Aristotle's Politics is both interesting and important—interesting, as showing the common prejudices of educated Greeks in his time, and important as a source of many principles which remained influential until the end of the Middle Ages. I do not think there is much in it that could be of any practical use to a statesman of the present day, but there is a great deal that throws light on the conflicts of parties in different parts of the Hellenic world. There is not very much awareness of methods of government in non-Hellenic States. There are, it is true, allusions to Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and Carthage, but except in the case of Carthage they are somewhat perfunctory. There is no mention of Alexander, and not even the faintest awareness of the complete transformation that he was effecting in the world. The whole discussion is concerned with City States, and there is no prevision of their obsolescence. Greece, owing to its division into independent cities, was a laboratory of political experiment; but nothing to which these experiments were relevant existed from Aristotle's time until the rise of the Italian cities in the Middle Ages. In many ways, the experience to which Aristotle appeals is more relevant to the comparatively modern world than to any that existed for fifteen hundred years after the book was written.
There are many pleasant incidental remarks, some of which may be noted before we embark upon political theory. We are told that Euripides, when he was staying at the court of Archelaus, King of Macedon, was accused of halitosis by a certain Decamnichus. To soothe his fury, the king gave him permission to scourge Decamnichus, which he did. Decamnichus, after waiting many years, joined in a successful plot to kill the king; but by this time Euripides was dead. We are told that children should be conceived in winter, when the wind is in the north; that there must be a careful avoidance of indecency, because 'shameful words lead to shameful acts', and that obscenity is never to be tolerated except in temples, where the law permits even ribaldry. People should not marry too young, because, if they do, the children will be weak and female, the wives will become wanton, and the husbands stunted in their growth. The right age for marriage is thirty-seven in men, eighteen in women.
We learn how Thales, being taunted with his poverty, bought up all the olive-presses on the instalment plan, and was then able to charge monopoly rates for their use. This he did to show that philosophers can make money, and, if they remain poor, it is because they have something more important than wealth to think about. All this, however, is by the way; it is time to come to more serious matters.
The book begins by pointing out the importance of the State; it is the highest kind of community, and aims at the highest good. In order of time, the family comes first; it is built on the two fundamental relations of man and woman, master and slave, both of which are natural. Several families combined make a village; several villages, a State, provided the combination is nearly large enough to be self-sufficing. The State, though later in time than the family, is prior to it, and even to the individual, by nature; for 'what each thing is when fully developed we call its nature', and human society, fully developed, is a State, and the whole is prior to the part. The conception involved here is that of organism: a hand, when the body is destroyed, is, we are told, no longer a hand. The implication is that a hand is to be defined by its purpose—that of grasping—which it can only perform when joined to a living body. In like manner an individual cannot fulfil his purpose unless he is part of a State. He who founded the State, Aristotle says, was the greatest of benefactors; for without law man is the worst of animals, and law depends for its existence on the State. The State is not a mere society for exchange and the prevention of crime: 'The end of the State is the good life…. And the State is the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honourable life' (1280b). 'A political society exists for the sake of noble actions, not of mere companionship' (1281a).
A State being composed of households, each of which consists of one family, the discussion of politics should begin with the family. The bulk of this discussion is concerned with slavery—for in antiquity the slaves were always reckoned as part of the family. Slavery is expedient and right, but the slave should be naturally inferior to the master. From birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule; the man who is by nature not his own but another man's is by nature a slave. Slaves should not be Greeks, but of an inferior race with less spirit (1255a and 1330a). Tame animals are better off when ruled by man, and so are those who are naturally inferior when ruled by their superiors. It may be questioned whether the practice of making slaves out of prisoners of war is justified; power, such as leads to victory in war, seems to imply superior virtue, but this is not always the case. War, however, is just when waged against men who, though intended by nature to be governed, will not submit (1256b); and in this case, it is implied, it would be right to make slaves of the conquered. This would seem enough to justify any conqueror who ever lived; for no nation will admit that it is intended by nature to be governed, and the only evidence as to nature's intentions must be derived from the outcome of war. In every war, therefore, the victors are in the right and the vanquished in the wrong. Very satisfactory!
Next comes a discussion of trade, which profoundly influenced scholastic casuistry. There are two uses of a thing, one proper, the other improper; a shoe, for instance, may be worn, which is its proper use, or exchanged, which is its improper use. It follows that there is something degraded about a shoemaker, who must exchange his shoes in order to live. Retail trade, we are told, is not a natural part of the art of getting wealth (1257a). The natural way to get wealth is by skilful management of house and land. To the wealth that can be made in this way there is a limit, but to what can be made by trade there is none. Trade has to do with money, but wealth is not the acquisition of coin. Wealth derived from trade is justly hated, because it is unnatural. 'The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest…. Of all modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural' (1258).
What came of this dictum you may read in Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. But while his history is reliable, his comment has a bias in favour of what is pre-capitalistic.
'Usury' means all lending money at interest, not only, as now, lending at an exorbitant rate. From Greek times to the present day, mankind, or at least the economically more developed portion of them, have been divided into debtors and creditors; debtors have disapproved of interest, and creditors have approved of it. At most times, landowners have been debtors, while men engaged in commerce have been creditors. The views of philosophers, with few exceptions, have coincided with the pecuniary interests of their class. Greek philosophers belonged to, or were employed by, the landowning class; they therefore disapproved of interest. Medieval philosophers were churchmen, and the property of the Church was mainly in land; they therefore saw no reason to revise Aristotle's opinion. Their objection to usury was reinforced by anti-Semitism, for most fluid capital was Jewish. Ecclesiastics and barons had their quarrels, sometimes very bitter; but they could combine against the wicked Jew who had tided them over a bad harvest by means of a loan, and considered that he deserved some reward for his thrift.
With the Reformation, the situation changed. Many of the most earnest Protestants were business men, to whom lending money at interest was essential. Consequently first Calvin, and then other Protestant divines, sanctioned interest. At last the Catholic Church was compelled to follow suit, because the old prohibitions did not suit the modern world. Philosophers, whose incomes are derived from the investments of universities, have favoured interest ever since they ceased to be ecclesiastics and therefore connected with landowning. At every stage, there has been a wealth of theoretical argument to support the economically convenient opinion.
Plato's Utopia is criticized by Aristotle on various grounds. There is first the very interesting comment that it gives too much unity to the State, and would make it into an individual. Next comes the kind of argument against the proposed abolition of the family that naturally occurs to every reader. Plato thinks that, by merely giving the title of 'son' to all who are of an age that makes their sonship possible, a man will acquire towards the whole multitude the sentiments that men have at present towards their actual sons, and correlatively as regards the title 'father'. Aristotle, on the contrary, says that what is common to the greatest number receives the least care, and that if 'sons' are common to many 'fathers' they will be neglected in common; it is better to be a cousin in reality than a 'son' in Plato's sense; Plato's plan would make love watery. Then there is a curious argument that, since abstinence from adultery is a virtue, it would be a pity to have a social system which abolishes this virtue and the correlative vice (1263b). Then we are asked: if women are common, who will manage the house? I wrote an essay once, called 'Architecture and the Social System', in which I pointed out that all who combine communism with abolition of the family also advocate communal houses for large numbers, with communal kitchens, dining-rooms, and nurseries. This system may be described as monasteries without celibacy. It is essential to the carrying out of Plato's plans, but it is certainly not more impossible than many other things that he recommends.
Plato's communism annoys Aristotle. It would lead, he says, to anger against lazy people, and to the sort of quarrels that are common between fellow-travellers. It is better if each minds his own business. Property should be private, but people should be so trained in benevolence as to allow the use of it to be largely common. Benevolence and generosity are virtues, and without private property they are impossible. Finally we are told that, if Plato's plans were good, someone would have thought of them sooner.1 I do
not agree with Plato, but if anything could make me do so, it would be Aristotle's arguments against him.
As we have seen in connection with slavery, Aristotle is no believer in equality. Granted, however, the subjection of slaves and women, it still remains a question whether all citizens should be politically equal. Some men, he says, think this desirable, on the ground that all revolutions turn on the regulation of property. He rejects this argument, maintaining that the greatest crimes are due to excess rather than want; no man becomes a tyrant in order to avoid feeling the cold.
A government is good when it aims at the good of the whole community, bad when it cares only for itself. There are three kinds of government that are good: monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government (or polity); there are three that are bad: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. There are also many mixed intermediate forms. It will be observed that the good and bad governments are defined by the ethical qualities of the holders of power, not by the form of the constitution. This, however, is only partly true. An aristocracy is a rule of men of virtue, an oligarchy is a rule of the rich, and Aristotle does not consider virtue and wealth strictly synonymous. What he holds, in accordance with the doctrine of the golden mean, is that a moderate competence is most likely to be associated with virtue: 'Mankind do not acquire or preserve virtue by the help of external goods, but external goods by the help of virtue and happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are most highly cultivated in their mind and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities' (1323a and b). There is therefore a difference between the rule of the best (aristocracy) and of the richest (oligarchy), since the best are likely to have only moderate fortunes. There is also a difference between democracy and polity, in addition to the ethical difference in the government, for what Aristotle calls 'polity' retains some oligarchic elements (1293b). But between monarchy and tyranny the only difference is ethical.
He is emphatic in distinguishing oligarchy and democracy by the economic status of the governing party: there is oligarchy when the rich govern without consideration for the poor, democracy when power is in the hands of the needy and they disregard the interest of the rich.
Monarchy is better than aristocracy, aristocracy is better than polity. But the corruption of the best is worst; therefore tyranny is worse than oligarchy, and oligarchy than democracy. In this way Aristotle arrives at a qualified defence of democracy; for most actual governments are bad, and therefore, among actual governments, democracies tend to be best.
The Greek conception of democracy was in many ways more extreme than ours; for instance, Aristotle says that to elect magistrates is oligarchic, while it is democratic to appoint them by lot. In extreme democracies, the assembly of the citizens was above the law, and decided each question independently. The Athenian law-courts were composed of a large number of citizens chosen by lot, unaided by any jurist; they were, of course, liable to be swayed by eloquence or party passion. When democracy is criticized, it must be understood that this sort of thing is meant.
There is a long discussion of causes of revolution. In Greece, revolutions were as frequent as formerly in Latin America, and therefore Aristotle had a copious experience from which to draw inferences. The main cause was the conflict of oligarchs and democrats. Democracy, Aristotle says, arises from the belief that men who are equally free should be equal in all respects; oligarchy, from the fact that men who are superior in some respect claim too much. Both have a kind of justice, but not the best kind. 'Therefore both parties, whenever their share in the government does not accord with their preconceived ideas, stir up revolution' (1301a). Democratic governments are less liable to revolutions than oligarchies, because oligarchs may fall out with each other. The oligarchs seem to have been vigorous fellows. In some cities, we are told, they swore an oath: 'I will be an enemy to the people, and will devise all the harm against them which I can.' Nowadays reactionaries are not so frank.
The three things needed to prevent revolution are government propaganda in education, respect for law, even in small things, and justice in law and administration, i.e. 'equality according to proportion, and for every man to enjoy his own' (1307a, 1307b, 1310a). Aristotle never seems to have realized the difficulty of 'equality according to proportion'. If this is to be true justice, the proportion must be of virtue. Now virtue is difficult to measure, and is a matter of party controversy. In political practice, therefore, virtue tends to be measured by income; the distinction between aristocracy and oligarchy, which Aristotle attempts to make, is only possible where there is a very well-established hereditary nobility. Even then, as soon as there exists a large class of rich men who are not noble, they have to be admitted to power for fear of their making a revolution. Hereditary aristocracies cannot long retain their power except where land is almost the only source of wealth. All social inequality, in the long run, is inequality of income. That is part of the argument for democracy: that the attempt to have a 'proportionate justice' based on any merit other than wealth is sure to break down. Defenders of oligarchy pretend that income is proportional to virtue; the psalmist said he had never seen a righteous man begging his bread, and Aristotle thinks that good men acquire just about his own income, neither very large nor very small. But such views are absurd. Every kind of 'justice' other than absolute equality will, in practice, reward some quality quite other than virtue, and is therefore to be condemned.
There is an interesting section on tyranny. A tyrant desires riches, whereas a king desires honour. The tyrant has guards who are mercenaries, whereas the king has guards who are citizens. Tyrants are mostly demagogues, who acquire power by promising to protect the people against the notables. In an ironically Machiavellian tone, Aristotle explains what a tyrant must do to retain power. He must prevent the rise of any person of exceptional merit, by execution or assassination if necessary. He must prohibit common meals, clubs, and any education likely to produce hostile sentiment. There must be no literary assemblies or discussions. He must prevent people from knowing each other well, and compel them to live in public at his gates. He should employ spies, like the female detectives at Syracuse. He must sow quarrels, and impoverish his subjects. He should keep them occupied in great works, as the king of Egypt did in getting the pyramids built. He should give power to women and slaves, to make them informers. He should make war, in order that his subjects may have something to do and be always in want of a leader (1313a and b).
It is a melancholy reflection that this passage is, of the whole book, the one most appropriate to the present day. Aristotle concludes that there is no wickedness too great for a tyrant. There is, however, he says, another method of preserving a tyranny, namely by moderation and by seeming religious. There is no decision as to which method is likely to prove the more successful.
There is a long argument to prove that foreign conquest is not the end of the State, showing that many people took the imperialist view. There is, it is true, an exception: conquest of 'natural slaves' is right and just. This would, in Aristotle's view, justify wars against barbarians, but not against Greeks, for no Greeks are 'natural slaves'. In general, war is only a means, not an end; a city in an isolated situation, where conquest is not possible, may be happy; States that live in isolation need not be inactive. God and the universe are active, though foreign conquest is impossible for them. The happiness that a State should seek, therefore, though war may sometimes be a necessary means to it, should not be war, but the activities of peace.
This leads to the question: how large should a State be? Large cities, we are told, are never well governed, because a great multitude cannot be orderly. A State ought to be large enough to be more or less self-sufficing, but not too large for constitutional government. It ought to be small enough for the citizens to know each other's characters, otherwise right will not be done in elections and law-suits. The territory should be small enough to be surveyed in its entirety from a hill-top. We are told both that it should be self-sufficient (1326b) and that it should have an export and import trade (1327a), which seems an inconsistency.
Men who work for their living should not be admitted to citizenship. 'Citizens should not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue.' Nor should they be husbandmen, because they need leisure. The citizens should own the property, but the husbandmen should be slaves of a different race (1330a). Northern races, we are told, are spirited; southern races, intelligent; therefore slaves should be of southern races, since it is inconvenient if they are spirited. The Greeks alone are both spirited and intelligent; they are better governed than barbarians, and if united could rule the world (1327b). One might have expected at this point some allusion to Alexander but there is none.
With regard to the size of States, Aristotle makes, on a different scale, the same mistake that is made by many modern liberals. A State must be able to defend itself in war, and even, if any liberal culture is to survive, to defend itself without very great difficulty. How large this requires a State to be, depends upon the technique of war and industry. In Aristotle's day, the City State was obsolete because it could not defend itself against Macedonia. In our day, Greece as a whole, including Macedonia, is obsolete in this sense, as has been recently proved.2 To advocate complete independence for Greece, or any other small country, is now as futile as to advocate complete independence for a single city, whose territory can be seen entire from an eminence. There can be no true independence except for a State or alliance strong enough, by its own efforts, to repel all attempts at foreign conquest. Nothing smaller than America and the British Empire combined will satisfy this requirement; and perhaps even this would be too small a unit.
The book, which, in the form in which we have it, appears to be unfinished, ends with a discussion of education. Education, of course, is only for children who are going to be citizens; slaves may be taught useful arts, such as cooking, but these are no part of education. The citizen should be moulded to the form of government under which he lives, and there should therefore be differences according as the city in question is oligarchic or democratic. In the discussion, however, Aristotle assumes that the citizens will all have a share of political power. Children should learn what is useful to them, but not vulgarizing; for instance, they should not be taught any skill that deforms the body, or that would enable them to earn money. They should practise athletics in moderation, but not to the point of acquiring professional skill; the boys who train for the Olympic games suffer in health, as is shown by the fact that those who have been victors as boys are hardly ever victors as men. Children should learn drawing, in order to appreciate the beauty of the human form; and they should be taught to appreciate such painting and sculpture as expresses moral ideas. They may learn to sing and to play musical instruments enough to be able to enjoy music critically, but not enough to be skilled performers; for no freeman would play or sing unless
drunk. They must, of course, learn to read and write, in spite of the usefulness of these arts. But the purpose of education is 'virtue', not usefulness. What Aristotle means by 'virtue' he has told us in the Ethics, to which this book frequently refers.
Aristotle's fundamental assumptions, in his Politics, are very different from those of any modern writer. The aim of the State, in his view, is to produce cultured gentlemen—men who combine the aristocratic mentality with love of learning and the arts. This combination existed, in its highest perfection, in the Athens of Pericles, not in the population at large, but among the well-to-do. It began to break down in the last years of Pericles. The populace, who had no culture, turned against the friends of Pericles who were driven to defend the privileges of the rich, by treachery, assassination, illegal despotism, and other such not very gentlemanly methods. After the death of Socrates, the bigotry of the Athenian democracy diminished, and Athens remained the centre of ancient culture, but political power went elsewhere. Throughout later antiquity, power and culture were usually separate: power was in the hands of rough soldiers, culture belonged to powerless Greeks, often slaves. This is only partially true of Rome in its great days, but it is emphatically true before Cicero and after Marcus Aurelius. After the barbarian invasion, the 'gentlemen' were northern barbarians, the men of culture subtle southern ecclesiastics. This state of affairs continued, more or less, until the Renaissance, when the laity began to acquire culture. From the Renaissance onwards, the Greek conception of government by cultured gentlemen gradually prevailed more and more, reaching its acme in the eighteenth century.
Various forces have put an end to this state of affairs. First, democracy, as embodied in the French Revolution and its aftermath. The cultured gentlemen, as after the age of Pericles, had to defend their privileges against the populace, and in the process ceased to be either gentlemen or cultured. A second cause was the rise of industrialism, with a scientific technique very different from traditional culture. A third cause was popular education, which conferred the power to read and write, but did not confer culture; this enabled a new type of demagogue to practise a new type of propaganda, as seen in the dictatorships.
Both for good and evil, therefore, the day of the cultured gentleman is past.