Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aristotle

Apparently  some people have enjoyed the posts on ‘Another Liberty Canon’, so I will keep going on that tack, but with a revision to the heading as I ‘ll be covering some thinkers already accepted into the liberty canon, or at least some of the various canons. I’ll continue to discuss what I think should be brought into the canon, and push the boundaries a bit on those already generally accepted into the canon. I’ll be giving coverage to major figures, with regard to their work as a whole, but at some point I’ll start doing some relatively detailed readings of individual classic works.

I’ll start at the beginning, more of less with Aristotle. I’m sure there are texts and thinkers within the Greek tradition, and certainly in the Near East, southern and eastern Asia, and so on worthy of attention, but for substantial books clearly devoted to the nature of politics, and which have a focus on some idea of liberty, Aristotle seems as a good a place as any to start.

There is maybe a case for starting with Aristotle’s teacher Plato, or even Plato’s teacher. I think Plato should be rescued from the persistent image, never popular with Plato scholars, of forerunner of twentieth century totalitarianism, because just to start off the counter-arguments, Plato’s arguments refer to a reinforcement, albeit radical and selective, of existing customs rather than the imposition of a new state imposed ideology, and certainly do to suggest that arbitrary state power should rise above law.

However,  on the liberty side, Plato’s teacher Socrates was the promoter in his own life style of a kind of individualist strength and critical spirit who fell foul of public hysteria. We know very little about Socrates apart from the ways Plato represents him, but the evidence suggests Socrates was more concerned with a kind of absolutism about correct customs, laws and philosophical claims, in his particular critical individualistic attitude than what we would now recognise as a critical individualistic attitude.

It looks like Socrates was an advocate of the laws and constitutions in Greek states, like Sparta that were less respectful of individuality, liberty and innovation than Athens. Though Aristotle does not look like the ideal advocate of liberty by our standards, he was critical of Plato (often referring to him though Socrates, though it looks like he is reacting to Plato’s texts rather than any acquaintance with Socratic views different to those mentioned by Plato) for subordinating the individual to the state and abandoning private property, presumably referring to the Republic which does seem to suggest that for Plato, ideally the ruling class of philosopher-guardians should not own property, and that the lower classes composed of all those who accumulate money through physical effort, a special craft,  or trade, should be completely guided by those guardians.

It is not clear that Plato ever meant the imaginary ideal state of the Republic to be implemented, but it is clear that it reflects the preference Plato had for what he sees as the changeless pious hierarchies and laws of the Greek states of Crete and Sparta, and the already ancient kingdom of Egypt, in which power goes to those who at least superficially have detached themselves from the world of material gain in some military, political, or religious devotion to some apparently higher common good.

Plato and (maybe) Socrates had some difficulties in accepting the benefits of the liberties and democracy associated with fifth and fourth century BCE Athens that fostered commercial life, great art, great literature, and great philosophy. I will discuss the explanation and promotion of the values of Athens in a future post on the most distinguished leader of democratic Athens, Pericles, so I will not say more about it here.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) came from outside Athens, he was born in monarchist Macedon which lacked the republican institutions of participatory government in the city states of Greece. Aristotle’s family was linked with the monarchy which turned Macedon into the hegemon of Greece, destroying the autonomy of Athens and the other republics. Aristotle even spent time as the tutor of Alexander the Great, who turned the Madedonian-Greek monarchical state into an empire stretching to India and Libya.

Aristotle was however not the advocate of such empires, but had already studied with Plato in Athens, where he acquired a preference for the self-governing city state participatory model of politics . His links with the Macedonian state sometimes made it difficult to spend time in Athens where most resented the domination from the north, so he spend time in Anatolia (apparently marrying the daughter of a west Anatolian king), the Aegean islands and the island of Euboea off Athens, dying in the latter place.

Despite these difficulties, Aristotle was so much in favour of the values of republican Athens that he even endorsed the idea that foreigners, or those born of one foreign parent could not be citizens, in case of a dilution of the solidarity and friendship between citizens. This issue brings us onto the ways in which Aristotle does not appeal to the best modern ideas of liberty. He was attached to the idea of a self-enclosed citizen body, along with slavery, the secondary status of women, the inferior nature of non-Greeks, restrictions on commerce, and the inferiority of those who labour for a living or create new wealth.

Nevertheless, given the times he lived in, his attitudes were no worse than you would expect and often better. Despite his disdain for non-Greeks, he recognised that the north African city of Carthage had institutions of political freedom  worth examining. His teacher Plato was perhaps better on one issue, the education of women, which appeared to have no interest to Aristotle.

Still unlike Plato, he did not imagine a ‘perfect’ city state where everything he found distasteful had been abolished and did not dream of excluding free born males at least from the government of their own community. Aristotle disdained labourer as people close to slavery in their dependence on unskilled work to survive, but assumed that such people would be part of a citizens’ assembly in any state where there was freedom.

His ideal was the law following virtuous  king, and then a law following virtuous aristocracy (that is those who inherited wealth), but even where the government was dominated by king or aristocracy, he thought the people as a whole would play some part in the system, and that state power would still rest on the wishes of the majority.

All Greeks deserved to Iive with freedom, which for Aristotle meant a state  where laws (which he thought of as mainly customary reflecting the realities of ancient Greece) restrained rulers and rulers had the welfare of all free members of the community as the object of government. In this way rulers developed friendship with the ruled, an aspect of virtue, which for Aristotle is the same as the happy life, and justice.

Friendship is justice according to Aristotle in its more concrete aspects, and ideally would replace the more formal parts of justice. Nevertheless Aristotle did discuss justice in its more formal aspects with regard to recompense for harms and distribution of both political power and wealth.

Like just about every writer  in the   ancient world, Aristotle found the pursuit of unlimited wealth or just wealth beyond the minimum to sustain aristocratic status discomforting, and that applies to writers who were very rich. Given that widespread assumption Aristotle makes as much allowance for exchange and trade as is possible, and recognised the benefits of moving from a life of mere survival in pre-city societies to the material development possible in a larger community where trade was possible under common rules of justice.

As mentioned, Aristotle preferred aristocratic or monarchical government, but as also mentioned he assumed that any government of free individuals would include some form of broad citizen participation . We should therefore be careful about interpreting his criticisms of democracy, which have little to do with modern representative democracy, but are directed at states where he thought citizens assemblies had become so strong, and the very temporary opinions of the majority so powerful that rule of law had broken down. He still found this preferable to rule by one person or a group lacking in virtue, which he called tyranny and oligarchy.

He suggested that the most durable form of government for free people was a something he just called a ‘state’ (politea) so indicating its dominant normality, where the people between the rich and the poor dominated political office, and the democratic element was very strong though with some place for aristocratic influence. It’s a way of thinking about as close as possible to modern ideas of division or separation of powers in a representative political system, given the historical differences, most obviously the assumption of citizens’ assemblies in very small cities  as the central part of political participation rather than elections for national assemblies.

Relevant texts by Aristotle

There is no clear distinction between politics and ethics in Aristotle, so his major text in each area should be studied, that is the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics. Other relevant texts include the Poetics (which discussed the role of kings in tragedy), the Constitution of Athens, the Eudemian Ethics, and the Rhetoric (the art of speaking was central to political life in the ancient world).  Aristotle of course wrote numerous other books on various aspects of philosophy and science.


10 thoughts on “Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aristotle

  1. I actually have an outline to an article titled “Praxeology and Metaphysics” that I have been meaning to write. I highly recommend any budding libertarians check out “On Man in the Universe” Aristotle touches on concepts such as Homesteading, economic progression theory, self-ownership, and production.

    One of my favorite quotes being

    “Thus the true object of architecture is not bricks or mortar or timber, but the house…”

    People have been refuting Keynes for thousands of years it seems.

  2. An interesting take, but one that is too free with Aristotle to be justified on the textual evidence.

    Πολίτεια is not just “state,” it is more so a collection of citizens (πολίτεις, from πολίτης), how they constitute themselves, how they decide the question of their communal being together. More than that, it is integrally connected to the concept of the city qua πόλις: city, state, and citizenship, blood, soil, and government, were all completely intertwined. Aristotle’s definition of a citizen: πολίτης δ᾽ ἁπλῶς οὐδενὶ τῶν ἄλλων ὁρίζεται μᾶλλον ἢ τῷ μετέχειν κρίσεως καὶ ἀρχῆς, (1275a20) “a citizen is divided from others in but one thing: in the holding of judicial power and of rulership.” A very broad definition, which only gains currency when he enumerates whom he excludes: women, because they are ἄκυρον (without authority); children, because they are ἀτέλης (unfinished); foreigners including resident aliens, workers, etc; slaves; and even the old!

    You claim that Aristotle’s arguments are not directed at modern mass democracy. Obviously this is true, because such a concept was non-existent in Classical Greece. However, it is simultaneously not true, because the excesses of the democratic state of yesteryear with the mass representational democracy of today share similarities: pandering to the mob and thus mob rule, the elimination of excellence in favor of the mundane, foolishness at home and disaster abroad. One can find echoes of Iraq in the Sicilian campaign as surely as one can find Aristotle’s criticisms of political liberty for the mob refreshingly relevant.

    Aristotle’s entire concept of the correct state is πόλιτεια, as opposed to δεμοκρατία. That rule of the people, that δέμος + κράτος, has lost lost the sting that it had in Ancient Greek, where the word itself was paired with βία as manifestations of primordial force in Aeschylus. Κράτος is mob rule, Plato’s irrational horses cut loose from their reigns. This πόλιτεια is itself aristocratic, because it arrogates liberty only to those naturally suited to wield it, and denies it to all others. If we contextualize Aristotle in his adopted home, Athens, we immediately see the reality of this situation. Out of an estimated total population of 315,000, only 25,000 were citizens, the rest being foreigners, women, children, and slaves (source is A.W. Gomme’s “The Population of Ancient Athens”). So, the citizenry comprised 8% of the total population – and even such a small number incurred Aristotle’s wrath for the ages!

    We can only speculate what sort of political class Aristotle envisioned for his ideal πόλις, but it certainly was not any sort of broad-based political participation, though I will concede that such a society as he desired to create would have cut across modern class distinctions – largely because it was not, as you correctly point out, the accumulation of wealth that differentiated natural hierarchies for Aristotle, but the quality of a man’s ψύχη. I don’t see the appeal Aristotle could have to those in the liberty fight. His philosophy cannot be pried away from its inherently hierarchical nature, and the class that he foresaw to rule a future polis was not democratic but composed of the cream of a city’s population, men with civic ideals, the pursuit of virtue as the τέλος of a civilized life, and εὐδαίμονια as its fruit. Such an elitist conception of the citizenry immediately excludes the great majority of louts that make up every people.

    • Thanks for your detailed response, but some of your rebuttal seems to repeat points I made in the post. Though your bits of Aristotle’s Greek and accompanying comments are very useful, I don’t see the challenge to what I’ saying. How does the detailed account of what a polis means with regard to a collection of citizens, which seems to me is at least implicit in what I said, which includes discussion of friendship, change anything I said? I’m not suggesting that Aristotle is an admirable advocate of liberty from every perspective we now have, I’m suggesting he advanced liberty in his own time. It’s not a question of me finding everything good and admirable in Aristotle, it’s a question of me looking at what he had to contribute that deserves respect and interest from a liberty oriented point of view. This is part of a series in which I look at what a long list of people contribute to liberty, and inevitably I concentrate on what looks positive in those thinkers. I am not endorsing everything these people said, and space (unless every post turns into a full length academic essay) does not allow to me go into my reservations in full. With regard to hierarchy, I think I made it pretty clear that Aristotle has aristocratic preferences, and did not hide anything from that point of view. I also pointed out Aristotle at the very least accepts the inevitability of citizens’ assemblies (and I do make reference to Aristotle’s exclusions if not a complete list) in a proper polis and that he puts forward the political state/mixed contestation, what he just calls a polity, is likely to be the most stable form of desirable government, given the tendency of monarchy to become tyranny and aristocracy to become oligarchy. Aristotle is clear enough that he prefers democracy to oligarchy and tyranny, which seems to me to rather undercut your insistence on the most aristocratic anti-democratic interpretation of Aristotle, as does his acceptance, if on pragmatic rather than ideal grounds, that ‘polity’, that is the form of government that mixes aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy, is a better long term proposition than aristocracy to monarchy. No doubt he favoured the most aristocratic form of polity, and he is in fact quite keen on discussing all the intermediate versions of the various form of constitution, so allows for this kind of outcome, but that should not obscure the reality that he accepts democracy as part of the most stable form of good government. With regard to his relevance to attitudes to modern democracy, of course his complaints about antique democracy can be applied to mob mentally in the modern world, but the fact is ‘democracy’ for Aristotle and other ancient thinkers, and much later, refers to the total sovereignty, law making and governmental functions of a citizens’ assembly, not the modern kind of democracy with elected assemblies and ways of dividing or limiting sovereignty, which in total add unto something that has some similarities with polity in Aristotle, or what Cicero calls a republic. I started with a comparison of Plato, and Aristotle’s criticisms of Plato are those a modern liberty oriented person would make, and that is important, whatever the limits of Aristotle’s own counter proposals.

Please keep it civil

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