the person you were the day before, and for each day before that until the day you were born, then you are also identical with the person that you were before you were born. In other words there is no break or discontinuity in which you are not who you were at any moment preceding the present. Hence killing you in the womb is not killing nameless tissue, but killing a living being.)

VII:17 describes the initial phase of education. Essentially children should be toughened up a bit, and allowed to amuse themselves up till about the age of seven.

Book VIII sets out the educational program. Reading and writing, gymnastic exercises, drawing, and music are at the heart of the curriculum. Aristotle would be no fan of the idiot educators who cut recess down to 15 minutes or less a day. He sees the gymnastic exercises as encouraging the development of bravery.

Aristotle has a lengthy discussion of music in education. He approves of some modes of music, but not others. (I was under the impression that we don't know very much about ancient Greek music. Wikipedia, which may not be the most reliable source, has a discussion of the Phrygian mode. Britannica also has a discussion of the Greek modes in its article Mode. I should note that I don't share the musical vocabulary, so I have no idea what either article is saying.)

Aristotle's general idea here is that children should be taught music well enough to perform it, but should not be encouraged to become professionals.

Next up is Lucretius De Rerum Natura.

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