Greek Philosophy – Aristotle’s Politics
Clearly, ethics was quite political for Aristotle, necessarily finding its resolution in a communion with others. Aristotle is often quoted as having written, “Man is by nature a political animal”. Mind and speech are by our nature social. For Aristotle, much like the Confucians of China, a unified family is the basic component of a unified village, which is itself the basic component of a unified state. In the same way that the individual must acquire courage and wisdom from others to put desire in check, so too must families gather into villages and villages into states such that the police and philosophers can arise and perform their function. Just as the purpose of individual life was reason, the purpose of society for Aristotle was for the cultivation of courage in warriors and wisdom in philosophers. Following very much Plato’s plan set out in the Republic, Aristotle believes that the purpose of the city is ultimately philosophy, as it is only this that can preserve and order the whole.
Unfortunately, Aristotle argues that some people are best suited for slavery, distinct from those who have merely been taken as slaves through war. Aristotle was openly ethnocentric, believing the Greeks to be a balanced people possessing both minds like the Asian Persians and bodies like the European tribes. This is similar to the speech of Pericles mentioned previously. Just as it is natural and right for men to rule women, for husband to rule wife according to Aristotle, so too is it natural for the Greeks to make slaves of those peoples incapable of reason and philosophy. Ironically, Aristotle himself was considered by many in Athens to be a barbarian himself, as he was from the north and associated with Macedonians.
Continuing to speak of property, Aristotle differs from Plato and his conception of an ideal city. While Plato argued that the police and philosophers should own nothing in common, sharing even their children and families, Aristotle, in accord with the doctrine of the mean, called for a balance of public and private property. He argues that Plato was overly confident in people’s ability to be similar, and thus ignored the great differences between individuals and families. He correctly says that first there was bartering, but then weighed amounts of metal which were later stamped with insignias arose because barter was impossible over long distances. Wealth should be measured not by its amount, but how it is used. It is not virtuous to seek money for its own sake, but money itself is not evil. Usury, lending money with interest expected, is an unnatural and disgusting use of wealth.
About governments, Aristotle says there are three forms, monarchy, aristocracy and republic. A corrupt monarchy is a tyranny, a corrupt aristocracy is an oligarchy, and a corrupt republic is a democracy. For Aristotle the best form of government is monarchy (consider that he tutored Alexander, teaching him how to rule an empire), followed by aristocracy, then republic, and then followed by democracy, oligarchy, and lastly tyranny. This creates a diamond like shape, with rule of a single individual or by fewest is best when it is good and worst when it is bad. Because good kings are rare, again seeking a balance in the middle, Aristotle argues that a republic is safest, but he clearly does not want a democracy with voting for everyone. As Aristotle is ethnocentric and not an egalitarian, he says that different peoples are suited for different forms of government. The Greeks have both the spirit of the Europeans, who are beast-like people, naturally suited for slavery, and the mind of the Asians, so they are suited for ruling themselves in a republic.
Aristotle argues that money should be excluded from politics, a fine idea except that this also means people who do not have sufficient money such that they are not worried about acquiring more, those with the leisure to do philosophy and science, are the best for politics, and common people such as craftsmen and farmers must be excluded or they will put their interest in money above justice. This is oddly similar to what some to the right in America say today, arguing that those with money are the virtuous and those on the bottom wishing simply for free handouts. Against the right, as well as Aristotle, the left wing argues that money is indeed quite involved with and corrupting of politics, but it is the rich who unjustly want to give themselves more, not those on the bottom. Aristotle does not consider it wise to allow working people to become citizens, vote or serve on juries.
Aristotle did believe that children should be educated publicly by the state from age seven to twenty one, divided into two periods of seven years. This perfectly fits with the Pythagorean idea that seven years separate children from young adults and young adults from adults. Children should be educated in art, gymnastics, and literacy, corresponding once again to desire, spirit and reason. Studying too much art or gymnastics without enough attention to literacy, to reading and writing, would create unbalanced results. Judging by his recommendation that working people should not become citizens or vote, it does not seem that he would advocate for public education of all children. This would make sense, given that craftspeople and farmers take up their vocation long before they are twenty one years of age.