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Aristotle’s Philosophy of Equality, Peace, & Democracy

Matt Qvortrup argues that Aristotle’s political philosophy is surprisingly modern.

The son of a doctor, Aristotle was born in the city of Stagira in Macedonia in the year 384 BC, and was educated at Plato’s Academy. When his mentor Plato died in 347 BC, the Macedonian went home and became the tutor of Alexander, the son of King Philip of Macedon. His pupil, who later gained the suffix ‘the Great’, was rather fond of his teacher, and is supposed to have said, “I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well.”

Aristotle stayed at the court of Alexander until 335 BC, when he founded his own academy, the Lyceum, in Athens. He remained in Athens until 323 BC, when anti-Macedonian sentiments forced him to leave. “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy” he said, with reference to the execution of Socrates, and fled to the island of Chalcis, where he died a year later, in 322 BC.

Reading Aristotle is easier than you might think. Even those who are not able to read him in the original Greek cannot fail to be enamoured by his enthusiasm. A fascinating thing about Aristotle’s Politika (in English normally translated as The Politics), for example, is the way this enormously erudite man got carried away in his lectures. For instance, Aristotle simply could not help telling his students about a certain Hippodamus, the son of Eryphon. That Fifth Century BC Athenian was “the first man not engaged in politics to speak on the subject of the best Constitution.” According to Aristotle, this first philosopher of politics was “somewhat eccentric in his general mode of life owing to his desire for distinction… [he] lived fussily, with a quantity of hair and expensive ornaments and a quantity of cheap clothes – not only in winter but also in the summer” (The Politics II, 1268a).

This is perhaps a glimpse of how entertaining Aristotle could be when he lectured in his Lyceum – how he could spellbind his audience with seemingly irrelevant but highly entertaining anecdotes. But his aside about Hippodamus also suggests that Aristotle – the founder of psychology, political science, logic, poetics, physics, biology, and many other disciplines – had a childlike joy in telling his audience about all he knew. No wonder Cicero (106-43 BC), the Roman statesman and philosopher, noted that Aristotle’s writings were veniet flumen orationis aureum fundens – “like a pouring out of gold” (Academia Priora, Book II). And yet we don’t even have Aristotelian treatises: his only surviving books are lecture notes.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) portrait by Darren McAndrew 2016

Aristotle & Progressive Politics

What’s most engaging about Aristotle’s political philosophy is how modern and progressive he was. His considerations speak through the ages and can inspire those who read him more than 2,200 years later. Aristotle was not merely a philosopher who wrote about contemporary institutions and the ideal constitution (though he did that too); he had foresight, or so it seems today. Many of the issues he addressed are also ones that concern us: terrorism, inequality, and the dangers of excessive greed in a small class of wealthy individuals. Moreover, his solutions and analyses are remarkably relevant for our time. It’s both surprising and extraordinary how Aristotle’s science of government – his politike épistême – was based on ideals that arguably could have been expressed by activists on the left in the West today. For instance, perhaps surprisingly, the man who had tutored a king was no friend of the rich and powerful. Rather, this founder of political science boldly stated that “the truly democratic statesman must study how the multitude may be saved from extreme poverty” (The Politics, 1320a). This makes him an inspiration to modern left-leaning progressives, who once again place equality and social justice at the heart of the political struggle. Aristotle was, it can fairly be said, a democratic socialist two thousand years before this economic doctrine was established. He insisted that “measures must be contrived that bring about lasting prosperity for all” (1320a), and like a present-day centre-left politician, he was willing to advocate the redistribution of wealth on the grounds that this would be better for the state and the nation as a whole. He even spelled out how this could be done: “The proper course,” he wrote, “is to collect all the proceeds of the revenue into a fund and distribute this in lump sums.” Indeed, he even had a policy that suggested how the needy should be “supplied with capital to start them in business” (1320a). This is not a million miles away from what enlightened liberals and social democrats espouse today. And like modern centre-left progressives, he was adamant that redistribution and state intervention not only benefitted the poor, but that this was “advantageous also for the well-to-do” (1320a).

Aristotle was not anti-business, but he was always clear that “money was brought into existence for the purpose of exchange” and not as an end in itself (1258b). He famously made a distinction between oikonomia – “the art of household management” (1258b) and kremastike – “the art of getting rich” (1253b). His misgivings about the excesses of self-interest was reflected in his policy prescriptions: “the first among the indispensable services [rendered by a state] is the superintendence of the market” (1321b), he wrote in a perhaps prescient comment on the dangers of deregulation. Who needs to read Thomas Piketty’s otherwise impressive Capital in the Twenty-First Century, or Nobel laureate Paul Krugman’s columns in the New York Times, when they can read Politika? Aristotle should be an inspiration to today’s centre-left not least because the bearded Macedonian based his political thinking on a solid foundation of morals and a concern for those with fewer resources. Indeed, this philosophical basis makes Aristotle superior to many present-day public intellectuals. Today politicians usually appeal to self-interest and utility. For Aristotle, conversely, “to seek utility everywhere is unsuited for free men” (1338b). Rather, a political science should be based on recognition that “the good life is the chief aim of society” (1278b). Hence Aristotle wrote that it is “the business of the lawgiver to create the good society.” For as he wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, the prequel to The Politics, politics, being an extension of ethics and morals, “legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, and the end of this political science must be the good for man.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a) In other words, we have politics, and we teach political philosophy, because we want to create true happiness, or eudaimonia – to achieve a state where our “actions accord with virtue (arête) [and] with an adequate supply of goods in a complete life.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a)

Politics is not just about self-interest and aggrandizement, then. It is about recognizing that “the state is essentially a community.” (The Politics, 1260b) In plain words, “the state is not merely a sharing of a common locality for the purpose of preventing mutual injury and exchanging goods.” (1280b) Systems of exchange and financial matters, Aristotle admits, “are necessary preconditions of a state’s existence. Yet even if all these conditions are present, that does not make a state. For a state is a partnership of families and clans living well and its object is the full and independent life.” (1280b)

Aristotle & Political Violence

Of course, not all of Aristotle’s views have stood the test of times – his views on slavery and women are particularily problematic. But this does not mean we should disregard his philosophy. After all, few Christians agree entirely with the Bible, both Old and New Testaments; and most modern (neo-) Darwinists allow themselves to disagree with parts of the Origin of Species.

Most prominent political philosophers were strangely one- or two-dimensional. Thomas Hobbes focussed almost exclusively on peace and security; John Locke was concerned about property and liberty; and Karl Marx focussed his thinking on attacking an unjust economic system. By contrast, Aristotle, even more than Plato before him, was a political thinker who addressed all the major issues: education, equality, democracy, justice, war, peace, and social unrest. It is not least because of his interest in revolutions and uprisings that his philosophy is so relevant for present day politics and policy-making.

Political violence, revolutions and terror characterize our current political debates. These issues were also hotly discussed in Aristotle’s time. It’s remarkable that here too he reached some of the same conclusions as political scientists have discovered today. Like modern political scientists who have found that terrorism is caused by disenfranchisement, Aristotle also recognised that lack of political influence breeds anger, aggression, and ultimately violence. He wrote “men… cause revolutions when they are not allowed to share honours and if they are unjustly or insolently treated” (1316b); and “angry men attack out of revenge not out of ambition” (1311a); and he posed the rhetorical question “how is it possible for individuals who do not share in the government of the state to be friendly towards the constitution?” (1268b). The answer was, of course, negative. So, fundamentally, Aristotle was of the view that people (for him, men) who are excluded from political influence ultimately resort to violence. Niccoló Machiavelli (1470-1527) later echoed Aristotle here when he stressed that “it is necessary that republics have laws that enable the mass of the population to give vent to the hostility it feels.” For when no such mechanism exists, “extra legal methods will be employed and without doubt these will have much worse consequences than legal ones” (Discoursi, 1531, p.102).

To maintain a peaceful political system, then, Aristotle thinks that it is necessary to involve all the citizens, for political systems endure because those in power “treat those outside the constitution well” and they do so “by bringing their leading men into the constitution” (1308a). This might seem idealistic and naïve. It is not. A recent study by one of the world’s most prominent political scientists, Arend Lijphart, found that the more democratic states – the countries where minorities are included in the process of democratic decision-making – were six times less likely to experience fatal terrorist attacks than less democratic ones (Patterns of Democracy, 2012, p.270). While not quoting Aristotle (modern political scientists seem strangely reluctant to cite the classics), state-of-the-art political science comes to the same conclusion as Aristotle did twenty-two centuries ago.

The ancient thinker’s logic is straightforward, and his lesson is clear: more democratic engagement leads to less inequality and lower levels of violence (terrorism). It is difficult to overstate how progressive and prophetic this view is, especially when compared with what passes for public policies today. Looking back over the past fifteen years, in many countries the policies pursued have been characterised by increased surveillance (in Britain in the form of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014) and a preference for dealing with terrorism and violence through military action. The results of these policies have not been impressive, and that’s putting it mildly. If we use the figures from the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index, if we exclude Syria and Nigeria the world has seen an 80% increase in the numbers of terrorist attacks. If we include these countries there has been a seven-fold increase (statistics based on 2015 Global Terrorism Index Report).

US marine
The vigilant face of the new world order
U.S. marine by Sgt. Tammy K. Hineline 2013

At a time when the favoured response to political violence is retaliation, police surveillance, and the ‘War on Terror’, it is worth reflecting on Aristotle’s line, “men attacking under the influence of anger are reckless of themselves” (1315a). Indeed, terrorists are still not deterred by the prospect of violence, as the aforementioned statistics show. It is arguably testament to the greatness of Aristotle that he recognised that it is citizen engagement and political influence, and not force, which prevent social violence and political strife. And it is indicative of his empiricist approach that he sought proof for his assertions in actual facts.

Aristotle & Constitutional Democracy

Aristotle, always the empiricist, collected everything from zoological specimens to political facts: he wrote commentaries on an estimated 170 ancient constitutions. Unfortunately, only one of these is preserved, the Constitution of Athens, discovered in Oxyrhynchus in Upper Egypt in 1879.

It is not surprising, given his obsession with facts, that Aristotle’s main proof of the beneficial influence of what he called “the democratic nature” (1308a) was drawn from his empirical studies; and especially from a comparative analysis with the remarkable democratic state of Carthage. Aristotle wrote that the proof that “its constitution is well regulated is that its populace willingly remain faithful to the political system, and that neither civil strife has arisen in any degree, nor yet a tyrant” (1272b). That Carthage was successful in avoiding revolutions and what we today would call ‘terrorism’ he says was due to its balanced constitution, one in which its parliament – ‘the Hundred and Four’ – were elected “from any class” and “by merit” (1272b). Further, in this surprisingly democratic system, the elected representatives were balanced by ‘the Elders’ – chosen by the people and by a head of government who “as a superior feature was elected” (1272b).

While Aristotle warned that government by the people could degenerate into mob rule, he maintained throughout that it is “advantageous for the form of democracy… for all the citizens to elect the magistrates and to call them to account” (1318b). Indeed, he even spoke about the “consent of the governed” (1318b) – a line later copied by Thomas Jefferson into the American Declaration of Independence.

Aristotle’s model constitution was in fact one characterised by an elected aristocracy – but an aristocracy based on uncommon prudence and intelligence, not on wealth. But even under this system of government, the people would have a greater say than under most systems of indirect democracy: in Aristotle’s ideal state, “when the Kings introduce business in the assembly, they do not merely let the people sit and listen to the decisions that have been taken by their rulers, but the people have the sovereign decision” (1278a).

Why did this intellectual snob place such faith in the ordinary people? Why did he trust them to make good decisions? He recognised that some are more intelligent than others; but also acknowledged that many individuals deliberating together would have a greater combined knowledge than even the wisest person. His argument here is worth quoting at length:

“It is possible that the many, when they come together, may be better, not individually but collectively, just as public dinners to which many contribute are better than those supplied at one man’s cost. For where there are many, each individual, it may be argued, has some portion of virtue and wisdom, and when they have come together, just as the multitude becomes a single man with many feet and many hands and many senses, so also it becomes one personality as regards the moral and intellectual faculties.” (1281b)

This, he concluded, “is why the general public is a better judge,” for “different men can judge a different part” (1281b). For this reason, “it is necessary for all to share alike in ruling and being ruled.” (1332b)

It is difficult to find a more precise and succinct case for democracy than this. True, the same sentiment was expressed by the likes of Marsilius of Padua (1275-1343). “Laws” wrote that Italian in 1324, “should be laid before the assembled citizen-body for approval or rejection… for the less learned citizen can sometimes perceive something that should be corrected with regard to a proposed law even though they would not have known how to discover [the law] in the first place” (The Defender of the Peace, p.80). But we ought to remember that this thinker, like Machiavelli, was brought up on a solid dose of Aristotle’s teachings and steeped in his writings. Both men had learned from the Macedonian master – just as we ought to do today.

Aristotle speaks through the ages. His writings are proof, if such is needed, that the philosophy of the ancient masters is not a historical relic but a timeless guide. A democrat, a defender of social equality, and an opponent of the authoritarian state, Aristotle should be on the reading list for all those who support radical or progressive causes.

© Dr Matt Qvortrup 2016

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University. This article is a shorter version of his inaugural professorial address, which he’ll give in Coventry on 12th October.


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