In the opening book of the Republic elenchus was used to dismiss a number of definitions of justice and Thrasymachus at one point challenges Socrates to provide his own definition without referring to the notion of the common good. Socrates’ response to this was to first, theoretically construct a healthy city, and then go on to justify the goodness of a fevered city. The practical idea of the common good falls away as a focus and a theoretical idea of the good is used by the Philosophers to rule the fevered city. Socrates probably regards the healthy city as the natural organic product of natural processes and the fevered city as some kind of arbitrary human artifice that requires knowledge of a special kind if it is to be preserved. In this context, Socrates refers to a prophecy(of his own?of Plato’s? by an oracle?) that “everything created by man is doomed to ruin and destruction unless philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers”. Now Plato never made a conscious effort to collect a large number of constitutions as did Aristotle and yet Plato submits for our attention a system of 5 different kinds of regime subjected to this prophecy. The rulers make mistakes and the consequences take on a life of their own resulting in the downward spiraling journey to ruin and destruction. The journey begins with the perfectly constructed Callipolis which actually contains lies, deception, and even infanticide. Yet it is a theoretical eugenic miscalculation which takes it down to the next level of a timocracy which in its turn then degenerates into an oligarchy and then down into the regimes ruled by unnecessary desires(democracy) and finally unlawful desires(tyranny). There is much talk about the happiness of the city as a whole but the practical idea of the common good which structures Aristotle’s system is not clearly articulated. The logical consequences of this exercise are that only one kind of city is wholly good and that it the one ruled by Philosophers. It is not clear as some commentators have claimed whether only one form of life is permitted since the productive classes are largely left to their own devices. Life for the auxiliaries and the philosopher-rulers certainly appears to be monotonously uniform and Spartan with communal meals and sleeping together in barracks: minimal contact with money and minimal contact with the opposite sex. No such restrictions apply to the members of the productive classes. For Aristotle however, there is no need for a theoretical proof-like reference to a theoretical idea of the good emanating from a Parmenidean world in which all change and even motion is an illusion. Aristotle’s starting point is his theory of change. A regime that endures through change can be of 6 different kinds according to Aristotle depending upon whether or not it is ruled by the one, the few or the many in accordance with the common good or alternatively merely in the interests of the rulers. He classifies these as follows: the well-ordered forms = monarchy, aristocracy or constitutional(polity): the corrupt forms =tyranny, oligarchy or democracy. In accordance with his doctrine of the golden mean Aristotle points out that the constitutional form of a regime is the mean between the extremes of oligarchy and democracy. A constitutional regime contains a commitment to excellence typical of an oligarchy but also contains a commitment to democratic decision procedures or processes which manifest greater wisdom. The strength of democracies, Aristotle argues is:
“The multitude has many hands and many feet and many senses which become like a single human being with an even greater character and mind.”
The many are also less corruptible than the few or the one both of whom can more easily be bribed. Smith asks whether Aristotle is favouring democratic rule but then points out that he also favours rule by the one excellently wise man who acts in all things according to the principle of his own wise will. Smith asks whether this is support for figures like Alexander the Great whom Aristotle once tutored as a young man. It should also be added to Smiths account that Aristotle can also see that the rule of a few wise men may possibly lead to rule in the spirit of the common good.
The major difference between the Platonic and Aristotelian account resides in the contrast between Platonic Dualism and Aristotelian hylomorphism in which Aristotle incorporates a respect for the infinite possible forms of the material and physical world. The forms which he largely views as an aspect of our experience of matter resembles the essence of the thing: it is what is specified by an essence along with its material, it is in other words, the essence specifying definition of a thing. Just as a wall is not a pile of bricks lying in the yard, so the city is not to be identified materially with a group of people occupying the same physical territory. Neither can a city be defined by its walls, nor as a military alliance or an area in which trade occurs. The matter which is formed is rather at a higher level of abstraction. Smith claims the following:
“The citizen body is held together by friendship–a kind of political friendship which does not require us to give up our identities as some kinds of love and friendship do. This friendship may be rivalrous and competitive in a way similar to sibling rivalry. Siblings, according to Aristotle, are the best of friends competing for the attention, esteem, and recognition of the city. The city is a surrogate parent held together not by a series of rational transactions governed by economic game theory but rather the city is held together by bonds of loyalty similar to those that hold together the members of a team or a club.”
This fascinating image of Aristotle’s obviously looks forward to Freud’s band of brothers murdering their tyrannical father and then regretting their action after a deliberation upon the contradictory logical consequences. No one can rule safely in a realm of violence without laws forbidding violence
The form of the regime, however is defined by a set of institutions or formal structures determining how power is shared and distributed amongst citizens.
Smith comments upon this aspect in the following way:
“Political relations are for the sake of noble actions because the city exists not for the preservation of life but for the production of the good life. Citizens share in participating in decision-making processes and in taking important office. A citizen shares in the preservation of the law and the shaping of the law.”
This passage also looks forward to Kant and his matter-form theory of the categorical imperative. The first formulation of the categorical imperative runs: “So act that you can will that the maxim of your action can become a universal law”. This is Kant’s formal characterization. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is his material characterization. It runs: So act that you can treat humanity never merely as a means but also as an end-in-itself.” We can see both these aspects of the common good in Aristotle’s formal and material accounts above. The difference between the two philosophers is illustrated in Kant’s justification for the third formulation of the categorical imperative which refers to the free subject’s relation to the law. The subject in a kingdom of ends is not a passive submitter or Stoical accepter of legislation but is rather simultaneously the sovereign or legislator of the laws. His rationality is such that he recognizes the rationality of the common good in the laws that hold the city together. This third formulation is a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of matter and form. This is an instance where Kant’s ethical philosophy transcends that of Aristotle’s at the same time as it accepts many of the fundamental tenets of Aristotle’s metaphysical theory of change.
Kant’s theory also transcends that of Aristotle’s in another fundamental respect. A theory of the regime needs to specify a fundamental political attitude rooted in empirical reality which can bind large groups together. Love and friendship are obviously limited in that they are both more or less intense emotions that can easily transform themselves to opposite more neutral or hostile emotions if the object of the emotion is perceived as significantly different to the object loved. That is, even if German Jews are in everything except their origin and religion the same as the Germans, these differences are deemed relevant to the inhuman treatment that was meted out to them during the Nazi regime. This would, of course, have been unacceptable from the point of view of Aristotelian political and ethical philosophy which would have claimed that the differences were not relevant and the treatment ought therefore not to have been so hostile. But was it not Freud who pointed out how difficult it was to love one’s neighbour in view of the nature of this emotion and its tendency to form an exclusive bubble of fantasy around the parties to the experience?:– a bubble which had little to do with the reality principle. The reality principle for Freud requires a more stable attitude to sustain the relationships between larger groups of men that are required in our modern regimes.
Kant’s attitude of respect sustains the moral law. We both respect people and their differences and respect the law that enables large populations to dwell together in harmony. Respect is present of course in the categorical form of friendship that Aristotle referred to and if we transform this term into “fellowship” perhaps we retain the best of both the Kantian and Aristotelian accounts.
The logical consequences of this regime sustaining attitude of fellowship is not just related to how large a regime can be but rather to the question of whether Kant’s vision of a future Cosmopolitan world is possible: a vision of a kingdom of ends in which all men are fellows and treat each other as ends in themselves. Plato probably did not have any such vision in mind when he was constructing the Republic but opinion is divided as to whether Aristotle did not believe his hylomorphic theory of the regime could become a universal world regime ruled by Aristotelian Greek principles. Was it purely accidental that Alexander launched his world empire project relatively shortly after his tutorials with Aristotle? There is some evidence in Aristotle’s work “The Politics” that Smith refers to:
“Aristotle also discusses the golden mean in relation to regions of the world. He claims, for example, that nations of the North are filled with spirit but lacking in deliberative qualities and that Asian nations are deliberative but lacking in spirit. Only Greeks, he argues excel in the use of both of these qualities. This makes them candidates for ruling the rest of the world. Aristotle claims that under the right circumstances the Greeks could exercise some kind of universal rule.”
It is not clear what Aristotle means here. We should recall that when Alexander conquered the territories which were to become part of his Empire, he would go to extreme lengths to respect the customs of the different peoples he was ruling, dressing as they would dress, to take just one example. Yet one could not imagine Kant’s kingdom of ends being ruled by Greeks, Germans, Russians or any other nationality. Kant seems to be imagining a world in which national differences are no longer relevant and perhaps Aristotle was also imagining this though not in his work on the Politics. Smith has this to say on this topic:
“Politics, Aristotle argues deals with the less than best circumstances. A perfect regime may be wished for but most regimes will be mixtures of oligarchies and democracies.”
Aristotle is silent on the question of what the best or perfect regime would look like. Perhaps it would also be a regime in which even national differences are irrelevant.