PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy
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Introduction to Political Philosophy
PLSC 114 - Lecture 9 - The Mixed Regime and the Rule of Law: Aristotle, Politics, VII
Chapter 1. Polity: The Regime that Most Successfully Controls for Faction [00:00:00]
Professor Steven Smith: I want to begin today with concluding Aristotle, part three. Before I do, however, could I just ask the people–yes, thank you so much. And your neighbor, too? Would you mind? Thank you so much. Just out of respect to Mr. Aristotle. It’s mister to you.
I want to talk today about Aristotle’s discovery of America. This will probably come as a surprise to some of you that Aristotle discovered America, but I will get to that in a minute. In many ways for Aristotle, as it is for every student of politics, the most serious, the most difficult issue one confronts is the problem of faction. How to control for factions. How to control for conflict between factions. That is the issue addressed especially in Books IV and V of the Politics, where Aristotle goes on to describe by the term polity, the regime that he believes most successfully controls for the theme of faction. The essential feature of this regime, the polity, which in fact he gives the name politea, the generic Greek word for regime. The polity is the regime that represents, for Aristotle, a mixture of the principles of oligarchy and democracy. Therefore, he says, avoids dominance by either extreme.
By combining elements, as it were, of the few and the many, polity is characterized by the dominance of the middle class, the middle group. The middle class, he says, is able to achieve the confidence of both extreme parties where at least it is sufficiently numerous to avoid the problems of class struggle and factional conflict. “Where the middling element is great,” Aristotle writes, “factional conflict and splits over the nature of regimes occur least of all.” So Aristotle, in a way, has discovered long before James Madison’s famous article in Federalist Number 10, the remedy for the control and containment, so to speak, of faction. You remember, many of you if not all of you who have read the Tenth Federalist Paper, that Madison outlines a scheme for an extended republic, he says, where numerous factions, in many ways, check and balance one another, compete with one another and therefore, avoid the dominance of a single faction leading to the kind of tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of the majority class.
Aristotle’s proposal for a mixture of oligarchy and democracy seems, in many ways, to anticipate, 2,000 years before the fact, Madison’s call for a government where powers must be separated and where, he says in Federalist Number 51, ambition must be made to counteract ambition in order to avoid, in other words, the extremes of both tyranny and civil war. The inevitable conclusion that I reach and I believe any sensible reader of Aristotle would reach is that Aristotle, in fact, discovered the American Constitution 1,500 or 2,000 years before it was written. This may seem surprising to you, since of course Aristotle lived long before. But that may simply be our own prejudice to think that my friend at the CUNY Graduate Center, Peter Simpson, has argued in a paper that I found quite convincing, that Aristotle had, in fact, discovered the American Constitution. I say, it may simply be our prejudice that he didn’t.
Aristotle writes, in Book II of the Politics that the world is eternal and everything in it has been discovered. The earth experiences, he says, certain periodic destructions and cataclysms, civilizations are reduced to barbarism only to recover and grow again. If this theory, you might say, of sort of cataclysmic change is true, we cannot rule out the possibility that a constitution like ours or even identical to ours existed at some point in the ancient past, in the far distant past that Aristotle knew about. Do you think that’s possible? Well, why not? But Aristotle’s mixed constitution differs from ours still in certain important respects. Aristotle understands the mixed constitution as a balance of classes–the one, the few, and the many. He doesn’t so much insist, as you will see in your reading, on the actual separation of functions of government, putting them into separate hands. It is enough for him, he says, if each class shares in some aspect of the governing power. But that leads to a further difference.
We tend to think of the separation of powers doctrine as necessary for the security and liberty of the individual, don’t we? We usually think of individual freedom and security as the purpose of the separation of power. It is when political functions become concentrated into the hands of, again, the too few hands that we risk arbitrary government and the endangerment to the liberty of the individual. But for Aristotle, it is not the liberty of the individual so much as the functioning or functional well-being of the city that is the highest priority. Individual freedom may be, at best, a desirable byproduct of the Aristotelian mixed regime, but individual freedom is not its defining or principle goal. For anyone interested in this difference, I suggest you contrast or compare Aristotle’s account of mixed government to Book XI of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws or to some of the central Federalist papers to see the way in which Mr. Aristotle revised, in some ways, the wisdom of Madison. You could compare them in some way that I think would be valuable.
Chapter 2. The Importance of Property and Commerce for a Flourishing Republic [00:07:30]
Not only did Aristotle understand the importance of the separation of powers doctrine and the kind of balance of factions as a way of controlling conflict and struggle, but he also understood the importance of property and private property and commerce for a flourishing republic. We didn’t really pause to talk much about this, but in Book II, you remember, he criticizes at considerable length Plato’s Republic for the excessive unity it demands of its citizens. Socrates demands for common ownership of property, at least among the auxiliary class. But Aristotle claims that the city is not naturally one. That is to say, a certain diversity is necessary to make up a city. Where all property is held in common, it is more likely to suffer from common neglect than it is from common ownership. He clearly understands, in many ways, the virtues of private property and of commerce. It is evident, Aristotle writes, that as it becomes increasingly one, as it becomes increasingly unified–the city–it will no longer be a city. A city is, in its nature, a multitude. As it becomes more of a unity, it will be like a household instead of a polis and a human being instead of a household. There we see in Book II, Aristotle offering his criticism of the claims for the sort of excessive unification of centralization, concentration of property.
Yet, despite his awareness of the importance of commerce and the importance of property, the aim of the city, he tells us, is not wealth, is not the production of wealth. In that way it would be useful to make a contrast between Aristotle and someone like Adam Smith, the great author of The Wealth of Nations. If wealth were the purpose of politics, Aristotle writes, the Phoenicians, you might say, in the ancient world–the Phoenicians were the commercial people par excellence–the Phoenicians would be the best regime. But he denies that. Aristotle could never endorse the view stated by a famous American president that the business of America is business. The political partnership, he says, must be regarded for the sake of noble acts performed well. Wealth, property, he tells us, exists for the sake of virtue, not virtue for the sake of wealth.
Just as Aristotle would have been critical of the American tendency to regard government as for the sake of business or for the sake of the economy, he also criticized beforehand the American tendency to organize into clubs, what we call political parties which exacerbate rather than control political conflict. These political clubs or parties use their influence to incense the populous, using their power to whip up dangerous passions that tend to make American politicians closer to demagogues than to statesmen. He would also regard the peculiar American practice of elections, rather than the Greek practice of appointing political offices by lot. He would regard elections as merely exacerbating the tendency to demagoguery, where each person seeking office plays shamelessly to the mob, promising all manner of things that they know they will not and cannot deliver. Think of almost anybody you like. Furthermore, while the American regime in many ways is, in principle, open to all and prides itself on a belief in equality, no doubt Aristotle would remark that its offices are, in fact, open only to the rich and to leaders who can acquire the support of the rich, making it rather an oligarchy in the guise of a republic. So Aristotle was not without his own critique of the American constitution and American political culture.
Chapter 3. The Aristocratic Republic: A Model for the Best Regime [00:12:28]
There is, obviously, much in the American regime that Aristotle would have found admirable, even though it does not conform to his idea of the best regime, which is the subject of the last two books of the Politics, Book VII and VIII. Aristotle is very sketchy here about the structure, the institutional structure, the make-up of the best regime, acknowledging the best regime is one where the best men rule. That is to say, it is a kind of aristocracy or an aristocratic republic. I want to talk about this regime a little bit now, what Aristotle understands to be the requirements or the fulfillments, the necessities, of this aristocratic republic.
In these parts of the Politics, Aristotle offers a serious challenge to existing Greek traditions and patterns of political education. Every bit, in many ways, is far reaching as Plato’s Republic. In the first place, he tells us the purpose of the best regime, the purpose of Aristotle’s Republic is directed not to war, but in fact to peace. The citizen of the best regime, he says, must be able to sustain war if duty requires, but only for the sake of peace and leisure. Again, a critique not only of Sparta, but also of Athens and its imperialistic ambitions. Second, Aristotle understands the purpose of leisure when he says the end of the regime is peace and the purpose of peace is leisure. He doesn’t understand by leisure simply relaxation, enjoying your private moments, enjoying your vacation time. Leisure does not simply mean rest or inactivity, but leisure is necessary for education or what he sometimes calls by the term philosophy.
By philosophy, he seems to suggest not so much the capacity for abstract or speculative thought, but rather a kind of liberal education that he regards to be the preserve of what he calls by the term the megalopsychos, literally, the great-souled person or the great-souled man. Mega, megalo, being our terms for great and psychos, related to our word psyche, soul. The great-souled person, the great-souled man, the gentleman is, in many ways, for Aristotle, the ideal recipient of this form of education, of liberal education and also, in some respect, the ideal or perfect audience or readership of the book itself. We can begin to see it is clear how Aristotle’s best regime differs from Plato’s intransigent demand for the rule of philosopher-kings. The megalopsychos, the gentleman, whatever else he is, is not a philosopher in the strict sense.
Sociologically, Aristotle makes clear that the megalopsychos, unlike the philosopher, is a person of some inherited wealth, chiefly landed property, but whose way of life will be urban. He will be a member of what we might call the urban patriciate. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides us with a vivid list of the psychological and even physical characteristics that such a person must possess, this megalopsychos. Such a person, he says, exhibits a sort of lofty detachment to the more or less petty things that weigh most of us down. Aristotle tells us he is slow to act, unless something of great importance is at stake. He repays favor with interest so as not to be under any obligations to others. The gentleman, he says, speaks his mind without fear or favor, somewhat like the New York Times, because to dissemble would be beneath him. He may occasionally hurt others, but this is not done out of deliberate cruelty. In addition, Aristotle tells us such a person will possess beautiful but useless things, suggesting the possession not only of wealth, but of a kind of cultivated aesthetic sense. As if that weren’t enough, Aristotle tells us that the megalopsychoswalks slowly, because to hurry is undignified, is tall and speaks with a deep voice. Very clear about who, again, the ideal statesman or reader, potential statesman the reader of this book would be. Most importantly, you might say, what distinguishes the gentleman as a class from the philosophers is a certain kind of knowledge or practical intelligence. The gentleman may lack the speculative intelligence of a Socrates, but he will possess that quality of practical rationality, of practical judgment necessary for the administration of affairs.
Aristotle calls this kind of knowledge, this kind of practical judgment, he calls it by the term phronimos, that I have on the blackboard. The person who possesses it is the phronimos, a person of practical judgment. Again, a term that captures something of our meaning of common sense, practical wisdom, the capacity for judging, the capacity for judgment, which is not the same thing, obviously, as speculative or philosophic intelligence. The phronimos is the person who is able to grasp the fitting or the appropriate, the appropriate thing to do out of the complex arrangements that make up any situation. Above all, such a person embodies that special quality of insight and discrimination that distinguishes him or her from people, again, of more theoretical or speculative cast of mind.
How is this quality of phronimos, of judgment, of practical wisdom, of horse sense, how is it acquired? Aristotle tells us that this kind of knowledge is a kind of knowledge most appropriate to politics. Again, it is neither–and he wants to be clear about this–it is neither the theoretic knowledge aimed simply at abstract truths, nor is it the productive knowledge, what he calls techne, the productive knowledge used in the manufacture of useful artifacts. What is it, then? It is a knowledge of how to act where the purpose of action is acting well. You might say it is less a body of true propositions than a shrewd sense of know-how or political savvy. This kind of knowledge entails judgment and deliberation, the deliberative skill or the deliberative art. We only deliberate, Aristotle says, over things where there is some choice. We deliberate with an eye to preservation or change, to making something better or to preserve it from becoming worse. This kind of knowledge will be the art or craft of the statesman concerned above all with what to do in a specific situation. It is the skill possessed by the greatest statesmen, you might say, the fathers of the constitutions, as it were, who create the permanent framework in which allows later and lesser figures to handle change. This is the kind of political skill and wisdom, again, possessed of the founders of cities, the legislative founders of regimes.
Aristotle’s Politics is a book about the kind of knowledge requisite for that kind of skill. This quality of practical judgmentphronimos, practical wisdom, was developed, I think, in a beautiful essay, without any explicit reference to Aristotle, by the English political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Anyone here ever heard of Isaiah Berlin? Not one of you? Famous, famous English philosopher, died a number of years ago in the late ’90s. This, I hope, will be an inspiration to–you should read Isaiah Berlin. In any case, he wrote a wonderful essay called Political Judgment. In it he asks, “What is the intellectual quality that successful statesmen possess that distinguishes their knowledge from all other forms of rationality and knowledge?” He writes as follows. I’m going to quote him.
“The quality that I am attempting to describe is that special understanding of public life, which successful statesmen have, whether they are wicked or virtuous. That which Bismark had or Talleyrand or Franklin Roosevelt or, for that matter, men such as Cavour or Disraeli, Gladstone or Ataturk in common with the great psychological novelists, and something which is conspicuously lacking in men of more purely theoretical genius, such as Newton or Einstein or Bertrand Russell or even Freud.”
So there, too, like Aristotle, he distinguishes a kind of practical skill possessed by the greatest minds, political minds at least, and says it’s quite different and from what he calls the great psychological novelists, from that possessed of the greatest philosophers and scientists. “What are we to call this capacity?” Berlin continues. He writes, again, as follows.
“Practical reason, perhaps is a sense of what will work and what will not. It is a capacity for synthesis rather than analysis, for knowledge in the sense in which trainers know their animals or parents their children or conductors their orchestras, as opposed to that in which chemists know the contents of their test tubes or mathematicians know the rules their symbols obey. Those who lack this quality of practical wisdom, whatever other qualities they may possess, no matter how clever, learned, imaginative, kind, noble, attractive, gifted in other ways they may be, are correctly regarded as politically inept.”
There, Berlin tells us something about the character of this political knowledge that Aristotle describes as phronimos. Again, how is this knowledge acquired? Are we just born with it? Do some people just have it or is it a product of experience? Aristotle doesn’t say, but I think the answer is clearly some of both. It is a quality, as I agree with Berlin, possessed by some of the great psychological novelists. I mention the names of Tolstoy, Henry James, and perhaps the greatest of all, Jane Austen, if you want to know a novelist who employs this great skill of judgment, discrimination and practical reason.
It is also a virtue of great statesmen. Principally, Berlin mentions Bismark, Disraeli, Franklin Roosevelt. I would also add the names of Pericles, Lincoln, and Churchill. Read their works. Study their histories. They provide a virtual education in statecraft, in how to negotiate affairs in precisely the way Aristotle would have us do.
Chapter 4. What Is Aristotle’s Political Science? [00:26:50]
That leads me to the larger question, you might say, which is posed throughout Aristotle’s work as a whole. What is Aristotle’s political science? What is it for? What is he attempting to do? Already you could say to ask this question is to state a claim. Does Aristotle have a political science, a science of politics? Again, if so, what is it about? To begin to answer this question, you might say even begin to think about it in the right way, requires that we stand back from Aristotle’s text for a while and ask some fundamental questions about it. What does Aristotle mean by the political? What is the goal or purpose of the study of politics, and what is distinctive about Aristotle’s approach to the study of political things?
Today, the term “political science” stands for one among a number of different disciplines that we call collectively the social sciences. This not only includes political science, but economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, among others. Each of these disciplines seeks to give us a handle on a distinctive set of human actions and interactions. Economics deals with the transactions involving the production and distribution of wealth, sociology with the transaction governing status and class, anthropology with the domain of culture, and so on.
What is it that political science studies and what is its relation to the other disciplines? The core of political science, at least according to Aristotle and to this degree I’m very much an Aristotelian, what distinguishes it from all other studies is the concept of the regime, of the politea. The regime, for him, is not one branch of human activity among others, it is the fundamental principle or ordering principle that makes all the others even possible. This is why Aristotle does not regard the study of politics as one social science among others. It is rather what he calls the master science that determines the rank and place of all the others within the polity. His study of the regime, that is to say the underlying constitutional principles that govern each order is what distinguishes Aristotle from the other social scientists. When you came into this class in the beginning of the semester, you may have thought you were just signing up for a class in political science. You did not know, perhaps, that you were coming in to study what he calls “the master science,” the science of sciences,” in some respects.
It is that priority that Aristotle attributes to the regime that I think is what distinguishes his kind of political science from that of today. Today, you might say political scientists and social scientists, they’re more modest in ascribing priority to any particular branch of knowledge. With, I should say, the possible exception of the economists, who often will believe that economic motives and transactions provide the key to all possible human behaviors. Who knows, maybe they’re right, but Aristotle would deny it. For Aristotle, however, politics has a priority to all the others, because as he has argued, man is the political animal. To be a political animal means first to possess speech or reason that allows us to participate in a community or a way of life governed by shared standards of justice and injustice. Aristotle’s political science presupposes, in other words, a certain conception of human beings as linguistic animals who are capable not only of living together–so do a range of other species–but rather sharing in the arrangements of rule. It is our logos, our reason that makes a community possible and also expresses or creates, you could say, a certain latitude or indeterminacy in how our behavior distinguishes us from other species. It is precisely, he believes, this latitude that makes political communities not only sites of agreement over shared standards, but also, as he says, sites of moral contestation over justice and injustice. Politics is about conflict and conflicts over justice. To be a political animal, for him, is to engage or to be engaged in this ongoing conversation and debate over the very nature of justice, to refuse to participate in that conversation, to declare oneself an outsider to it, he says, is either to be below humanity or above it. To be human is to be part of that conversation.
The centrality Aristotle ascribes to politics forces us to consider another question, namely what is the purpose of this study? Why do we engage in it? At first glance, this seems to be overwhelmingly obvious–to gain more knowledge. But knowledge of what and for what? Most people today are attracted to the study of politics because they are interested in things they’ve read about in newspapers or seen on TV. Things like elections, political leaders and parties, different causes to which they may feel some attraction, interested in wars and revolutions that they see or have heard about. It is to learn more about these things that we come to the study of politics. It’s as true now as it was in the time of Aristotle.
Aristotle certainly recognized that the accumulation of political knowledge, you might say the gathering of data, the organization of facts, is very important. Books III, IV, V of the Politics shows the empirical side of Aristotle’s politics. Again, let me just pose the question. What is this knowledge for? What does Aristotle intend to do with it or want us to do with it? Politics, political science, he tells us in the Ethics again, is not a theoretical subject in the matter of physics or metaphysics or mathematics. That is to say, its purpose is not knowledge for its own sake. However important the study of politics may be, it exists not for the sake of knowledge, but for action, as he tells us, for praxis, is his word for action. Political science exists for the sake of the human good and the opening sentence of the Politics confirms this. He says, we see, everyone does everything for the sake of some apparent good. All action, all human behavior is aimed at achieving some type of good, is all aimed at action. All political action aims at preservation or change. When we act, we seek to preserve or to change. All political action, you might say, is guided by the idea of better or worse. It implies a standard of better and worse and this implies some idea of the good by which we judge.
Chapter 5. Who Is a Statesman? [00:35:21]
So it follows, at least Aristotle believes so, that the study of politics is not, again, for the sake of knowledge for its own sake, but knowledge that serves the regime. It helps to make it better or prevent it from becoming worse. Its goal is not just to know more, but to know how and this requires not only theoretic acumen, but political judgment and the kind of practical knowledge that Aristotle discusses at length. This quality of practical judgment and reflection is, again, somehow unique to the political art or the political skill Aristotle tells us. It is the ability not only to keep the ship of state afloat, but allows the greatest statesmen to guide the ship, to steer it safely to port, that is to say the kind of knowledge needed by the statesmen. Aristotle’s political science, then, is ultimately the supreme science of statecraft, a term that again we don’t hear much about–statecraft or statesmanship. It’s regarded perhaps by today’s political science as too value laden, too subjective to speak of statesmanship or statecraft. This, too again, is a word that carries distinctive and strong connotations. Who is a statesman? What are the attributes of the statesman? I’ve spoken a little about the attributes that Aristotle believes are essential to the megalopsychos, the greatest of the statesmen. This will be quite different, for example, from the qualities we will see beginning on Friday and next week that Machiavelli and later Hobbes or Locke, believe are necessary for the great founders or statesmen. Plato and Aristotle give their own vision–the philosopher-king, the great-souled man or megalopsychos.
But the statesman, again, to the highest degree is the founder of regimes, laws, and institutions. They provide the constitutional framework within which we, later figures, operate.
Chapter 6. The Method of Aristotle’s Political Science [00:37:54]
So if Aristotle’s political science is an education for statesmanship, you might say what are its methods? What are its distinctive methods? How do we educate a statesman? How do we educate potential statesmen? What are its methods? This is a question asked, you might say, of every mature science. It is possession of a method that distinguishes a mature science from simply a jumble of facts, hearsay, inspired guesses, or a random collection of insights and observations. Without a distinctive method for obtaining and organizing knowledge, we are all just groping in the dark.
So what is the distinctive method of Aristotle’s Politics? To some degree, Aristotle refuses to play the methodologist’s game. In a well-known passage from the Ethics, he says that our discussion will be adequate if it achieves clarity within the limits of its subject. If it achieves clarity within the limits of its subject. In other words, he seems to be saying it is wrong to demand methodological purity in a subject like politics where there is always great variety and unpredictability. It is the mark, he says, of an educated person, presumably a liberally educated person, not to demand more precision than the subject matter allows. But that formulation seems, in many ways, to be question begging. How much precision does the subject allow? How do we know? There will always, he suggests, appear to be something ad hoc about the methods used in the study of politics. We will have to let the method fit the subject, rather than demanding the subject matter fit a kind of apriori method. To insist on that kind of methodological purity, he implies, would be to impose a false sense of unity, a false sense of certainty or absoluteness on the study of politics, which is variable and contingent and always subject to flux and change.
Even while Aristotle may deny that there is a single method appropriate to the study of politics, he proposes a set of common questions that political scientists have to address. He lays out these questions at the very beginning of the fourth book of the Politics. He lists four such questions. The political scientist, he says, must have a grasp of the best regime, given the most favorable circumstances. Second, he tells us, the political scientist must consider what kind of regime will be best under less than optimal circumstances. Third, the political scientist must have some knowledge of how to render any regime, no matter how imperfect it may be, more stable and coherent. Finally, the political scientist must know something about the techniques of reform and persuasion, what we might call the area of political rhetoric by which existing regimes can be brought closer to the best. Taken together, these four questions are intended to guide inquiry, to shape and direct inquiry. They are not intended to yield sure or certain results, but to guide and inform statesmen and citizens in the business of decision-making.
Bearing in mind that political science is a practical science, a science of judgment, a science aimed at directing action under specific circumstances and situations, it is important, Aristotle finally suggests, that the language of political science express the common sense or ordinary language of political actors. There is virtually no jargon in Aristotle’sPolitics. Aristotle’s political science stays entirely within the orbit of ordinary speech. Such language does not claim to be scientifically purged of ambiguity, but rather adopts standards of proof appropriate to people in debates and assemblies, in courts of law, in council rooms and the like. The language of Aristotelian political science is the language of man, the political animal. You will never hear him speaking in terms of dependent or independent variables. You will never hear him using technical jargon, artificially imported into the science of politics or the study of politics from the outside.
What most distinguishes Aristotle is that his language is addressed emphatically to citizens and statesmen, not to other political scientists or philosophers. It has a public orientation. It is publicly directed. It is public spirited. It is concerned with the common good. Contrast that with today’s political science. Today, it seems, political scientists are more concerned with advancing the abstract truths of science and claims about creating a methodologically rigorous and pure science of politics, where Aristotle is more concerned with the regime. Modern political science, in many ways, claims to stand above or apart from the regime, to be objective, to be disinterested, as if it were viewing human affairs from a distant planet. Aristotle takes his stand from within politics and the regime of which he is a part. Of course, we all know contemporary political scientists are not neutral. They frequently insert their views, values we call them, value judgments we call them. They insert them into their discussions. These values are regarded by them as purely subjective, again, their own value judgment so to speak, and not strictly speaking a part of the science of politics.
But we all know, do we not, that most contemporary political scientists tend to be liberals. Their values are liberal values. This raises a question. Whether the relation between contemporary political science and liberalism is merely accidental or whether there is some intrinsic, some necessary connection between them. One might do well to ponder which political science is really more scientific–Aristotle’s, which is explicitly and necessarily evaluative and that offers advice and exhortation to the statesmen and citizens about how to care for their regime, or contemporary political science that claims to be neutral and nonpartisan, but which smuggles its values and preferences in always through the back door. On this very partisan note I conclude. On Friday, let me just remind you, Il Principe. We’ll study Machiavelli.
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