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, 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?