Sunday, June 7, 2009

Great Books: Aristotle's Politics Book One (Part 1)

Politics (Book One)
Composed by Aristotle presumably between 336-323 BCE
Place: Athens, Greece

The complete text of Benjamin Jowett's translation of the first book of Aristotle's Politics may be found online at

There is a cold certainty to Aristotle’s writing that encourages the reader to believe that he believes that what he is saying (dictating, writing) is unassailably true and beyond criticism. Given all the learning that has accumulated since his time, there are facts of which he is absolutely certain that are, in fact, not true. His beliefs are, in some ways, alien to the modern reader though less so than many of his contemporaries by virtue of his profound influence on Christian dogma and doctrine. In Politics, however, Aristotle’s worldview proves the greatest obstacle to gleaning the truths that are still evident some 2300 years later from the ideas that will either repulse or comfort the modern reader depending on their own view of the world and how it might work best. Even within his own, critically impervious arguments (arguments that deem women to be naturally inferior and slavery to be virtuous among others), Aristotle seems to wrestle with the reconciling of a frank appraisal of the world in which he lived and his unwavering dedication to reason that often contradicts those realities.

Politics begins philosophically at the same place Plato depicts Socrates as occupying when he engages in abstract state-building of his own in The Republic. Consider the relationship between these two passages:

From the Republic:

Justice, which is the subject of our enquiry is, as you know, sometimes spoken of as the virtue of an individual, and sometimes as the virtue of a State.

True, he replied.

And is not a State larger than an individual?

It is.

Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible. I propose therefore that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. [316]

From Politics:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good…But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good. [445]

The difference is that Aristotle is not satisfied with the individual functioning as a metaphor for the State. Though a State is composed of individuals, the relationship between them is, as Aristotle will later say, that of master to servant. Though cars may be composed of steel or plastic, neither steel nor plastic can be said to have the properties of a car. Aristotle reasons that it is better to compare social system to social system, devolving the State into its “simple elements or least parts of the whole” [445].

The beginnings of the State, according to Aristotle, reside in “a union of those who cannot exist without each other, namely male and female, and that the race may continue” [445]. Once having fulfilled this basic urge of biology, the compact takes on two more passengers, the slave and the offspring. This fundamental unit is called the household. In this simple equation, Aristotle illustrates clearly a number of fundamental ideas that define his worldview in a very specific way.

The basic unit of social structure, the household, is made up of three relationships: Man to wife, Master to Slave, Father to Children. Notably, each relationship is defined as that between a man and his inferior (Women by virtue of their sex, Slaves by virtue of their character, and Children by virtue of their inexperience). While wives and offspring are elevated in their submission above the slave, this same relationship presumably extends down into the slave population where women and children occupy a place below their male family head. In peering below this invisible line in Aristotle’s thought process, we then see how new slaves are indoctrinated by being raised in an environment where they occupy the lowest rings of the underclass.

Though slaves are an integral component of the household, only the wives and children are necessary to complete a family. “The family,” Aristotle supposes, “is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s every day wants” [445]. When extended families unite their efforts in order to fulfill needs that go beyond the self-sufficiency of a single family, this larger union becomes a village and it is from the extension of these family bonds that a king rules over the village just as the male rightly rules over his family. Finally, Aristotle posits, as multiple clans or villages are united into a single culture, the State develops and, “if earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state for it is the end of them and the nature of a thing is its end” [446].

However reasonably considered it may sound, there is very little that is historically defensible about Aristotle’s description of the development of the State. The family unit of man, woman and offspring (recognizable in the archeological record back about 50,000 years) was a substitution for a profoundly different system that saw men living separate but coexistent lives alongside a community of women and their children. The leader of one of these groups was not a king but a chief and his rule would have been based on its efficacy not on its supposed connection to some kind of familial role. Kings were a much later development, tied specifically to the rise of cities, standing armies, and slaves produced by conquest.

Thus, it is civilization (a human invention) which demands the household (and thus the slave), not the family and certainly not nature for nowhere else in it will we find this kind of behavior. If it can be said to be natural, it is only in explaining civilization as the development of social processes uniquely fitted to the exploding consciousness of our species though it may equally be argued that the State, in fact, represents the fulcrum on which the transition from living in nature to living apart from it pivoted.

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