Some Applications of Aristotelian Politics to Modern America

[Note: This post is exploratory in nature, not didactic. I am not trying to "teach" Aristotle's Politics or offer authoritative opinions about it, but just pulling together some disparate notes of mine on the Politics. For those familiar with Aristotle's writings, I am, for reasons of my own, not using the marginal Becker numbers as references, but rather Book.Chapter.Section numbers. Unless otherwise noted, direct quotations from the Politics are from the translation by Ernest Barker, which I vastly prefer over that of Carnes Lord.]

In the Politics, Aristotle defines a “state” as an association of free and equal people who come together for the sake not just of living, but of living well, and who rationally deliberate amongst themselves about what is good (I.ii.8-12). This is, in fact, the very definition of “political” for Aristotle, and on that point alone, for all our seeming obsession as a culture with “politics,” America is not truly “political.” On Aristotelian terms, a “citizen” of a state is anyone who “is entitled to participate in an office involving deliberation or decision” (III.i.6). Accordingly, it seems that he would say that it is not possible to be a citizen in a modern large commercial republic, such as America. Several supporting reasons may be advanced for this point.

First, at a certain point of size a republic would be unable to function if every single person had a direct say in the deliberative and judicial matters. It was possible to have such a system in ancient Greece, where society was primarily agricultural and cities as a general rule very small (most having a territory of 100 or less square miles), but in a modern, large commerical republic such a system would be impractical and unwieldy. Further, it would easily tend toward a condition similar to merely gathering together a herd of beasts, not men (III.xi.5). One solution Aristotle gives to this problem is the notion of indirect elections: the power of the masses of people is divided up into smaller, more manageable units (V.v.10), preventing at least some of the potential for government by a mere mob ruled by its changing passions.

Second, the more commercial a republic is, the more “vulgar laborers,” or, common workmen and artisans, there are going to be. According to Aristotle, a vulgar laborer cannot be a citizen because he does not have the time to be involved in rational deliberation about the good (III.v.3-4). He is not a truly “free” person, because he has to work for his upkeep, and in that sense he is a kind of slave to those for whom he works or produces his works (I.xiii.13). This view is rooted in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a kind of prelude to the Politics, where he writes that the life of reason is the highest thing in man, and man must be largely free of daily cares in order to pursue that life (NE X.7). On Aristotelian terms, if you punch a clock and work for the purposes of the maintenance of someone else’s good, you are not a citizen, but a slave.

Third, the telos (end toward which a thing aims) of a modern, large commercial republic is not something Aristotle would recognize as being natural. Acquisition per se is concerned with obtaining what one needs to live, and as Aristotle sees it there are “natural” and “unnatural” ways to go about this. “Natural” modes of acquisition are ways limited to obtaining what is immediately necessary for life. They include hunting, fishing, and farming, and have as their goal self-sufficiency (I.vii.7-8). “Unnatural” modes of acquisition are chiefly defined by a preoccupation with making money so that one can participate in a system of exchange which, the more detailed it is the less connected to the real world of natural needs it is (I.x-xi.).

Now, modern, large commercial republics are consumed with acquisition – really, with acquisition for its own sake. They are not concerned with virtue (the good life) and self-sufficiency, and on this basis alone cannot be true states on Aristotelian terms (III.ix.13). Acquisition for its own sake is not a natural end, nor is such a heavy reliance on exchange that the city cannot be self-sufficient. Since both of these conditions obtain in modern, large commercial republics, these entities cannot be “political” and their people cannot be “citizens” in Aristotelian terms. Rather, such states are like barbarian associations of convention, not law, and their people, who participate only in a system of providing for immediate daily needs, are like slaves (cf. I.v.8-9).

Fourth, the modern, large commercial republic does not draw people together into a community of mutual seekers of virtue, but into a mere contractual alliance of strangers (III.ix.10-11). Relationships in a modern large commercial republic tend to cluster around friendship. According to Aristotle the political order is about justice. Friendship is not the purpose of the state, but is just the pursuit of a common social goal by people within the state (III.ix.13). Further, friendship is not a basis for justice; it is only a basis for reciprocal quantitative exchange not based on merit (Nicomachean Ethics VIII.7).

At the same time, Aristotle does recognize that friendship has a place in the state, for “Community depends on friendship; and when there is enmity instead of friendship, men will not even share the same path” (Politics IV.xi.7). Since “A state aims at being, as far as it can be, a society composed of equals and peers [who, as such, can be friends and associates]…,” friendship does have place in the state.

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