Durant 1926: Politics (Aristotle)

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 8 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


VIII. Politics

1. Communism and Conservatism 

From so aristocratic an ethic there naturally follows (or was the sequence the other way?) a severely aristocratic political philosophy. It was not to be expected that the tutor of an emperor and the husband of a princess would have any exaggerated attachment to the common people, or even to the mercantile bourgeoisie; our philosophy is where our treasure lies. But further, Aristotle was honestly conservative because of the turmoil and disaster that had come out of Athenian democracy; like a typical scholar he longed for order, security, and peace; this, he felt, was no time for political extravaganzas. Radicalism is a luxury of stability; we may dare to change things only when things lie steady under our hands. And in general, says Aristotle, “the habit of lightly changing the laws is an evil; and when the advantage of change is small, some defects whether in the law or in the ruler had better be met with philosophic toleration. The citizen will gain less by the change than he will lose by acquiring the habit of disobedience.” The power of the law to secure observance, and therefore to maintain political stability, rests very largely on custom; and “to pass lightly from old laws to new ones is a certain means of weakening the inmost essence of all law whatever.” “Let us not disregard the experience of ages: surely, in the multitude of years, these things, if they were good, would not have remained unknown.”

The primary requirement of any government is that it can maintain stability. Defects will be there but any improvements must be be made slowly with great care so as not to disturb the stability. The power of the law to secure observance, and therefore to maintain political stability, rests very largely on custom.

“These things,” of course, means chiefly Plato’s communistic republic. Aristotle fights the realism of Plato about universals, and the idealism of Plato about government. He finds many dark spots in the picture painted by the Master. He does not relish the barrack-like continuity of contact to which Plato apparently condemned his guardian philosophers; conservative though he is, Aristotle values individual quality, privacy, and liberty above social efficiency and power. He would not care to call every contemporary brother or sister, nor every elder person father or mother; if all are your brothers, none is; and “how much better it is to be the real cousin of somebody than to be a son after Plato’s fashion!” In a state having women and children in common, “love will be watery… Of the two qualities which chiefly inspire regard and affection—that a thing is your own, and that it awakens real love in you—neither can exist in such a state” as Plato’s.

According to Aristotle, Plato’s ideals of communistic republic are in conflict with the Greek custom that has long provided stability.

Perhaps there was, in the dim past, a communistic society, when the family was the only state, and pasturage or simple tillage the only form of life. But “in a more divided state of society,” where the division of labor into unequally important functions elicits and enlarges the natural inequality of men, communism breaks down because it provides no adequate incentive for the exertion of superior abilities. The stimulus of gain is necessary to arduous work; and the stimulus of ownership is necessary to proper industry, husbandry and care. When everybody owns everything nobody will take care of anything. “That which is common to the greatest number has the least attention bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly ever of the public, interest.” And “there is always a difficulty in living together, or having things in common, but especially in having common property. The partnerships of fellow-travelers” (to say nothing of the arduous communism of marriage), “are an example to the point; for they generally fall out by the way, and quarrel about any trifle that turns up.”

Communistic ideas may work in a simple society where we do not have division of labor into unequally important functions. But those ideas break down in a more advanced society because they provide no adequate incentive for the exertion of superior abilities. When everybody owns everything nobody will take care of anything. Such is human nature.

“Men readily listen” to Utopias, “and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody’s friend, especially when some one is heard denouncing the evils now existing, … which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, arise from quite another source—the wickedness of human-nature.”* Political science does not make men, but must take them as they come from nature.” 

*[Note that conservatives are pessimists, and radicals are optimists, about human nature, which is probably neither so good nor so bad as they would like to believe, and may be not so much nature as early training and environment.]

Evils do not arise out of the possession of private property. They arise from the wickedness of human-nature.

And human nature, the human average, is nearer to the beast than to the god. The great majority of men are natural dunces and sluggards; in any system whatever these men will sink to the bottom; and to help them with state subsidies is “like pouring water into a leakIng cask.” Such people must be ruled in politics and directed in industry; with their consent if possible, without it if necessary. “From the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, and others for command.” “For he who can foresee with his mind is by nature intended to be lord and master; and he who can work only with his body is by nature a slave.”* The slave is to the master what the body is to the mind; and as the body should be subject to the mind, so “it is better for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.” “The slave is a tool with life in it, the tool is a lifeless slave.” And then our hard-hearted philosopher, with a glimmer of possibilities which the Industrial Revolution has opened to our hands, writes for a moment with wistful hope: “If every instrument would accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, … if the shuttle would weave, or the plectrum touch the lyre, without a hand to guide them, then chief work-men would not need assistants, nor masters slaves.”

*[Perhaps slave is too harsh a rendering of doulos; the word was merely a frank recognition of a brutal fact which in our day is perfumed with talk about the dignity of labor and the brotherhood of man. We easily excel the ancients in making phrases.]

Human nature divides people among those who are fit for command and others who need to be ruled. Ideally every person should simply do their job efficiently.

This philosophy typifies the Greek disdain for manual labor. Such work in Athens had not become so complicated as it is today, when the intelligence demanded in many manual trades is at times much greater than that required for the operations of the lower middle class, and even a college professor may look upon an automobile mechanic (in certain exigencies) as a very god; manual work was then merely manual, and Aristotle looked down upon it, from the heights of philosophy, as belonging to men without minds, as only fit for slaves, and only fitting men for slavery. Manual labor, he believes, dulls and deteriorates the mind, and leaves neither time nor energy for political intelligence; it seems to Aristotle a reasonable corollary that only persons of some leisure should have a voice in government. “The best form of state will not admit mechanics to citizenship. … At Thebes there was a law that no man could hold office who had not retired from business ten years before.” Even merchants and financiers are classed by Aristotle among slaves. “Retail trade is unnatural, … and a mode by which men gain from one another. The most hated sort of such exchange is …usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from its natural use. For money was intended as an instrument of exchange, and not as the mother of interest. This usury (tokos), which means the birth of money from money, … is of all modes of gain the most unnatural.”* Money should not breed. Hence “the discussion of the theory of finance is not unworthy of philosophy; but to be engaged in finance, or in money-making, is unworthy of a free man.” ** 

*[This view influenced the medieval prohibition of interest.]

**[Aristotle adds that philosophers could succeed in such fields if they cared to descend into them; and he proudly points to Thales, who, foreseeing a good harvest, bought up all the reapers in his city, and then, at harvest time, sold them at his own sweet price; whereupon Aristotle observes that the universal secret of great riches is the creation of a monopoly.]

Only those who are self-sufficient, and are persons of some leisure, should have a voice in government.


2. Marriage and Education 

Woman is to man as the slave to the master, the manual to the mental worker, the barbarian to the Greek. Woman is an unfinished man, left standing on a lower step in the scale of development.* The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; the one rules and the other is ruled; and this principle extends, of necessity, to all mankind.” Woman is weak of will, and therefore incapable of independence of character or position; her best condition is a quiet home life in which, while ruled by the man in her external relations, she may be in domestic affairs supreme. Women should not be made more like men, as in Plato’s republic; rather the dissimilarity should be increased; nothing is so attractive as the different. “The courage of a man and that of a woman are not, as Socrates supposed, the same: the courage of a man is shown in commanding; that of a woman in obeying. … As the poet says, ‘Silence is a woman’s glory.'”

*[De Gen. Animalium, ii, 8; Hist. Animalium, viii, 1; Pol., i, 5. Cf. Weininger; and Meredith’s “Woman will be the last thing civilized by man” (Ordeal of Richard Feverel, p. 1). It appears, however, that man was (or will be) the last thing civilized by woman; for the great civilizing agencies are the family and a settled economic life; and both of these are the creations of woman.]

Women are very different from man in their spheres of operation. That difference should be increased, not decreased.

Aristotle seems to suspect that this ideal enslavement of woman is a rare achievement for man, and that as often as not the sceptre is with the tongue rather than with the arm. As if to give the male an indispensable advantage, he advises him to defer marriage till the vicinity of thirty-seven, and then to marry a lass of some twenty years. A girl who is rounding the twenties is usually the equal of a man of thirty, but may perhaps be managed by a seasoned warrior of thirty-seven. What attracts Aristotle to this matrimonial mathematics is the consideration that two such disparate persons will lose their reproductive power and passions at approximately the same time. “If the man is still able to beget children while the woman is unable to bear them, or vice versa, quarrels and differences will arise. … Since the time of generation is commonly limited within the age of seventy years in the man, and fifty in the woman, the commencement of their union should conform to these periods. The union of male and female when too young is bad for the creation of children; in all animals the off-spring of the young are small and ill-developed, and generally female.” Health is more important than love. Further, “it conduces to temperance not to marry too soon; for women who marry early are apt to be wanton; and in men too the bodily frame is stunted if they marry while they are growing.”* These matters should not be left to youthful caprice, they should be under state supervision and control: the state should determine the minimum and maximum ages of marriage for each sex, the best seasons for conception, and the rate of increase in population. If the natural rate of increase is too high, the cruel practice of infanticide may be replaced by abortion; and “let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun.” There is an ideal number of population for every state, varying with its position and resources. “A state when composed of too few is not, as a state should be, self-sufficing; while if it has too many … it becomes a nation and not a state, and is almost incapable of constitutional government,” or of ethnic or political unity. Anything in excess of a population of 10,000 is undesirable. 

*[It is apparent that Aristotle has in mind only the temperance of women; the moral effect of deferred marriage upon men does not seem to agitate him.]

Health is more important than love. Health is affected when one marries too young. Aristotle supports abortion when the natural rate of increase in population is too high.

Education, too, should be in the hands of the state. “That which most contributes to the permanence of constitutions is the adaptation of education to the form of government. … The citizen should be moulded to the form of government under which he lives.” By state control of schools we might divert men, from industry and trade to agriculture; and we might train men, while keeping property private, to open their possessions to discriminately common use. “Among good men, with respect to the use of property, the proverb will hold, that ‘friends should have all things in common.'” But above all, the growing citizen must be taught obedience to law, else a state is impossible. “It has been well said that ‘he who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.’ … The good citizen should be capable of both.” And only a state system of schools can achieve social unity amid ethnic heterogeneity; the state is a plurality which must be made into a unity and a community by education. Let youth be taught, too. the great boon it has in the state, the unappreciated security which comes of social organization, the freedom that comes of law. “Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but when isolated he is the worst of all; for injustice is more dangerous when armed, and man is equipped at birth with the weapon of intelligence, and with qualities of character which he may use for the vilest ends. Wherefore if he have not virtue he is the most unholy and savage of animals, full of gluttony and lust.” And only social control can give him virtue. Through speech man evolved society; through society, intelligence; through intelligence, order; and through order, civilization. In such an ordered state the individual has a thousand opportunities and avenues of development open to him which a solitary life would never give. “To live alone,”: then, “one must be either an animal or a god.”*

*[“Or,” adds Nietzsche, who takes nearly all of his political philosophy from Aristotle, “one must be both—that is, a philosopher.”]

According to Aristotle, the citizen should be moulded to the form of government under which he lives. The growing citizen must be taught obedience to law, else a state is impossible. 

Hence revolution is almost always unwise; it may achieve, some good, but at the cost of many evils, the chief of which is the disturbance, and perhaps the dissolution, of that social order and structure on which every political good depends. The direct consequences of revolutionary innovations may be calculable and salutary; but the indirect are generally incalculable, and not seldom disastrous. “They who take only a few points into account find it easy to pronounce judgment”; and a man can make up his mind quickly if he has only a little to make up. “Young men are easily deceived, for they are quick to hope.” The suppression of long-established habits brings the overthrow of innovating governments because the old habits persist among the people; characters are not so easily changed as laws. If a constitution is to be permanent, all the parts of a society must desire it to be maintained. Therefore a ruler who would avoid revolution should prevent extremes of poverty and wealth,—“a condition which isoften the result of war”; he should (like the English) encourage colonization as an outlet for a dangerously congested population; and he should foster and practice’ religion. An autocratic ruler particularly “should appear to he earnest in the worship of the gods; for if men think that a ruler is religious and reveres the gods, they are less afraid of suffering injustice at his hands, and are less disposed to conspire against him, since they believe that the gods themselves are fighting on his side.” 

According to Aristotle, a ruler who would avoid revolution should prevent extremes of poverty and wealth. A ruler who reveres the gods is trusted more by the population.


3. Democracy and Ariatocracy 

With such safeguards in religion, in education, and in the ordering of family life, almost any of the traditional forms of government will serve. All forms have good and bad commingled in them, and are severally adapted to various conditions. Theoretically, the ideal form of government would be the centralization of all political power in the one best man. Homer is right: “Bad is the lordship of many; let one be your ruler and master.” For such a man law would be rather an instrument than a limit: “for men of eminent ability there is no law—they are themselves a law. Anyone would be ridiculous who should attempt to make laws for them; they would probably retort what, in the fable of Antisthenes, the lions said to the hares when, in the council of beasts, the latter began haranguing and claiming equality for all— “Where are your claws?”*

*[Aristotle probably had Alexander or Philip in mind while writing this passage, just as Nietzsche seems to have been influenced towards similar conclusions by the alluring careers of Bismarck and Napoleon.]

Theoretically, the ideal form of government would be the centralization of all political power in the one best man. For such a man law would be rather an instrument than a limit.

But in practice, monarchy is usually the worst form of government, for great strength and great virtue are not near allied. Hence the best practicable polity is aristocracy, the rule of the informed and capable few. Government is too complex a thing to have its issues decided by number, when lesser issues are reserved for knowledge and ability. “As the physician ought to be judged by the physician, so ought men in general to be judged by their peers. … Now does not this same principle apply to elections? For a right election can only be made by those who have knowledge: a geometrician, e.g., will choose rightly in matters of geometry; or a pilot in matters of navigation. …* So that neither the election of magistrates nor the calling of them to account should be entrusted to the many.” 

*[Politics, iii, 11. Cf. the modem argument for “occupational representatlon.”]

But in practice, the rule of the informed and capable few is the best form of government. A right election can only be made by those who have knowledge.

The difficulty with hereditary aristocracy is that it has no permanent economic base; the eternal recurrence of the nouveaux riches puts political office sooner or later at the disposal of the highest bidder. “It is surely a bad thing that the greatest offices … should be bought. The law which permits this abuse makes wealth of more account than ability, and the whole state becomes avaricious. For whenever the chiefs of the state deem anything honorable, the other citizens are sure to follow their example” (the “prestige imitation” of modern social psychology); “and where ability has not the first place there is no real aristocracy.”

Aristocracy is the rule of the informed and capable few, but where ability has not the first place there is no real aristocracy.

Democracy is usually the result of a revolution against plutocracy. “Love of gain in the ruling classes tends constantly to diminish their number” (Marx’s “elimination of the middle class”), “and so to strengthen the masses, who in the end set upon their masters and establish democracies.” This “rule by the poor” has some advantages. “The people, though individually they may be worse judges than those who have special knowledge, are collectively as good. Moreover, there are some artists whose works are best judged not by themselves alone, but by those who do not possess the art; e.g., the user or master of a house will be a better judge of it than the builder; … and the guest will be a better judge of a feast than the cook.” And “the many are more incorruptible than the few; they are like the greater quantity of water which is less easily spoiled than a little. The individual is liable to be overcome by anger, or by some other passion, and then his judgment is necessarily perverted; but it is hardly to be supposed that a great number of persons would all get into a passion and go wrong at the same moment.”*

*[Politics, iii, 15. Tarde, Le Bon and other social psychologists assert precisely the contrary; and though they exaggerate the vices of the crowd, they might find better support than Aristotle in the behavior of the Athenian Assembly 430-380 B.C.]

If the governing class is constantly seeking wealth, there is a conflict of interests. Those governed will ultimately revolt and establish a rule by majority.

Yet democracy is on the whole inferior to aristocracy. For it is based on a false assumption of equality; it “arises out of the notion that those who are equal in one respect (e.g., in respect of the law) are equal in all respects; because men are equally free they claim to be absolutely equal.” The upshot is that ability is sacrificed to number, while numbers are manipulated by trickery. Because the people are so easily misled, and so fickle in their views, the ballot should be limited to the intelligent. What we need is a combination of aristocracy and democracy. 

But the rule by majority is inferior to the rule by informed and capable few, because majority may not be capable. A capable majority is the best possible governing body.

Constitutional government offers this happy union. It is not the best conceivable government—that would be an aristocracy of education—but it is the best possible state. “We must ask what is the best constitution for most states, and the best life for most men; neither assuming a standard of excellence which will be above ordinary persons, nor an education exceptionally favored by nature or circumstance, nor yet an ideal state which will be only an aspiration; but having in mind such a life as the majority will be able to share, and a form of government to which states in general can attain.” “It is necessary to begin by assuming a principle of general application, namely, that that part of the state which desires the continuance of the government must be stronger than that which does not”; and strength consists neither in number alone, nor in property alone, nor in military or political ability alone, but in a combination of these, so that regard has to be taken of “freedom, wealth, culture and noble birth, as well as of mere numerical superiority.” Now where shall we find such an economic majority to support our constitutional government? Perhaps best in the middle class: here again we have the golden mean, just as constitutional government itself would be a mean between democracy and aristocracy. Our state will be sufficiently democratic if the road to every office is open to all; and sufficiently aristocratic if the offices themselves are closed except to those who have traveled the road and arrived fully prepared. From whatever angle we approach our eternal political problem we monotonously reach the same conclusion: that the community should determine the ends to be pursued, but that only experts should select and apply the means; that choice should be democratically spread, but that office should be rigidly reserved for the equipped and winnowed best. 

Constitutional government is the best possible state. Strength consists in a combination of number, property, military and political ability. We may find this in the middle class.

The community should determine the ends to be pursued, but only experts should select and apply the means. Choice should be democratically spread, but the office should be rigidly reserved for the equipped and winnowed best.


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