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Contradictions of Plato's Ideas

Contradictions of Plato's Ideas

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Killen 1 Brandon Killen November 25, 2009

ARISTOTLE IN A SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC WORLD The fundamental goal of social democratic policy is the achievement of “social justice” through economic egalitarianism. Social democrats attempt to actualize this primarily by “redistributing wealth through the state for the purpose of improving the life chances of the worst off” (Mulgan 80). Today, the governments of virtually every industrialized nation embrace social democratic policies. In America, many policies, most notably social welfare programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare and the progressive income tax brackets, have strong bipartisan support. Today, there are few intellectual voices opposing social democracy, and of those few, the mainstream intellectual community entertains only a select minority with any serious consideration. It is in this climate that the views of Aristotle inject energy into a stagnate, nearly monogamous debate. Aristotle‟s political theory rejects social democratic policies of social justice. To reach any proper interpretation of Aristotle, one must keep in mind the inherently problematic nature of Aristotle‟s texts. Though Aristotle was a prolific writer, a vast majority of his work is lost; only a few major texts and partial dialogues remain, and even these are rife with difficulties. Many scholars believe some of the major texts to be merely lecture notes; all of the texts are to a certain extent fragmented, incomplete, and suffer from probable textual dislocation; and there is even some speculation that full authorial attribution to Aristotle would be dubious. Even the structure of the texts pose problems; for example, in Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle structures his discussion on normative justice in such a way that his “transition from the problem of character and action to the analysis of political justice is abrupt… a sign that the text is corrupt” (Lockwood 31). The remedy of such problems is a complex philological concern, and it is not likely that more philological analysis will find adequate answers. Therefore, the inherently insecure interpretation of Aristotle‟s works can only stabilize by referring to his historical context and the work of his contemporaries and predecessors. 1. The Naturalness of the Polis: Aristotle vs. Social Democracy The first major deviation of Aristotle‟s from social democracy is his view that the political community is a result of human nature‟s tendency to form community. While social democrats see political structure as an arbitrary artificial creation, Aristotle sees political structure as conforming to certain inherent human qualities (the implication being that one must measure political structure by an objective standard comprised of those human qualities). Aristotle identifies two ways in which this manifests itself: either a small biology based community, such as a family, or a larger community based on benefits stemming from mutual trade and cooperation and military protection, such as a city or nation-state (Politics 1252b). Greek thought identifies the former as the oikos (household) and the latter as the polis (political community). Aristotle viewed the relationship of these entities in terms of the Whole and its

only to watch him kill the father of his bride. But as shown by the action of both Clytemnestra and Orestes. the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Darrell Dobbs. and chaos. is itself a transgression which brings suffering to the actor and community. curses. In order to secure a safe journey to Troy. Clytemnestra. and Atreus (the brother) responded by feasting Thyestes on the flesh of his own children. Upon his victorious return. who only act out the blood heritage of their 1 This is common approach to philosophical discussion in Aristotelian thought.” 2 Loosely translated as “living”. a professor at the University of Houston. . one does not just stay alive. murder. But they restored the victim. but benefits and improves his life. Peter Euben. Agamemnon brutally sacrifices his daughter. Aristotle posited that if the structure is radically opposed to the nature of human community and the hierarchy of political structure (the oikos is subordinate to the polis) only destruction will follow. murders him. The founder of the Atreus lineage was Tantalus who offended the Gods by feasting them on his son‟s flesh. however. The Whole cannot exist without the constituent Parts. every act. is still the source where legitimate moral and social authority emanates. summarizes this concept: “In the corrupt polis of Argos. Pelop‟s son Thyestes then seduced his brother‟s wife. Argos—in Aristotle‟s understanding of the relationship between Whole and Part—is not a true polis. etc.e. master-slave. Homer popularized Atreus‟ sons Agamemnon and Menelaus in the Iliad. oikos.Killen 2 constituent Parts1. with the particular interest in seeing how certain structures are more beneficial to a political community. Clifford Bates elaborates: Rather. Pelops. for only through a political community that extends beyond the capacity of a household can an individual truly benefit from human community and progress towards his proper end: eudaimonia2 (Politics 1252b. Aristotle thought that a household outside of a political community is incomplete. the polis. He then travels to Athens where an Athenian jury acquits his crime and the Furies relinquish their wrath-driven power. follows the instructions of Apollo and murders his mother in revenge for his father‟s death. notes that since Aristotle viewed the household as only a part of “a more comprehensive partnership. household-based conflict infects the political community. and the Parts are better equipped to work together as a homogenous Whole. the specific excellence of its component relationships [i. This leads directly to Aristotle‟s systematic exploration of political structures within the polis. Aeschylus‟ Oresteia dramatizes this point by contrasting the monarchial Argos and the House of Atreus with the democratic Athens (which has no ruling oikos). parent-child.” (29) Because of the monarchial government. His mother‟s Furies (an existential manifestation of revenge among bloodlines) drive Orestes mad. it could be said that there is truly no polis… Rather. its history brims with vice. nothing virtuous has ever sprung from the House of Atreus. i. the city suffers as a result. One of his most famous quotes asserts: “The Whole is greater than the Sum of its Parts. 1253a). As their history shows. a Duke University political science professor. A professor at the University of Washington. the household. And because the House of Atreus governs Argos. This concept is popularized in many modern conceptions of “virtue ethics”. a more exact interpretation would be “flourishing”. Aeschylus tells the horrific tale of Agamemnon‟s brutality and its consequences which Homer omits (Hamilton 247-251). however liberating. Orestes. between husband-wife.e. his wife.] can be properly understood only with a view to the part the household plays in the whole political community” (30).

every member has equal access to economic resources.Killen 3 family. Only the polis is adequately able to enforce justice and appropriately retaliate against injustice. which is shown to be unending… To end it will allow the establishment of a form of human rule that will lead to eudaimonia. Aristotle suggests the natural tendencies of the human community reject political structures that radically inhibit human nature (such as the monarchy of Argos) and that political structures must therefore embrace the objective standard of innate human qualities. rather it is like Argos. Social democrats want to achieve a political community where every member is on economically equal standing. and because justice is the precondition of virtue. To do so would be irrational and harmful to the greater human good… to punish all violators would make the same error that the Furies did—to destroy all the good things in order to remove one single evil” (Bates 59). Aristotle suggests that subjective social programming does not work. that the polis is not equipped to retaliate against every injustice. Through the polis. the fact that human beings feel goodwill generally following perception of some . Benevolence within the Political Community The next major division between Aristotelian and social democratic political theory is the issue of benevolence or goodwill among members of a political community. the nature of the relationships among members complicates the principles associated with justice (as shown by Orestes‟ dilemma). 2. not only from social democracy. Further. The oikos is not sufficiently equipped to deal with injustice. and one only needs to survey either history or the state of the world today to see the indications of constant. anything potentially applies). i. (50) An essential part to “the establishment of a form of human rule” is justice. This stands in firm opposition to social democratic economic egalitarianism. This is distinct. the political community is the essential habitat for the development of human excellence. It is important to note however. without a polis. cannot and will not punish all injustice. but also noted that the actualization of this tendency only follows a perception of worth and/or decency in others. which is made possible by the political community and which will make human happiness possible. social democrats seek to program the perfect political structure.e. This is a superb arrangement. Aristotle saw benevolence as a natural human tendency (Nicomachean Ethics 1155a). according to their doctrine his wealth must be curtailed no matter if the beneficial results of his wealth outweigh the benefits of redistributing his wealth. justice lacks sufficient enforcement—justice and the polis are interdependent. by law. “Justice. Bates states. the household only has recourse to revenge and vengeance. justice is encouraged among the members of the community. consistent failure to engineer the right program. It does not matter what kind of benefits a wealthy man contributes to society (perhaps he invented a life-saving drug or is the world‟s most giving philanthropist. A large human community without justice is not a polis. Aristotle identified justice as the central virtue from which all others stem. but from a vast body of thought: Leaving aside that the good qualities that give rise to goodwill may be simply physical or moral.

g. Aristotle also sees contradictions in Plato‟s ends and his means. the division of resources is undermined by the subjective preferences and interests of the governing body (this will be seen in a later discussion on social democratic theories on welfare). my wife) and that a removal of that would render love and friendship ineffectual (N. sees Aristotle‟s rejection of Plato‟s Republic as more of a rhetorical strategy “targeting what he sees as a weak but essential link in the construction of Plato‟s political philosophy as a whole” (34). one should ask: If communism forms virtuous and ideal leaders.Killen 4 kind of excellence or worth in another indicates that goodwill. similar to the relationships among those in Argos. Benevolence is impossible when the government holds property in common and when government redistributes it. Rousseau. Plato would like to have property used in common. though a universal experience. This violates the natural structure of human community. but also inhibit goodwill. benevolence will be stifled. shouldn‟t the general population adopt some of those general principles? . or an impartial empathy… according to the New Testament. After all. In effect. excluding any discussion of the other important themes of the dialogue. my father. They are taken from their family at an early age and the way that Plato thinks would create the perfect leaders. but Aristotle maintains that property will only be used in common when men are friends and men tend not to become friends when property is communized. For precisely this reason. An unnatural political structure would have an adverse effect—it would not only stifle virtue. 3 Plato‟s guardians are the leaders of his Utopia. an impersonal sympathy. A major component of social democratic theory is the belief that benevolence among men is essential to the achievement of social justice. an oikos trying to act as a polis destroys human relationships. and oftentimes. my friend. Some scholars assert that Aristotle misinterprets the Republic on the basis that Aristotle focuses exclusively on the community of Plato‟s guardians3. benevolence. 1262b). brotherly love. Aristotle rejects Plato‟s Republic. is not a God-given wellspring of love. this communism attempts to turn the polis into an oikos. Hume.E. it eliminates privacy and even communizes familial relations in an attempt to instill a sense of political unity. posited by Darrell Dobbs. More importantly however. The community of the guardians is a manifestation of radical communism. Though it is never explicitly stated that Plato advocates the prohibition of private property for everyone. and Rawls respectively… (Swanson 10) In essence. Kant. a vestigial compassion for our species. everyone is competing against everyone for their own share of resources. Yet if social democrats insist on taking wealth from the productive efforts of some and redistributing it amongst everyone else. Aristotle‟s identification that people do not automatically feel goodwill towards others—that instead. In Nicomachean Ethics. inversing Whole and Part. Another interpretation. Not only does the community prohibit private property. Aristotle asserts that an important aspect of love and friendship is a sense of ownership (e. benevolence is felt only after a recognition of virtue coexists with his assertion that a proper political structure fosters virtue among members of the community.

(Mulgan 92) Aristotle is entirely unconcerned with potential qualities or characteristics. on principal. Social democrats reject the existence of objective standards. (Politics 1280a) Mulgan contests Nussbaum‟s interpretation of this analogy: Nussbaum interprets this as implying that flutes should go to those with the best natural capacity. This rightly places her in an Aristotelian tradition. of worth. “objective theories can be ruled out of consideration as a category [used to consider who receives welfare]. her adaptation of Aristotle‟s political views deviate from core Aristotelian political thought. Aristotle is not concerned with the innate capability of humans to be virtuous.e. social democratic theory will stand in direct opposition to his views. (Nussbaum 221-222) It is here where Nussbaum‟s usage of the label “Aristotelian Social Democracy” faces challenges. and her theoretical approach to philosophical problems) place her squarely in an Aristotelian tradition. her ethics. her views do not restrict themselves to welfare.Killen 5 3. economics. However. They are not shy in pronouncing this belief. In the same manner. they extend to the distribution of all essential and necessary resources. notably the “Aristotelian” social democrat Martha Nussbaum. i. i. merit. and she is therefore able to infer an intention to seek out those with the best potential talent. and political science—asserts that while Nussbaum shares many distinct Aristotelian characteristics (her essentialism. an intention which implies the same concern for equality of opportunity which animates social democracy [emphasis mine]. Aristotle asserts that. Aristotle‟s views on distributive justice have become known as “the problem of distributive justice”—a problem which social democrats seek to solve. as long as merit is properly interpreted to be Aristotle‟s standard for distributive justice. . The classic example of this concept is his discussion on the distribution of flutes. the government should maintain control of all resources required for a decent human life and distribute those resources based on the objective living conditions of human life. think differently. and assert that the distribution of welfare is simply a matter of subjective preference. a position which is consistent with their going to those wealthy enough to have paid for the best lessons and not to those with the best natural potential. Richard Mulgan—a professor at the Australian National University interested in Aristotle. In particular dispute is Nussbaum‟s views on resource distribution and Aristotle‟s discussion on distributive justice. any resource applies to Aristotle‟s views on distributive justice. the best flutes should go to the best musicians. one social democrat writes. Aristotelian Distributive Justice and Social Democratic Welfare The most striking difference between Aristotle is his view of objective distributive justice and social democratic views of welfare. and of decency. Some social democrats however. he is only concerned with the actuality of character. all of them inadequate precisely because they are objective” (Sumner 764). Nussbaum argues that objective standards should govern the distribution of welfare. However. However. Formally.e. all that Aristotle actually says is that flutes should be given to the best players.

“Ethical Justice and Political Justice. Aristotle. Edith. Aristotle‟s political theories reject the subjective approach to the political policies of this social democratic world. Swanson. The Nicomachean Ethics.1 (2006): 29-48. Peter. Lockwood.1 (2003): 43-61. which underlines any discussion of Aristotle in contrast to social democracy. “The Subjectivity of Welfare. Darrell.2 (1992): 202-246. 1981. Martha.W.” The American Political Science Review 76. Sumner. would not be as comfortable. Aristotle. J. Dobbs. . Conclusion The central conflict. “Aristotle and Aeschylus on the rise of the Polis: The Necessity of Justice in Human Life.1 (1982): 22-33. is the conflict of subjectivity vs. Print.” Polity 27. “Was Aristotle an „Aristotelian Social Democrat?‟ ” Ethics 111. 1998. Mulgan.” American Journal of Political Science 29. Ultimately.” Ethics 105. Euben. Mythology. Nussbaum. Web. “Aristotle‟s Anticommunism. Social democracy seems to be perfectly comfortable with the relativity and arbitrary foundations of their political policies.1 (1994): 3-23. Print. Web. Web. Web.4 (1995): 764-790. Richard. The Politics.1 (1985): 29-46. “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism. Judith. “Aristotle on Liberality: Its Relation to Justice and Its Public and Private Practice. Hamilton.” Phronesis 51. “Justice and the Oresteia. New York: Penguin. as the previous discussion shows.Killen 6 4. Web. L. objectivity. Thornton. Bates. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.1 (2000): 79101. WORKS CITED Aristotle. Clifford. Web. 1942.” Political Theory 20. New York: Grand Central Publishing. Web.” Polis 20. Web.

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