Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

58. Politics

Note: This post is the fifty-eighth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs.

Today's post is about Aristotle's 'Politics'

Normally, I shun abridged versions of all manner, but after making my way through the 300+ pages of what seemed like a single, long, rambling train of thought, I might make an exception for 'Politics' if I ever decide to read it again.

'Politics' is mostly an investigation into what makes the best form of government, with consideration for other proposals from thinkers who came before Aristotle, and a wealth of detailed consideration of everything from the difference between democracy and oligarchy to the proper age at which men and women should marry (37 and 18, respectively, in case you were wondering). But, as usual, I was reading it with an eye to comments that touch on the 'Systems of Survival' that Jane Jacobs identified.

It's clear from many passages that Aristotle regarded commerce and trade as corrupting and a morally inferior way of making a living:

"Of the two sorts of money-making one, as I have just said, is part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honourable, the latter a kind of exchange which is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another."

...However, he reserved his deepest scorn for the practice of lending at interest, continuing the previous passage...

"The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural use of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term usury, which means the birth of money from money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes of making money this is the most unnatural."

Aristotle's distinction between natural and unnatural economics reminded me of the distinction John Michael Greer made between primary/secondary economies that operated on the basis of negative feedback, and a tertiary (financial) economy that operates on the basis of positive feedback.

Although he offers much criticism of Plato's Republic, Aristotle does mostly agree with Plato on the division of the city into guardian and commercial classes:

"But of these classes we should exclude from the citizen body (1) the mechanics, (2) the traders, (3) the husbandmen. Warriors, rulers, priests remain as eligible for citizenship."

Aristotle goes on to note that this is not a new distinction suggesting it still exists in Egypt and once existed in Italy and Crete, commenting that, "Most of the valuable rules of politics have been discovered over and over again in the course of history."

Aristotle, like virtually all the people whose work I have reviewed to date in this series, treats 'force and fraud' as a linked pair of attributes, relating to guardian activity (or posing a problem for commercial activity). For example at one point, Aristotle declares that, "Revolutions are effected in two ways, by force and by fraud."

One thing I found interesting was that Aristotle retained throughout the book the pair, 'honour and gain' as the two primary motivations of men:

"Such is the state of mind which creates revolutions. The motives for making them are the desire of gain and honour, or the fear of dishonour and loss."

or later,

"The whole of life is further divided into two parts, business and leisure, war and peace, and all actions into those which are necessary and useful, and those which are honourable. And the preference given to one or other part of the soul and its actions over the other; there must be war for the sake of peace, business for the sake of leisure, things useful and necessary for the sake of things honourable. ... For men must engage in business and go to war, but leisure and peace are better; they must do what is necessary and useful, but what is honourable is better."

I think in the back of my head, as I've been going through this series, I've imagined that the objectives of the guardian and commercial ethical systems could somehow be resolved along a single axis such that one could be made commensurate with the other in some fashion. But I've started to wonder if instead they might be completely distinct in the sense of each syndrome maximizing its own value (honour vs. material gain) rather than both aiming at a single goal (e.g. human welfare, the longevity of society, being fruitful and multiplicitous, what have you) but in different contexts.

Finally, just as an aside, it was interesting to see Aristotle suggest that,
"Communication with the sea is desirable for economic and military reasons; but the moral effects of sea-trade are bad. If the state has a marine, the port town should be at some distance from the city."

Of course, in Aristotle's time, this arrangement was how Athens worked, with the port of Piraeus at some distance. And then after Aristotle's time it was repeated with Rome having Ostia serve as its nearby (but not too nearby) port city. Aristotle doesn't really say what the bad moral effects of sea trade are, but given his disdain for trade as a morally shameful activity, its not surprising that he held this view.

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