Friday, March 15, 2019

It’s Not a State!

Casey examines Aristotle – his politics, not so much his metaphysics (I have previously offered an overview of his metaphysics here).  Fundamentally important in this examination, and in contrast to Plato, Aristotle recognizes that humans are human:

Aristotle clearly recognises the contingent variability of human action, both in individuals and in groups.  Given this, we can expect to educe just so much order and no more from individual and group human action.

Aristotle does not generate pure principles and then force them on any given area or subject:

Rather, we demand the level of precision that a given subject matter can sustain.  In matters of human action, in practical matters, we cannot expect to obtain the kind of rigour that we demand and expect in mathematics.

This view of Aristotle’s summarizes my approach to libertarian theory: we have perfected theory quite enough; what is left is to find liberty – liberty in a world occupied by humans.  There are an infinite number of spaces in between individuals and groups where we will find “contingent variability.” 

This reality suggests something about both a) the composition of a successful “group,” and b) the reality that different groups might organize differently.  But I am getting ahead of Casey on this.

Aristotle was unwilling to accept the view that justice was merely a matter of convention – whatever a group decided as “just” is, in fact, just.  I think this comes from his metaphysics: a thing (in this case, a human being) has a final cause – an end, goal or purpose.  Justice must be supportive of this final cause. 

At the same time, Aristotle did not accept that there could be one ideal and transcendent political community applicable to all and for all.  Universally applicable political philosophies are to be found in Plato, not Aristotle.

A controversial aspect of Aristotle is in his comments about the state.  For example: the state has, as one of its functions, the moral improvement of its citizens.  Casey offers that “state” meant something different to Aristotle than it does to us today.  The term used was polis, and the description of this term makes clear that it is nothing like the state we have come to know in our time.

…the polis, the city state, was that form of political organization that was small enough to allow for the participation of all its citizens while being large enough to provide the conditions necessary not just for life but for the good life.  Ethics, politics, custom and law all run together in the polis.

This sounds a lot more like a Swiss canton or Lichtenstein than it does the United States or China.  As Casey offers: “I believe it to be both futile and dangerous to reproduce the polis on a gigantic scale. …the modern nation-state was a project doomed to failure from the start….”

The polis differs from the modern state in almost every way: in size, mode of governance, and even the status of citizenship.  The constituent members could control their affairs by debate and discussion in making their laws and punishment.  Consider: this isn’t representative government via a distant legislator.  Those who will be affected by the law will first debate the law.  Again, more Swiss canton than Washington, D.C.

It is in this sense that the state (polis) is a creature of nature.  Man is a political animal; as neither the individual nor the family is a self-sufficing whole, man comes together in a community – in a polis.  It is a natural entity, as natural to man as household or village. 

One can understand the confusion to modern ears when polis is translated as “state.”  When understood as Casey describes, one finds a decentralized and reasonably libertarian governance structure.

In such a polis, we have a union of people in almost all things that matter: in history, language, customs, laws, religion, music, art, and culture.

This description will be stifling to some, liberating to others.  To Universalist libertarians, for example, it is stifling – consider libertarians who advocate open borders, the non-aggression principle (as they define and apply it) is for all, acceptance of libertine lifestyles, etc.  Can such a construct result in or maintain a polis?  Not likely.

However, if one accepts that decentralization of governance is libertarian theory put into practice, it is liberating.  Certainly, the more common the various cultural attributes, the less need for formal law.

In a subsequent chapter, Casey will specifically examine the issue of slavery.  Casey offers that Aristotle was almost unique among classical thinkers in feeling that a defense of this ubiquitous and widely-accepted institution must be offered.

For Aristotle, some people are slaves by nature, and this natural slave benefits from subjection to his master.  This runs so completely contrary to his metaphysics: humans have a final cause and justice must be supportive of this final cause.  Casey examines Aristotle’s defense of this institution, and offers:

…it is impossible to regard Aristotle’s defense of slavery, especially natural slavery, as anything other than a form of intellectual scotosis…we might have expected something better on this topic from one of the greatest intellects the world has ever known.

I had to look it up.  Scotosis: Intellectual blindness: a hardening of the mind against unwanted wisdom.  I think Aristotle would have benefitted from the Christian concept that man is made in God’s image.

Aristotle also has a Machiavellian streak in him, giving advice to tyrants as freely as he does to citizens of a polis: invent terrors, sow some discord, discourage intermediate institutions, etc.  In this way, revolution will be prevented.


Aristotle denies that a polis can be constituted simply by agreement or by a nexus of commercial exchanges. 

This runs contrary to classical liberalism and libertarian thought.  If one reads Aristotle’s description of a polis and finds in it a means and the model by which to put libertarianism in practice, one might consider that libertarianism is not sufficient for liberty.


  1. "it is impossible to regard Aristotle’s defense of slavery, especially natural slavery, as anything other than a form of intellectual scotosis"

    I'm not so sure about that. We must bear in mind that Aristotle's defense of slavery in "Politics" was conditional on whether it was natural or legal:

    "But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?"

    "But that those who take the opposite view have in a certain way right on their side, may be easily seen. For the words slavery and slave are used in two senses. There is a slave or slavery by law as well as by nature. The law of which I speak is a sort of convention - the law by which whatever is taken in war is supposed to belong to the victors. But this right many jurists impeach, as they would an orator who brought forward an unconstitutional measure: they detest the notion that, because one man has the power of doing violence and is superior in brute strength, another shall be his slave and subject."

    "We see then that there is some foundation for this difference of opinion, and that all are not either slaves by nature or freemen by nature, and also that there is in some cases a marked distinction between the two classes, rendering it expedient and right for the one to be slaves and the others to be masters: the one practicing obedience, the others exercising authority and lordship which nature intended them to have. The abuse of this authority is injurious to both... Hence, where the relation of master and slave between them is natural they are friends and have a common interest, but where it rests merely on law and force the reverse is true."

    It seems he advocated a form of voluntary or natural slavery, perhaps not so much different than serfdom in the middle ages.

    I think his discussion in Politics is nuanced and it is hard to deny that it contains at least elements of truth. Some are meant to lead and some to follow - that much is impossible to deny. He does seem to be pretty explicit that a master owns his slaves as though they were commodities (in passages I did not reproduce here) and this is hard to square with his condemnation of legal (forceful) slavery.

    As in the case of Rothbard, for someone to get so much right is in itself a miracle and a blessing for all of us. We should expect that our intellectual heroes, however much we admire them, are still capable of being wrong on important issues, especially when, as in this instance, being right might have cost him his life (think Socrates).

    We must also bear in mind that Aristotle did not have the immense benefit of knowing the teachings of Jesus (the supreme eradicator of involuntary slavery).

    1. "...for someone to get so much right is in itself a miracle and a blessing for all of us."

      I agree. I also appreciate the time in which he lived. As mentioned, slavery was "normal." That he even addressed it is a feather in his cap - it suggests to me that he must have had at least some struggle reconciling the institution with his broader views.