Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Aristotle's Politics

The ancients are seductive. Although Aristotle is very clearly the product of significant cultural accumulation, there remains a sense, a feeling, that in order to understand this, I don’t really have to go further back. Aristotle is not to be explained, but rather explains; of course an illusion, but a sort of pleasant one. I have begun, perhaps wrongly, with The Politics. I’m using the translation by Jonathan Barnes, in the Cambridge edition edited by Stephen Everson.

The physicality of Aristotle’s analysis is striking. There are definitions and distinctions, but the project itself never gets very far away from the practical being-together of human beings. One reason I turned, finally, to Aristotle is Hannah Arendt. Yet her notion of ‘the political’ is infinitely more abstracted than his. I saw recently an article, I think in JHI, pointing out that the polis is always implicit behind Arendt’s discussion of the political. Reading On Revolution, I myself wanted to ask about place in the sense of geography. If I had more energy, I would dig back through the book, and submit this notion of the place of politics to a critique with the resources suggested in David Harvey’s Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom. It becomes a problem for Arendt’s whole way of thinking that politics only really happens when humans are face to face, talking with one another. This seems totally inadequate to the modern world, a sort of deep utopianism. In a sort of reverse move, Claude Lefort’s formalism (for lack of a better word), seems equally utopian, so abstracted from the essential problem of getting human beings to do one thing rather than another, as to be, well, philosophically rather than politically useful.

Aristotle, on the other hand, is never far not only from humans facing one another, but from their bodies themselves. The Politics begins with a consideration of the practical necessities for the sustenance of human life. It ends with what seems today to be an over-long consideration on the proper place of music in education—what effect do certain rhythmic structures and music modes have on the development of body and mind? Aristotle often compares the state to a body, in order to argue that proper proportion is crucial for excellence. Yet more physical, bodily, evidence runs throughout the work. For instance in book V, which treats revolutions and is, interesting, the most empirical chapter, we get the following example, “In the conspiracy against Archelaus, Decamnichus stimulated the fury of the assassins and led the attack; he was enraged because Archelaus had delivered him to Euripides to be scourges; for the poet had been irritated at some remark made by Decamnichus on the foulness of his breath” (1311b.30). The passions of individuals are always an important consideration in politics—sex, therefore, is never far away. Also in book V, in the Machiavellian second half (on preventing revolutions), he advises, “neither he [the tyrant] nor any of his associates should ever assault the young of either sex who are his subjects, and the women of his family should observe a like self-control towards other women; the insolence of women has ruined many tyrannies” (1314b.25). I don’t remember Machiavelli talking particularly about sex; I do remember, however, that he says it is better to kill a man’s relative than strip him of his property, because he will forget the former faster than the latter. I doubt Aristotle—despite several times repeating the parable about cutting down the tallest corn-stalks—could bring himself to think such a thing.

Related to this, and one of the moments of estrangement for me in the text, were all the discussions of the common meal. It was evidently a widespread custom in the polis for all the citizens to eat meals in common, not always in one place, since their numbers were too great, but in common eating-rooms. Aristotle at several points discusses the best way of organizing this custom, its benefits, the problems that can arise. More than that, though, the example and metaphor of the public feast is nearly as important for him as is that of the body. This is to say that the physiognomy of the feast is well enough known that it can serve as evidence for other things. For instance, “Now any member of the assembly, taken separately, is certainly inferior to the wise man. But the state is made up of many individuals. And as a feast to which all the guests contribute I better than a banquet furnished by a single man, so a multitude is a better judge of many things than an individual” (1286a.28). Perhaps the importance of the meal in common should not surprise me (there is, after all, the Symposium, or Banquet). Still, it is a reminder of a very different mental world underneath what sometimes seems like quite a familiar one. Although, the familiarity and strangeness of this, “children should have something to do, and the rattle of Archytas, which people give to their children in order to amuse them and prevent them from breaking anything in the house, was a capital invention, for a young thing cannot be quiet” (1340b.26), with loud children everyone is familiar, but the idea that you might be able to cite the name of the person who invented the rattle…well, here is just another reason for the seductive (which is to say, to be resisted) feeling that Aristotle is in some profound way an origin, a beginning.

I have read elsewhere references to, discussions of, Aristotle’s treatment of the economy in The Politics. More interesting was what I can only call a sociology of political forms that emerges from its pages. For instance,

The first governments were kingships, probably for this reason because of old, when cities were small, men of eminent excellence were few. Further, they were made kings because they were benefactors, and benefits can only be bestowed by good men. But when many persons equal in merit arose, no longer enduring the pre-eminence of one, they desired to have a commonwealth, and set up a constitution. The ruling class soon deteriorated and enriched themselves out of the public treasury; riches became the path to honour, and so oligarchies naturally grew up. These passes into tyrannies and tyrannies into democracies; for love of gain in the ruling classes was always tending to diminish their number, and so to strengthen the masses who in the end set upon their masters and established democracies. Since cities have increased in size, no other form of government appears to be any longer even easy to establish. (1286b.10-20)

This is not so very far away from certain pages in, say, Durkheim’s Division du travail social, on the extent and density of society. Although I’m wary of the term ‘middle-class’ as it appears in this translation, we must surely also see a sort of political sociology behind such statements as, “a government which is composed of the middle class more nearly approximates to democracy than to oligarchy, and is the safest of the imperfect forms of government” (1302a.14). It is hard not to find some kind of Tocquevillian ‘proleptic shadow’ in an analysis of the present such as this, “Royalties do not now come into existence; where such forms of government arise, they are rather monarchies or tyrannies. For the rule of a king is over voluntary subjects, and his is supreme in all important matters; but in our own day men are more and more upon an equality, and no one is so immeasurably superior to others as to represent adequately the greatness and dignity of the office” (1313a.4-9). Aristotle comes to the conclusion that “the best material of democracy is an agricultural population” (1318b.10) through a consideration of the economic necessities of agriculture, and the (few) possibilities it leaves open for political activity. The examples of this sort of thing could be multiplied.

The point for me is that this sort of analysis—linking political forms to quite concrete social realities—no longer seems to make any sense. Why is that? An obvious answer would be that Aristotle’s world was the polis, most of which contained similar institutions, and most of which were small enough that their leadership could not be too separate from their day-to-day life. A person such as Aristotle might well come to know a great deal about all parts of life in such a society. Today, this is simply no longer possible. Even a reasonably small polity is massively more diverse than a Greek polis. But of course this line of reasoning, although it abolishes itself at the end, is just the same as Aristotle’s—it basis political theory on practical reality, although it begins by claiming that the practical reality is unknowable. I think the key here really is the space of politics. For Aristotle and Arendt, it was contained, limited, knowable. Today it is endlessly multiple. The question would be, is it fractal, and therefore in a sense knowable? or is it chaotic and basically available only in fragments? The Marxist answer is fractal, the ‘liberal’ one chaotic. That’s one way of thinking about things, at any rate.

Although I’ve said almost nothing about the ‘political theory’ elaborated in The Politics (what is democracy? What is a polity? What is the nature of a good constitution?), I will finish by remarking on the adjectival nature of most of Aristotle’s analyses. (I am tempted to grammatically summarize Greek philosophy: Heraclitus, verbs; Plato, nouns; Aristotle, adjectives—have I read that somewhere before?) Although Aristotle does, of course, describe ‘an oligarchy’ or ‘a tyranny,’ the bulk of his theoretical elaboration, it seems to me, goes into establishing the ends, therefore the natures, of these forms and then pointing to certain institutions as democratic, oligarchical, and so forth. I had often in the past heard of Aristotle’s ‘teleological’ method, but I had not realized that this might be what it meant. How rigorously must this be distinguished from a Weberian notion of ‘ideal types’? It bears some thinking about.

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