Wednesday, June 8, 2016
A defense of Aristotle
A response to my last entry was posted at the International Political Science Association Research Committee #12 Facebook page.
As you implied, the quote from Aristotle of man, in the role of husband and father, as a ruler of a household opens the discussion to controversy. Your first paper did not do this. Plato's views on women are less offensive to those whose social and political views are more gender egalitarian even though his political model is subject to criticism for other reasons.
This is a fair criticism and it comes from a friend and frequent interlocutor. I reply that it is a sign of the immaturity of our academic culture that we need to be afraid of controversy. Controversy ought to invite reasoned even if spirited conversation. Instead, today, it frequently results in accusations and scarlet letters.
I will offer here a reasonable defense of Aristotle for reasonable readers. Aristotle got a lot of things wrong. His physics (in the modern sense) is largely useless. He thought that the function of the brain was to cool the blood. He thought that the female provided only the matter for her offspring while the father provided all the formal elements. He states that the father has natural authority over the mother and her children, and he provides what certainly looks like a defense of slavery.
On the other hand, he got a lot more right. His biology is astonishingly close to contemporary theory, as I have argued in many previous posts and will defend in this one. Even his mistakes lend support to what we know see as the correct view.
Consider his defense of slavery in Book 1 of the Politics. To understand the context of that argument, one must know that Aristotle distinguished three types of rule: political, royal, and despotic. The second type of rule may be best understood as a special case of the first. Both political and royal rule are exercised for the sake of the governed and only accidently for the sake of the governor. For example, the father provides for the family and decides how the provisions will be used; however, he benefits from these decisions only in so far as he is one more member of the family. His superior authority does not entitle him to a greater share.
Aristotle recognizes a range of political animals and only says that human beings are the most political animals. He tells us in the History of Animals, Book 1, that politics animals are those that engage in some one and common work. This means that such animals cooperate in ways that benefit the community of cooperators. As David Depew argues (rightly, in my view) Aristotle was less interested in sorting animals into kinds that in understanding the traits that distinguish kinds of animals.
He thought that the traits were intelligible by their function in their natural contexts. Animals live and move through three great natural realms. Some swim, some walk, some fly, and some (like seals) move between these realms. These are what we now call environmental niches. In the niches in which they operate, their traits are largely determine by how each creature gets its food. This is, obviously, and adaptationist approach. Bears hunt alone. Elk need not cooperate much to eat grass; however, wolves must cooperate to eat elk. In all or almost all cases, cooperation requires a division of labor. When chimpanzees hunt monkeys, the hunters must adopt one of three distinct roles. Obviously I am not limiting myself to Aristotle’s examples, but that makes my point. Aristotle got a lot right.
The relationship between the members of a group of political animals must involve justice. While the “citizens” of a chimpanzee hunting party must subordinate themselves to the whole by accepting their roles, each must also expect to benefit. By contrast, the relationship between the predators and prey is ruthless exploitative.
In this context, we can understand Aristotle’s analysis of despotic rule. When one human being takes command of another, and not at all for the other’s sake but purely for self-interest, this is despotic rule. When is slavery just? He is very clear. If one human being differs from another to the same degree that a man differs from an animal or the soul differs from the body, the superior person may with justice enslave and exploit the inferior person. He notes that many Greeks are comfortable with enslaving barbarians but uncomfortable with enslaving other Greeks. This indicates that they understand, more or less dimly, his distinction.
That is the condensed version of Aristotle’s defense of slavery. The problem is that it doesn’t justify any actual instances slavery for the simple reason that no two human beings stand in the relationship that Aristotle describes. If anthropos is the political animal, then all anthropoi are capable of participation in political life and cannot, therefore, be justly enslaved. Both Plato and Aristotle interpret Homer’s Cyclopes as a version of a primitive, isolated, and violent stage of human life. Both understand this case as the result of some apocalyptic destruction of civilization or, perhaps, the condition out of which civilization first emerged. Circumstances, not nature, make a Cyclopes.
Aristotle made of a defense of slavery that is, according to his own reasoning, a condemnation of all slavery. Was he aware of this? I think so. But then I am in love with Aristotle and you probably should be wary of anything I say about him.
I cannot so thoroughly acquit Aristotle of political incorrect views with regard to his account of the natural structure of the family. He clearly thinks that the father is the natural ruler of the family, with authority over both his wife and his children. It won’t do to point out that his view is in consonance with most human cultures both in his own time, in the times between, and today. Whether the world is round or flat doesn’t depend on how many people think the one or the other. As another friend and frequently interlocutor put it at the same location:
I like to revise Aristotle’s views of FRIENDSHIP between husbands and wives based on female access to education. Husbands and wives are TRUE FRIENDS.
I concur. The natural flowering of the marital relationship requires equality. I would point out, however, how little needs to be adjusted to bring Aristotle’s view in accord with this.
In the Politics he argues that it is barbaric for a man to treat his wife the same way as he treats his slave. This is true for two reasons. One is that the slave is a beast of burden, exploited for the sake of the master and not all for the sake of the beast. Whereas the slave is chattel, the wife is a member of the family and the responsibility of the father is to serve the family and not vice versa.
The other is that the relationship between the father and mother is political rather than royal. A parent commands his children as a king commands his subjects. Any parent who has ever said “because I say so” understands the point. In Aristotle’s view, the father and mother are partners in the governance of the family. They both want the same thing, for the family to flourish; in accord with this aim, their relationship must be based on persuasion and consent. The only difference between the marital relationship and a genuinely political relationship is that in the latter, the citizens are equal and rule or are ruled by turns. In Aristotle’s family, the father is the permanent ruler. Make the marital relationship genuinely political, and you have the possibility of genuine friendship.
I had a friend and colleague who was from Nigeria. He once told me that he thought it was acceptable for a man to slap his wife as a way of settling a marital dispute. I disagreed vehemently. I think that this is just as excuse for abuse. I could not persuade my friend of this. Aristotle was not always right. I still think he was ahead of my friend.
ps. The argument for gender equality in Plato comes from the Republic. In Socrates' "best regime" the men and women in the warrior class will be raised and trained the same. Socrates' interlocutors regarded this suggestion as if he had proposed that we all put on wings and fly about. The Greek view of women was not progressive. This may be the reason that sex in Plato is almost always about sexy men.