Introduction to Philosophy Course: Aristotle Part 5–Politics(The city state, the nation state, the global community)

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Aristotle’s work “Politics” is an awe inspiring work. It is clear that it is one of his greatest pieces of practical Philosophy. The language of the work is clear and distinct but its structure reveals itself in its entirety only to scholarly investigations which reveal the work to have an iceberg-like structure with metaphysical theory, epistemological theory and Philosophical Psychology lying concealed beneath the water line and political and ethical issues manifesting themselves above the water-line. Similar remarks could have been made about his work on “Ethics” which also resembled a mammoth like iceberg with much of its structure lying unconcealed beneath the water line.
In the light of such remarks the modernist ambitions of Philosophers like Hobbes, Descartes and Hume who chose to deliberately ignore much of the hidden Aristotelian structure and sail into the Arctic circle of Aristotelian Philosophy, were monumental examples of philosophical misjudgment.

Aristotle’s “Politics” is a hylomorphic metaphysical work seeking to summarise the work of a large number of political thinkers and the practical work of statesman embodied in over 150 constitutions from city states of the developed world.
The opening words of Book 1 are:

“Every state is a community of some kind and every community is established with a view to some good, for everyone always acts in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.”

Aristotle then proceeds to resolve the whole of the state into its parts in accordance with his hylomorphic strategy:

“He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin,whether a state or anything else will obtain the clearest view of them.”

The assumption behind these words is an assumption that many early modernist philosophers such as Hobbes and Hue would reject, namely, that the state is a natural organic entity thus falling into a category of things distinct from artefacts. Neo-Aristotelians see this to be a key distinction between the concepts which we use to describe ad explain the human realm of work and the concepts we use to describe and explain the human realm of action. On the other hand, reductionist attempts by Hobbes Hume and other modern behaviourist psychologists to reduce action to what can be observable from a third person point of view, namely “bodily movement” clearly rejects Aristotle’s claim that different realms of human activity require different assumptions and conceptual frameworks for the description and explanation of whatever is changing in these realms.

Aristotle’s Politics according to Ross in his work entitled “Aristotle” employs the virtue nurturing mechanism of “the Golden Mean” in attempting to navigate a course between the iceberg’s of Thrasymachus’ materialistic conventionalism and the Cynic’s world view where citizens are citizens of a world in which states have withered away. Aristotle certainly held a more idealistic and principled view than Thrasymachus’ who would have scoffed at the idea of a great-souled citizen dwelling in a great souled city-state. The latter idea obviously involves the idea of a soul embracing the Platonic assumption that there is a fundamental relation between the soul of an individual and the soul of a city. Aristotle’s hylomorphism would certainly have articulated this relationship differently in terms of the matter and form of persons and states. The matter of a city state would include the population and territory of a city and the latter the character of its citizens and institutions.

The good referred to in the opening quote from book one has , as he would say, many meanings but in this work he specifically categorises the good into three areas: external goods, the goods of the body, and the goods of the soul with this last area obviously being the prime focus of the other two: external goods and the goods of the body are for the sale of the goods of the soul. Here again, we see emphasis placed upon a developmental or actualisation process leading to a telos or an end which is valuable both in itself and for its possible logical consequences:- the great souled man.

The stages on the way of this actualisation process are its “parts” , namely the elements of the family: male, female, children, slaves. Male and female reproduction is necessary for the continuity of the species in accordance with the drive of an instinct which desires to leave behind a physical form of itself in the material of ones children. Slaves were necessary for the survival of the family. This family quartet provides, then, the models for the kinds of rule we will encounter in the polis, Aristotle argues. The master slave relation is the elemental source of despotic rule in spite of the fact that Aristotle urges the master to befriend the slave, at the same time adding that this kind of friendship of utility cannot be mutual. We should recall in this context that slavery was an institution which Aristotle criticised claiming that the only natural slave was the person who could not take responsibility for their life owing to some kind of mental or physical dysfunction. Also relevant in this context is the fact that the Greek institution of slavery was more humane than its more modern forms during Roman or American times.The slave in ancient Greece was a member of the family. The husband-wife relation, for Aristotle was a constitutional relation and this presumably entailed mutual friendship: an important element of Aristotle’s ideal state. Much has been made of Aristotle’s view of women using a few ambiguous comments which state that whilst man is better at exercising his deliberative faculties than a woman but this could be interpreted to mean, “given the institutional role of women at the time”. Aristotle clearly states that the woman possesses a deliberative faculty but does not use it authoritatively. The father child relation is characterised as monarchical and here too there is room for mutual friendship presumably later on in life.

The interesting philosophical question to pose is “What is the motivation for claiming that the household contains the forms of rule which will then manifest themselves at the higher level of city states?” To understand this one must really appreciate the extent to which Aristotle means what he says when he speaks of the naturalness of the formation of the city-state. By “natural” is meant “biological” in the sense in which biology as a discipline aims at an account of life forms. Now another interesting question to pose is “Can a city state be regarded as an advanced form of life?” or is it as is sometimes viewed through our modern lenses merely an artificial concrete jungle of asphalt streets and buildings. A city is clearly partly conceived thus but even this conception requires some reference to the living “builders” of this so called “jungle”.
A city is alive in the sense Aristotle intended. This life has been transmitted over manifolds of generations through the elements of the household and the village in accordance with actualisation processes and conditions.
The city is certainly the place in which external goods, the goods of the body and the goods of the soul are best catered for. It is certainly, in many senses more alive than the village which in comparison is often designated as “sleepy”. The metaphysical principles of “that which a thing changes from”, “that which a thing changes to” and “that which endures throughout the change” is certainly operating in the transformation of households into villages and villages into city-states. Constitutional rule is obviously the telos of this process much as the frog is the telos of the tadpole. One should not be misled by physical dissimilarities which disguise the underlying formative processes.

Constitutional rule, therefore, has its material and efficient conditions as well as its formal conditions. It is the “final cause” or explanation of the phenomenon of the city state. Aristotle in this context speaks of the “organs” of the city state and refers in Socratic fashion to the “functional occupations” which are part of the “life” of the city. The occupations mentioned are: judges, warriors, traders, mechanics, priests, elected officials. Amongst the conditions necessary for the existence of ideal city-states, Aristotle cites Education and insists that this should no longer be a private matter but rather be a matter for public concern and institutionalised. Given this proclamation it is however, rather surprising that teachers are not included in the list of “functional occupations” or “organs of the state” above.

We need, however, to bear in mind that the nation states we currently inhabit are different structures to what Aristotle imagined in terms of what he thought to be the maximum size of governable entities. Although he spoke in favour of representative government for those occupations such as mechanics and traders who do not have the available time to participate in the political activities of the city, he nevertheless envisaged a city whose furthest limits could be reached by the voice of a town crier.

Aristotle acknowledged, somewhat reluctantly, that democracies were here to stay but he would certainly have raised questions in relation to the sizes of our current nation-states. We can imagine him offering the opinion that unless the educational system is excellent, the size of our states make them very difficult to govern.

Hannah Arendt, too, was a critic of the nation state. In her earlier works she claimed that the terrible events of the terrible 20th century point to the conclusion that the nation state has failed. Clearly, our educational institutions have not been able to bear the Aristotelian responsibility that has been placed upon them. In Aristotelian terms our educational systems ought to have been concentrating their attention on the liberal and humanistic virtues, developing both our theoretical and practical reasoning capacities to such an extent that political participation at high levels are regarded as obligations to the constitution of the state. By “participation” in this representative context is probably meant “acquisition of knowledge” and informed debate using that knowledge, perhaps also close contact with ones representative over the issues of the day and of course an obligation to vote. The word “obligation” shall here be construed not in its modern sense in terms of social contract theory where the relation between the rulers and the ruled is conceived to be a significantly artificial, conventional, non organic affair. For Aristotle, the “obligation” of the rulers and the ruled would be to ensure the common good prevailed for the whole city rather than the limited goods that are conferred upon two contracting parties where freedom is bartered for security. The idea of giving up ones freedom(an essential part of ones human nature, according to Kant) so that a “policeman state” can regulate the hustle and bustle of city life is a very un-Aristotelian position. For him modern men ought to regulate themselves socially and individually by developing capacities into virtuous dispositions with the assistance of the polis and its provision of public education. There is state regulation but of a liberal.humanistic and academic kind. On this model there is no need for a “contract” to be used in a tribunal in case one of the parties to the contract reneges on “the deal”. Aristotle’s citizens and rulers trust each other: they are “friends”. If the size of a nation state is such that virtuous dispositions cannot be the result of education, then this, for Aristotle, would be an argument against communities which are too large for such ventures.

How might Aristotle otherwise have responded to our large industrialised economically driven conurbations? Well, firstly, he would have raised his eyebrows at two characteristics of our “concrete jungles”. Firstly, he would have been more than a little surprised at the dependence on the nation state on a plethora of economic institutions and secondly he would have wondered about the use of technology. “Oika” is the Greek root of economics and it refers to regulatory activities of the household in the financial sphere. Aristotle, in this context was specifically against the universalisation of the wealth accumulation principle which was the duty of the head of the household. He would have insisted that oikonomous ought to be limited of course by the principle of the golden mean which regulates all virtuous development. Wealth accumulated beyond the needs of the household would have been anathema for Aristotle unless of course the excess was disposed of for the sake of the common good as was the case when rich families sponsored public meals and events and even entertained foreign dignitaries as a service to the state. Celebrating the richest people in the world as we do irrespective of their charitable activities would not be in the service of the common good. Both Socrates and Aristotle would have agreed that the art of acquiring wealth was an art of secondary importance. The doctor practising the primary art of medicine would feel obliged, given the Hippocratic oath to treat any patient needing emergency treatment even there was no money for the treatment. The existence of vast business empires(corporations) would exist for the sake of wealth acquisition would have been a form of life that both Socrates and Aristotle would have criticised. It is not, however, clear what Aristotle would have thought about our modern banking institutions and the business idea of lending money for interest. He would certainly have disapproved of the practice of lending money to the poor at interest rates which they could not afford, thus turning them into slaves of their debts.The banking function of financing industry and thereby creating jobs for the jobless and indirectly financing education through the taxes imposed on profits would probably have been in his eyes for the common good. Extreme behaviour of such institutions would have met with disapproval especially behaviour which required large amounts of taxpayers money to keep such institutions in existence..

One could also wonder what Aristotle would have thought about the omnipresence of useful and aesthetic artefacts in our cities: luxury cars and limousines, televisions, computers, mobile telephones, internet, washing machines, dish washers kitchen and household appliances etc. Some of these technological artefacts obviously are labour saving devices and make the need for domestic help by slaves no longer necessary. Such possibilities might have changed his position on slavery especially given the institutions society has created to help the mentally and physically members of our society, making it possible for them, with assistance to take some limited form of responsibility for their lives.

Would Aristotle view our communities as monstrous creations, a great Leviathan to use Hobbes’ description? Would Aristotle believe that the “concrete jungles” we inhabit are no longer “natural creations”? Man is the best of animals ruled constitutionally but in some environments, alienating environments man can be the worst of animals using his considerable mental and physical capacities for evil rather than good. In the sphere of technology and the way it has made war a massively destructive phenomenon on the scale of the worst of the worst natural catastrophes, man has certainly demonstrated that he is the worst of animals, for example, developing atomic weapons of mass destruction threatening the existence of all life on earth. Aristotle, if asked to comment on such a state of affairs might well have pointed out that we have become the slaves of our own technology and perhaps he might have said the same of the economics of those countries with large economic debts. It is almost certain that he would have viewed most of the population of our communities as not meeting minimum standards of political participation and thereby calling the whole concept of “representation” into question. He might, of course, as was suggested above, lay the responsibility for this state of affairs at the doorstep of our educational institutions which have failed to actualise or develop the virtuous dispositions required of the citizens of a nation.
He might that is see our nation states as natural organic developments of the city state, in spite of the modern experience of “alienation” by many of the inhabitants of concrete and technological jungles.

It has been argued earlier in this series of lectures that Kant has a claim to be called a “Hylomorphic” philosopher whose philosophy embodies many Aristotelian assumptions. Kant, in this spirit, argued in favour of a progress of mankind toward a final kingdom of ends, thus supporting Aristotle’s idea of the “naturalness” of actualisation processes. This idea of a teleological process moving to an end was of course called into question by the events of the terrible twentieth century.

Aristotelian naturalism could then be seen as the foundation for the telos of this march of progress which according to Kant is the very Cosmopolitanism that Aristotle might have thought too large to govern. It should be pointed out however that the Cosmopolitanism of the Greek Cynics and the Cosmopolitanism of Kant are very different prospects. The latter does not necessarily entail the dissolution or withering away of the nation state. The nation state for Kant and perhaps for Aristotle could well be a necessary stage on the way to the final political end.. Kant, interestingly, was the Cosmopolitan philosopher from Königsberg, a “Cosmopolitan city”. The idea of Cosmopolitan cities have been on our minds since the writings and times of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Venice in his plays in which Jews and Moors could perform, albeit somewhat tragically, on the Shakespearean world stage. As we know Königsberg was a part of Prussia which ceased to exist in the terrible twentieth century. This is an example of the destruction and demise of a city: a direct consequence of the military ambitions of the German nation state: a military tradition far removed from the practice of the Teutonic Knights that ruled from the 13th century to the 18th century. In normal circumstances, however, the city has a remarkable staying power requiring war on a massive scale to threaten its existence: perhaps suggesting that the city and its surrounding supporting countryside might be the primary entity in a future Cosmopolitan world. This, of course does not necessarily entail the withering away or demise of the nation state which might be the repository of communication organisational and educational functions necessary for the well being of the city.

The nature of the city state for Aristotle is plurality. We know he rebuked Plato’s Republic for attempting to artificially unify the state…”similars do not constitute a state”. This principle in fact contributes to the ultimate goal of the city state which is its self sufficiency. Plato’s Republic was written in despair at the sight of the failings of both oligarchical and democratic rule. For Plato both of these forms of regime were examples of the evils of the divided city in which neither would accept the rule of the other.Plato’s solution was to ignore the empirical state of affairs and instead impose a 5 regime blueprint on all forms of regimes: rule of the philosophy class, rule of the warrior class, rule of the rich class, rule of the poor class and finally rule of a tyrant who represents no class , only himself. With the proposal of this structure, the idea of class becomes an important consideration in political discussion. Plato, as we know leaves the productive class alone and they do not seem to figure as important elements in his blueprint of regimes, probably because they do not have the time to participate at the levels necessary. In his ideal Republic, the Callipolis, the ruling class are philosophers, the middle class is composed of warriors whose function it is to maintain internal order and defence from external threat, and the lower class is composed of the productive class. Plato put his faith in philosophers to solve the problem of the unity of the city. Aristotle does not accept this solution and instead proposes that philosophy itself should be involved in ruling the pluralistic city impartially in accordance with a principle of justice. This principle of justice is built upon virtuous dispositions acquired as a consequence of the principle of the Golden Mean.
We should bear in mind that Aristotle collected over 150 different constitutions from the governments of the civilised world and consequently saw the operation of the golden mean principle in actual constitutions which were not militaristically inclined(e.g. Sparta). Aristotle viewed military regimes as coercive. A warrior led society, even if subjected to a Platonic training in the Idea of the Good would probably not understand their citizens sufficiently to permit the forces of pluralism to, for example, spread philosophical ideas of value throughout the community. In communities like Athens in which power swung continually between democrats and oligarchs, the phenomenon of Socrates merely caused confusion. Was Socrates a fiend of the democrats or was he a friend of the oligarchs were questions which circulated on the grapevine of Athenian rumour. Athens, with its community of 50,000 citizens(200,000 inhabitants) was probably in the eyes of Aristotle too small for the principle of the golden mean to operate on a political level. A polis of 100,000 citizens was probably the optimum size for the principle to function effectively. There certainly was no friendship of the right kind operating between the democrats and the oligarchs. In the light of these facts Aristotle arrived at the conclusion that only a state with a large middle class would contain the best conditions for leading the most satisfactory political life. Here are his arguments:

“Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both of the other classes, or at any rate than either singly, for the addition of the middle class turns the scale,and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant.
Great, then, is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property: for where some possess much, and the others nothing: there may arise an extreme democracy or pure oligarchy: or a tyranny my grow out of either extreme–either out of the most rampant democracy, or out of an oligarchy: but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle constitutions and those akin to them. I will explain the reason for this hereafter, when I speak of the revolution of states. The mean condition of states is clearly best: for no other is free from faction and where the middle class is large there are less likely to be factions and dissensions. For a similar reason large states are less liable to faction than small ones because in them the middle class is large, whereas in small states it is easy to divide all the citizens into two classes who, are either rich or poor and to leave nothing in the middle. And democracies are more permanent than oligarchies because they have a middle class which is more numerous and has a greater share in the government: for where there is no middle class and the poor are excessive in number, troubles arise, and the state soon comes to an end. A proof of the superiority of the middle class is that the best legislators have been of a middle condition: for example, Solon as his own verses testify:and Lycurgus, for he was not a king: and Chorendus, and almost all legislators.)1295b 35-40 1296a 1-21)”

Aristotle might well have pointed to the fact that certainly Socrates and himself fell into what he refers to above as the middle class both in terms of their philosophical views and their positions in society as determined by both economics and education. All of Aristotle’s views speak from a position between extremes and Socrates’ use of elenchus was a tool that he often used to extract contradictions from extreme contradictions such as that proposed by Thrasymachus.

The Metaphysics presents a theory of change which incorporates the processes of the destruction and preservation of things that change, e.g states. In this context revolution emerges. Presumably as a result of his empirical investigations of the available constitutions Aristotle appears to reject Plato’s blueprint of 5 different forms of regime. Instead, Aristotle prefers to speak of 6 regimes which exclude timocracies(one of Plato’s 5 regimes). The grounding concept of Aristotle’s blueprint is the Socratic idea of the common good combined with 3 types of ruling authority, namely rule by one man, rule by a few men , and rule by many men. If rule is in accordance with the common good we are then in the presence of three legitimate forms of government. If, however, the ruling authority rule in their own interests or in the interests of the group they represent we are in the presence of what Aristotle calls “perversions” of legitimate government.The two most common forms of government, oligarchy and democracy are in fact perversions because they operate with a perverted concept of justice. Democrats, for example, believe that:

“because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal.”(1300a 29-30

Oligarchs claim that:

“”those who are unequal in one respect are in all respects unequal: being unequal, that is, in property, they suppose themselves to be unequal absolutely”(1300a 31-32

Revolution is a natural consequence of the perversions of government. There are two kinds of revolution Aristotle argues. Firstly there are revolutions which aim at constitutional change in accordance with a different concept of justice, and secondly there are evolutions which take over the political administration without altering the constitution.
There are a number of causes of revolution some of which are related to the states of mind and motivations of the revolutionaries. Firstly, as has already been mentioned there is the desire for equality or inequality:

“desire for good or honour, or fear of dishonour or loss.” 1302a32

Other causes are :

“insolence, fear, excessive predominance, contempt, disproportionate increase in some part of the state:causes of another sort are election intrigues, carelessness, neglect about trifles, dissimilarity of elements”1302b 41-44

“Another cause of revolution is difference of races which do not at once acquire a common spirit: for a state is not the growth of a day, anymore than it grows out of a multitude brought together by accident. Hence the reception of strangers in colonies, either at the time of their foundation or afterwards, has generally produced revolution.”1303a25-29

“Revolutions also break out when opposite parties , e.g. the rich and the people are equally balanced and there is little or no middle class: for, if either party were manifestly superior the other would not risk an attack upon them. And for this reason, those who are eminent in excellence usually do not stir up insurrections, being always a minority. Such in general are the beginnings and causes of disturbances and revolution to which every form of government is liable” 1304b 1-6

This is a comprehensive list of causes. We can safely assume that Aristotle’s investigations of over 150 constitutions together with historical evolution of these constitutions played a large role in the compiling of this list. D W Ross
summarises the preventatives of revolutions in the following words:

“The preventatives of revolution are next considered. The most important thing is to maintain the spirit of obedience to law especially in small matters: the beginnings of change must be watched for. The second rule is not tto rely upon devices for deceiving the people, which are proved by experience to be useless. Further both aristocracies and oligarchies may last, not from any inherent stability in the constitution but because the rulers are on good terms with their subjects, never wronging the ambitious in a matter of honour nor the common people in the matter of money but introducing the leading spirits to a share in rule and adapting to some extreme democratic institutions. The ruler should always keep before his people the danger of foreign attack and should if necessary invent dangers to alarm them.” (p270)

This last reference to “invented lies” appears to contravene the earlier advice relating to the uselessness of deception: a very un -Aristotelian and Machiavellian recommendation..

The term “revolution” suggests a circular process in which the process returns to its beginning point in order to begin the process anew. It suggests a kind of evolution with the emphasis upon a change in the quality of life in the state that undergoes it: a change in which freedom from oppression is experienced. T S Eliot’s words:

“And at the end of all of our exploration we will arrive at the beginning and know the place for the first time.”

indicates also an increase in knowledge as a consequence of the revolutionary journey.

Hannah Arendt in her work “On Revolution” discusses the term “revolution” in relation to religious change in particular the “Reformation” which she regards as the beginning of the process of questioning authority and the beginning of the process of loss of respect for authority. The French and Russian revolutions went far beyond the peaceful nailing up of theses for public information which we witnessed in the case of Luther. This for Arendt was the beginning of a new era, the era of secularisation which would also spawn other peaceful revolutions such as the Industrial Revolution.
The word “revolution”, however, is usually associated with violence and in this respect perhaps the only violent revolution which produced something of benefit(knowledge and freedom?) over a longer period of time, was the American revolution.
The nation state emerged in this era of secularisation and perhaps the jury is still out considering its verdict as to whether we are dealing with a structure that will survive into the future or a pathological entity that will devolve into city states or evolve into a global community.