This book review was written by Eugene Kernes
“The final association, formed of several villages, is the state. For all practical purposes the process is now complete; self-sufficiency has been reached, and while the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life. Therefore every state exists by nature, as the earlier associations too were natural. This association is the end of those others, and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end-product of the coming into existence of any object, that is what we call its nature of a man, or a horse or a household. Moreover the aim and he end is perfection; and self-sufficiency is both end and perfection. ” – Aristotle, Book I: Chapter 2: The State Exists By Nature, Page 59
“There is further harm in the doctrine: the greater the number of owners, the less the respect for common property. People are much more careful of their personal possessions than of those owned communally; they exercise care over common property only in so far as they are personally affected. Other reasons apart, the thought that someone else is looking after it tends to make them careless of it. (This is rather like what happens in domestic service: a greater number of servants sometimes does less work than a smaller.) Each citizens acquires thousand sons, but these are not one man’s sons; any one of them is equally the son of any person, and as a result will be equally neglected by everyone.” – Aristotle, Book 2: Chapter 3: Extreme Unity Is Impracticable, Page 108
“This too is a healthy saying, namely that it is not possible to be a good ruler without first having been ruled. Not that good feeling and good obedience are the same virtue – only that the good must have the knowledge and ability both to rule and be ruled. That is what we mean by the virtue of a citizen – understanding the governing of free men from both points of view.” – Aristotle, Book 3: Chapter 4: How Far Should The Good Man And The Good Citizen Be Distinguished?, Page 182
It appears natural for everyone to try and obtain the good life, to attain happiness. The good life is more likely in associations. Which is why people form groups, for belonging in a group enables cooperative benefits. Hierarchies are inevitable and natural in human society. Among the hierarchy of human associations, the apex is the state. A state is defined by self-sufficiency that enables a sustainable continuation of the good life. The concern is who should rule and with what justification.
Sovereignty does not confer justice on the use of sovereign power. Those who rule are capable of committing unjust acts. To be a good ruler requires practice in ruling. To have knowledge and ability to rule, and be ruled. Understanding governance from both perspectives. Governance defined by a constitution. There is no singular best constitution. Constitutions depend on their place, time, and the roles of citizens and non-citizens. To be a citizen requires participation in the constitution, in the defined manners. As there are different constitutions, the virtue of the citizen comes in relation to the constitution they are governed by. Being a good citizen does not equate to being a good individual.
Who Was Aristotle?
Aristotle was a Macedonian, subject to the King of Macedon. While living in Athens, Aristotle’s status was that of a resident alien. Aristotle was not a citizen, but valued citizenship and the associated privileges. Without citizenship, Aristotle was not a land-owner citizen in a Greek polis. Making Aristotle aware of what the disadvantages of not being a citizen. Generally accepted in Athens due to powerful friends, but the position of other non-citizens would not be so tolerable.
Aristotle, like others, gathered supporters by praising various poets and other literary people, who justify Aristotle’s claims. Approximate demonstration of ideas can be found through their information, and other experiences.
Throughout the book, each aspect of politics is judged by how they enable the state to achieve its purpose. The results of people’s actions, and how they utilize their means. Well-being depends on having appropriate goals, and ways to achieve those goals.
Learning the topics in the book is valuable to enable a comparison with the readers own society. To understand and measure the society that the reader lives in. Without knowledge of the past, people lack awareness of how different life has been or can be. Making them bear tyranny easier, because there would be nothing to compare tyranny with.
State, Constitution, And Rulers:
A state is self-sufficient, and is not a slave to aggressors. There are three types of constitutions which are monarchy, aristocracy, and polity. Monarchy is the rule of one, aristocracy the rule of few, polity the rule of many. Their respective deviations are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. The deviations come about when those who rule, care more for their interest than the common interest of those they rule.
A polity is a constitution that elects people based on merit rather than only wealth. Aristocracy is comprised of people of quality, but so are oligarchies. Authority in the state used to depend on citizens taking turns are ruling. Everyone practiced looking after the interest of others. But the benefits of public offices incentivized people to retain their role continuously. Zealously trying to obtain an office.
For Aristotle, power is transactional. Each person’s political power is meant to derived from their partial claim and contribution to the common good. There is an inverse relation between property possessed by the politically dominant, and the rule of law. Those who hold more property, have more opportunity to seize power, and less willing to abide by the laws. Even if power is able to be distributed among the many, only a few will have the time needed to participate in the operation of the constitution. Laws are then made to attend only necessary meetings.
States can be ruled by the best individual, or by best laws. Laws provide only general principle therefore need to be supplemented by a ruler with experience. Although rulers cannot do without the general principles of laws. Laws do not have personal feeling, unlike every human. Laws incorporate their designers’ biases. A government requires the laws to be obeyed. Government by good laws is defined by obedience to the laws, but also laws which people willingly abide by.
Stability of the constitution depends on an influential middle people, that cultivates a middle ground. Those of extremes views benefit from encouraging the middle ground. The rich or poor do not have cause against the middle people. The middle people can become mediators between the parties. Stability needs to come from the mixing people, not by tricking them. In the search to make the constitution acceptable to all groups, the middle people provide the best method. They become the mediator between the parties.
Historically, tyranny came from democracies in which a popular leader was also a military leader. Only the lack of skilled speakers prevents tyrants from arising. Popular leaders have become those with oratory skills with an ignorance of warfare. Tyrants are ready to make war, for this keeps them in the position of leadership. While a monarch has friends to provide stability for political power, tyrants mistrust everyone for they do not want to share power.
Citizenship, and Values:
Citizens made the polis, not the non-citizens or slaves. Daily life, administrative duties, and various other social functions are interconnected with membership in a state. Aristotle considers humans to be political animals, for they utilize various aspects of human society and need to contribute to the good life.
Citizens need a subordinate class to do the dirty work. The subordinate class tends to be a source of trouble. Alleviated by either repressive legislation, or finding appropriate behaviors between the master and slave that can form a friendship.
The noblest faculty of the individual is the intellect. There is a moral imperative to use the faculties, for that is how the individual becomes a good individual. Those ruled are required to suspend their reasoning faculty, and therefore cannot be considered good individuals.
Judgment works better as a collective. Everyone has a share of virtue and practical wisdom. Each sees from different perspectives, and understandings. Each understands and judges some parts, while as a collective they can judge all parts.
Life depends on obtaining at least a minimum supply of necessities. Exchange provides for mutual needs. Local barter maintains self-sufficiency, as well as the use of money for trade with non-Greek peoples. The need for coined money created a demand for exporting surplus. Interest is an unnatural mode of business.
Sharing is needed within any association such as a state. What needs to be resolved is how much sharing is to be done. Too much sharing would weaken ties and attachment which can prevent everyone from taking responsibility for anything. Solidarity has benefits, but the more owners of the property, the less respect there is for common property. Personal property tends to be treated more carefully than common property, which they are not personally affected by. There should be some property held in common, but private ownership should dominate. Liberty is expressed though practice. Abolition of private property means no liberty. Too much excessive unification of the state has consequences. A state providing as much unity as possible is misguided, for diversity of membership and functions is needed.
Household-manage is meant to use and distribute goods, not acquire them. Household management requires skills, such as knowing the proper use of tools, to enable efficacy in task performance. Tools can be inanimate such as objects, or animate such as slaves. Tools serve to fulfill specific function, rather than be all-purpose. Tools have a production purpose, meant to be used to enable completion of task.
Slaves do not possess reason, but can recognize it. Slaves are tools used to supply essential needs. Because the slave takes care of a variety of tasks, they enable the free individual to be able to accomplish other necessary tasks.
As hierarchies are natural, slavery can be advantageous to the slave. Ancient Greek economy was dependent on slavery. Although Aristotle considered slavery part of the natural hierarchy, there was opposition to slavery being against nature as it was derived by force. Another dilemma is that the master is meant to possess a certain aspect of knowledge which justifies the status, that knowledge can also be in possession of those who are not masters. Aristotle doubted many of the defenses of slavery, but the doubts had minor representation.
The book is difficult to read because of how the ideas are organized. Containing antediluvian language and values. Many values, assumptions, and claims are no longer appropriate. The values are a reflection of the era, which can be antagonistic to contemporary values. The values can still be used to provide a contrast for contemporary values. There are values and concerns which still resonate.
This book’s editor inserts background information and explanations before Aristotle’s content. Their quality is mixed, but are often provide the context needed to understand the forthcoming information. The information can direct the readers thoughts about the content, which can influence how the reader understands the main content.