Aristotle’s Politics Book II: Polemics Against The “City In Speech”

In Book II, Aristotle looks to find the most “effective” (1260B 26) political association, that is to say the political association that allows people to be “capable of living to the greatest extent possible as one would wish.” We can do this by looking at “good laws” or beautiful ways laws seems to be beautifully set up. We can only do this by criticizing the flaws of city’s, laws, and the writings of prior political philosophy, since we do not see the perfect city in our midst.

Aristotle notes that we embark on this journey because, as we gaze around us in the world, we see that regimes and cities, and forms of government are “not beautifully set up.” This is also the underlying assumption made among Socrates and his compatriots in the Republic. They do not see a great city with beautiful laws. So they decide to found the “city in speech” (in order to better locate justice). Hence why the dialogue is so dangerous. It is transpolitical, superseding all current political regimes and laws. In effect, the Socratic conversation that night was a way of denying legitimacy to the current ruling laws and customs by looking beyond, to the vision of a better city. Despite Aristotle’s many polemics in Book II, there are many tangible points of continuity between the teaching of Plato and Aristotle.

First we begin with the “natural” beginning for this “investigation” -of possessions and how they will be shared. Possessions must be shared to a certain degree in a political association. How much should a person give over to the commons? People can either share everything, nothing, or some things. Aristotle has a brief polemic against Socrates’s “city in speech” in the Republic, wherein all women and children and property are held in common (i.e. perfected communism). Note: the “city in speech” in Plato’s Republic is preserved only by the stated assumption by Socrates that the individual human being and the city, and therefore the human soul and the political regime, are correlative. In other words: the city constructed in the Republic is intended to be a mirror reflection of the soul. However, since it becomes apparent that the “city in speech” is also impossible (as declared by Socrates) we can infer that the perfect connection between the city and men is also impossible. There is a natural tension between the city and man. At any rate, Aristotle agrees with this tension. He says there is a certain “multiplicity” to the city that cannot be formed into “one” in the same way that a household or a person is “one.” To Aristotle, a strict equality (or what we moderns might call “egalitarianism”) is not required, but rather a proportional balance, or a “reciprocal equality” (as alluded in the Ethics) is necessary.

Thus it is impossible for a city to be “one” (i.e. communistic), at least in the way some people say, for what is alleged to be the greatest good in cities actually abolishes cities, but also each good thing preserves a city (1261B 6-9). The striving toward justice as “one” city gives vitality to, and also paradoxically leads to the destruction of, the city. Seeking to unify the city in an excessive amount is not the better course. There is a nature to the city, that is subtly revealed in Aristotle, like a biological specimen under observation, as something that requires virtue, moderation, and health. The city is more self-sufficient than a household or a person, and so it is more choice worthy (as was concluded in Book I).

Another argument against the unified “oneness” of the city, is the impossibility of speaking of “all people” in the city since each is different. There is a natural between the one and the many. The city does not have one single voice (as the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century has shown). People are generally more concerned with their personal property than of communal ownership. People also have a natural sense of belonging: to a bloodline, a city, a household, and so on. Further refuting the vision of the fully communistic utopia cover the topics of sexual intercourse and the need to raise one’s own when it comes to children, and thus to avoid the Oedipal tragedy of accidentally engaging carnally with a relative (an activity which is universally shamed, and which we moderns now know to be detrimental to the gene pool).

Aristotle supposes that “affection” (perhaps a certain form eros manifested as patriotism) is the greatest good for cities since it is least likely to divide the city into factions. Perhaps factions, a necessary offspring of democracy and oligarchy, are the greatest evils that face a city. In order for “affection” to proliferate, people need to be able to claim something of their own. Thus a household cannot be managed as a city (a la Aristophanes’s Assemblywomen). Here, Herodotus’s ‘Inquiries’ come to mind, wherein people who transgress the sacred need for a person to “look upon their own.”

Similarly, aside from families and children, Aristotle investigates the common ownership of land and physical property (this discussion brings to mind the modern experiments of socialized farms in China and Ukraine during the last century). Unless there is perfect equality among workers (wholly equal labor and thus wholly equal work) there will be infighting and difficulties. However, since Aristotle has already acknowledged natural hierarchies among people, socialized farming is rendered impossible. Instead what is common should be the fruits of labor, while the yield is earned by each man according to his abilities (a market economy). Property is to be private, while the use of it is to be made for public gain, a special difficult task of the lawmaker.

The love of one’s own property is natural, for each person has a certain natural and healthy love for themselves. Selfishness is when someone loves more than they ought (1263B 2-3), as in the case of Dickens’s Scrooge who has lost his “affection” for others; his natural “friendship” and “philanthropy” among his fellow citizens. Without private ownership, generosity is not possible. Aristotle’s discussion in this section is remarkably timely. Calls for socialistic laws are often under the guise of compassion, however the problems that arise from divisions of this kind do not stem from a lack of communally owned property, but rather from a ‘badness of character’ including the breaking of oaths and contracts.

At any rate, Aristotle notes that Socrates was “knocked off track” in his discussion and that his hypothesis was wrong. A household and a city are similar, but they are not the same in every way. The only way they will be maintained in Socrates’s “city in speech” is through education, not also laws and customs. It is also “risky” that Socrates appoints the same people to rule always, which is commonly a cause of factions in a city, as the guardians of the city will not be happy (recalls this was Adeimantus’s argument against Socrates in the Republic). The same is true of Aristotle’s argument against Plato’s Laws which mainly focuses on law, and neither showcase the best form of government.

It is said, according to Aristotle, that the laws should be set down with an eye to two things: the territory and the people, though Aristotle would also include the neighboring regions, for it is good to inspire fear in enemies. Unlike Plato, who says it should be sufficient to love modestly, Aristotle suggests it would be best of character to live “modestly and generously” -that way both excesses will be avoided: luxuriousness and drudgery). Aristotle is a supporter of private philanthropy (1253A 30-38).

Aristotle permits certain forms of household regulation, such as allowing for only a certain number of children, something that is missing from Plato’s Laws (which Aristotle notes was written much later than the Republic), as well as further clarification who the rulers should be. For if progeny are not regulated by the city, it runs the risk of encouraging poverty as sons cannot inherit a full estate. Poverty is to be avoided since it encourages rebelliousness among the people, and thus produces disharmony. Lawmakers, like Solon, foresaw the problems with excessive wealth accumulation (or land ownership). One key point Aristotle raises is the need for limits to wealth accumulation, such as to prevent the profit-motive from driving the city to warfare. “For the nature of desire is infinite, and that is what most people devote their lives to satisfying” (1267B 3-5). A better start would be to encourage the more powerful to be generous, and to prevent the weaker from gaining the power, but also not treat them unjustly.

So, Aristotle says the way the whole shall be organized, according to Plato’s Laws; recall this whole discussion takes place in his polemic against Plato’s Laws) is to be neither an oligarchy nor a democracy, but rather a “middle ground” which people call “constitutional rule” because the government consists of those who bear arms. Some claim the Spartans most beautifully capture the essence of a mixture of all forms of government in their regime. Aristotle, then, engages in several polemics against lawgivers, like Phaleas, in which case he concludes that moderate regulation should be pursued, or else discarded entirely, but not made socialized into a dream of perfect equality.

Aristotle shares an anecdote of an eccentric man: Hippodamus of Miletus. He was the designer of the Peiraeus but later in life he grew his hair out and became somewhat bohemian. He was the first of the non-politicians to devise the best form of government. He divided a hypothetical city of ten thousand into three sections: farmers, craftsman, and arm-bearers. Aristotle critiques this division based on the fact that the only people who bear arms would surely enslaved the rest of the city. Aristotle argues against sticking to the silly old hereditary laws of ancient Greece, whether or not the first peoples sprang up from the earth (evolved) or survived some natural disaster (perhaps a reference to ancient myths of a global flood).

Laws must be changed and evolve with time. Writing is universal, while actions are particular, but it should be done with much “caution” as this practice can render the laws weak and ineffectual (1269A 9-12). One key piece of the law, which is worthy of consideration with special respect to Crete and Sparta, is how to deal with serfdom. For if city’s treat their underclass with insolence they grow rebellious and sow discord, while if they are treated with parity, they rise up and claim more power than is best for good governance. Similarly with women. Aristotle argues that women should submit to the laws, as well, and not be the rulers of the city as in the case of Sparta. He argues that the women of Sparta pursued a life of far greater luxury than was good for the city. They were far too permissive to the women. They also suffered from greed, as too many were born, and when many are born the land is divided up and poverty grows, as does greed.

Sparta satisfied a king, an aristocracy and a court, as well as the “ephoran” or the council of people elected by lot from among the demos. However, elections imply that not all people are equal, as they take into account merit, or a natural hierarchy. Similarly Crete, whom Lycurgus is said to have mirrored Sparta’s laws after, has its own challenges with its laws. Crete is situated in a place to be able conquer all of Greece, but its laws have made it weak and susceptible to invasion. Crete also shares kinship with Sparta in the practice of common meal eating. Lastly, Aristotle considers Carthage’s oligarchic regime which some people call beautifully created. Solon, on the other hand, created a beautiful set of laws based on tradition in the Aeropagus, which is oligarchic, the council, which is aristocratic, and the law courts, which are democratic. However, over time, the city of Athens changed. Ephialtes scaled back the ancient rule of the Aeropagus, and Pericles instituted payment in the law courts. In this way the popular leaders brought on the democracy of Aristotelian Athens (despite Solon’s intentions). Aristotle then briefly discusses the lawgivers of Corinth, Sicily, and Italy. He makes slight mention of Draco, the early lawgiver of Athens (about a generation prior to Solon) who Aristotle notes was only memorable for the harshness of his laws.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Politics.

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