Thursday, September 17, 2009

Aristotle the "Communitarian"

From The Politics (trans. Peter Simpson), 3.9:
[1280a25] For suppose people came together and shared in common for the sake of possessions; then they would have as much share in the city as they also had of property, and the oligarchic argument would, as a result, seem a strong one. Certainly it is not just that one who has contributed a single mina to a sum of one hundred minas should have equal shares in that sum, either of the capital or of the proceeds, with one who has contributed all the rest.

It is not the case, however, that people come together for the sake of life alone but rather for the sake of living well. Otherwise, there would be a city of slaves and the other animals, whereas in fact there is not, because these share neither in happiness nor in a life lived according to deliberate choice.

Nor do people come together for the sake of an alliance to prevent themselves from being wronged by anyone, nor again for purposes of exchange and mutual utility [liberalism, any one?]. Otherwise, the Etruscans and Carthaginians and all those who have treaties with each other would be citizens of one city. True, they have agreements about imports, treaties about refraining from injustice, and written compacts about military alliance, but there are no offices that they all have in common set up to deal with these matters; instead, each has different ones. Nor are they concerned about what each other's character should be, not even with the aim of preventing anyone subject to the agreements from becoming unjust or acquiring a single depraved habit. They are concerned only that they should not do any wrong to each other. But all those who are concerned about a good state of law concentrate their attention on political virtue and vice, from which it is manifest that the city truly and not verbally so called must make virtue its care.

For otherwise the community becomes an alliance that differs only in location from other alliances (those between allies who are far away), and the law becomes a treaty and a guarantor, as Lycophron the sophist said, of each other's rights [I need to look up the original Greek for this word], but not such as to make the citizens good and just. And that this is how things stand is manifest. For if one were to bring the cities of the Megarians and Corinthians together geographically such that they touched at their walls, still it would not be one city. Nor would it be so even if they intermarried with each other (though this practice is one of the ways of sharing together that is peculiar to cities). The same would be true if there were some who, while having separate dwellings, were nevertheless not at so great a distance that they shared nothing in common but had laws about not doing each other wrong in their commercial dealings (say, if one was a carpenter, another a farmer, another a shoemaker, another something else of the sort, and their number was 10,000). Not even in this case would there yet be a city if they shared nothing else in common besides such things as exchange and alliance. But why ever not? Surely not because of alack of physical proximity in their community. For suppose that, while sharing things in common in this way, they were to join together but everyone used his own household like a city and came to each other's aid only against wrongdoers, as in a defensive alliance. Even then, if one reflected accurately on the case, they would not seem to be acity, so long, that is, as they went on associating in the same way when together as when apart.

It is manifest, then, that a city is not a matter of sharing a place in common or for the purpose of not doing each other wrong and for commerce [There is more to political, or communal, life than these!]. Rather, while these things must be present if there is to be a city, not even when they all are present is there yet a city, but only when households and families form a community in living well for the sake of a complete and self-sufficient existence. Such life will not be possible, however, unless they do inhabit and the same location and engage in intermarriage. That is why in cities marriage connections arose, as well as clans and sacrifices and the cultured pursuits involved in living together. Such things are the work of friendship, for the deliberate choice to live together is friendship. The end, then of the city is living well, but these other things are for the sake of the end, and a city is the community of families and villages in a complete and self-sufficient life, which, we say, is living happily and nobly.

So the political community must be set down as existing for the sake of noble deeds and not merely for living together. Hence those who contribute most to such a community have more of a share in the city than those who are equal or greater in freedom or family but unequal in political virtue, or than those who exceed in wealth but are exceeded in virtue.
Here you can read what would be Aristotle's fundamental critique of the American way of life--the question of how to balance the power of various classes and so on is subordinate to the end: why do people live in common? And what preserves this life?

Aristotle contrasts an alliance between separate polities with the true polity, its way of life and constitution. The United States started out as a confederation of republics, but what has resulted is increasing social fragmentation (along with the loss of sovereignty). We may have some legacy of "cultured pursuits" but these, like social capital, tradition, culture, and the virtues, are inherited from preceeding generations, and they are steadiliy losing their meaning, influence, and power to bind.

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