Victor Nuovo: Aristotle’s political inequities: We’ve come a long way

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of essays by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.
Aristotle was a naturalist. He believed that nature comprised the whole of reality. He conceived of nature in two respects: as productive power and as the totality of its products, which he imagined not as a random aggregate of things, but as a well formed universe, ruled by intelligence, and, because it is self generating, eternal.
Now there are two general kinds of naturalism. One supposes that the productive power of nature has no purpose or end in view, that the products of nature, great and large, are the results of chance and necessity and mechanical processes. This kind of naturalism is exemplified in Darwin’s theory of the origin of species, and by his intellectual ancestors, most notably Democritus of Abdera, whose system of nature was refined by Epicurus and beautifully presented by Lucretius in the Latin poem, De rerum natura (On the nature of things).
Lucretius presents nature as opportunistic rather than purposive, and yet not without fruitful results, some more enduring and more refined than others. That this happens is the good fortune of mice and men.
Aristotle’s naturalism differs fundamentally from this. His system of nature is sometimes characterized as “teleological,” meaning that nature always acts purposively towards some good end, or towards a universe of goods. Nature acts not as a person, but by inherent design. Nature’s purpose is always beneficial, towards a functional rather than a dysfunctional end—although Aristotle did admit that natural processes might go awry.
When explaining things, Aristotle would often make use of a common refrain that nature does nothing in vain. This belief, which is manifestly false, governed his thoughts about political equality.
He contended that political equality should be granted only to persons who meet certain qualifications, who are fit to be citizens. Since nature did not make everyone the same, he concluded that not everyone is fit to be a citizen. To begin with, he excluded women; he also excluded males who were not well born on the grounds that they are not educable, not capable of becoming virtuous in every respect, and those who were not born Greek. He argued that men and women are observably different, that women are generally weaker than men, less bold, and, since nature does nothing in vain, nature must have intended that women should be subject to men, wives to their husbands, and that patriarchy should be the rule of the family, and of the city also.
Likewise, he observed that some men are strong in body yet weak in mind, and therefore better suited to manual labor than to the more rarified pursuits of the well born. They are by nature fit to be servants or slaves, never citizens, and since nature does nothing in vain, to limit their social prospects to menial roles and subject them to the rule of well born virtuous masters is just, according to nature.
Yet, Aristotle was forced to admit that the evidence was not conclusive: in the “Politics,” he remarks that some of the well born do not meet the physical standards of gentility, which requires refinement of figure or gracefulness, in contrast to the hulking or brute strength of the servile classes; in such instances we must suppose that their souls, which we cannot see, match their respective social roles. This is the sort of remark that should only be made with tongue in cheek.
I must pause to clarify that political equality as we now understand it is not a principle grounded in nature but in equity, which is to say, in fairness and impartiality. It is a principle of practical reason or good sense, a pragmatic idea. What this means is that all persons within a legal jurisdiction have an equal right to fair and impartial treatment under the law, and are subject to its demands and penalties so long as they are able to understand what the law prescribes.
This modern notion of equality has its roots in the naturalism of Darwin and Lucretius. They supposed that every individual is unique. To be sure, species evolve, and in some of them certain characteristics dominate more than others. But even here there are differences. Even male and female is not an exact difference; variations are many, which is why a person’s gender is best judged by what they take it to be. The same applies to the color, form and size of our bodies, and to the number and shape of our limbs and the disposition and capabilities of our minds. None of these differences have any moral or political value or application; all fall under the general rule to treat everyone the same — that is, with fairness which entails being attentive to their particular needs.
However, we should also remind ourselves that the framers of our constitution (who were slave owners), and “the People of the United States,” who established it as the supreme law of the land, were men who did not mean to grant political equality to women or slaves. We’ve come a long way.
Back to Aristotle. He supposed that only males qualify as citizens, and of these, the heads of households. A city or polis, is a composite organization of citizens and their households. Within the household, the head of household rules as king; he is a gentleman, who has no other social function but to engage in politics and philosophy and oversee his property; all menial tasks are performed by slaves or servants.
Not surprisingly, Aristotle’s preference for inequality carries over into his account of the three main types of government: monarchic, aristocratic or republican, and their corruptions. A king stands apart from his subjects as a father from his children. He rules for their sake and always acts for their benefit. A corrupt king, a tyrant or despot, rules as a slave-master; his subjects have no rights; their role in life is to serve his interests and gratify his desires.
Aristocracy is the rule of the most qualified. Aristotle preferred it above all other forms of government, for he believed that every human society divides naturally into two groups: aristocrats and the many. Hence, he considered it the most natural of regimes. Oligarchy, its evil twin, is the rule of the rich and privileged, dwellers in proud towers in the central city, or in country estates, lovers of luxury. They are a counterfeit elite.
Last is constitutionalism—Aristotle uses the Greek terms politeia, or politeuma, to denote a form of rule based on fundamental law; a sort of republicanism. Curiously, to illustrate this sort of rule, Aristotle cited the rule of a husband over his wife. He regarded marriage as a partnership, where the woman is the lesser partner, subject to rational rules with valid reasons.
Finally, Aristotle considered democracy, the rule of the people, as the unstable seedbed of tyranny because he feared that the people were imprudent, not susceptible to the rule of reason.

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