Letters from Santorini: Lessons from Aristotle

I’ve finally finished Aristotle’s Politics, albeit with a little strategic skimming over the more archaic passages – there’s only so much discussion of the relative merits of Spartan and Cretan constitutions that I can take.

He’s a quite brilliant thinker, and though I’ve approached The Politics in a very non-studious kind of way, there are a few things that fascinated me along the way. They might fascinate you as well…

The Perils of the Acquisition of Wealth

Aristotle is down with money as a way of facilitating trade, but dislikes the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. His interesting and prescient reasoning is that wealth acquisition has an infinite goal – you can always have more money. There is a limit to the amount of work a doctor can do; once the patient is restored to health, the job is done. Once the war has finished the soldier has nothing more to do. But wealth acquisition can go on forever, and pretty soon this desire for infinite wealth and prosperity infects the other professions as well.

It has always seemed strange that we worship the infinite and eternal in a world which is entirely transient and impermanent. We want to be young forever, beautiful forever, rich to infinity, to never die, and so we are doomed to perpetual disappointment. Perhaps the pursuit of wealth in some way contributes to this apostate worship of the infinite.

The Problem of Slavery

Aristotle is also down with slavery – he views it as natural and necessary for people to enjoy the good life.

Naturally we are appalled by such a notion. Slavery is one of the taboos that we cannot endorse or permit. Yet there is hypocrisy in this position – our economies are sustained by economic slaves. Illegal workers in our country who do shit jobs for shit wages, and the outsourced slavery to the factories, farms and sweat shops around the world so that we can enjoy cheap consumer products and our prosperous way of life.

These workers are not legally owned by anyone, so our conscience is clear. We are happy to have slaves so long as we don’t call them that. But essentially they are slaves, doomed to work long hours in terrible conditions for wages that are barely subsistence. Perhaps Aristotle was simply honestly and brutally pragmatic in a way we are not. We either have to accept that this is necessary for a good way of life and accept our good fortune, or declare it unacceptable and work to change it no matter what the cost to ourselves and our way of life. Naturally, being a fuzzy lefty I would endorse the latter position, but I do not think we have the moral courage for either.

Aristotle vs Plato

Aristotle is much more pragmatic and realistic than Plato, but is also much more of an optimistic and lover of life than Plato, who seems to me to be something of a miserable bastard. This, in my opinion, simply makes Aristotle at least twice as awesome as Plato, especially since he makes specific digressions to attack the more ridiculous portions of The Republic.

The Happiness Trap

In one particularly astute chapter, Aristotle discusses how easy it is to mistake the items and conditions that are NECESSARY for happiness for the items and conditions that will CAUSE happiness. Thus things like wealth, friends, a romantic partner and so on may be necessary preconditions for happiness, at least for the majority of us, but they will not necessarily cause happiness. So we acquire this things and structure our lives in a particular way, and are surprised and depressed that things don’t work out for us. This is a common mistake that is made.

Tyranny

Tyranny, in government and individuals, is dedicated to the identification and destruction of exceptional people, who are in themselves a threat to tyranny. This rang especially true for me after reading The First Circle, where mediocre middle managers in Stalinist Russia find themselves promoted to positions of high authority by the very merit of their mediocrity. The exceptional people, naturally enough, find themselves in the Gulag.

To less extreme extent, this tendency can be observed in the minor tyrannies of companies, institutions and individuals in everyday life. Mediocrity is often the natural product of tyranny.

The Middle Way

For Aristotle, the middle way is usually the best way. He is proto-buddhist in this and this alone.

The Nature of Man

Man is a political animal – our destiny lies as communal entities.

Anyone else a fan? Or are there some Platonists who want to come in kicking ass, taking names and telling me I’m full of shite?

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7 Comments

Filed under Letters from Santorini

7 responses to “Letters from Santorini: Lessons from Aristotle

  1. Tavs

    I think you’re on pretty thin ice with the slavery argument.

  2. Joe

    I was about to say the same thing! Surely there is a fundamental difference between slavery and bad working conditions. Both should stir the conscience, certainly, but they are not the same, or even directly comparable. Anyway, genuine slavery still happens today, worldwide, in the guise of forced prostitution, “human trafficking”, and the like.

  3. zentimo

    Perhaps I am pushing that link too far…though also, I don’t think I am expressing myself clearly.

    I’ll sleep on it…

  4. Niki

    I am using this opportunity to get intelligent people to pick massive holes in my argument.

    In all, I think the two states of slavery are comparable, and ‘thinkers’ today are too restrained by their sense of hubris, and their sense of pride, (they will no doubt make some cringe-worthily wrong statements on the journey) to make such sweeping comparisons. Yes, to address such questions is a massive act of hubris, but I think, as long as you’re pretty sure you don’t have the answers (and I am pretty god damn sure) than it’s useful to have fumbling stabs in the dark. Otherwise, we leave the big questions to the experts (and who the hell are they? Do we trust the buggers?)

    So here’s my stab in the dark.

    I think a comparison between ‘official’ slaves under the direct ownership of an individual and economic ‘slaves’ under an impersonal system needs to be looked at from two main angles: The level of suppression of economic mobility, and the level of suppression of expression of identity.

    In terms of economic condition, and lack of upward mobility, slaves in Aristotle’s time and workers in developing countries enslaved by the manifestations of the free market are comparable.

    In terms of basic level of poverty, of course there is no way to compare for sure. We can only point to the fact that the Greeks had a vested interest in their slaves as property, whereas workers for companies or middlemen are useful and visible to the free market only in terms of their labour. The logic behind economic ‘slaves’ leads more naturally to cases of abject poverty than does the logic of ‘direct’ slaves.

    Apologists for the appalling conditions enforced on many by the current global capitalist system would, no doubt, point to the term ‘free’ in free market and allege that these workers are not bound, either legally or by force, to remain in their jobs and low levels of existence. The system does not prevent any member of any nationality / caste / creed from working its laws and gaining success. This is the argument.

    However, the realities produced by the various permutations are a far cry from its cited ideology. Aside from the fact that their are no ‘pure’ manifestations of capitalism, (which has proved to be infinitely adaptable in its ability to absorb the various pre-existing social and cultural hierarchies of the various different countries / states), one of its systematic, necessary traits is the creation of a pool of the unemployed. Another systematic trait is its ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’ that necessitate the setting up of a system wherein the controllers and ‘carriers’ of the system (i.e. developed nations) must have lesser players (i.e. developing countries) on whom to ‘dump’ the fallout of these excessive ‘wobbles’.

    I would argue, then, that in terms of the level of poverty produced and sustained, economic ‘slavery’ is comparable to ‘direct’ slavery, as is the level to which they inflexibly enforce these economic conditions, preventing people from escaping them.

    Slaves could ‘buy their freedom’, be released by benevolent owners, escape etc. These are rare cases – but perhaps not much more rare than instances of men born and bred in ‘below poverty line’ villages rising to become managers in the city, or even well-to-do shop keepers in a neighboring town. It’s impossible to make an ‘evidenced’ comparison, but the comparison is – nevertheless – justified. We shy away from the comparison, blithely assuming that civic law and physical force must be more inflexible than the law and force of an economic system.

    The next comparison deals with identity.
    I don’t know much about Greek slaves, but – as far as I can recall – the Romans didn’t permit their slaves to reproduce, and often purposefully arranged for them to be unable to communicate with each other, (possible, as the slave force came from all over the Roman-conquered world.) This is an extreme case of suppression of individual and societal identity, and may seem completely incomparable with the economic ‘slaves’ that are the inevitable product of capitalism as we know it.

    As Joe pointed out, there are many cases of workers enslaved by indebtedness to their company, who are then purposefully shipped away from their cultural and linguistic community and placed with other workers with whom they are less likely to form bonding relationships, due to language and cultural barriers.
    I won’t go into this issue.

    Instead, let’s take the ‘standard’ badly paid worker stuck in his job and lifestyle. The extent to which his identity is dictated by his work conditions, and consequent life conditions, is debatable. However, most companies don’t claim rights on whether their workers can bear children or practice their religion, and they don’t normally isolate their workers from their cultural or linguistic communities (although it happens, as I’ve already suggested).

    There is the argument that capitalism is insidious as a ‘culture’ in itself, leading into the Westernization / Mculture debate. However, the logic of ‘slave’ and ‘master’ (at least in the Roman period) may have been comparably all-encompassing and all-effecting. Also, it has always been the case that the economically dependant tend towards emulating the economically dominant – in everything from lifestyle and concepts of beauty to moral codes and language.

    Balancing these arguments, it would seem that identity is not so thoroughly repressed if slavery is enforced by an economic system, rather than by a strict hierarchical system supported by law.

    I’ve limited the debate to comparing current ‘slaves to the system’ (where’s my Rage against the Machine T-shirt?) to Greek / Roman slaves. In which case, current ‘slaves’ come on top. Hurrah current slaves.

    In terms of a MORE general comparison (could it be possible?) my conclusions are quite different. But that for another rainy day…. Its not raining here, its monsooning. Can you tell?

  5. zentimo

    Wow, Niki, what a thorough and impressively reasoned comment. Thanks for your thoughts…any comments from the opposition?

  6. Tavs

    My objection was based on the fact that Aristotle argues that Greek slaves have an inherent inferiority – I think he appeals to a lack of rationality but I can’t really remember – that makes them naturally subservient to their masters. If you’re going to apply what he says to slavery in the modern world, you need to deal with this claim to some extent.

    It might be hypocritical of us to criticise Aristotle for his justification of slavery when we live in a thoroughly exploitative society, but at least we don’t apply after-the-fact value ascriptions to an entire social group about the quality of their genetic make-up. True, we abstract ourselves away through the exploitation and do our best to ignore it at every turn, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would actually claim that sweat-shop workers actually DESERVE their treatment, which is what Aristotle does. I suppose it depends on what you find to be be more abhorrent – cowardice, or unfounded supremacist theories. Both are pretty shitty, but I think the latter is considerably more insidious.

  7. zentimo

    Aha, I see, I see.

    I certainly don’t agree with the idea of deserved slavery – it is entirely circumstantial, in Aristotle’s world and our own, who becomes a slave and who does not. Where you are born and into what social grouping and which race largely determine what role you are going to play, not your inherent worth or lack thereof as a person.

    But while I disagree with his justification of slavery, I admire the absence of hypocrisy. He sees that a certain way of life is not possible without slavery and inequality, and he (perhaps spuriously) justifies and accepts this inequality. We neither acknowledge the hypocrisy of our society nor act to change it. We simply pretend it isn’t there.

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