Old fool mistaken for genius by western civilization

I was surprised to discover that Aristotle was an idiot. I curated my list hoping to stock it with the good stuff, and I thought Aristotle was a shoo-in, but nope. Total doddering old buffoon.

In Politics, Aristotle explores, dissects, and defines the nation state in its key essentials and many variations. In Aristotle’s day, politics was regarded as the highest form of philosophical pursuit, although of course it was undoubtedly the political philosophers who pushed this story. Regardless, I hope he does better on Poetics, which is also on the list, but I’m now pretty sure that will be another trip through the very bland fever swamp of Aristotle’s mind. At least that one is shorter. 

Over the course of Politics Aristotle is wrong and wrong-headed in so many ways and on so many fronts, having less to do with his fluency in the subject and more with his incoherent thinking. This made for extremely difficult reading, exhausted as I was from the high volume of eye-rolling required. But, for example, here are several of the more prevalent types of idiocy stinking up the page:

  • Human body analogies. For Aristotle, the most important thing is always to break things down into its component parts. Therefore, one of his favorite ways to discredit something is to compare it to the human body. Of course, you can’t have an excessively large magistrate, because that would be like someone having a four-foot nose. The man is the head of a household and his slaves are the hands, and without the head the hands would just sit there, amirite? He goes on and on like this until you just want to break him down into his component parts.
  • Nonsensical assertions. Aristotle is a great lover of the bald-faced assertion, which he presumably used often for things he felt were self-evident. More often, though, he just uses it to cap off arguments he wants to be finished with. As an early example that tells you exactly the kind of ride you’re in for: “Thus the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part [queue body analogy!]; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand.” I mean, say what?
  • Self-justification. Aristotle was a part of the ruling elite as well as a man of his time, and it’s hard to hold too much of this against him. Still, he undermines himself every times he opens his mouth to talk about the rightness of slavery and the inherent superiority of the elite, which, in a book about a subject that is substantially about the rights of property, happens quite a bit. “But is there anyone thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule, and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjugation, others for rule.” Happily for him, he was born on the right side of the equation, but it tends to undermine his authority when he speaks of things like justice, virtue, and honor.

The book is a detailed exploration of the subject of the state, how and why they exist, what forms they take, and how they evolve and disintegrate. I just had the pleasure of exploring this topic with Rousseau, who approaches the subject with a sort of pure philosophical zeal. The experience couldn’t be more different to watch Aristotle blithely dissect topics into component parts to be analyzed, analogized, and put to service in support of his own biases about what the perfect state should be.

According to Aristotle there are three ideal forms of government, each of which is susceptible to its corresponding perverted form, making a matched set of each. I have to admit, this is a nice construction. The three governments and their perverted forms are:

  • Monarchy. This is the rule of a single person. It’s a great way to go if you have a ruler who is exceptionally virtuous and can manage to let the public interest guide his decisions. As this ruler moves his own interests to the center, this form of government becomes Tyranny.
  • Aristocracy. This is the rule of an elite class of virtuous people. I can’t recall if Aristotle points out that philosophers make ideal aristocrats, but it’s clearly what he’s thinking. He does not go into the mechanics of identifying those with sufficient virtue, but in the absence of such virtue, this form becomes Oligarchy, which is the rule of a few for self-interest as opposed to the public good.
  • Constitutional Government. This is one in which rule is distributed to some benevolent ruling class, which adheres to the rule of law for the common good. When this goes bad it becomes Democracy, which clearly scared the hell out of Aristotle.

Baked into the center of each of these ideals is the same one we find at the center of Rousseau’s political philosophy, which is the common good. The purpose of the state is to ensure that each member of that state has the opportunity to pursue the good life, and the ideal state is one which maximizes that opportunity among as many as possible, rather than for the few. Much of the discussion concerns property and how it is distributed and regulated through the state, which in itself is pretty much always about the divide between the rich and the poor. This reminded me of Livy, of the perennial battles between the nobles and the plebs, and also of Rousseau, as Aristotle focuses on the central question of how society can help a guy hang on to his stuff.

Aristotle was very taken with the notion of virtue and its ability to guide the affairs of men, but he was also clear-eyed about the tendency of men to let their baser passions carry the day. He spends much time talking about the specific ways that different noble constitutions are perverted by the avarice of men. These variations, and the need for strong constitutions, all spring from a central source that Aristotle covers early in the text:

A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worse of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with the arms of intelligence and with moral qualities which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he not have virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, and the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principal order in political society.

When he goes on to run through the dangers to the state, Aristotle starts to sound like Livy, with military leaders, key families, factions of the rich, and salt of the earth masses all vying for advantage in the affairs of the state. States begin in pursuit of the good life for whoever is writing the constitution, and they are able to succeed in relation to their ability to satisfy enough people sufficiently to maintain equilibrium. Often this means the rich enjoying everything and the poor enjoying just enough. But sometimes this means one family enjoying everything and everyone else hating their guts until they get a chance to strike. But in either case, it’s about ordering things to make the good life possible, until some faction or demagogue comes along to pervert the system and make it serve some new goal unrelated to the good life. Whenever the demagogues show up, you know you’re in trouble.

Just like Rousseau, Aristotle seems to see the state as synonymous with a city-state of tens of thousands but not millions of people, which limits their utility to me as a reader hoping to understand the dynamics of larger political systems. This also flies in the face of the way the world worked, as both of these authors well knew. Aristotle was teacher to Alexander the Great, who built an empire before Aristotle wrote this book, but you’d never know it, since all of his states and examples have to do with cities, and states consisting of five thousand to twenty thousand people.

It made me think how exciting it must have been to live in such a time, in such a city, where you might construct a new social contract, write a constitution, and participate in a society that you helped define. Aristotle seemed to have personal experience with many such cases, so I gather that back in the day it was common enough to chuck everything out and start a new system. He speaks with the stern experience of a master craftsman when he warns of the deficiencies common to weak constitutions, and the principles found in constitutions that can lead to a durable state: Don’t have too great a disparity between rich and poor. Make everyone hold office, and none permanently. Keep laws simple and few. What must life have been like when this could be viewed as practical advice. After all, Aristotle was a paid consultant to states writing constitutions. Talk about an interesting niche!

Most of my highlighted passages flag some of the outrageously inane things Aristotle said, but occasionally he gets out a good one, most notably in the first paragraph:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think is good.

I like this, and I like to believe it myself. Every man works toward what he views as the good, and the world is only as deranged as it is because people are generally too thick to see the difference between good and craptastic, and it mucks up all the works. Case in point, I think, is Aristotle himself, who spent a life pursuing what he must have felt to be the good, but only ended up creating a big steaming mess of nonsense that I am heartily glad to be done with.

Excerpt from Politics, by Aristotle

Property is a part of the household, and therefore the art of acquiring property is a part of the art of managing the household; for no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he be provided with necessaries. And as in the arts which have a definite sphere the workers must have their own proper instruments for the accomplishment of their work, so it is in the management of a household. Now, instruments are of various sorts; some are living, others lifeless; in the rudder, the pilot of a ship has a lifeless, in the look-out man, a living instrument; for in the arts the servant is a kind of instrument. Thus, too, a possession is an instrument for maintaining life. And so, in the arrangement of the family, a slave is a living possession, and property a number of such instruments; and the servant is himself an instrument, which takes precedence of all other instruments. For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet,

‘of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods’;

if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves. Here, however, another distinction must be drawn: the instruments commonly so called are instruments of production, whilst a possession is an instrument of action. The shuttle, for example, is not only of use, but something else is made by it, whereas of a garment or of a bed there is only the use. Further, as production and action are different in kind, and both require instruments, the instruments which they employ must likewise differ in kind. But life is action and not production, and therefore the slave is the minister of action [for he ministers to his master’s life]. Again, a possession is spoken of as a part is spoken of; for the part is not only a part of something else, but wholly belongs to it; and this is also true of a possession. The master is only the master of the slave; he does not belong to him, whereas the slave is not only the slave of his master, but wholly belongs to him. Hence we see what is the nature and office of a slave; he who is by nature not his own but another’s and yet a man, is by nature a slave; and he may be said to belong to another who, being a human being, is also a possession. And a possession may be defined as an instrument of action, separable from the possessor.

But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?

There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule, and others be ruled is a thing, not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.

And whereas there are many kinds both of rulers and subjects, that rule is the better which is exercised over better subjects—for example, to rule over men is better than to rule over wild beasts. The work is better which is executed by better workmen; and where one man rules and another is ruled, they may be said to have a work. In all things which form a composite whole and which are made up of parts, whether continuous or discrete, a distinction between the ruling and the subject element comes to light. Such a duality exists in living creatures, but not in them only; it originates in the constitution of the universe; even in things which have no life, there is a ruling principle, as in musical harmony.16 But we are wandering from the subject. We will, therefore, restrict ourselves to the living creature which, in the first place, consists of soul and body: and of these two, the one is by nature the ruler, and the other the subject. But then we must look for the intentions of nature in things which retain their nature, and not in things which are corrupted. And therefore we must study the man who is in the most perfect state both of body and soul, for in him we shall see the true relation of the two; although in bad or corrupted natures the body will often appear to rule over the soul, because they are in an evil and unnatural condition. First then we may observe in living creatures both a despotical and a constitutional rule; for the soul rules the body with a despotical rule, whereas the intellect rules the appetites with a constitutional and royal rule. And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful. The same holds good of animals as well as of men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved. Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind. Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), 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. For he who can be, and therefore is another’s, and he who participates in reason enough to apprehend, but not to have, reason, is a slave by nature. Whereas the lower animals cannot even apprehend reason; they obey their instincts. And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life. Nature would like to distinguish between the bodies of freemen and slaves, making the one strong for servile labour, the other upright, and although useless for such services, useful for political life in the arts both of war and peace. But this does not hold universally: for some slaves have the souls and others have the bodies of freemen. And doubtless if men differed from one another in the mere forms of their bodies as much as the statues of the Gods do from men, all would acknowledge that the inferior class should be slaves of the superior. And if there is a difference in the body, how much more in the soul? But the beauty of the body is seen, whereas the beauty of the soul is not seen. It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.

Public domain. Translated by Benjamin Jowett


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