In Theory Aristotle (Part II)

In part II of his piece on Aristotle, political theorist Andrew Robinson offers a critical assessment, and a look at the philosopher's relevance today.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, June 17, 2011 0:00 - 0 Comments

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By Andrew Robinson

Aristotle’s prejudices

All of this, however, applies only among those people recognised as citizens. Aristotle believes there are certain people who are ‘natural slaves’, owing to their inability to exercise reason. He argues that everyone needs to be ruled, and only some can rule themselves. Non-Greeks, considered to be barbarians, who can only live productively as slaves. In a good person, the ‘soul’ should rule the ‘body’.

For people and beings who can’t control their bodies – such as barbarians, natural slaves, and animals – it is better that they be ruled by others. In any other case – if a person is not a natural slave – slavery is unjust (it is common for Aristotle to argue that something must accord with nature to be just). Barbarians are to be treated like animals and subjected to despotism.

This idea of a civilising mission to make others productive is disturbingly familiar from the history of modern colonialism and genocide. It expresses the arrogant certainty that the in-group know what the good life entails, and hence are justified to impose it on everyone else. Aristotle maintained that only people who correctly use their reason are truly free (or autonomous), and others could be treated as objects. This is similar to how later authors, such as Kant and Mill, would seek to justify colonialism.

It is also possible to argue that the existence of large strata of non-citizens or second-class citizens is re-emerging, due to the refusal of privileged in-groups to recognise migration flows today. In extreme cases such as the Gulf states, most of the population are now non-citizens. The treatment of black and Asian communities as a barbarian ‘enemy within’ has also been a standard part of British policing from at least the 1970s onwards. The same can be said of Mexicans in America, the banlieues in France, and so on. The creation of racially stratified labour-markets reinforced in some cases by undocumented status and in others by the prison-industrial complex, marks a return to something akin to the idea of natural slavery, as colonial relations are internalised in core countries.

Aristotle also had strong aristocratic tendencies. Justice includes treating unequal people unequally. Democracy can be a bad system because people demand treatment based on numbers, rather than merit. Merit is here defined in terms of criteria which the elite have most or all of the opportunity to meet. He is also very concerned with making sure that those who most merit ruling – rather than those who want to rule – should rule. In contrast with today’s neoliberals, Aristotle admits that meritocracy is an aristocratic, not a democratic, principle.

For Aristotle, the ideal regime would be aristocratic, but in practice, aristocracies tend to degenerate into oligarchies, or rule by the rich rather than the virtuous. This happens because it’s impossible to distinguish true virtue from simulated virtue in reality. This is why he seeks in practice to combine aristocracy with democracy.

He also imagines that households formed before the city, and the city was a union of households. The households already contained gender inequalities and master-slave relationships. This disguises the real origins of city-states, which were preceded by indigenous groups. And he maintains that the city arose ‘by nature’, from humanity’s political essence. This downplays its contingent origins. On gender, he assumes that women have reason, but not authority, and therefore have different virtues from men. His accounts of procreation have also led to accusations of misogyny, as he views women as a receptacle for male agency.

He also argues for private property (and the family!), on the basis that people will care better for things they own. And he argues that there are limits to how far a city should be united, as it needs different people with different attributes.

A more subtle kind of prejudice is implicit in his account of virtues. Only the elite will be able to realise eudaimonia, because it requires free time. There will also have to be classes of labourers and farmers who provide material goods so that others will have the time to realise eudaimonia. So that the city as a whole pursues eudaimonia, it is necessary that only the elite are able to rule. Farmers should be slaves rather than citizens, because they lack the leisure-time to develop virtue.

Ultimately, the just arrangement is for those with the most virtue to rule. If there is one person with overwhelming virtue, they should be made king. If there isn’t, it is unjust for anyone to be made king.

What can we do with Aristotle today?

Part of the appeal of Aristotle’s approach today is that he believes in a deeper kind of happiness than that offered by high-speed lives pursuing transitory pleasures. Consumerist capitalism encourages the pursuit of pleasure, and yet people often seem miserable even while ‘enjoying’. The idea that such pleasure-seeking misses the point, that some deeper need is being frustrated, exerts a certain force on the dissidents of the present.

For instance, in the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx argues that capitalism does not only subordinate workers in production, or risk putting them into starvation. It also makes their very ability to actualise their activity dependent on the availability of a buyer of labour-power. Marx’s argument that people need opportunities to express or actualise their essence (species-being, or free activity) is similar to Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia: the denial of expression is itself frustrating, whether or not it also leads to material suffering.

It might be argued that the frustration of deeper needs for self-expression, personal development, and meaningful life-activities is crucial in explaining a lot of social problems. It is crucial, for instance, to the ‘blocked opportunities’ approach to ‘crime’ and deviance, which suggests that people turn to deviant careers because they are otherwise trapped in unfulfilling lives.

In addition to Marx, Aristotle has inspired the green economist E.F. Shumacher, in his argument for human-scale economies instead of globalised economies. Shumacher combines an Aristotelian view of value, and the visions of craft-socialists, with themes from Buddhism to emphasise the need for a worthwhile life, rather than for economic growth. Shumacher’s ‘small is beautiful’ echoes Aristotle’s argument that the ideal city would be just large enough to be self-sufficient: smaller cities are better-managed.

Scholars such as Alasdair MacIntyre have tried to resurrect Aristotelian virtue ethics as an alternative to dominant analytical traditions. Aristotle is also sometimes thought to have influenced Nietzsche’s emphasis on ‘noble’ virtues and his critiques of ‘slave morality’. For Nietzsche, the pettiness of resentful ethics is a step backwards from the virtues of antiquity.

There have actually been attempts in empirical psychology to differentiate eudaimonia and hedonic pleasure, and these attempts have confirmed that the concepts are distinguishable in people’s actual experience. However, the usefulness of the distinction is debatable.

Then there is the use of the idea of a ‘hierarchy of needs’, derived initially from Maslow, and applied to ‘post-materialist’ social movements by Inglehart. There’s a lot of problems with Inglehart’s methodology, but his intuition that new social movements emphasise post-material goods seems largely accurate. The thesis is that, as people escape material suffering, they move on to ‘higher’ needs such as self-actualisation, which capitalism is less able to meet. This is an interesting theory, but one with certain gaps. Why, for instance, do indigenous groups seem so focused on non-material goods?

Self-actualisation can also be given a psychoanalytic gloss: self-knowledge becomes a means to true happiness because neurosis is a barrier to happiness. In particular, happiness or expression can be counterposed to security as a goal of life.

An ethic of activity, where virtues must be displayed and tested to exist, poses starkly the question, in Erich Fromm’s terms, of to ‘be’ or ‘do’ rather than to ‘have’. The loss of public forums and spaces, the colonisation of the time of life by work and consumption, the alleged ‘smothering’ of people (especially children) by fear of danger, and the actual multiplication of dangers and exclusions in public space (for instance, due to the rise of cars), might all be seen as impeding the emergence of spaces in which development might occur.

Certain of Aristotle’s ideas become much more radical once problematic empirical claims are removed from his account. He has even been interpreted as laying the seeds for anarchism. This is because his argument against slavery, except for ‘natural’ slaves, implies that subordination of a ‘free’ person is never justified.

On the other hand, the essentialist derivation is widely criticised today. In contemporary critical theory, it is well-known that linguistic categories differ between place and time. What defines one thing as different from another – indeed, whether they’re seen as different at all – is a product of these linguistic choices. To point to the characteristic which leads to a certain definition – which for instance, separates humans from other beings – is actually to point to an arbitrary feature of language, not a specially important aspect of the being itself.

For Agamben for instance, the distinction between bare life (which simply exists) and politically qualified life (which has attained a higher purpose) has dangerous overtones of genocide and discrimination.

Similarly, the idea of using a particular model of the ‘good man’ (presumably either the social in-group or the thinker’s particular position) as a benchmark for others opens the door to all kinds of prejudicial assumptions. Why should we assume that the ‘normal’ experience is the best?

Furthermore, the choice of which type of person is good or normal is made from the standpoint of an in-group of similarly self-defining people. This group’s assertion of itself as the ideal is necessarily arbitrary.

The idea that the world has a single, natural and moral order in which people, things, and body parts have fixed meanings is clearly involved in oppressive discourses such as homophobia. It is easy to see how the idea of a single human ‘end’ and a fixed essence can become exclusionary of difference.

In order to believe that one group’s viewpoint is a true view of a rationally ordered world, it is necessary to reduce other kinds of knowledge to the status of falsity. It’s also rather unclear how someone can be sure their own view is the truth, if they recognise that false socialisation can disguise the truth from others. How can one be sure that invisible social pressures haven’t similarly distorted one’s own view?

Korzybski goes as far as to term his constructivist methodology ‘non-Aristotelian’, in contrast with what he takes to be the Aristotelian bias of most contemporary philosophy. For Korzybski, Aristotle’s contribution is encompassed in the subordination of experienced realities (extension) to inner categories (intension). The latter are taken as some kind of essence, when they’re really just a way of classifying the far more amorphous and diverse realities occurring in extension.

Greece in European thought

But why is Aristotle so important today in any case? In large part, he inherits his influence from the role of Ancient Greece in the European imaginary. Greek thought has a peculiar position in dominant, western philosophical thought. This is because Ancient Greece (and Rome) has a special place in the story which Europeans are told about what Europe is, and how it came into being. This story was partly written through movements such as the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which looked to ancient models to revitalise the thought of their day.

The idea of Europe as the birthplace of philosophy contributes to a broader narrative in which Europe is the centre of world culture, the location of reason and freedom, and the deserved ruler of the world. This is, of course, an ideological story which conceals the role of colonialism in European dominance.

Greek thought is, in a certain sense, always between indigenous and modern. Greece may have had a statist and mercantile public sphere in which modernists see their beginnings, but it was also a site in which the tropes of ancient gods of indigenous origin were widespread: carnivalesque ‘panic’ festivals, harvest spirits, future-seeing oracles and so on. This infuses Greek philosophy with a certain sense of immanence which the (so to speak) proto-modernists of elite philosophy are partly embracing, partly rebelling against.

In any event, these theories were not taking place in ‘Europe’. Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism clearly shows that Ancient Greece was part of a Mediterranean region (also containing such powerhouses as Babylon, Persia and Egypt), which at the time was the centre or core of the world-economy (at least of Europe, Africa and Asia). It contrasted sharply with then-peripheral areas of Northern Europe which were to become the core of the later, Eurocentric world-economy.

Europe thus naturalises and mystifies its own centrality (which is really an effect of colonialism) by misreading it backwards into Greece, misidentifying Mediterranean Greece as part of Europe. Martin Bernal goes further, arguing that most of the discoveries of classical civilisation actually came from Africa or Asia.

It should further be added that the view of Greece as the ‘birthplace of philosophy’ is inaccurate. Hilosophical ideas had existed much earlier, for example, in India (Hindu religious/philosophical texts such as the Baghavad-Gita) and in China (the Confucian, Taoist, Mohist and various other traditions of civic philosophy). In addition, philosophy is arguably always present in everyday life, in the formulation of local knowledges.

Greece is arguably the birthplace of a certain style of philosophy which later came to underpin European philosophy. This is unsurprising, since European philosophy borrowed its early ideas from Ancient Greece. But this argument should not be overstated. For one thing, there are immense differences in what Greek philosophers were trying to do, and the way their ideas were used by European philosophers.

There are various accounts for the peculiarities of Greek philosophy. Authors such as Jean-Pierre Vernant suggest that Greek philosophy is a product of the special conditions of Greek ‘democracy’ (it should be remembered that this was nothing like today’s ideas of democracy: women, slaves and migrants were unable to participate, and the procedures which happened were as much direct as representative). It is argued that philosophy is made possible by the public space of the agora, the discussion arena in which Athenian democracy took place.

Deleuze offers a different account, arguing that (modern/royal) philosophy was born in Greece because of the peculiar intersection of urban power with flows of migration and colonisation. Philosophy is born of ‘geophilosophy’, and begins when the stranger enters the city. It is stimulated by contact with difference. It should also be viewed in relation to its ‘others’ – the women, migrants and slaves who played no part in Greek ‘democracy’.

Greek philosophers were generally more like lifestyle gurus than modern philosophers. Their job was to provide accounts of the good life to the Greek elite. European philosophers, in contrast, were looking for a separation from the intellectual life of their day. Their accounts of ‘reason’ were correspondingly abstract, almost ascetic, and directed more to social organisation than everyday life. Greek thought was also unapologetically elitist, in contrast with Enlightenment thinkers who sought to tear down the elitism of their day, and to create a kind of levelling rationalism.

There is also the quiet, downplayed influence of medieval Islamic thought on the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In many ways, it was the Arab world which kept the Greek heritage alive during the long European ‘dark age’, when European thinkers turned away from philosophy towards religion. And many Renaissance/Enlightenment works, such as those of Dante and Machiavelli, are imitated from Islamic rather than Greek models.

It also needs to be remembered that the power of the state in everyday life was actually extremely limited in the ancient world, by modern standards. The state was largely reliant on some mixture of custom and patrimonialism to obtain any degree of compliance. Its main field of intrusion into everyday life was in the field of war and the military. There was no possibility of micro-regulating how people lived. This is one of the reasons Foucault is attracted to Ancient Greek practices of ‘care for the self’, which he sees as pointing towards less oppressive models of power.

In contrast, modern philosophy makes Greek philosophy increasingly dangerous by attaching it onto the techniques of modern disciplines. An idea such as forcing people to live a good life through conformity to the state is made far more menacing as state power increases. Aristotle demands that citizens (from the elite only) participate in and identify with the city-state, yet this occurs in a context where the state is highly dependent on the citizens. The modern state with its military-industrial complex is independent of its citizens and tends to treat them like slaves. This turns modern civic republicanism into something far more totalitarian than Aristotle could imagine.

The applicability of thinkers such as Aristotle is limited by the status of modern political entities as ‘imagined communities’. Aristotle’s approach, and that of early civic republicans, relies on a relatively small-scale political community in which the citizens directly participate in the life of the state and have self-interest in preserving their community’s existence.

Some of the ways in which Aristotle might remain relevant despite the fallacies of the Eurocentric reading have been outlined above. Another possible reason why a critical reading remains relevant can also be added.

I’ve already suggested that Aristotle was prone to the just-world fallacy. He conveniently believed that various practices prevalent in his day just happened, in addition to being prevalent, were also the logical outcome of reason, and characteristics of a rationally ordered world.

For instance, Aristotle provides a detailed justification for the practice of slavery in Ancient Greece. Marx argues that this justification occurs because slavery was a real underpinning of the ancient way of life, from which Aristotle was a beneficiary.

This was not a unique instance. Aristotle’s theory is awash with claims of this kind: that women are not equal to men; that children with disabilities should be killed at birth; the assumption that all political entities will take the same form as Greek city-states; the beliefs that households should involve absolute rule of a man over his wife, children and property, and so on.

It seems to show, however, that philosophy of this kind is not immune to the prejudices, or contingent socialisations, of its day. Philosophers usually claim to be deriving abstract truths from deductive processes which are independent of when and where they are formulated. Yet their theories are often riddled with occasions where they have patently failed to do this. Sometimes hard to spot in contemporary theories (since they express prejudices which many readers share), such examples are easy to spot in classical theorists operating in a different context. In each case, the view in question appears to have come from the philosophical deduction, but conveniently dovetails with the assumptions of the dominant social system.

The point to remember here is that these kinds of oversights, or convenient agreements, are just as common, if not more so, in contemporary analytical philosophy. Hunting out such biases in a thinker such as Aristotle can make it easier to spot them in today’s theorists – or even in ourselves.

Why, for instance, does Aristotle’s insistence on the primacy of law seem valid to many readers, whereas his defence of slavery does not? One could argue that it is simply because forms of oppression based on state power remain central to today’s systems of domination, whereas slavery is far more irregular and unrecognised.

It is perhaps in spotting such quiet complicities, convenient dovetailings of theory and the present, and unquestioned persistences of dominant structures that the study of the history of ideas is most useful. By situating the complicities of past theorists in their contexts, it becomes easier to catch our own.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.

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