Skip to content

Treading on Ourselves? Government in Aristotle and Contemporary Political Life

Since Rousseau expressed his concern that government, established to carry out the general will of the people, might become a separate body with its own distinct general will, members of the polity have worried from one end of the political spectrum to the other, that government is imposing its will on the people, rather than executing the people’s will.  It’s not even correct to date this concern to Rousseau, since we could argue that such a concern is encapsulated in Thrasymachus’ realpolitik definition of justice — we all know, let’s be honest Socrates, that the laws serve the powerful and not those who are supposed to follow them.  In these cases, government is understood to be against us, treading on us with its laws and impositions, limiting our freedom rather than protecting it.

Government and Constitution in Aristotle

Eric Schwitzgebel refers to Aristotle to talk about blameworthiness for implicit biases in his talk at the Pacific APA next week.  I’m pleased to join in the appeal to Aristotle to think about contemporary political and ethical problems.  My argument is that Aristotle addresses this problem of thinking the government as an imposition by arguing for an account that drives politeuma, or government, closer to an identity with the politeia, constitution or regime.  This claim has force because we think of the politeia as larger than the government, so the critical leverage on the government is put in place by demanding that it be identical, that it extend itself to cover the community as a whole, the citizenry, the politeia.  This argument depends on recognizing Aristotle definition of the citizen as the one who engages in rule and deliberations in a broad sense where engaging in deliberation is the process whereby we make judgments to and with and among others about what we think is living well (and what we think is not).  I’ve developed the case to understand Aristotle’s account of the citizen on these terms elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on it here.  Nevertheless, it is the case that such a definition, as Aristotle himself acknowledges, seems to apply most to a democracy (1275b5-6).  I read this claim as having normative force–the definition of the citizen as such is most manifest in a democracy, hence regimes that allow for this definition will be most political, most capable of allowing for the activity that makes us political, i.e., citizens.

It’s odd then that democracy is by definition the regime in which citizens are most political and yet democracy seems to be the regime that most resists formalization in law.  Democracy, Aristotle notes, is the regime that rejects the imposition of law, which it sees as the separate will of a master imposed on its people.  Yet because the definition of the citizen is most at work in a democracy, and hence the people are a part of the forming of the law, the law is not an imposition of a master’s will on an enslaved people, but a collective commitment to a particular conception of what we collectively aim towards.  The difficulty is in getting the politeuma to see the people as the politeia, and in getting the people to see themselves as the politeuma.  The problem is that the people have seen the law as an imposition because it has been an imposition.  Changing the law from being an imposition is not a matter of producing an ideology that gets the demos to think of what enslaved as salvation, but of challenging the division between the rulers and the ruled.  The law ceases to be an imposition when the law is formed by the demos who are no longer divided from the politeuma but constitutive of it.

Democracy and Law

It is this process that Aristotle addresses in Politics V.9 (not V.10 like I wrote in the version of this paper distributed to SAGP – Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy –  membership for the upcoming presentation on this point that I will give at the SAGP meeting at the Pacific APA in Vancouver, Canada, on April 2 at 6 PM).  Aristotle writes:

But of all the ways that are mentioned to make a constitution last, the most important one, which everyone now despises, is for citizens to be educated in a way that suits their constitutions.  For the most beneficial laws, even when ratified by all who are engaged in politics, are of no use if people are not habituated and educated in accord with the constitution–democratically if the laws are democratic and oligarchically if they are oligarchic.  For if weakness of will indeed exists in a single individual, it also exists in a city-state.  But being educated in a way that suits the constitution does not mean doing whatever pleases the oligarchs or those who want a democracy.  Rather, it means doing the things that will enable the former to govern oligarchically and the latter to have a democratic constitution.  In present-day oligarchies, however, the sons of the rulers live in luxury, whereas the sons of the poor are hardened by exercise and toil, so that the poor are more inclined to stir up change and are better able to do so.  In those democracies that are held to be particularly democratic, the very opposite of what is beneficial has become established.  The reason for this is that they define freedom incorrectly.  For there are two things by which democracy is held to be defined: by the majority being in supreme authority and by freedom.  For justice is held to be equality; equality is for the opinion of the multitude to be in authority; and freedom is doing whatever one likes.  So in democracies of this sort everyone lives as he likes, and “according to his fancy,” as Euripides says.  But this is bad.  For living in a way that suits the constitution should be considered not slavery, but salvation.  Politics 1310a12-35

Aristotle doesn’t just want to say that we should educate citizens to live according to the constitution; he nuances what is meant by living according to the constitution.  Living according to the constitution doesn’t mean following the whim of the rulers, as Thrasymachus suggested justice meant, at least not if the rulers are set against those who are ruled.  Living according to the constitution is what preserves the constitution and preserving the constitution requires joining the rulers and the ruled rather than dividing them.  When oligarchs live in luxury to the disdain of the of the rest of the community, they might be living according to their own wishes, but they are not living according to the constitution, which can’t be preserved in such conditions.  The oligarchs set up the law to serve their ends but the law doesn’t actually preserve the regime.  As Socrates points out to Thrasymachus, establishing laws for the rulers’ advantage fails if the rulers lack knowledge of what their advantage truly is.  They act immoderately and thus fail to preserve the regime because it has too starkly divided between the rulers and the ruled.  This division is master rule, where the whim and desires of one group is imposed on another.

Democracies’ failure to live according to the regime is different. Instead of establishing laws that divide the community between the rulers and the ruled, democracies resist law altogether.  Note this sentence: “For justice is held to be equality; equality is for the opinion of the multitude to be in authority; and freedom is doing whatever one likes” (Pol. 1310a29-31).  Justice transitively is the opinion of the multitude ruling, and the opinion of the many is to do whatever one likes.  So further transitively, justice is doing whatever one likes, each “according to his fancy.”  All that is to say that justice is viewed in the democracy as living without the law.  While living as the ruler likes drives the ruler from the ruled in an oligarchy, in a democracy, it divides the democrats from the oligarchs insofar as it resists the order the protects the wealth of the oligarchs thereby rejecting or failing to hear their claims regarding what they think is good.

If the people make the law, then the politeia (which means plural for citizen as well as regime or constitution or polity) is the politeuma.  If the democratic constitution is the one that would further the rule of the demos (the people, the masses, the free), the demos by pursuing what they like don’t live according to the constitution, to a certain order, but according to a lack of order, which is what leads to their destruction.  When Aristotle says that the democrats need to be educated to live according to the constitution, he is arguing for them to be habituated to follow the law.  For the democrats to be habituated to follow the law they need to see it differently than it has been employed by the oligarchs, as a means to control and impose one’s will.  They need to see it as an effort to extend across time their judgment regarding what it means to live well.

While in democracy, living as one likes sets the demos against the oligarchs, living as the ruler likes also divides the ruler from the ruled by dividing it within the same citizen, who is both the ruler and the ruled.  In Nicomachean Ethics III.3, Aristotle writes:

The object of deliberation and the object of choice are the same thing, except that the object of choice has already been determined, for that which has been decided by deliberation is what is chosen: each person ceases investigating how he will act when he traces the origin [of the action] back to himself and to what it is in himself that leads the way, since this is what chooses….Since what is chosen is a certain longing, marked by deliberation, for something that is up to us, choice would in fact be a deliberative longing for things that are up to us. (EN 1113a3-12)

We choose according to a longing that is shaped by deliberation, by considerations regarding what is good.  To change the longing at whim is to do so without deliberation, to set desire against logos instead of finding it directed by logos.  When Aristotle argues that democrats resist law because it limits license, Aristotle is suggesting that democrats are following desire without directing it through the deliberative work of logos, as Aristotle describes deliberation’s relation to choice and then action in Nicomachean Ethics III.3.  Aristotle doesn’t oppose logos to desire, but to desire undirected, desire as license.  Law is the culmination of deliberation that directs desire as well as (and delightfully circularly) what habituates us to direct our desire in the right way (NE X.9).  

Law institutes the “certain longing, marked by deliberation,” making it a habit of the people to follow the conclusions of their deliberations, rather than to be akrasiatic, to have the weakness of will that can mar both persons and cities.  Note that nomos can be translated law or custom in the sense of what makes us accustomed.  In Nicomachean Ethics X.9, Aristotle encourages habituating the youth through laws to feel the pleasure at the right thing and pain at the right thing, something which we continue to need to habituate ourselves to do, “And for these matters–indeed, for life as a whole more generally–we would need laws” (EN 1180a3-4).  Laws thus institute, make regular and elongated, the “certain longing, marked by deliberation” for the actions and ends we take to make up the good life.

The rule of law is habituating a willingness to limit license, to change the temporality of one’s desires, to judge them good for longer than the moment and hence to involve, as Francis Sparshott says of Aristotle’s anthrôpos a futural inclination, a way of organizing life in terms of judgments about the end, the way that life will be.

It is only when one has a sense of time that one can balance the overall weight of one’s active desires against what one believes will prove more desirable later; and only thus can one engage in strategies.  … The point of the ‘sense of time’ is not just that comparisons are possible, but that a framework is established within which courses of action can be framed, compared, pursued (7).

Living according to the law is instituting the framework.  Limiting license is directing desire in the form of law, which still makes the democrats free because they impose this limit and the desire for it on themselves.  Effectively, putting judgments about what they take to be good into law makes a constitution, an order, of what was not a constitution. It is this judgment, Aristotle argues, that shapes the constitution.  When it is wealth, the wealthy are included in the rule.  When it is freedom, the free are included.  But when it is freedom, the free resist any form to that judgment.  For this reason, the democratic constitution seems like a paradox — if it is a constitution, it has become fixed, determinations of what it means to live well have been instituted; but if it is democratic, the people want to be free to change their judgment from moment to moment.  The constitution is considered slavery because it seems to limit license, but by instituting the judgments of the people, the constitution is in fact the salvation, the preserving force, of the democracy.

Another way to think of this paradox is to see that in a democracy, license as the goal of the regime becomes more important than the regime itself, just like wealth in the case of the oligarchs that Aristotle discusses in the Politics V.9 passage.  In both cases, the pursuits of the constitution divide the constitution between the ruler and the ruled, between those who are served by that end and those who are threatened by it, and as a result, both the oligarchy and the democracy become master rule, the imposition of the will of some onto others.  As a result both fail when they pursue their end at the expense of those excluded from its achievement.

So if they formed the law on their own accord in light of their own judgments about what is good, it would seem to be easy for the citizens to follow.  Yet Aristotle argues that the most difficult thing is to get citizens to act in a way that is conducive to the constitution.  This is difficult because it isn’t these particular laws that the demos reject, but law as such.  Aristotle helps us think about democracy at a time when it was not taken for granted that democracy was good.  It wasn’t taken for granted because it was unstable and it was uncharitable to those were not the demos.  Aristotle attempts to make of the demos the whole by involving everyone in the regime rather than by ostracizing the wealthy to make the demos all there was.  He then argues for the demos to commit itself to the desires it collectively determines–this commitment forces it to justify and consider its commitments rather than following them just because they are desires.  This is what the call to the law does.

Concluding Questions and Considerations

Is the law, is the government, understood on these terms, treading on us?  If we are the law, can we be treading on ourselves?  The answer to this question requires considering who the “we” is and to what extent it is unified.  We think of the law as formed for the sake of some against others — even when we don’t think of it as ruler and ruled, but as minority and majority and we think the majority rule and the minority then are ruled.  Aristotle  doesn’t talk about there being disagreement between the demos or the oligarchs as they form constitutions because the demos and oligarchs agree that their constitutions should serve their ends — the demos that it be free, and the oligarch that it preserve wealth — these are the ends to which the desires of citizens in these regimes are directed.  Does establishing law, that is by directing desires according to and through reason, divide the people into rulers and ruled?   Is the problem with law that it limits our license by directing it by reason or that because it requires a decision excludes those who do not accede to the decision?  Or is that judgment of the law as a problem is only a consequence of our failure to think of the demos as a collective?  Does law try to divide this collective or manifest it?  How does law unify when it is trying to collectivize what does not have shared desire–the oligarchs and the people?

While law becomes what the demos needs to be habituated toward, Aristotle also counsels the oligarchs to live in a way that preserves the constitution instead of living according to their desires which become excessive.  So law isn’t just something the demos need to learn to appreciate, which suggests that reason isn’t just something the demos need–both the demos and the oligarchs are pursuing their desires instead of directing their desires through reason.  This forms them in a collective relation as the rulers and the ruled.

These considerations lead us back to what I take to be the fundamental questions that Aristotle aims to address: Is rule always master rule?  Is law always divisive – dividing between those it serves and those it excludes?  Does this view of the divisiveness of the law come from an ontology of the individual?  Can there be a unifying political ontology not divided by oligarchs and people?  Does Aristotle’s political theory answer these questions?  I’ve tended to think they do, but like Aristotle, I want to keep these questions at the fore.

Image from micebag at Deviant Art.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jim McMurry #

    I’ve been appreciating your column, especially because you often bring in Aristotle’s views. I’ve read little Aristotle first hand, but I’ve long been a reader of St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica” where he quotes many philosophers, Plato, Averros, Augustine, etc. but when he means Aristotle he simply writes, “As the Philosopher says . . . ” One of Aquinas” primary purposes in writing his “Summa” was to bring Church teaching and Aristotle inti alignment.
    But I doubt Aristotle, or even Thomas Jefferson, when thinking and writing about “the informed citizenry” ever imagined the Tower of Babel electronic media has become!

    April 3, 2015
    • Thanks for reading my blog, Jim.

      I suppose one woman’s Tower of Babel is another’s public square.

      April 3, 2015

Leave a Reply to Jim McMurry Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: