Reflection on Aristotle’s “The Politics”

While I’ve passed my quals and technically need just one more methods course, nothing could stop me from taking this semester’s special seminar, Social Justice and Public Policy, with Price School Associate Professor Lisa Schweitzer. Nothing. Lisa is one of the unicorn academics — amazing in all regards — and this particular class is a veritable carnival of bringing justice theory to bear on contemporary policy debates. Each week, she provides a reading prompt and we write one-page responses. Given that the readings are classics, I thought it might be interesting to publish those prompts and responses over the course of the semester.

“Which three points about justice, in Aristotle’s framing, strike you as being most outmoded/unhelpful/wrong vis-a-vis your own internal sense of justice? Why? Can you identify three points of agreement between your own ideas about justice and Aristotle’s?”

A first-time contemporary reader can struggle with Aristotle. Setting aside that he affirms the institutions of slavery and gender inequality, he is an unabashed aristocrat. No revolutionary, he asserts there are three types of good city (polis) formation: monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government (or polity), all in contradistinction to their respective perversions: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. Above all, Aristotle prefers the king with unique “moral wisdom” (p. 281), who will govern the polis justly, as would the finest of household managers. Aristotle bases this and all other positions in the reading in the implicit and teleological argument that man is, by nature, “a political animal” (p. 265), and cities, organic sites for the common good. It is natural for man to convene in the city, and thus, the most correct and just practices are those that afford the polis the greatest amount of natural harmony. It is on the issue of naturalness that Aristotle’s argument hinges, and so by turns fails and succeeds.

Among the first problems is his conception of the slave. Again, this is less about the moment in history than it how he waffles in describing that particular household relationship’s agents. To wit, there is such thing as a bad citizen and a bad man, and sometimes the slave possesses the “rational faculty of the soul” (p. 267). By that extension, can we feel truly comfortable agreeing that the ruler/ruled relationship is “beneficial” (ibid) and “necessary” (ibid) in all cases? Taken to the extreme, if the city’s leader is a tyrant and his position thus unnatural, how do we categorize the rest of the city member’s roles? Are the slaves now freedmen, household-managing citizens?

Second, while Aristotle does not countenance social mobility, nature certainly does. Male mammals do not fight each other for fun, but for status and leadership. Aristotle’s hermetic class conception thus makes little sense depicted as “natural.” Aristotle all but admits this weakness in his discussion about who might become citizens when. In some instances the wealthy mechanic may enjoy citizenship, but never the laborer. In other instances, one citizen parent will do, in others, having both is mandatory.

Finally, Aristotle is a straight-up xenophobe – in any era. Those without need for cities are “barbarians” (p. 265), and no resident alien or foreigner may ever hope for citizenship. Except national borders are social constructs – there’s really nothing natural about them other than the regrettable human tic to reject the unknown.

However, Aristotle’s emphasis on one’s natural commitment to and responsibility for the collective good is well taken. Returning to the topic of the ruler, Aristotle argues that city governments who adjudicate on behalf of the common interest are just. By contrast, governments operating on behalf of individual interests are “perversions” (p. 285) – they are “despotic; whereas the city is an association of free men” (ibid). Within this, distributive justice is meted out in terms of “proportionate equality:” one’s take from the city must accord with his contribution to it. Romney and sundry CEOs who ship jobs overseas are, in Aristotelian terms, grossly overpaid.

Not surprisingly, Aristotle recognizes there is a rightful and natural limit to one’s wealth, and thus privileges use over exchange value. Within the household, the manager must practice moral virtue, seeking out only things that have function, a legitimate use. Through this art of acquisition of wealth, he provides for and justly leads his household. The household manager who abandons this art in favor of the art of acquisition of currency acts unnaturally.

Finally, Aristotle’s wisdom has material implications. Naming usury as the worst of all types of exchange, he explains, “Acquisition for acquisition’s sake…makes barren metal breed” (p. 274). Reading this, I thought of balloon payments and sketchy refinancing contracts, and saw miles and miles of abandoned houses in my mind’s eye.

In the end I find Aristotle’s conception of natural order best serves questions of equality, and not society’s constitution. “What works for the collective?” is as critically important a question today as it was when he first wrote. It is up to us to modify what his “collective” means.

Work cited
Aristotle. (2007). The Politics. In  Justice: A Reader, M. Sandel, ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

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