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Rousseau and Aristotle

I’m working on a paper on politeuma, a Greek word sometimes translated as government and sometimes translated as constitution, in Aristotle.  Some ancient scholars argue that sometimes Aristotle means government by the term and sometimes he means constitution by the term.  I think that drawing that distinction is a uniquely modern way of thinking about the relation and we might be well-served to consider the dual meaning of the term without trying to distinguish those meanings.

I’m also teaching a class on Rousseau this semester where we’ve been reading Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality as well as On Social Contract.  I began to make an argument as a sidenote in the paper on Aristotle distinguishing Rousseau from Aristotle when I drew up short and realized that their positions might be so very close together that the differences between them might shed some light on the relationship between government and constitution in Aristotle and Rousseau.  In the spirit of public philosophy, I’m presenting that argument here.  I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

Rousseau and Aristotle

Like Aristotle, Rousseau is concerned that government has become slavery, a state of war, not the place of peace and tranquility, but the place of the advantage of some at the expense of others.  For Rousseau, common interest is insured by mutual total alienation that brings us to an investment in the interest of all the others because we are all mutually given over to them.  For Rousseau, this occurs through the artifice of the social contract.  For Aristotle, we always already have this investment in common interest because we engage in the question of what is good for us through logos, the Greek word that can mean language, speech, ratio, and reason.  Aristotle tells us that human beings are those who are in logos and that this makes us political.  I take that to mean that we find ourselves with others engaged in the question of what Rousseau calls common interest from the outset.

For both Rousseau and Aristotle, the constitution is the establishment of the view of the common interest of the whole.  Herein may lie the difference.  For Aristotle, human beings don’t form the constitution because they are invested in living well; they always already find themselves organized in relation to one another based on their view of living well.  To be human and to be a citizen is to engage in this question of what the common interest is, what the shared sense of what it means to live well is.  Both Rousseau and Aristotle resist the view that this consideration of what living well is can be outsourced to a separate body, a government.  Rousseau establishes the government as the executor of the common will.  Aristotle expresses this same resistance to outsourcing political activity by arguing that the whole community is engaged in governing when he says that the constitution (politeiais the governing body (politeuma).  By constitution, Aristotle means all those who are engaged in the work of determining what it means to live well.  Like Rousseau, the site of political life in Aristotle is in determining this question of common interest, or in Aristotle, living well.  For Aristotle, this work happens in deliberation.  For Rousseau, this work requires an assertion of the general will from citizens who are well-educated and separated from one another so as to avoid faction.  For both Aristotle and Rousseau, the ruling class is the whole of the community.  Rousseau maintains that the people are sovereign and alone have the capacity to determine the will of the community, which is manifested in law.  Rousseau then establishes a government to put that law into work.  Aristotle doesn’t separate the governing functions from the legislating functions, neither does he separate the government from the whole community.  I think it is here that this difference can shine light on Aristotle’s specific contribution.

Rousseau and Government

When Rousseau establishes a separate government to execute the law, the general will, as it is determined by the people who are the sovereign, he lets us know the problems of establishing a government.  In On Social Contract III.2, Rousseau initially proposes a concurrence between the government and the sovereign in a move that will merge “the corporate will,” with “the general will,” preventing the first from becoming more active than the second.  But in III.4, he counsels against the confluence of the legislative and executive power saying:

Nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests in public affairs, and the abuse of laws by the government is a lesser evil than the corruption of the lawmakers which is the inevitable result of pursuing particular views.  In such a case, the state is altered in substance, and all reform becomes impossible.  

Rousseau thus argues that the government should be separated from the legislative powers in order to protect the purity of the legislative powers, which is to say, the general will.  But once a separate power is established from the sovereign, a smaller and more flexible body, the possibility that it will become eventually at odds with the sovereign body appears almost inevitable.  In On Social Contract III.10, Rousseau writes,

Just as the particular will acts constantly against the general will, so government mounts a continual effort against sovereignty…

…[I]t occurs when the prince no longer administers the state in accordance with the laws and usurps sovereign power.  A remarkable change then comes about: it is not the government but the state that contracts.  I mean the state as a whole dissolves and another forms within it, composed solely of the members of the government, and to the rest of the people, it is no longer anything more than their master and tyrant.  Thus, the instant the government usurps sovereignty, the social pact is broken [UPDATE: typo edited], and all the common citizens, rightfully returning to their natural liberty, are forced but not obligated to obey.

Aristotle on Government

Rousseau’s concern for maintaining the purity of the legislative will, the sovereign, motivates him to establish a separate government.  He is motivated to maintain this separate will because he has to artificially construct an investment in the community.  Rousseau has to artificially make people political.  But because Aristotle does not, he doesn’t need to separate the determination of the end (living well) from the task of manifesting that end.  Aristotle maintains that some ends are achieved in the activity that accomplishes them; the end is not a separate product.  Thus, the end of the community of living well isn’t achieved by some administrative institution of the will of the people.  For Aristotle, the living well is achieved in the activity that considers what it means to live well.  I take this to be an Arendtian joining of action and speech with the manifestation of the political.  The deliberating manifests the community as living well.  What it takes to be that end is articulated in who it includes in those conversations.

Rousseau wants to divide a sense of rule, sovereignty, from administration, governmentality.  He does this in order to keep the sovereign people from becoming invested in their particular interest if and when they form a part of the government.  But Aristotle does not separate executive and legislative rule in this way.  Some people, like Mogens Hermann Hansen, have argued that the different regimes can be classified based on which part of the ancient city had authority: the regime was a democracy when the courts had authority, an aristocracy when the assembly had authority and a monarchy when the archons had authority.  I’m less inclined to see Aristotle as simply a descriptive scribe for Athenian realities.  Aristotle seems intent on associating citizens with the government, and engaging in the determination of the common interest as what defines the citizen.  It is for this reason that even those who are not holding a particular office would be considered ruling.  Aristotle asserts that the many can participate in deliberation and judgment and that it is just for the many to have authority in the most important matters in Politics III.11.

In addressing whether it is better to be ruled by persons or by laws in Politics III.15, Aristotle shows the interplay between persons and laws, deliberation of citizens and the establishment of institutions.  Another way to put it is that Aristotle is asking whether it is better to be ruled by the people or by the government where the government is concerned only with administering the law, which is the will of the people.  Aristotle’s examination of the question shows how much the people remain at work even in the administering of the law, suggesting a pure application of law, a pure government, separated from concerns for the end, what ought to be done, is well nigh impossible.  Aristotle points out the danger that Rousseau recognizes two thousand years later which is that human beings can confuse their own interest with the general interest:

Those who hold political office, on the other hand, do many things out of spite or in order to win favor.  And indeed if people suspected their doctors of having been bribed by their enemies to do away with them, they would prefer to seek treatment derived from books.  Politics III.16.1287a36-37

What Rousseau needs to be concerned with that Aristotle does not is manufacturing the general interest out of particular interest.  To be sure, Aristotle is concerned that his rulers not become focused on their own benefit at the expense of the common benefit, but for him that is not artificially fabricated, that concern for the common benefit.  It is what follows from pursuing the virtue whereby one flourishes.  Because the human being flourishes by taking up the activity that makes her what she is, logos, and in that activity considers what it means to do that activity well, since what it is to do something is to do it well, and this activity finds us connected to others by its very nature, then flourishing is considering the common good.  This is not to say that it cannot go wrong, nor that it does not need cultivation, but it is to say that it is not artificially achieved.  And since it isn’t artificially animated, the separation from determining what is best and working to achieve it need not be drawn.  Aristotle views virtue as what achieves happiness that both the individual and the city can achieve without any opposition in their interests:

It remains to say whether the happiness of each individual human being is the same as that of a city-state or not.  But here too the answer is evident, since everyone would agree that they are the same.  Politics VII.2.1324a57-7

By drawing Aristotle close to Rousseau we can see that their many similarities point to their crucial difference in the natural vs. artificial political being of the human.  For Rousseau, the artificiality of their political nature makes them always at root potentially opposed to the general interest.  Aristotle offers the possibility that the political nature makes our concern for our own well-being always already linked to the flourishing of the community.  The governing of the community is then this engaging of the whole in concern for our well-being rather than setting up a neutral separate body that may be capable of establishing its own particular will at odds with the whole.


6 Comments Post a comment
  1. andreas #

    Dear Adriel
    I found your post very interesting and inciting. Yet, what puzzles me is that I cannot square your point with several Aristotle’s sayings among which stands out the following (in bk iii, a little above your quote on doctors and books): “…but he who bids man rule adds an element of the beast; for desire is a wild beast, and passion perverts the minds of rulers, even if they are the best of men”. I think this passage casts the “volonte particuliere” problem in terms of platonic psychology”. Keep on with the good work.

    October 5, 2016
    • Throughout these several chapters Aristotle is considering what people say about the rule of law and the rule of human beings and working to develop an account that draws out the truth of the seemingly opposed positions. He recognizes the potential tyranny of the rule of human beings even as he recognizes the need of human beings to put the law into action throughout the Politics. This a dialectical relationship between human rule and law remains at work. I think the Plato of psychology is the root of why people might say this but not at least wholly Aristotle’s position.

      October 5, 2016

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