The existentialist origins of postmodernism

In part, postmodernism has its origin in the existentialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally regarded as the first existentialist. Kierkegaard had his life profoundly marked by the breaking of an engagement and by his discomfort with the formalities of the (Lutheran) Church of Denmark. In his understanding (as well as of others of the time, within a movement known as Pietism, influential mainly in Germany, but with strong precedence over the English Methodism of John Wesley) Lutheran theology had become overly intellectual, marked by a “Protestant scholasticism.”

Scholasticism was before this period a branch of Catholic theology, whose main representative was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas argued against the theory of the double truth, defended by Muslim theologians of his time. According to this theory, something could be true in religion and not be true in the empirical sciences. Thomas Aquinas defended a classic concept of truth, used centuries earlier by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to affirm that the truth could not be so divided. Martin Luther (1483-1546) made many criticisms of Thomas Aquinas, but ironically the methodological precision of the medieval theologian became quite influential in Lutheran theology of the 17th and 18th centuries. In Germany and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) Lutheranism became the state religion after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and being the pastor of churches in major cities became a respected and coveted public office.

It is against this intellectualism and this facility of being Christian that Kierkegaard revolts. In 19th century Denmark, all were born within the Lutheran Church, and being a Christian was the socially accepted position. Kierkegaard complained that in centuries past being a Christian was not easy, and could even involve life-threatening events. In the face of this he argued for a Christianity that involved an individual decision against all evidence. In one of his most famous texts he makes an exposition of the story in which the patriarch Abraham is asked by God to kill Isaac, his only son. Kierkegaard imagines a scenario in which Abraham does not understand the reasons of God, but ends up obeying blindly. In Kierkegaard’s words, Abraham gives “a leap of faith.”

This concept of blind faith, going against all the evidence, is central to Kierkegaard’s thinking, and became very influential in twentieth-century Christianity and even in other Western-established religions. Beyond the strictly religious aspect, Kierkegaard marked Western thought with the notion that some things might be true in some areas of knowledge but not in others. Moreover, its influence can be seen in the notion that the individual must make decisions about how he intends to exist, regardless of the rules of society or of all empirical evidence.

Another important existentialist philosopher of the 19th century was the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was also raised within Lutheranism but, unlike Kierkegaard, he became an atheist in his adult life. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche also became a critic of the social conventions of his time, especially the religious conventions. Nietzsche is particularly famous for the phrase “God is dead.” This phrase appears in one of his most famous texts, in which the Christian God attends a meeting with the other gods and affirms that he is the only god. In the face of this statement the other gods die of laughing. The Christian God effectively becomes the only god. But later, the Christian God dies of pity for seeing his followers on the earth becoming people without courage.

Nietzsche was particularly critical of how Christianity in his day valued features which he considered weak, calling them virtues, and condemned features he considered strong, calling them vices. Not just Christianity. Nietzsche also criticized the classical philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, placing himself alongside the sophists. The German philosopher affirmed that Socrates valued behaviors like kindness, humility, and generosity simply because he was ugly. More specifically, Nietzsche questioned why classical philosophers defended Apollo, considered the god of wisdom, and criticized Dionysius, considered the god of debauchery. In Greco-Roman mythology Dionysius (or Bacchus, as he was known by the Romans) was the god of festivals, wine, and insania, symbolizing everything that is chaotic, dangerous, and unexpected. Thus, Nietzsche questioned the apparent arbitrariness of the defense of Apollo’s rationality and order against the irrationality and unpredictability of Dionysius.

Nietzsche’s philosophy values courage and voluntarism, the urge to go against “herd behavior” and become a “superman,” that is, a person who goes against the dictates of society to create his own rules . Although he went in a different religious direction from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche agreed with the Danish theologian on the necessity of the individual to go against the conventions and the reason to dictate the rules of his own existence.

In the second half of the 20th century existentialism became an influential philosophical current, represented by people like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). Like their predecessors of the 19th century, these existentialists criticized the apparent absurdity of life and valued decision-making by the individual against rational and social dictates.

When is violence against the state justified?

I am naturally more conservative by disposition. I don’t mean this in the sense of Republicanism, i.e. that I am a foreign interventionist, a drug abolitionist, a rich elitist, etc. Nor do I mean that when I look at the state of American culture, I shake my head, and think back to the halcyon days of the Eisenhower administration – which incidentally I know little about and never experienced firsthand. Rather, I have a preference for order over disorder, justice under the law over vigilantism, quiet over tumult, an uneasy peace over an uncertain war, the familiar over the alien. I like gardens and trees and mountains, and I detest large cities. My friend circle is small but intimate. I drink heavily on holidays and moderately thereafter. I prefer the clashes of philosophy and sport to the far more momentous arenas of war and diplomacy. This innate behavioral trait of mine has, in some way, created or informed most of my political positions.

Many of my friends are self-identified as liberal or progressive, and so in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision, I found myself deluged in fashionable white guilt over the “abominable,” “indefensible,” “incomprehensible” verdict. I was greeted to article after article declaring the racist, patriarchal structure of American justice; the oppressive capitalist basis of our condemnation of Ferguson-related looting; the righteousness of looting as an act of protest; the evils of the white race as they have played out over time; and on and on. Based on these factors, so they say, we should not condemn the violence of protestors, but see it for what it is: a legitimate protest of a system that routinely uses violence as a means of coercion. I balked immediately, but then I thought: perhaps there is something more to that charge, than I am giving it credit for?

Violence in this case seems contradictory to me. For the protestors are protesting a senseless act of violence by engaging in seemingly senseless acts of violence. If violence is held to be bad in toto, then any form of violence, even as a form of resistance, is also bad. I suspect many protestors adhere to non-violence in the abstract, but are not prepared to adhere to its most absolute form here. If violence is held to be bad based on whether it has a moral sanction or not – e.g., violence in self-defense is good/acceptable, while murder is bad/unacceptable – then the party which initiated violence is in the wrong, while the party which had violence inflicted upon it and is retaliating, is in the right. I suspect most protestors are in the second category. However, that leads us to the contradiction: the wronged party, Michael Brown, is dead, and so cannot retaliate against the instigator of violence, Darren Wilson – assuming that this is the correct moral equation, and Wilson indeed wronged Brown. The protestors sublimate the injustice perpetrated on Brown from the individual to the collective, asserting that a faceless, nameless, racist, patriarchal, white “system” is actually the perpetrator, while the great mass of black Americans is the victim. Wilson and Brown are only avatars of their respective social groups, which are the real forces in conflict. Because these two groups are in open conflict, and this latest eruption of hostilities is merely a battle in a much longer war, then the metastasizing of hostilities from protest over the police action to looting, arson, and other forms of criminality is justified – because it is against a system that is against them.

But, is this true? I do not think it is time in this enquiry to find out whether the system is as bad as they say. Rather, I would like to explore under what circumstances it becomes legitimate to oppose the system, or the laws that make up that system, by violent means.


I conceive of the legal system, or the laws, in a way similar to Socrates, as he articulated in the Crito: they are the good shepherds of a society, at their ideal, and to violate them is equivalent with disobeying your parents, those who took care of you when you were helpless, and shielded you from the evils lurking in the dark. Once a verdict has been passed under the law, then it is inviolate, and it must be followed to the letter – though one may argue against it, before it has been handed down. This explains Socrates’ mocking dismissal of his trial in the Apology, but his acceptance of the court’s verdict in the Crito, which takes place afterwards in the prison. If we follow Socrates’ example fully, then we may peacefully oppose the reasoning of the laws and their arbitrators, but if we receive a verdict we do not like, then we must respect it regardless. This is because the orderly functioning of a legal system is more valuable than the prevailing of absolute justice in every individual case. If Socrates were to flee from his verdict, he would uphold justice in the absolute, but degrade it in the practical, for he would mock the institutions of the laws and show them to be powerless. Each individual would make himself the arbitrator of justice, and it can be fairly gainsaid, that though some may fulfill this role well – such as Socrates – far more would simply abuse the power of absolute self-determination. Good laws are, to him and to me, a necessary component of social order: without them, the great mass of people would degenerate to the lex talionis.

However, I also conceive of the laws pragmatically, as a tool to further the excellence of a polity, rather than as gods in themselves. When you have a watch, you value the watch only insofar as it can tell time. If it fails in this task, the first thing a prudent watch owner will do is ask: why? If it needs a new battery, it is a simple manner to replace it. If it needs a new winding mechanism, a more complex manner. If the innards are completely shattered, it may be better to chuck it, and procure a new timepiece. So too with the laws: if the system is overall a just enterprise, but may have a few unjust laws scattered amongst the majority of just laws, then it would be foolish to chuck the entire system: better to replace the bad components, rather than the entire apparatus. If many of the laws are unjust, but the system itself may be salvaged, then it is still preferable to work to solve the problems of the system. If the entire system is broken, and it is beyond salvaging, it is at this point better to replace it with a new system.

Thus I come to my own position on the matter*. A state undergirded by just laws, designed to maintain order and peace amongst the members of a polity, is the ideal. Order and peace I define as the state of affairs which, when maintained, allows a polity to about its business without fear of dispossession, intragroup conflict, and so forth. The laws, if they are just and justly upheld, should be maintained and their verdicts followed. If they are just, but unjustly upheld, the laws themselves should be maintained, but the verdicts questioned or protested – the form of these protests should be peaceful, as the state of order under a just system unjustly executed is, more likely than not, preferable to a state of lawlessness. If some laws are just, and some are unjust, the members of the polity should begin to question whether the system that they are governed under is worth maintaining, or whether it should be abolished or replaced. At this point, I think that violent opposition to the laws, or flagrant disregard of them, is not acceptable. Neither is blindly obeying them. The mean, attempting to change the laws through peaceful means, is the best option. However, if the laws uphold a verdict (unjust or not) that is inimical to one’s values, that verdict should be obeyed, because the just rule of law overall is far more important than individual, unjust laws. If they are wholly unjust, they cannot be justly upheld, and all their products are poisoned. At this point, the laws have ceased to serve their purpose as laws, as shepherds of a good society, and so should be opposed actively in their existence and their verdicts, until such a time as a system designed for good and excellence can be created. If peaceful means are ineffective or have been exhausted, violence may be warranted.

To summarize, if the laws fail to serve their proper purpose, viz. being good shepherds of society, then they no longer seek the good of their subjects; and peaceful means of changing or ameliorating these onerous laws have been exhausted, or are unsuccessful, or are impossible; and if the anarchy brought about by disobeying the laws is less bad than the burden of maintaining the laws, then there may be sanction to resist them by violent means. This is a high bar, and I think very few situations merit a violent clash with the laws. A slave revolt would be justified, for example, because the laws exclude slaves from the legal protections afforded to other subjects of the law, means of peaceful resistance are possible but generally ineffectual and unsuccessful, and the anarchy of open revolt is a superior state than the slavery itself.

*If you find amongst my ramblings contradictions, or strange conclusions, let me know: I continue to work out this position at the time of writing.

Now I think I have the means to determine, at least to my satisfaction, whether the system and its laws, as they stand, ought to be opposed by violent means. And thus, whether the violent protests in Ferguson and elsewhere can be justified.

First, indulge me for a brief interlude while I try to summarize the America the Ferguson protestors, or at least their intellectual heavyweights, believe to exist. For them, America is designed to further the interests of white Americans, it was built on the suffering of others, and it continues operating against the interests of other groups, such as black Americans. If you are a white American, or even if you appear white, then you benefit from this system, just as if you are not a white or white-passing American, then you are harmed by this system. The poor cracker jack in the backwaters of Florida, or the slum-dwelling meth head in California’s Central Valley, are despite their various material disadvantages equal beneficiaries of this system with middle- and upper-class whites. For example, they can buy BandAids in their skin tone!

This is called “white privilege,” a symptom of a system that is racist to its core. In this case, racism is defined as this system of power set up for white Americans, so that all whites are racist by virtue of being a part of this system, while all non-whites cannot be racist, by virtue of not being a part of this system. This applies even if the said white does not hold attitudes of prejudice or racial superiority, and the non-white does. For reference, this is the definition of racism as supplied by

“1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.

2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.

3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.”

The revised definition of racism falls into the second sub-definition provided by, i.e. systemic racism. If you attempt to assert the race-neutral sub-definitions, such as the ideology of racial difference in no. 1, or the hatred of such difference in no. 3, then you will often be angrily told that this isn’t the “real” definition of racism. This is because the dictionary, being a product of the white system, is inherently opposed to non-whites and their lived experience, so everything such weighty tomes hold to be true is tainted and suspect. Most people seem to refer to this system without really articulating what it is, but from what I have gathered, it is the constellation of the police, judiciary, prison system, and business class, which are assumed to be dominated by whites. All of these, or so it goes, conspire together actively and implicitly to maintain hegemony over other races.

What is to be done, assuming this system exists, and that it operates in the ways articulated above? Blacks and other minorities do not have to do anything, except continue their mortal struggle with the great white chimera. Whites, on the other hand, have a lot of work to do:

  1. Acknowledge that you are tainted by your whiteness. It is not enough to feel bad about disparities in educational achievement, wealth generation, crime, or policing between members of your race and minorities in America. Instead, you must acknowledge that this stems from a racist system of which you are a beneficiary, even if the supposed benefits are abstract and cannot be calculated, or do not even apply to you (heresy!). I believe John Derbyshire, formerly of National Review, calls this “ethnomasochism.”
  2. After acknowledging this, make some apologies, preferably to other similarly enlightened whites. Self-flagellation is always a grand spectacle.
  3. Work to erode your privilege. This is the tough one, because if it is indeed true that the system benefits white people in small things such as buying BandAids, but also in large ones, like obtaining jobs and loans, then the natural thing to do is to equalize oneself with people of other races, working to dismantle the system of privilege. You don’t have much control over what colors the BandAid corporation produces its products in, but you can quit your job or default on your loan, since they were obtained immorally.
  4. Produce utopia? All the races will exist happily together in a free and open society, with no group asserting dominance over the other. I assume this is the end result, as the entire foregoing narrative depends on a certain amount of Hegelry to be persuasive.

Now, is such a worldview, and its prescription, correct? I cannot say that it is completely wrong, as it is based on a few observations that are undoubtedly true. Namely, that the brunt of state violence is borne by minority communities, mainly blacks and Latinos; that poor minorities are continually segregated into urban slums, and find it very difficult to leave voluntarily; that the educational systems in these ghettos are atrocious; that discrimination based on appearance, name, sex, and all sorts of categories continues; that because of this, white Americans tend to experience less of racism (or prejudice, depending on your preferred definition of racism) than do minorities; that this is unjust. At this point in time I cannot think of many arguments against the facticity of these points.

I do disagree with why this state of affairs has come into being: it is not the fault of “the white man,” though certain white people have played their part in the tale. I have always found this assertion of collective guilt to be completely befuddling. All white Americans are not responsible for the actions of some white Americans, or white Americans of the past, or the police as a force (which is not all white, anyway), or the actions of the federal government, and so forth. This is just another form of the argument black activists use: that all black people are tarred and feathered as criminals, based on the statistics on black crime. Yes, black Americans as a group engage in more criminal activity than white Americans as a group – if the FBI statistics are to be believed – but the individual black man is not the black group, and so it is unfair to judge an individual based on his racial affiliation, rather than who he is, or what he has done.

Collective guilt is a charge levied on white Americans by certain race peddlers, and on black Americans by others, and it stems from a much broader idea: that the world is not composed of individuals, but faceless social forces. Individuals are not responsible for their own actions, but are induced into doing things by the aegis of some higher power. I would never deny that social forces exist, for there is a certain way that human beings behave when they congregate into groups, which they cannot manifest when alone. However, we must always remember, that a group of people is not blended together into a single entity when they become a group – they are still individual people, always capable of individual action and thought. When thinking about this, I recalled Gandalf’s line in the Fellowship of the Ring: “Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” Whites are meant to have privilege (because the racist patriarchal state was made for them), and other minorities are meant to have none, and there is very little they or anyone else can do about it – save destroying the system, of course.

Based on my own categorization, to Ferguson protestors and their academic stalwarts, this is an unjust system of unjust laws, a fruit of the poisoned tree or so it were, and so must be opposed. Whether peacefully for the idealists, or violently for the rest, both are considered to be valid options, for the system is tainted and must be swept away, to be replaced by something better, a future utopia governed by social justice. I am rather blind to this supposed reality, for I do not see the system of white supremacy that exists, lurking, underneath the supposedly race-neutral laws and institutions. The crusaders for social justice ascribe this self-diagnosed myopia as a symptom of my privilege, for I can choose not to see what, for others, is an omnipresent reality. I ascribe it to the fact, and I believe it is a fact, that this system does not exist. There is not a white supremacist system that exists to crush other races into powder. There is a system, though, that exists to crush us all into powder, if we fall into its orbit: the War on Drugs, as Brandon noted in his post on this subject; the War on Terror, encompassing the surveillance state at the domestic level and the covert war machine at the foreign level; cronyism between government and business; and so forth.

Much of this truly unjust system is an outgrowth not of the system of laws, which I see as just, but of abuses conducted in violation of those laws and legitimized by force, fear, and civic laziness. We have let our system, founded on a just* basis, lapse into what we see today: the restriction of our freedom to peaceably assemble and protest; the restriction of our right to privacy, for the sake of safety against the terrorists and other malcontents our government has fostered abroad; the pillaging of the wealth of future Americans by reckless foreign conflicts against such malcontents and their offshoots; the return of policing methods and equipment developed in Iraq and Afghanistan to our own streets. The list continues on and on, and only grows as our days grow darker.

While the Ferguson protestors may see themselves as protesting against a system of laws that is oppressive, I cannot agree with them. The system of laws that we have, if it were enforced equitably, or at all, would be a flawed but a decent model. The problem is that the law as it is written no longer is the law as it is practiced, and our system, good or bad, is simply powerless. Indeed, we already live in a state of legal anarchy, for while order is maintained in some degree and at some times, it is belied by a concentration of power that is not legitimated by the law, but rather by the supposed enforcers of the law.

Thus, to oppose the system of governmental overreach is to oppose a system that excludes all of us, and in particular certain groups, from its protection. Opposing the police and their excesses, opposing our military-industrial state, opposing the curtailment of our civil and political liberties, is just – for we are now in a state where our laws are in decline, and must be protected from a state that no longer serves to protect and uphold them, or our interests, which they are meant to serve. However, in opposing this governmental apparatus, we cannot fail to uphold the laws that deserve our respect. The looting of private property is in violation of one of our most basic rights, the right to property, and does not harm the system of state terror we are living under, but individual people who are also impacted by that system. The implication that one racial group is behind these evils, and that to target them is to target the system that backs them, is both a silly and perfidious idea. We should not be blind to the realities of race, nor to their effects. But nor should we see race as the prime underlying factor behind the evils plaguing our country, for we are all impacted, in one way or another, by this one system. In conclusion, violence against the state apparatus may be justified, and probably is, while violence against those things which are legitimately protected under the law, such as attacking people in the form of their private property and livelihoods, is not justified. Treatise out.

*Just in the sense that the laws, as written, were largely just, in the sense that they promoted a just society (I think here of the Bill of Rights). There was a large stain on this in the form of slavery’s legitimization under the law, and I concede that this may indicate the system of laws itself was unjust. However, the enduring basis of law in the Constitution, and of our rights under law in the Bill of Rights, is just.

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.