for Glen Thurow

Note: All quotes of Aristotle’s are from Carnes Lord’s translation of the Politics, pub. by the University of Chicago Press.

A recent discussion on secession which treated the issue as if it in-and-of itself had no moral content, as if it were something like taking out the garbage or doing problems in symbolic logic, had me thinking about whether every statement in politics has moral content and what that might mean for how we conduct ourselves. Couple this discussion with

  1. the never-ceasing presumption of “free speech,” as if all speech were created equal, and as if speech means anything if one is exempt from all responsibility for it (please extend this logic to any “right” people claim they have)
  2. the question of whether the tools for analyzing international politics are themselves value-neutral (i.e. blaming someone for taking the security of his country and its citizens seriously seems to be the real charge underlying the term “neo-con”)

and I think it is time for a serious theoretical look at the matter. This post, like many of my posts, is very long and technical. Please take your time and print it out if need be.

Concerning the regime of the Lacedaemonians and the Cretan regime, and indeed virtually all other regimes, there are two investigations [to be made]: one, whether some aspect of the legislation is fine or not with respect to the best arrangement; the other, whether it is opposed to the presupposition and the mode of the regime they actually have (1269a 29-33).

Aristotle asserts quite plainly here that what is at stake concerns “virtually all other regimes.” This is not merely about Sparta and Crete. The issue is, firstly, how legislation concerning the fundamental ordering compares to the “best arrangement.” The second part of the issue is how that ‘fundamental ordering’ may oppose 1) the “presupposition” of the regime itself (the idea it might have in mind about human nature, apart from the “best arrangement”) and 2) the “mode of the regime they actually have” (emphasis on “they actually have:” if some aspect of the more basic legislation is skewed, it might have created the defect it is in actuality opposed to).

Now it is agreed that any [city] that is going to be finely governed must have leisure from the necessary things; but in what manner it should have this is not easy to grasp (33-36).

In modern life, we have decided that we are going to conquer necessity, first and foremost. Everything we do is about “survival:” we go to school to get a job more than an education; religion is about charity, and that is about helping other people survive while trying to win survival for eternity. This sentence from Aristotle alone is a declaration that our valuation is questionable.

Do take note of how this sentence fits into the first sentence quoted: there has to be leisure so the very essentials of the law can be known and worked with. Politics is emphatically not happening in situations where everything is on the line, i.e. battles or needing get food in a situation where everyone might starve. To construct a vision of political life starting from an extreme, i.e. “social contract reasoning,” is in some sense a rejection of political life (i.e. the weight placed on survival by the Federalist makes deliberation a more difficult thing than it should be; Rousseau’s emphasis on freedom has resulted in the blindness of the majority, as we are seeing in the UK right now). In order to see what I’m driving at more fully, we are going to have to see Aristotle’s full political thought on this matter.

For the serfs of Thessaly have often attacked the Thessalians, and similarly with the Spartans’ helots, who are constantly awaiting their misfortunes as if in ambush. In the case of the Cretans, however, nothing of this sort has happened (36-39).

The question of the fundamental ordering became the question of “how do we get people away from being engaged in the same tasks animals are in continuously?” Now that question is taking another transformation, as some regimes do use slavery to try and remedy this problem. Some regimes are bad at having slaves: the Thessalians keep getting harassed by their own slaves. Some regimes are “good” at this, like Sparta, but the Spartans have to be so vigilant one wonders if they are truly relieved from necessity. Finally, some regimes can get away with having slaves, like Crete. Crete will be discussed in detail shortly.

The question that should be on our mind is whether some form of slavery is intrinsic to all regimes, whether it is the only solution to being relieved from necessity, and whether, if it is the only solution, it can be marginalized. Such a consideration makes all communitarian solutions fundamentally just, as they distribute the awfulness that might keep others down permanently, but communitarian solutions also bring forth tremendous awfulness of their own, as they insist we are equal in ways we are not and unleash forces intrinsic to mob rule. There is some injustice intrinsic to all regimes – no regime is perfectly just – but whether that takes the form of slavery, I wonder.

The cause of this [Crete not having slave problems] is perhaps that neighboring cities there, even when at war with one another, never ally themselves with those in revolt, since as possessors of subjects themselves it would not be to their advantage; but all the neighbors of the Spartans – the Argives, Messenians, and Arcadians – have been their enemies. In the case of the Thessalians, too, they revolted in the beginning when there was still war with those in adjacent territories – Achaeans, Perrhaebeans, and Magnesians (1269a39 – 1269b6).

In the case of Crete, the entire world is dedicated to slavery such that they do not aid slaves in revolt. Can an entire world dedicated to something unjust make that something just? Of course not, it can not even make it lasting. All that needs to happen is one city around Crete needs to aid slaves during a war and the whole system collapses.

Now you might be asking what any of this has to do with our initial question. It has an enormous amount to do with it, because the issue of slavery being just or unjust wasn’t settled in ancient times. The custom was that when you conquered someone, you conquered them, they were yours. Slavery was purely a matter of convention. If something is conventional, then is it not just because we the people say it is just?

In other words, the question of slavery for Aristotle is analogous to the purely formal principles we purport “rights” to be. Look, a right to an abortion does not merely offend people; there have been numerous studies showing that it is killing off future members of the Democratic party. Whether or not you are pro-life or pro-choice is irrelevant to the point I’m making: the point is, the practice’s justice is in question, but the way we get around it is through declaring “property rights,” an almost formal consideration. A baby is part of a woman’s body, that is her property, she can do with it what she will.

All I am saying is that trying to say that politics consists of purely formal considerations means that the worst injustices can be promoted as our greatest good (whether or not abortion is one of these is up to you). Aristotle is keenly aware of that and is even suggesting that at the international scale, a crude cosmic justice will intervene if one thinks otherwise: there will be wars, and some of them will not just threaten one’s citizens, but one’s whole way of life.

It is therefore in our interest to keep the idea that politics can be conducted at a level beyond partisanship, beyond morality, out of politics.

Now I did bring up the issue of international relations, and how we ought to analyze them. How much moral content should we import into politics? Is fixing a streetlight the same thing as the right to free speech? And is the only way international politics can be discussed in terms of power, or do we have the ability to bring concerns of justice in there? And how far do those concerns go?

But it would appear that, apart from anything else, supervision of them [slaves] is troublesome in itself – what the mode of one’s relations with them should be; for if it is lax, they become arrogant and claim to merit equality with those in authority, and yet if harshly treated they come to hate and conspire against them. It is clear, then, that those who have this happen to them in connection with helotry have not discovered the mode that is best (1269b 6-12).

The issue with having slaves is the bigger issue of politics: the character of the citizenry. That answers our earlier concern about why politics cannot be based on extremes – leisure is not a good in-and-of itself, it exists for the sake of education and a greater happiness, and full participation in ruling and pride in being ruled well. Citizens are those who can rule and be ruled interchangeably: this is clear from the first chapter of the Politics. Note that no matter how slaves are ruled, they are always in rebellion. Aristotle’s comment to end the paragraph is indeed ironic: no mode will be best for ruling slaves.

Finally, note what the discussion of slaves’ character does to the question of international relations – it gives us a criteria for how moral concerns should be addressed there. The question is not merely our obligation or our power, the question is us and the character of those we work with. Giving aid to regimes that perpetuate injustice, even if their citizens do not deserve to suffer, only perpetuates that injustice. The implicit aid of not helping out slaves in revolt made slavery in Crete worthwhile and every single person in that city and on that island poorer. I think, for our purposes, one can legitimately criticize neo-cons, but one has to recognize that they’re not “racist” or “inherently evil,” but coming from a sincere concern with our security, and whether or not we can be a force for good in the world. Similarly, Leftist positions are also respectable, because they posit that we can extend our wealth and our time in non-militaristic ways in order to have a better world. We should be having a far calmer, more thoughtful debate about our role in the world, really, but we, of course, don’t recognize that our concerns are always moral concerns, and so we call one another evil without knowing it, or worse yet, do so when we do know it.

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