Sunday, June 14, 2009

Great Books: Aristotle's Politics Book One (Part 4)

The first three parts of this essay can be found here, here, and here.

So, if the acquisition of property for the purpose of maintaining a household is a good thing, what, in Aristotle’s mind, makes wealth-getting (acquiring beyond the needs of the household) so bad? He cites a commonly held belief that coin is a mere abstraction of tangibly useful items and that, in some minds, makes it useless in and of itself. Expanding on this idea, he rightly points out that a person may be, in fact, surrounded by unlimited wealth yet die of starvation, “like Midas in the fable, whose insatiable prayer turned everything that was set before him into gold.” Wealth-getting seeks only further accumulation whereas the maintenance of a household employs a wider set of goals and, as Aristotle would have it, a better kind of life. Those who seek only wealth, “are intent upon living only, and not upon living well; and as their desires are unlimited they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit” [451].

This seems to be the fundamental paradox for seeking wealth for its own merits. As it is insubstantial, the enjoyment of it can only come in what pleasures one might purchase with its excess. In effect, the act of purchasing/acquiring these pleasures becomes more important than the pleasure itself and develops into a kind of feedback circuit where only the quest for new pleasures and new levels of wealth bring any joy whatsoever. However, because this is Aristotle, we are then informed that even within the realm of unadulterated wealth-getting, there are some kinds of wealth-getting that are more deleterious than others. The art of transforming shrewd purchases into retail success is bad enough, but the art of transforming coin into more coin through lending and interest, or usury is worse yet. Aristotle defends this argument by sketching out a continuum of strategies for accumulating wealth, from the virtuous to the despicable.

Certain activities, like managing livestock or engaging in agriculture, are drawn, he supposes, directly from the lessons of nature; ie. Nature exists to provide all with their basic wants and, as humanity is the finest animal, she provides for it best. When human activity departs from these basic principles, it descends into the nether realm of fruitless wealth-getting, a category which itself he then divides into three concerns: Basic commerce, usury, and, finally, service for hire. In these he finds a progression towards depending less on Nature for one’s needs and a trend towards artificial means of generating property, resulting in activities that are “the meanest in which the body is most deteriorated, the most servile in which there is the greatest use of the body, and the most illiberal in which there is the least need of excellence” [453]

Though there may be sentiments contained within this argument that are easy to applaud, Aristotle’s reasoning, again, seems to be butting up against the realities of the world in which he lived. He chastises these lower forms of wealth-getting as “arts in which there is the least element of chance” [453] as if there were some intrinsic value to placing one’s wellbeing into the vagaries of weather, soil, and sun. While this may be more pious (especially if you consider those variables to be governed by gods), it doesn’t exactly harmonize with his supposition from before that the maintenance of a household is the highest good. If one’s household suffers because of being left to the kindness of strange fortune, then, it follows, that one has failed in the art of maintaining that household, regardless of the purity of intent that went into the effort.

Closing in on the end of Book One, Aristotle comes back around to the two other relationships that occur in a household; the relationship of husband to wife and that of father to child. He described that of master to slave as either natural rule when necessitated by the character of the participants or unnatural when mandated by the force of law. The mechanism by which the man rules over the other members of his household (and it is his household as all these relationships hold him in common as a focii) first and most importantly differs from that over his slave in that his wife and children are presumed free. His rule over his children is “royal, for he rules by virtue both of love and of the respect due to his age” while noting that “a king is the natural superior of his subjects, just he should be of the same kin or kind with them” [454]. Whether or not this is true, this idea has certainly maintained its place in common wisdom over the millennia, from the top to the bottom of nearly every measurable social class.

His description of the husband’s rule over the wife, which Aristotle describes as “constitutional” is more an enunciation than an argument. But watch what happens to that enunciation as Aristotle defends its rationale.

For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature. But in most constitutional states the citizens rule and are ruled by turns, for the idea of a constitutional state implies that the natures of the citizens are equal, and do not differ at all. Nevertheless, when one rules and the other is ruled we endeavor to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect…The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent. [454]

Even as Aristotle is insisting that the sovereignty of man over woman is essentially constitutional in nature, he is describing a type of rule that is something else. A constitutional dictatorship. Women are first made equal to children, by comparing their subjection as that of a youth to an elder and then reduced, at least by logic, to slavery by virtue of an inequality that is innate, intrinsic, and apparently irrefutable. It is tempting to read this as a failure of reasoning on Aristotle’s part, as his being more beholden to the conventions of culture than to the truths produced though the revelation of logic. Another reading, however, might recognize this inconsistency as one that Aristotle could identify but not reconcile with the world of which he was a part. If women’s relative low status had come about by what Aristotle would have seen as natural means, how could the relationship dictated by that discrepancy be anything but natural, and therefore, good itself? Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis, Aristotle then equates this natural good with the highest good in governance he can imagine, namely a constitutional democracy and allows the dissonant metaphor to stand, defended not by logic but by the status quo.

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