Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Aristotle's Politics

Well, after claiming I would write a series on how democracies fail, I have not gotten to even a single such post yet.  Most of it is having other things to do.  But a part is being intimidated by the project. There is nothing quite like learning about a subject to realize just how little you actually know.  I intended, and still intend to begin at the beginning -- in ancient Greece.  But two things have finally got me going.  One is the realization that if I don't start now, I never will.  The other is the desire to get something done before the Greek election set for next Monday that could deliver the EU a much-needed shaking-up.

But before getting started, I want to comment on our earliest true work of political science -- Aristotle's Politics.  First, a general comment on some of his more inflammatory material.  Aristotle obvious does not believe in the Olympian pantheon, nor does he expect his students to believe in it either.*  He makes comments like that the gods are portrayed as being ruled by a king because men were ruled by kings at the time these myths were made and simply assumed that the gods had a similar social order.  Or he discusses the strong tie between love and war and says that whoever invented the myth of Aphrodite and Ares as lovers was onto something.**

His views on marriage and sex are also quite interesting.  He says girls should not marry too young because their health is endangered by having babies too early.  He recommends marriage at 18 for females and 37 for males. He likens the subordination of slave to master subject of a tyrant, of child to parent to a lawful king, and of wife to husband to a citizen to an elected leader (except that there are only two "citizens" and only one can ever be elected!)  The ancient Greeks were whole-hearted malthusians who feared having too many children -- either in the sense of one family depleting its wealth with too many heirs, or of growing populations overruning the resources of their barren and rocky land.  They were not Christians.  They had no objection to anything that separated sex from reproduction -- homosexuality, non-procreative acts, contraception, abortion, and even infanticide were wholly accepted.  Aristotle was ahead of his time in having some objections.  He would disallow the infanticide of any healthy baby, although he encourages if if the baby is deformed.  Couples, he says, should attempt to limit their number of children by limiting sex.  However, he says, if they lack the self-control, he has no objection to abortion so long as it is undertaken before the fetus is developed enough to feel pain.  (He does not say when that is).

He begins with an extended defense of slavery.  This would only be necessary, the editor points out, if someone in his day had begun to criticize the practice.  This does appear to be the case -- he was arguing against some specific philosopher whose works are now lost.  But of course, only these were only idle speculations of a few ivory tower philosophers who had no influence on the real world.  The editor also comments that it is impossible to know if he is accurately representing philosophers whose work is lost.  One reason for skepticism is his comments on Plato, whose work is not lost.  Aristotle's criticisms of Plato can only be described as bizarre.  His primary criticism of Plato's Republic is that he treats the state as a self-contained unit and ignores foreign policy.  Anyone who has read the Republic knows that is not true.  Plato presumed that his ideal state would be at war with its neighbors all the time (a realistic assumption, as we shall see).  Although the work is best known for saying that philosophers should rule, Plato says remarkably little about what his philosopher kings would be like.  Instead, his focus is overwhelmingly on how to breed and train the ideal warriors.

But none of these are the really juiciest part of his work.  The juiciest part of Politics is Aristotle's advice to tyrants.  He gives advice on how to intimidate any possible opponents into submission, how to divide and rule, and how to appear virtuous without doing anything stupid like actually being virtuous.  What is really striking is how similar his advice sounds to the advice Machiavelli would give nearly 2000 years later, albeit in more detail.***  Apparently things hadn't changed all that much.

*The general assumption is that Aristotle's works are not intended as systematic treatises, but are something more like lecture notes.
**So if Socrates was executed for saying less inflammatory things than these, how did Aristotle get away with it?  I can think of three possible answers.  (1) What can be tolerated when said behind closed doors by a handful of philosophers in their ivory tower cannot be tolerated when said to every passer-by in the agora.  (2) Socrates' execution was more political than religious.  His real crime was his close association with Critias and Alcibiades.  This accusation was not made openly because there was an amnesty in place, but when Socrates was accused of "corrupting the youth of Athens," everyone knew perfectly well who was really meant.  (3) In the end, Aristotle did fear for his life and flee Athens.  In his case, though, the reason was clearly political.  This tutor of Alexander the Great was too closely associated with the Macedonian conquerors.
***The Prince is clearly addressed to a "tyrant" in the original sense of the word, a ruler without hereditary or institutional legitimacy.  Machiavelli even says that a hereditary prince will have a much stronger claim to legitimacy and can avoid resorting to such measures.  It was not necessarily addressed to a particularly harsh or arbitrary ruler.  In fact, Machiavelli emphasizes that his ruler should not commit an outrage unless there is a good reason to.  But, politics of his day being what they were, there were a lot of such reasons.

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