Sunday, June 28, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Numa Pompilius (Part 1)

"Capital of Justice"- caption reads, "Numa Pompilius, emperor, builder of temples and churches"
photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto, 2008

The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans: Numa Pompilius

Written by Plutarch sometime in the latter part of the 1st century CEPlace: Chaeronea in the province of Boeotia (Greece)

The complete text of Plutarch's biography of Numa Pompilius can be found online at
It utilizes the same Dryden translation used for this essay. Page numbers cited refer to the 2nd edition of the GB set.

Part One:

Plutarch’s biography of the early Roman king Numa Pompilius is marked by a very different tone than his elegiac account of Spartan law-giver Lycurgus though the two men are presumed by his writings to be contemporaries. There are a number of reasons for this differentiation still visible even from this distance. Lycurgus, remote as he was from Plutarch in time, made his impression upon Spartan culture in a place where the eventual organs of history were just beginning to develop. Though much of Plutarch’s writing on Lycurgus is informed by the same non-written culture to which every other historian of his time had access, he sews that narrative together with access to the written records from the Oracle at Delphi in a way that none other could.

Numa Pompilius, in contrast, was king in Rome at a time just after its inception as a city. Its culture was still a fractious one, split between its Roman and Sabine populations and each still ill at ease with the other. The most notable thing that can be said of Rome at this time is that they weren’t a colony of some more developed civilization to the East. In contrasting Lycurgus with Numa, Plutarch is subtly making the argument that their accomplishments were of equal importance and scope. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth as, even if we are able accept the historicity of his reforms listed here, Numa’s contributions to the greater human culture would take much longer to reach fruition and be diluted through many other ideas before arrival.

To appreciate why Plutarch presents Numa as such, one must recall who Plutarch is, a Hellenized Greek, and to whom he is writing, an audience of predominantly Roman readers in the time of first Caesars. The larger history he is writing, The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, is creating a story that persists unto this day: a two-part story that depicts the birth of civilization with the Greeks and then passes by means both natural and supernatural into the hands of the eager and industrious Romans; an Old and New Testament of knowledge and reason that trumpets the inevitability of those virtues winding up invested into the highest echelon of Roman authority.

Plutarch eludes to some of this historical slight-of-hand in his short section on methodology in the introduction.

Though the pedigrees of noble families in Rome go back in exact form as far as Numa Pompilius, yet there is great diversity among historians concerning the time in which he reigned; a certain writer named Clodius…avers that the ancient registers of Rome were lost when the city was sacked by the Gauls, and that those which are now extant were counterfeited, to flatter and serve the humour of some men who wished to have themselves derived from some ancient and noble lineage, though in reality with no claim to it. [49]

While making no claim to this position himself, it is with this patina of incredulity that he begins on his journey to reconcile the various histories about Numa with what little may be verified. He opens the story of Numa’s reluctant rise to power with a confusing account of how Romulus, the city’s founder, left the throne. During the performance of a ritual of the state, the sky darkened with a terrible storm and, in it, Romulus disappeared. Some presumed he had been murdered. Others suggested that he had be transfigured and brought to live among the gods, giving him a posthumous name, Quirinus to reflect this change. Whatever the truth of the circumstances, Rome now had a very big problem for it seems that Romulus left no mechanism for a smooth transition of power. For a period of time, known as the interregnum, the oligarchs of the Senate passed executive responsibilities around like a hot potato but the underlying tension between the Romans and the Sabines would not allow the throne to remain unfilled indefinitely.

They devise a scheme by which the Romans will select an Sabine and the Sabines, a Roman to select between for a ruler but, as we are able to infer later, no means can be found to choose between them that enjoys the legitimacy of Romulus’ reign. Then, the Romans nominate another Sabine, Numa Pompilius that gains the wide-spread acceptance of the Sabines. The first irony in his nomination is that Numa did not even live in Rome but had long since retired to the countryside to live in austerity after the death of his first wife. The second is that he appeared to have little to no interest in being king. Upon being solicited by the original candidates to rule over Rome, Numa is quoted by Plutarch as saying,

Every alteration of a man’s life is dangerous to him; but madness, only could induce one who needs nothing, and is satisfied with everything, to quit a life he is accustomed to; which, whatever else it is deficient in, at any rate has the advantage of certainty over one wholly doubtful and unknown…The very points of my characters that are most commended mark me as unfit to reign,--love of retirement and of studies inconsistent with business, a passion that has become inveterate in me for peace, for unwarlike occupations…I should, but be, methinks, a laughing-stock, which I should go inculcate the worship of the gods and give lessons in the love of justice and the abhorrence of violence and war, to a city whose needs are rather for a captain than for a king. [51]

Plutach also suggests that there may have been another reason for Numa’s unwillingness to leave his idyllic countryside. After the death of his wife, it was widely believed that Numa entered into some kind of physical relationship with the minor goddess, Egeria. It was from her that he was supposed to have gained divine wisdom regarding the rule of man. Plutarch goes to considerable lengths to show “historical” precedent for men enjoying the charms of the feminine divine just as so many Greek women had received visitation from a masculine one for aid in the conception of a hero or king, not knowing that that the first civilizations in Mesopotamia were founded on the idea of a male consort to a goddess dispensing wisdom among the people in how best to order their culture.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Lycurgus (Part 3)

You can read the first two portions of this three part essay here and here.

After listing these primary reforms that Lycurgus brought to the Spartans, Plutarch shifts gears, indulging in a somewhat exhaustive survey of the social institutions and practices that set Sparta apart from its neighbors. While this is all presented as “ideas introduced by Lycurgus,” the multi-generational aspects of his analysis of those traditions turns this middle portion of the book into something other than merely a biography on Lycurgus. Step-by-step, we are taken on a little tour of classical Sparta from its education systems (for boys), its war-making machine (for older boys), its law-making practices (you get the drift).

Though this section of the work is interesting, it also muddles up our sense of time flowing as Lycurgus, a man who lived and died, is lost to the traditions that were born from his reorganization of Spartan culture. There is an implication throughout the work that Lycurgus (or the Senate or some combination of the two) instituted all of the reforms in a relatively short period of time and yet the picture that Plutarch sketches out for us looks more like a time-lapsed photo than a snapshot in time. Much like Pythagoras (with whom Lycurgus’ legacy shares many commonalities), traditions that would have taken generations to develop into actual mores are attributed to the iconic law-giver with little attempt to harmonize the inconsistencies. This cognitive dissonance is amplified when Plutarch returns to the actual subject of his narrative.

When he perceived that his more important institutions had taken root in the minds of his countrymen, that custom had rendered them familiar and easy, that his commonwealth was now grown up and able to go alone…[Lycurgus] conceived the thought to make it immortal too, and, as far as human forecast could reach, to deliver it down unchangeable to posterity. [47]

Calling a great assembly, Lycurgus tells his people that he has one final edict to issue but before he does, he wishes to consult the Oracle at Delphi one last time. He elicits an oath from them to change no law until his return and, with that, makes his way to the Oracle. His question for the Oracle was simply whether his reforms had been for the good of Sparta. When the Oracle returned an answer that his law were sound and would result in the ascendancy of Sparta for many generations to come, Lycurgus sprung his secret plan into action. Committing the Oracle’s response to writing, he sent it to the people of Sparta and never returned, thus binding them to their oath to uphold his laws without change essentially forever. He, then, undergoes a slow and stately suicide by starvation at an undisclosed location.

So what are we to make of this biography of Lycurgus? The entire account is historically challenged by Plutarch’s accurate description of his subject in the section’s heading as legendary. Indeed, the Sparta that deposed tyranny throughout Greece for centuries and opposed Athens’ attempt to dominate the Mediterranean was itself mostly legend by the time Plutarch is writing in the first century of the Common Era. Still, Plutarch enjoys certain advantages over others who might attempt a similar work in his sustained access to the Delphic records which spanned the epoch that separates him from his subject. In combining three sources (what was commonly believed about Lycurgus, what was known about Sparta, and the records of Lycurgus’ consultations at the Oracle), Plutarch is able to assemble a story that straddles history and myth; taking from both what best harmonizes with his own authorial agenda while discarding that which does not.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Lycurgus (Part 2)

The first portion of this essay can be read here.

Lycurgus’ establishment of the Senate as a counterbalance to the two kings (Charilaus and his brother Archelaus) was merely the beginning of his reforms. Plutarch provocatively leaves the exact manner in which he brought about the rest as something of a mystery. The protocol for law making that Plutarch describes has the kings and the Senate crafting a new law and then bringing it before an assembly of the people for an up or down vote. There are, however, four essential laws or Rhetra that Lycurgus seems to have pushed through before the new process was allowed to commence. The first was the establishment of the Senate and the process for adding or amending law. No mention is made beyond Charilaus’ brief retreat to the Temple of Minerva of any meaningful opposition to this change. Still, Lycurgus was so concerned about the efficacy of his reforms that he again consulted the Oracle at Delphi and, having received a second confirmation of divine assent at his innovation, he proceeded to establish three more Rhetra that would define Sparta for the next five hundred years.

Lycurgus’ second reform was to take the land inside Sparta and the surrounding kingdom of Lacedaemon and divide it into equal plots, divvying it up among the people equally. As the Spartan civilization had grown and become more complex, greater concentrations of wealth had fallen into fewer and fewer hands. The primary measurement of this wealth was not coin but land, which dictated the quantity of foodstuffs that a family might be able to produce in excess of what they actually needed which might then be transformed into other kinds of wealth. While this kind of wealth redistribution may seem radical even within the context of contemporary political ideologies that have sought to reduce or eliminate the gap between the haves and have-nots, the idea was not unique to Lycurgus or without precedent in the ancient world. The first great civilization in Sumer held all land in common under the authority of the Temple and all food produced on it was held similarly, to be redistributed to the people of the city on the basis of need. Moreover, there was a tradition in Judaism that after a set period of time, any land acquired by one person at the expense of another was essentially forfeited on the basis of a family’s fundamental right to a particular piece of land as their birthright. One is tempted to believe that Lycurgus was ignorant of these traditions. Plutarch, on the other hand, is specific in noting that Lycurgus took great inspiration from some laws of the Cretans as the basis for his own reforms. Whether this particular facet was borrowed from them, from elsewhere, or conceived of whole cloth from his imagination is lost to the ages.

The third reform, an extension of Lycurgus’ assault on the corrupting influence of wealth was to abolish gold, silver, and other precious metals as legal currency within the state in favor of a functionally worthless currency based on large quantities of unworkable iron. This is a means with a panoply of discernable ends. It made the accumulation of coin a fruitless task. Plutarch wryly notes that, “to lay up twenty or thirty pounds, there was required a pretty large closet, and, to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen” [36]. Lycurgus would go on to abolish all “needless and superfluous arts,” but the eradication of easily transferred monies made that edict itself superfluous. Though Plutarch doesn’t bring it up in the text, one must also assume that this Rhetra had the effect of isolating Sparta from trade with other developing city-states that didn’t share the Lacedaemonian disdain for coin for centuries to come.

If we are to take Plutarch at his word, Lycurgus’ first three reforms were accepted by the people, however begrudgingly, as means aiming at the highest social good. The fourth, seemingly innocuous in contrast with some as tangible as land re-distribution and the eradication of wealth, struck so deeply the nerves of ambition and status that it was met with eventual violence.

The third and most masterly stroke of this great lawgiver, by which he struck a yet more effectual blow against luxury and the desire of riches, was the ordinance, he made, that they should all eat in common, of the same and same meat, and of kinds that were specified, and should not spend their lives at home, laid on costly couches at splendid tables, delivering themselves up into the hands of their tradesmen and cooks to fatten them in corners, like greedy brutes, and to ruin not their minds only but their very bodies which, enfeebled by indulgence and excess, freedom from work, and, in a word, of as much care and attendance as if they were continually sick. [36]

Plutarch goes into extraordinary detail about the nature of these daily, common feastings but it is in a passing observation on the name used to describe them (phiditia) that he reveals something important about their implementation, noting that the “Cretans called them andria” [37]. This suggests that the cultural innovation, like the formation of a Senate before it, may have been one of the ideas that Lycurgus’ borrows wholesale from the people of Crete.

Upon being stripped of their last means to benefit in some meaningful way from their acquired wealth, the wealthier men of Sparta rose up against Lycurgus’new-found authority and, as Plutarch so skillfully phrases it, “and from ill words came to throwing stones, so that at length he was forced to run out of the market-place and make to sanctuary to save his own life” [37]. While this is hardly surprising, given the vehemence with which he has struck at the things that made them distinct, Lycurgus manages to avoid all harm until he is confronted by a young man named Alcander who wounds him grievously in one eye. The resolution of this conflict is almost too strange to be strictly historical as Lycurgus, using his wound as a symbol of his virtue, rallies the people behind him and, takes Alcander into his house whereupon he becomes one of Lycurgus’ most vocal and ardent supporters. After this uprising is quelled, Lycurgus builds a new temple to Minerva and the social experiment is underway.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Lycurgus (Part 1)

The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans: Lycurgus
Written by Plutarch sometime in the latter part of the 1st century CE
Place: Chaeronea in the province of Boeotia (Greece)

The complete text of Plutarch's biography of Lycurgus can be found online at It utilizes the same Dryden translation of Lycurgus used in the Great Books' series and, indeed, for this essay. Page numbers cited correspond to the 2nd edition of the GB's set.

Part One:

Unlike Plutarch’s biographies of figures closer to him in time, his treatment of Lycurgus (as well as Numa Pompilius) is more an exercise in selective storytelling than a serious historical document. Plutarch himself notes in his opening that there is great discord, even in his time, between those who have written about the legendary figure of Spartan history. By the time Plutarch got around to writing about him, somewhere between 600 and 900 years had passed since Lycurgus had walked the Earth and reorganized the Spartan culture on his journey. For this reason, parsing myth from fact is nigh impossible. Still, Plutarch is upfront about his methodology, announcing that “we shall endeavor to compose the history of his life, adhering to those statements which are least contradicted, and depending upon those authors most worthy of credit” [32].

Plutarch begins his examination of Lycurgus’ life with a summary of the events that led up to his great reshuffling of Spartan culture. He was born in a line of kings supposedly descended from Hercules himself though the line (the Eurypontids) was named for his ancestor, Eurypon. Eurypon was remembered as having “released the rigor of the monarchy” [34], beginning a trend of multi-generational chaos that found its climax in Lycurgus’ own father’s assassination. After acquiring the throne after his short-lived brother (with no suggestion in the text that Lycurgus himself might have been responsible for his death), Lycurgus quickly abdicates his throne when it is discovered that his brother’s wife is pregnant with his brother’s child. This child, named Charilaus, is installed, essentially at birth, as the rightful heir to the throne and, for a period of time, Lycurgus functions as regent to the infant king.

In short order, however, it became clear to Lycurgus that other powers in the Queen’s family resented his influence on the throne and had begun to plot his death in turn. Rather than suffering his father’s fate, Lycurgus imposed a self-exile, making himself notably scarce until Charilaus had reached the age of marriage and, himself, produced a legitimate heir. His own claim to the throne now twice nullified, Lycurgus began to travel the world in order to collect information from a variety of cultures of the most effective and virtuous means of governance. Visiting Crete, Lycurgus was greatly impressed by their system of governance and convinced the Cretan poet and philosopher, Thales to return to Lacedaemon with him in order to bring some of that harmony to his people. From there, he sailed to Asia (modern day Turkey) to contrast the Cretan style of politics with the more sensual Ionians who resided there. It is from this visit that Lycurgus is said to have first come into contact with the epic poetry of Homer and, in turn, transmitted it for the first time to the people of Lacedaemon, thus assuring that body of work a place in Greek culture for many centuries to come.

In his absence, many had grown weary of the monarchical rule of his nephew and were receptive to his permanent return and involvement in government. Plutarch has them suggesting that, “for kings indeed we have who wear the marks and assume the titles of royalty, but as for the qualities of their minds, they have nothing by which they are to be distinguished from their subjects” [34]. Seizing on this half-hearted support for continuing the monarchy as was, Lycurgus begins considering the possibility of bringing his new-found wisdom on governance back to his people. In order to ensure the best outcome, Lycurgus, we are told, consulted the Oracle at Delphi as to the proper course of action. Plutarch describes the Oracle’s response, writing that:

He returned with that renowned oracle, in which he is called beloved of God, and rather God than man; that his prayers were heard, that his laws should be the best, and the commonwealth which observed them the most famous in the world. [34]

It is, of course, tempting to assume that just as history is written by the victor, so may oracles be later re-written in order to appear favorable to something that turned out well. Plutarch’s participation as a priest of Apollo at Delphi (though much later) lends a good deal of credence to the idea that the utterance that Lycurgus’ received there is, in fact, the same one upon which he built his plans for a new kind of state.

Armed with this divine providence, Lycurgus sets about to reforming the state through measures designed to make sweeping changes to the Spartan way of life; indeed, changes that would define the Spartan apart from other Greeks for centuries to follow. By Plutarch’s account, Lycurgus’ coup of the existing state was essentially bloodless. Gathering thirty prominent Spartans he had won to his cause, the men assembled with arms in a show of force that left King Charilaus taking refuge in the temple of Minerva. After some negotiation, he was brought into Lycurgus’ revolution and, from this vantage, legitimized it among the skeptics and loyalists through his participation. In his first act as lawmaker for this new Spartan state, Lycurgus created a Senate, composed of twenty-eight prominent men of the city, to rule in a co-equal status with the kingship. By Plutarch’s assessment, the establishment of the Senate served as a moderating force between those advocating for an absolute monarchy and those who clamored for absolute rule of the people. We may infer from this that Lycurgus saw both of those ideas of governance as intrinsically flawed and in need of a moderating influence from the oligarchy to act as “ballast in a ship, which always kept things in a just equilibrium” [34].

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Author Sketch: Plutarch


Born circa 46 CE in Chaeronea in the province of Boeotia
Died circa 120-125 CE probably in Chaeronea

Other things that happened in Plutarch’s lifetime:

Paul begins his travels as a missionary.
The Eastern Han dynasty rules China and introduces Buddhism as the state religion.
Jerusalem destroyed by Rome after Jewish uprising.

At first glance, the transition from Aristotle to Plutarch would seem to indicate a clear shift from the Hellenic world to the Roman one. Just as Aristotle, who was not born in Athens but is most associated with it, can be seen as a transitional figure so can Plutarch, who was not born in Rome, did not write in Latin but whose writing is lumped in with Roman writers all the same. The keys to this misidentification come in the form of his extensive writing on the history of Rome (and Greece among other places), his eventual audience, and his position in time as witness to the golden age of Roman emperors.

Plutarch was born in Chaeronea in the Greek province of Boeotia. Though Chaeronea was a small city by any standard, it was just a little over twenty miles from the Oracle at Delphi where Plutarch would serve in his later years as a priest to Apollo. It had also been the host of a number of fundamental battles as the winds of empire had shifted first one way and then the next over the centuries. While legend about Plutarch is abundant, the details of his actual life alternate between sparse and mundane. It is widely assumed that he spent at least two years studying at the Academy in Athens and journeyed to key spots around the Mediterranean in his younger years. His adult life appears to have been consumed by occupying various civic and religious roles specific to Chaeronea as well as Delphi and composing the works that represent him today.

It has been said that though Plutarch benefits from proximity to at least some of the subjects of his biographies, he exhibits a deep piety that sometimes equivocates myth with history. Though both components are valuable, parsing one from the other in his accounts of famous persons’ lives is a good part of the active work that goes into reading his writing. It is also valuable to note that his choice of subjects and analyses of their lives are not without the taint of his own, more provincial interests, often fueled by a unspoken but powerful urge to place the events from the fall of Greece to the rise of Rome into some kind of meaningful, ordered context that demonstrates that civilization, wherever it may rise, has a plan that transcends the understanding of the individual.

1. Chaeronea

2. Delphi

3. Thebes

4. Athens

5. Rome

Click on map to enlarge

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.

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]

Monday, June 8, 2009

Great Books: Aristotle's Politics Book One (Part 2)

The first part of this essay can be read here.

It is ironic that Aristotle posits speech as integrally linked to the uniquely human virtues of good and evil/justice and injustice and asserts that an “association of living beings who have this sense [of speech] makes a family and a state” [446]. In singling out speech as the virtue that gives humanity the knowledge of good and evil, Aristotle leaves us with the impression that the first, speech, was developed in order to facilitate the development of the family and then the state. Contemporary research does suggest that human speech developed, among other reasons, as a social lubricant between the males and females of a particular unit. Women, armed with the knowledge that sex could lead to childbirth which might very well itself lead to death, had to be as sure as they could that potential partners would exhibit the requisite character traits to nurture and not abandon her children.

State-building, on the other hand, was probably the last thing on the primitive human mind that developed and perfected speech. If anything, the complexity of ideas allowable through the development of speech (abstract thinking) made the evolution of ever-more complex social and political systems possible. One of the key factors that unify people in a particular culture is a shared language. With it, even geographic proximity is unnecessary while without it, that same proximity often led to outright violence.

Having established to his own satisfaction the relationship of the household to the development of the State, Aristotle returns to his “three relationships” argument and begins to break them down, one-by-one, beginning with that of master to servant. It is clear from the outset that Aristotle is arguing that a) slaves are an integral part of a household and that b) slavery is natural and therefore, in principle, good. Still, he concedes early on that “others affirm that the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature, and that the distinction between slave and freeman exists by law only, and not by nature; and being an interference with nature is unjust” [447].

Just as the family is composed of man, woman, child, and slave, so is the household the whole of which property is a part. In this sense, acquiring property is part of managing a household. Property, he says, “is an instrument for maintaining life” and a slave, he argues, is “a living possession…that takes precedence over all other instruments” by virtue of a slave's ability to be trained. Inanimate property he describes as instruments of production and living property as instruments of action. If repulsed by his logic, one cannot fault the precision with which Aristotle takes stock of the world around him, and, indeed, the world for many centuries to come. The existence and economy of a leisure class was, is, and will forever be predicated by the existence of a slave class, regardless of the label we attach to it. The idea of ruling and the ruled, for Aristotle, is a cold mechanism of existence built into the ways that humans think and understand the world. “For all things,” he writes, “which form a composite whole and which are made up of parts…a distinction between the ruling and the subject element comes to light” [447].

Aristotle then defends his argument that slavery is natural by examining three presumably natural relationships in which an inequity in power is clear. He cites, first, two aspects of the human experience that show clear dominion over others, even if the nature of that rule differ in some respects. The Soul, he suggests, rules over the body as a king would his subjects; that is, with absolute monarchical authority. Similarly, the Intellect rules over the Appetites but does so by constitutional authority, segregating various impulses into two camps; those which may be indulged without punishment and those which must be resisted by threat of punishment of death. Both of these relationships are natural and therefore good because, in both cases, when the players are co-equal or inverted in their authority, the person is said to be corrupted.

Though we may quibble with his language, Aristotle’s argument here is fundamentally sound. His second, Humanity’s dominion over Nature gives some cause for pause. “Tame animals,” he argues, “have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man” [448]. While a statement like that may have been perfectly reasonable (if ill-founded in its anthropocentrism) in Aristotle’s time, I sincerely doubt that the species dying off in record number in our time due to human intervention into the cycles of nature can be said to be better off from our “rule.” The same would apply to the innumerable exotic animals shipped to various parts of ancient Rome for public slaughter in the name of games. Dogs and cats are still getting the better part of the bargain, at least in the West, but they are part of a lonely segment of the animal kingdom that benefits greatly rather than suffers profoundly from our intervention into their lives.

Finally, Aristotle caps off his arguments defending slavery by examining his interpretation of the natural relationship between a man and a woman where the latter is ruled by the former. This is such a foregone conclusion (“the male is by nature superior and the female inferior; the one rules and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind” [448]) that it only merits only line in the section and receives such scant attention in addressing a contrary position that we can only believe that Aristotle couldn’t imagine one! Based then on these three natural precedents for Slavery, Aristotle concludes his argument by restating it.

When then there is such difference as that between soul and body or between men and animals…the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. [448]

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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Great Books: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book One (part 2 of 2)

The first half of this essay can be read here.

Aristotle ties this quest for happiness into an exploration of those virtues specific to human beings. Virtue, or the fullest expression of a things potential, can be found in every thing, living or otherwise, and many virtues are shared in common between them. The task then, according to Aristotle, is to separate out those virtues exhibited by humanity and humanity alone from those of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdom. While some functions (like growth or perception) are shared by all forms of life to one degree or another, others (like reason or piety) are assumed by Aristotle to be uniquely human and therefore reside in the soul.

Scientific data collected since Aristotle’s time have shown that the gap in some reasoning skills between humans and their animal and vegetable cohabitants is not so wide as he assumes as fact. Though the idea that certain behaviors or experiences are unique to the human animal carries some water, it seems more defensible to point to the unique interplay of higher levels of consciousness at work in humanity as the source of that singularity than it does to posit that, if souls exist, then animals don’t have one. The latter view is one nearly unique to Western culture while the former is ubiquitous worldwide.

Setting aside our quibbles with Aristotle’s anthropocentric worldview, it is difficult to argue with his methodology for arriving at happiness as the chief good. In section eight, Aristotle restates his proof in order to move on to a secondary set of observations about its nature. Paraphrased, it can be understood most succinctly as follows.

1. Happiness is the chief good.
2. Goods which are sought for their own sake are better than those sought for the ends they produce as the end is always better than the good itself.
3. Happiness may be sought by means valued for their intrinsic merits or by external means sought for their own end.
4. Therefore, Happiness sought by means valued for their intrinsic merits are distinguishable and indeed superior to those which seek it in the ends of those means.

Once having established happiness as the chief good and, indeed, the fullest expression of human virtue, Aristotle pragmatically asks, “Well, if happiness is so good, then surely we must identify the means to acquire it?” After ticking off a list of possibilities that includes learning, habit and training, he turns to belief, rather than knowledge, to explain the transcendent qualities of happiness, noting that “if there is any gift of the gods to men, it is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things insamuch as it is the best” [344].

This speculation that the gods are in some way responsible for happiness harmonizes with another theme that Aristotle explores in Ethics; namely, that happiness is not immune to external pressures. Events like war and illness may greatly influence an individual’s peace of mind and hamper his or her ability to reach the full potential of their happiness. Moreover, happiness may be earned through diligent effort but it is sometimes also simply received by good fortune; an accident of birth or changing political tides. For Aristotle, the former trumps the latter in value as “to entrust to chance what is greatest and most noble would be a very defective arrangement” [344].

This idea is broadened later as Aristotle considers the thorny question of when a person might be adequately described as happy. At what point can one truly say that someone is happy as a measure of their life rather than as a snapshot of a single moment within it? If someone can only be said to be truly happy when they have gone beyond external threats to that happiness, then we are led to believe that only the gods and the dead may know it. Furthermore, if the dead may be said to be aware of this state, then musn’t they also be aware of the misfortunes and indignities suffered by their offspring unto infinity thus damaging their hard-earned happiness?

If we are to deny the living true happiness on the basis that we cannot know what may yet happen, happiness seeks nothing but death. If we are to describe the living as happy, then it may not be a sort of happiness dependent on external circumstances else the chief good be achievable only in fits and spurts if at all. Aristotle’s solution is to consider the internal and external factors for happiness as two separate entities. Though he concedes that external events can maim the potential for happiness, “even in these, nobility shines through, when a man bears with resignation many great misfortunes, not through insensibility of pain but through nobility and greatness of soul” [346].

Returning, at least in spirit, to Socrates’ question (posed in the opening book of Plato’s Republic) of whether a poor good man could enjoy the end of life as much as a wealthy one, Aristotle suggests that each individual must first to decide whether to seek happiness or misery and then hope that fortune turns more often in their favor than not. Happy people, then, beset by ill fortune are still happy but if their fortunes are good, then they are said to be blessed. Those embracing misery, but whom otherwise experience good fortune, will still be miserable but should those fortunes turn against them, then they embody the lowest expression of human potential, wretchedness.

As a final argument to differentiate Happiness from other types of the good, Aristotle observes that as the chief Good, Happiness should elicit something more than praise which is rightly given over to lesser goods. “No one,” he suggests, “praises happiness as he does justice, but rather calls it blessed, as being something divine and better” [347]. Happiness, then, is the chief Good and the standard by which other virtues are measured just as divinity is the standard by which the mortal existence is judged.

Having marched his way across numerous minefields to reach a place of rest, Aristotle closes the first book of Ethics with a concise summation of his inquiry into happiness (designed no doubt as the take-away from the lecture), describing it as “an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue” [347] . Before closing, he touches briefly on an interesting observation that is prescient in its anticipation of forays into psychology in the 20th century.

There seems to be also another irrational element in the soul—one which in a sense, however, shares in a rational principle…another element naturally opposed to the rational principle, which fights against and resists that principle…That the irrational principle is in some sense persuaded by the rational principle is indicated also by the giving of advice and by all reproof and exhortation. And if this element also must be said to have a rational principle, that which has a rational principle (as well as that which has not) will be two-fold, one subdivision having it in the strict sense and in itself, and the other having a tendency to obey as one does one’s father.

While Aristotle’s language is clumsy in its exploration of largely uncharted waters, this passage does show already a tendency in human thought to compartmentalize the drives that influence behavior and view their interaction as complementary rather than unilateral.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Great Books: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics Book One (part 1 of 2)

Nicomachean Ethics, Book One
Composed by Aristotle presumably between 336-323 BCE
Place: Athens, Greece

The complete text for the W.D. Ross translation of Nicomachean Ethics used in this essay can be read online at though page citations listed correspond to the 2nd edition of the Great Books of the Western World set.

“When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge Of one of many circles.”- Wallace Stevens

The title for this collection of essays, Nicomachean Ethics, is often shortened to just Ethics. Nicomachus was Aristotle’s son and it is assumed that his inclusion in the title is due to the fact that the work was either dictated to or dedicated to him. How ever one prefers to spin it, these are the words of a father to his son on the ethics of being a good human being. Book One (the subject of our response here) focuses entirely on the chief good, happiness, and sets out in a meticulous way to define its parameters and defend its position as the chief good.

The first thing that one notices when reading Aristotle after Plato is the shift in approach between them. Plato endeavors to be invisible in his own work; placing his ideas in the mouths of the dead through formally constructed dialogues that give voice to both argument and rebuttal. Aristotle, in contrast, is a one man band. There is no dialogue; only discourse. He argues with ideas, not people. Where Plato’s Socrates is at once probing and conciliatory, Aristotle is methodical and unyielding. If Plato’s dialogues are a record of ideas in the process of formulation, Aristotle’s essays are a snapshot of those same ideas codifying and becoming something more permanent than speculation.

Aristotle begins the essay by suggesting that the good “has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim” [339]. Good, in this sense, does not mean well-behaved or helpful, but is an abstract idea that encompasses a right outcome, a successful action or the achievement of virtue. Thus, even if invaders enter your homeland, burn down your house, and kill you, there is a good that is achieved; namely, good warfare. The idea is that no one sets out in earnest to do anything badly and, whatever moral or ethical shortcomings may be attached to a particular action, a successful implementation is a good one.

All goods, according to Aristotle, are not born equal. He segregates the good into two separate camps; those goods which are sought for their own sake and those which are sought for the end that they produce. In the latter case, the ends always trump the goods themselves. Health is better than medicine. Sex is better than seduction and pizza, one would assume, is better than cooking. Those goods that are sought for their own merits are then identifiably better than their ends-based counterparts because they have no ends to which they are eventually subordinate.

He goes on to suggest that Politics is highest good which is sought for a particular end. It subsumes all other kinds of knowledge in its quest to seek out that which is best for humanity. In order to justify a statement like this, one must accept Aristotle’s definition of politics as studying “what we are to do and what we are to abstain from [as] the end of this science…must be for the good of all man” [339] as a description of the virtue of Politics while also accepting that the more cynical and common view of Politics as that which is not “good for all man” would represent its complementary aspect of Vice.

The end of political science, then, “aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action” [342] or, as Aristotle deems it, happiness. In an earlier passage, he warns that abstract ideas like Virtue and Good are derived from human behavior rather than from nature and, as such, must be considered in context with the ambiguity that is presupposed by the plastic nature of the subjects in question. Happiness exhibits the same kind of elusiveness as Aristotle concedes that the “general run of men…think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth or honor” (bound to that which they suppose they lack most) while “people of superior refinement…proclaim some great ideal” [340].

In an interesting twist, Aristotle bases his assertion that happiness is the highest good upon his disagreement with a fundamental tenet of Platonic thought, namely that everything exists in at least two modes of being, one Ideal and the other, Actual. While it is clear to him that there is good in many things, it is difficult (if not impossible), using only the tools of reason, to identify the one Good that unifies all others. A traditional Platonist would argue that the Ideal of Good is sought for its own sake and those which seek to somehow to store up that good or prevent its lack from occurring are in service not to an Ideal but to a secondary form of Good. Aristotle notes that even those goods thought to be Good in themselves, many (honor, intelligence) still seek a particular end and, among the more vaguely conceived in the remainder, little accord is to be found as to why they are good.

The good, therefore, is not some common element answering to one idea…and if there is some one good which is universally predicable of goods or is capable of separate and independent existence, clearly it could not be achieved or attained by man. [342]

The good, then, that is sought for its own end is more final than that those sought for their outcomes and that good which is sought only for its own sake and never for another purpose is the most final and therefore, the best.