Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Great Books: Aristotle's Politics Book One (Part 3)

The first two parts of this essay can be read here and here.

Though the opinions espoused in favor of slavery appear to be Aristotle’s own, it is to his credit that he includes an entire section dedicated to rebutting the argument that slavery is natural and, in so doing, adds a good deal of ambiguity to the binary supposition of the previous section. He argues that the premise of an objection to slavery is rooted in the idea that slaves are, more often than not, taken by force. Tying us right back into Socrates’ debate with Thrasymachus in the Republic, the act of slaving seems to reinforce the notion that the greatest might equals the greatest right while virtuous people would prefer to place it on a loftier pedestal. Expanding on Thrasymachus’ argument, Aristotle suggests that the greatest virtue ought to be the source of the greatest power, therefore the greatest power would also imply the greatest justice. While Aristotle agrees with the idea that slave taking is a lawful part of waging war, but he also asks the question, “What if the war is unjust?” [448].

In order to reconcile these conflicting views on slavery, Aristotle segregates the idea into two ideas: Slavery by Nature and Slavery by Law. Unable to get around the very real fact that keeping slaves has always been part of the Greek tradition, he notes that Greeks are loathe to take other civilized people (described within as Hellenes) for this very reason. That fate is then reserved for barbarians (people living outside of civilization) as they are slaves by nature, whether under the absolute rule of a king or in service to a Greek household. Not able to leave his own patchwork explanation alone, Aristotle acknowledges that this creates a strange scenario in which some people are freeborn no matter where they are (the Greeks for example) but some are more free in one place than they are in another though slavish by their nature. This all climaxes in an irreconcilable paradox that closes out the sixth section of Book One.

We see then that there is some foundation for this difference of opinion, and that all are not either slaves by nature or freemen by nature, and also that there is in some cases a marked distinction between the two classes, rendering it expedient and right for the one to be slaves and the others to be masters: the one practicing obedience, the others exercising authority and lordship which nature intended for them to have. The abuse of this authority is injurious to both; for the interests of part and whole, of body and soul, are the same, and a slave is part of the master, a living but separated part of his bodily frame. 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. [449].

Where the first half of Book One is focused on the three relationships that make up a household, the second is about the management of that household and what relationship the acquisition and accumulation of wealth has to it. From this jumping off point, Aristotle considers the different means and reasons that one might acquire wealth as well as in what combination such action might be considered virtuous. Writing, myself, from a century in which the ebb and flow of abstracted money rules the globe more completely than Alexander could ever have imagined, Aristotle’s careful examination of the relationship between the household and wealth exposes a deep chasm between the ancient and modern mindset in regards to money.

Wealth, Aristotle notes, is a type of property though there are, of course, many others. Detailing a number of traditional methods for providing the basic necessities of life (shepherd, husbandman, brigand, fisherman, hunter), Aristotle notes that “property, in the sense of a bare livelihood seems to be given by nature herself to all” [450]. This places all plants, all animals, and even “men who, though intended by nature to be governed, will not submit” at the disposal of human beings to fulfill their wants and needs. It is the art of a household management then to “either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful to the family or state, as can be stored” [450].

Aristotle reasons that because the amount of property needed to meet this criteria alone is not without limit then the art of acquiring property that goes beyond those aims is something else entirely. That art, in his terminology, is wealth-getting. While it shares roots with the natural acquisition that is part of maintaining a household, its ambitions range far beyond the virtuous ends of providing adequately for one’s family and seeks wealth for wealth’s sake in a manner that Aristotle deems most unnatural. He takes the reader on short tour of the development of human economics until finally, he notes, “men agreed to employ in their dealings with each other something which was intrinsically useful and easily applicable to the purposes of life, for example, iron, silver, and the like”—an invention better known as the coin. In the coin, Aristotle argues, the natural art of wealth-getting (restrained to meeting the needs of the state and finite in its nature) transformed into something unnatural, giving rise to the bugbear identified in whispered tones as retail.

For natural riches and the art of wealth-getting are a different thing; in their true form they are part of the management of a household; whereas retail trade is the art of producing wealth, not in every way, but by exchange. And it is thought to be concerned with coin; for coin is the unit of exchange and the measure of limit of it. And there is no bound to the riches which spring from this art of wealth-getting. [451]

No comments:

Post a Comment