Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
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.