Plato & Aristotle:
Pro & Con Arguments on Selected Topics
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
The Laws of Plato
Dr. J.H. Lomax
28 April 2013
“Mankind must have laws, and conform to them, or their life would be as bad as that of the most savage beast. And the reason of this is that no man's nature is able to know what is best for human society; or knowing, always able and willing to do what is best. In the first place, there is a difficulty in apprehending that the true art of politics is concerned, not with private but with public good (for public good binds together states, but private only distracts them); and that both the public and private good as well of individuals as of states is greater when the state and not the individual is first considered. In the second place, although a person knows in the abstract that this is true, yet if he be possessed of absolute and irresponsible power, he will never remain firm in his principles or persist in regarding the public good as primary in the state, and the private good as secondary. Human nature will be always drawing him into avarice and selfishness, avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure without any reason, and will bring these to the front, obscuring the juster and better; and so working darkness in his soul will at last fill with evils both him and the whole city. For if a man were born so divinely gifted that he could naturally apprehend the truth, he would have no need of laws to rule over him; for there is no law or order which is above knowledge, nor can mind, without impiety, be deemed the subject or slave of any man, but rather the lord of all. I speak of mind, true and free, and in harmony with nature. But then there is no such mind anywhere, or at least not much; and therefore we must choose law and order, which are second best. These look at things as they exist for the most part only, and are unable to survey the whole of them. And therefore I have spoken as I have.” - Plato
Aristotle’s mentor, Plato, is credited with writing the Laws late in his life. While his earlier exposition, The Republic, is the intellectual attempt to determine the ideal city, which includes a refined characterization of both the citizenry and the system of government, the Laws is a more practical exploration, taking into account the limitations of the individuals who inevitably will make up the whole of the city. Plato’s protégé, Aristotle, expanded, refined, and reordered the ideas espoused by both Plato and Socrates to develop the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. The following exposition is an attempt at tying together the various thoughts of the three later works just mentioned and crafting a series of arguments supporting or opposing some selected policies in relation to governance. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics will be used as the foundation for all of the arguments as this text provides the most refined version of what it means for a person to live the good life, as well as the implied role a government should play in human life. The Ethics will also be revisited at the end to address ways in which the arguments presented can be seen as being either in accord with virtue ethics, or not. Aristotle’s Politics and The Laws of Plato will supplement the ethical foundations and will provide the bulk of the material used to craft the arguments being posited. The last section will be a short exploration into the role Aristotelian virtue ethics plays in the relationship between government and citizen.
The arguments presented, in order, are as follows:
1) Against Slavery
2) Against Communism
3) Against Economic Wealth and Commercial Enterprise
4) For & Against – Rulers and the Laws as Moral Educators
5) For & Against Laws Punishing Impiety
6) For & Against Equality of the Sexes in Family, Military and Government
7) For & Against Kingship
8) For & Against Democracy
9) For & Against Mixed Regimes
10) For & Against Divided Powers
In Plato’s Laws the Athenian stranger tells of several seven different natural occurrences of the rulers and the ruled.[i] One of these instances is that of the master over the slave,[ii] though his point in this section is that the most proper of the seven is the prudent over the ignorant.[iii] The stranger’s preference is explained as being the most natural and is characterized as, “the natural rule exercised by the law over willing subjects, without violence.”[iv] Assuming the Athenian stranger truly believes what he says about the rule of the prudent over the ignorant it is impossible to justify slavery, at least in cases where the slaves are unwilling participants in their own bondage, as well as in cases where masters commit violence upon their slaves. That the institution of slavery was widespread and contemporaneous with the text may serve as an explanation for why Plato may not have wanted to draw too much attention to the idea that he believed those who supported the institution were dismissing the rule of the prudent over the ignorant in favor of the strong over the weak, and did so strictly for personal gain.
In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics slavery to a master is compared to being a child to a father and it is claimed that in both of these relationships there is no such thing as injustice in the political sense. However, Aristotle makes the assertion that possessions such as one’s children and slaves are a part of oneself, and “nobody chooses to harm himself.”[v] That the qualifier of “in a political sense” was used is important, considering Aristotle, at the end of book five, states “there does in fact seem to be injustice in relation to oneself, because…it is possible to suffer something contrary to their particular longings. Just as for ruler and ruled, then, there seems to be something just in relation to each other.”[vi] This seeming endorsement of slavery with the claim it is not an injustice in the political sense appears to be rectified by Aristotle in book one of his Politics. While it may be argued that Aristotle is making an argument for the justification of slavery, it seems more reasonable that his argument is against slavery as it was commonly practiced, and makes the care of a “natural slave” more of a costly duty than a benefit to its master.
In chapter six of book one Aristotle draws a clear distinction between those who are enslaved by force or law and those who are natural slaves. The former are present through an appeal to the idea that might makes right, while the latter is an acknowledgement that there are those people who are so deficient in the mental capacities that they are unable to care for themselves. While these may be termed natural slaves, it seems clear that the necessities of care, and the exercise of prudence and justice to oneself, as addressed earlier, make the masters of such slaves, whether an individual or the city, more paternalistic caregivers responsible for the slaves’ well-being and care as wards than traditional masters directing what would otherwise be an equal in a different environment. Note fifty-six in chapter seven makes clear what appears to be at the heart of Aristotle’s delicately put position on slavery. “By the very argument that justifies slavery as natural, any slavery not based on the defect of the intellectual capacity described at 1254b 22-23 is disadvantageous to the master as well as to the slave, and a source of mutual hostility or hatred.”[vii] By tying the various texts together in this way it appears that justice would require the abolition of slavery as it concerns those enslaved through force or law. Assuming this is the case and the coercive force of law is impermissible to justify slavery, then those natural slaves can be no more than wards of the state, either directly or through individuals who are regulated in their behavior as surrogates for the state toward the slaves in their charge. This interpretation could also reasonably be said to be congruous with the virtues of liberality or magnificence, and gentleness, in addition to justice as explained earlier.
The Laws make it clear that not all things should be held in common by the citizens, though a point is made that if such a thing could exist in a way that all were virtuous and homogenous in their beliefs, it would have to be a city “inhabited, presumably, by gods or children of gods (more than one), and they dwell in gladness, leading such a life.”[viii] Plato does, however assert that property should be allotted equally to the citizens and that each “must consider his share to be at the same time the common property of the whole city, and must cherish his land, as a part of the fatherland...”[ix] Furthermore, without addressing people as property held in common, Plato does make it clear that population control is so important that the legislators and the elders will need to work to make sure that women and men are brought together in some way so as to make sure the population remains at a steady level, with families having more children than they *should* have being persuaded or coerced into having their children sent into households where there are too few children.[x]
Aristotle makes a very strong argument against many things being held in common when he states “what is common to the most people gets the least attention,” and “People are concerned most about the things that are particularly theirs, and less so about things held in common…they slight them more on the assumption that someone else is taking care of them.”[xi] In addition to this, as a direct response to Socrates’ position that the ideal city is one that has become one with the people and the people have become one with the city, seemingly based on a mutual affection between all, Aristotle identifies a similar problem. “In the city affection would necessarily be watered down by this sort of association.”[xii] He goes on to explain that “there are two things which most of all make human beings feel care and affection, something that is one’s own and something that is one’s favorite, neither of which can be present for people governed this way.”[xiii] If one accepts Aristotle’s reasoning that only those two things make people feel care and affection, and accepts the reasoning that care and affection are important for people to feel toward each other and their city, then it must follow that communism, at least regarding women and children, and perhaps other properties generally, is a bad form of governance and that many things should not be held in common. For land, and other things held in common, unequal production and inequalities in the efforts applied or pleasures acquired are likely to result in conflict and bring to the forefront questions of justice; human selfishness being mostly to blame.[xiv]
Against Economic Wealth and Commercial Enterprise
The argument here is one that seeks to limit the effects of luxury and the results of wealth inequalities. In the first case, an excess of luxury is likely to make leading a virtuous life more difficult. In the second, wealth inequalities inspire jealousies and can lead to those with more wealth exercising greater political power for their own benefit, increasing wealth inequalities, risking civil unrest or even civil war. The Athenian stranger argues the lawmaker must control poverty and excess wealth.[xv] The lawgiver must set a minimum amount permissible to avoid impoverishment within the citizenry and limit the wealth to “up to four times again” the amount of the initial allotment of land. The purpose of such laws is to avoid conditions that “breed both civil war and faction.”[xvi] The Athenian stranger further makes the claim in book nine that “money has the power to engender tens of thousands of erotic desires for its insatiable and limitless acquisition.”[xvii] The claim stems from the prior claim that voluntary and unjust actions tend to “spring from weakness in the face of pleasures, desires, and envies,” which the Cretan Kleinias agrees with[xviii], and explains assertions from books one and five. In book one, the claim is made that there are both divine and human, or lesser, goods, and the human goods include health, beauty, strength, and wealth, in that order.[xix] The same is reiterated in book five where the stranger points again at the primacy the divine goods should be given in ordering what should be honored.[xx]
Such a limitation on excesses of poverty and wealth seems tailored to serving a twofold purpose. On one hand, as was previously mentioned, by limiting the amount of inequality within the city it inhibits the ardor that would make civil strife and civil war either problematic or the source of the city’s demise. Furthermore, it serves as both an education toward the virtue of temperance, focusing the citizens less on wealth acquisition, since beyond a certain point the wealth goes straight to the city without benefiting the citizen, and more toward the more noble virtues of the soul and character. However, even if one assumes the policy would fail to instill any sense of virtue, it is obvious that the limitations on both sides serve as a form of behavioral modification where individuals are, by law, forced into a situation in which their options from wealth are not substantially greater or lesser than any other citizen’s options, balancing the amount of power that can be wielded through wealth. Therefore, while a citizen may not be very virtuous, at least their behavior is heavily constrained so that it is more likely to be little more than a functional substitute for the sake of social order and cohesion.
For & Against – Rulers and the Laws as Moral Educators
Aristotle claims “Things productive of the whole of virtue are all those legislative acts pertaining to the education to the common [good].”[xxi] This sentiment was an echo of the Athenian stranger’s instruction in book one of the Laws. The stranger places in order the divine and human goods, as were previously mentioned in the section on wealth, so as to guide the legislator in proper prioritization of the laws. The legislator is charged with caring for the citizens in various ways, paying attention to their pains and pleasures, their longings and their passions, “blaming and praising correctly by means of the laws themselves.”[xxii] A full reading of this section on what should be watched and how the laws should honor or dishonor citizens in accordance with the degree to which they have earned the honors or dishonors appears to provide a basic framework for the rulers and the laws to serve not merely as moral educators, but to exercise paternalistic force over the citizens from before birth to after death; the proverbial cradle-to-grave oversight and ordering by laws.
Aristotle seems to back away from this position somewhat in book two of his Politics when he criticizes Socrates for trying to make the household and the city one in all ways when they should only be made one in certain ways. While Aristotle asserts “one ought to make it [the city] communal and one through education,” he goes on to claim Socrates’ approach through regulation was ill-conceived. Aristotle continues and claims that it is better to address moral education informally through a combination of customs, philosophy, and laws or regulations.[xxiii] By placing a greater emphasis on the role of customs, which will also include the educations received in all of the various households that will be different from each other to varying degrees, Aristotle shows he understands there are limits to the legislator’s ability to fully control moral education. Furthermore, with the lack of total control over education, and the likelihood that any regulation may run counter to any household customs, this knowledge if used prudently will tend to moderate the good legislator, which in turn would make for more moderate laws regarding education.
However successful the legislator is at educating the citizens in moral virtue, one might be left wondering how this could be a bad thing. In cases where the laws are brought into force in opposition to the citizens, the answer is obvious. They would lose respect for the laws and only follow them under threat of harsh penalties. The laws, the legislators, and the penalties in this case would foment resentment and risk civil war or revolution, possibly resulting in the city’s collapse. If the laws were such that they benefited the rulers at the expense of the ruled, even if the citizens were kept ignorant of the injustice, the moral education would, by definition not be promoting moral virtue, just mere willing obedience. One other problem with moral education being the purview of the law is the fact that what is being dealt with is a fairly complex and nuanced virtue ethic that, as discussed in class, would take an extremely discerning person to even identify the presence of true virtue as opposed to simple behavioral modification through habituation. If the two are indistinguishable in large part, what happens when, through cunning, a charismatic interloper hijacks morality and convinces the hoi polloi that virtue is merely whatever he claims it to be? In short, a policy for moral education in the city is dangerous as it is possible the education be twisted toward the purposes of those in power and do damage to the common good of the citizenry. Leaning heavily on tradition and customs, a tyrannical despot may be able to exert enough force through persuasion to create new customs that over time will be make controlling the subjects easier.
For & Against Laws Punishing Impiety
Plato’s Laws incorporates what seems to be a strong defense of religion being an integral part of the governance of a city, used in large part to bind the community together and make the citizens and the city one in relation to what is seen as pious and righteous and what is seen as their opposites. Laws regarding aspects of piety are promoted in relation to matrimony and procreation, as well as fidelity between the partners, where what is seen as impious behavior is punished. Punishment for impious behavior is also legislated regarding the approved types of worship, wrong beliefs regarding the existence and character of the gods, sexual relations outside of marriage, and other infractions which are seen to exhibit any disrespect of the gods or what it is alleged to go against the wishes of the gods. However, Aristotle’s Politics at one point provides advice to the tyrant on how to use piety and religion to strengthen his hold on his subjects and keep them somewhat mollified and unwilling to revolt, making the counter argument that however good incorporating religion into the laws may seem, the downside is that religion is a powerful weapon and in order to keep it away from tyrants it may be best if piety and religion are kept out of the realm of the legislators as much as is prudent.
The Athenian stranger makes the claim in book four of the Laws that the “noblest and truest of all principles” is “for the good man it is very noble, very good, and most efficacious for a happy life…if he sacrifices to and always communes with the gods—through prayers, votive offerings, and every sort of service to the gods. But for the bad man just the opposite of these things holds by nature.”[xxiv] This quote appears to lay the foundation for all of the laws to follow. The first of the laws addressed deal with the impiety of a man refusing to take a wife and start a family. Disobeying the laws designed to persuade a man to marry results in fines and being deprived of honors, “For anyone voluntarily to deprive himself of this is never pious.”[xxv] For refusing to be excluded from worship festivities for refusal to honor the gods appropriately the law would allow anyone offended to bring suit against the impious lawbreaker.[xxvi] By molding public opinion to hold in esteem noble characteristics of the soul, a love of honor and a reverence for the gods, and creating an environment where it is believed that any sexual relations not between man and wife are impious and offensive to the gods as well as a failure, or loss, of one’s self-control to the pleasures of the body, which is dishonorable, yet again the specter of religion is used to persuade, coerce, and control the citizens, guiding them toward moral virtue as espoused by the Athenian stranger.[xxvii] The most grievous act of impiety deals with one’s beliefs regarding the existence, or nature, of the gods. For denying the existence of the gods or for believing the gods are anything but just, the penalties range from five years imprisonment to death, with the requirement that release requires a proper belief in the gods and their nature.[xxviii]
A problem with laws regarding piety is discussed by Aristotle in book five of his Politics. Reminiscent of a Machiavellian illustration of the difference between the way one is and the way one seems, Aristotle’s paints the same picture when he asserts “he must always make a display of taking matters related to the gods exceptionally seriously. For people…are less likely to plot against those they think have even the gods as allies.”[xxix] Showing here how involving the gods into laws could be used by a tyrant, it seems reasonable to assume that the same strategy could be used by democracies and oligarchies as well to secure the self-interested desires of the rulers. One other consideration that implies there might have been serious misgivings about involving religious matters in the law, though maybe weak, is the Athenian stranger’s opening conversation in Plato’s Laws. By opening with the question of whether or not the laws originate from the gods or from men, knowingly or not he has cast a shadow on any lawgivers who would claim either divine revelation to justify the laws or that the laws are rightly ordered regarding what is commanded or restricted as they relate to the gods.[xxx] Combine this question with the discussion of the compromises that would be necessary when different clans come together to form a city, each having different traditions and different beliefs regarding the gods, and it seems to further imply that only those laws which meet the bare minimums regarding religion would and should be considered, and then only if they are universal in belief, or at least nearly so.[xxxi]
For & Against Equality of the Sexes in the Family, the Military and the Government
Plato and Aristotle seem somewhat ambivalent toward women. On the one hand women are capable of intelligence, prudence, and the moral virtues. On the other hand they are essentially weak flatterers and the cause of men seeking the vice of carnal pleasures over more honorable pursuits. While Plato may have set up his ideal city in the Republic so that women were, at least in the highest class of people, granted equal treatment, and while Aristotle implies that women in the household are the equals of their husbands when he draws a parallel between a man’s apparent sovereignty in the home to the elevation of a mere foot-pan to something divine[xxxii], women are characterized with an essential nature that makes it clear that both philosophers thought women were either inherently less than men or were so different from men that to treat them equally would be an injustice to the natural order of things. Aristotle even claims that “in most instances of political rule there is an interchange among those who rule and are ruled, since they tend by nature to be on equality and have no difference” and that “the male is always related to the female in this manner.”[xxxiii] Comparing what Aristotle says here about the equality of men and women in political rule to some of the more insulting characterizations of women in all three of the primary texts, reconciliation is difficult if not impossible. If one assumes that men and women are on a level of equality regarding political rule, and the best political life is led by one capable of living a virtuous contemplative life, it means that women are equal to men when it comes to each and every one of the intellectual and moral virtues required to live the virtuous contemplative life. Plato’s stranger in the Laws does advocate for women to have a role more equal to the men than social conventions of the time permitted, including similar educations and service in the military, while still appearing wistful of the city where he believes the laws are best and women are held in common by the men at one point.[xxxiv]
Regardless of the degree with which women are granted equality somewhat comparable to men, such as being allowed to enter government office and serve in the military, the disparity between the ages of service and the ages at which both men and women would be permitted to marry can easily lead one to believe the role of women, outside of procreation, is essentially complementary in nature and not supplementary.[xxxv] The complementary role granted in some parts of the texts in no way counters the way women’s nature is described and may be used to argue that the appeals to equality were disingenuous. For example, in the Politics, Aristotle claims “slaves and women do not get into plots against tyrants.” In the same section he claims that under tyranny and the last stages of democracy it happens that the females take control of the households “to get them to denounce their husbands.”[xxxvi] Does Aristotle make this claim because there is something inherent in women that make them more likely for them to deny their spouse than the other way around? Or is it less about women’s inherent nature and more about the pervasive nature of unwritten laws and conventions that kept women in a more subservient role to men, generally? The two options are not entirely mutually exclusive. It may be there is some inherent difference of temperaments in combination with the results of a decidedly patriarchal culture that lead to women being seen and treated as in many ways less than men.
One concern with the apparent discrepancy between Aristotle’s characterizations of women in several areas of the text, comparable to the one just given as an example, is that when they are juxtaposed with what Plato apparently sees as the ideal city, and Aristotle’s own claim that, when it comes to the virtues, men and women are on equal footing, the only possible excuse for presenting anything less than a purely egalitarian political order where men and women are concerned, is because of the patriarchal nature of the society. This would tend to make it appear that both philosophers were either too afraid to challenge more openly the “might-makes-right” justification of the social order as it was in favor of pure prudence over ignorance, or that they both held at a minimum some subconscious belief that women really were inferior to men in general in some undefined way beyond mere differences in physical strength. An argument could be made for any number of positions on this topic. But even if it could ever be determined that the social conventions were too strongly held to be safely criticized by the writers, then an argument could be made that doing what they did was to some degree courageous, in accordance with the virtue of prudence, showed temperance, and was based in part on their knowledge of what happened to Socrates when he challenged the social norms during his lifetime.
For & Against Kingship
There are three different forms of governance that when acting on the behalf of the common good are the better styles, and when acting on the behalf of those ruling are the worse styles. The forms are differentiated by the number of people in power over the city. There is the rule of one, the rule of a few, and the rule of many. The rule of one, when acting for the common good is a kingship, and when acting out of self interest is a tyranny. The rule of few is called an aristocracy and an oligarchy, while the rule of many is called a polity (or at times a timocracy, or mixed regime) and a democracy, respectively. These six types of city administrations, as the Athenian stranger refers to them, may exercise a despotic sort of power within a regime, which is an admixture of some of the various administrations in either a loose or tight but unified government over citizens and subjects.[xxxvii]
The Athenian stranger, speaking for a lawgiver asked what sort of city he should be given, exhorts, “Give me a tyrannized city,” a tyrant who is young, with a good memory, who is a capable learner possessed of all the virtues and the natural inclination to moderation and self restraint.[xxxviii] Having such a kingship would best enable the new city being discussed to quickly, efficiently be structured with the type of regime best suited to providing the citizens with the greatest happiness. When questioned about how a ruler exercising what appears to them to be too great a force of persuasion and violence could get the populace to follow willingly, the response is that there will never be “a quicker or easier way for a city to change its laws than through the hegemony of all-powerful rulers.” Furthermore, given the characterization of the ruler called for, the result would be that more people would aspire to become like the ruler and as a result, virtue would flourish in the citizens.[xxxix]
Later, however, the Athenian discusses a golden-age long past when Kronos ruled and set up various kingships of divine beings called demons where the laws were good and just, and life was peaceful and happy. This was done because, as the Athenian said, “Kronos understood that…human nature is not at all capable of regulating human things…without becoming swollen with insolence and injustice.”[xl] By telling this story the stranger makes it clear that a just tyrant is only an ideal and unattainable by mere mortals, so some other order of governance must be found. One characteristic of the force exerted by the tyrants examined in this section will allegedly lead to the downfall of any city. The force used was above and sovereign over the laws when the ideal would be that the laws should be sovereign over the rulers, serving as a check against despotic tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies.[xli] Even if one were to argue that this description of human nature is in error, the fact remains that a tyrant, king or despot, who is sovereign over the laws is problematic. A tyrant without an heir or with a weak heir, or during times of illness or old age, or after death, leaves the city to the whims of the powerful and cunning who are victorious in attaining the power once held by the previous tyrant, and the city will be re-ordered to suit the new powers.[xlii]
For & Against Democracy
The best argument for a pure democracy seems to come from the Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. This section on the role of friendship to virtue shows how different types of friendship relate to different types of households and types of governance. The household where there is no master, or at least a very weak one, is likened to a democracy. In this condition friendship is said to flourish the most as “those who are equal have many things in common.”[xliii] Aristotle, in his Politics, also compares the benefits of citizenship within the various forms of government and concludes that a citizen is more of a citizen in a democracy than in any other regime.[xliv] In addition to this, if the goal is to most closely achieve through laws what the will of the people is, a democracy seems to be the best candidate, regardless of the fact that what the people want may have nothing to do with virtue. In order to address the problem of the rule of the hoi polloi, driven by self-interest, and make a democracy more virtuous Aristotle hints at a form of democracy where the laws are sovereign over the citizens, though he does not delve into the particulars for how such a thing could come into being. But a semantic loophole may exist if the democracies in which the laws are not sovereign over the ruling offices are not really democracies at all, but are more akin to despotic tyrannies, as Aristotle claimed.[xlv] This reiterates what Plato said earlier regarding the importance of laws being superior to the rulers, and that the laws are necessary to prevent, or at least minimize the likelihood of, any regime becoming despotic in its decrees and administration.
Aristotle thinks democracy is not the best form of governance possible in the practical sense, and this seems to be the best argument possible against it. In book four of the Politics he makes an argument for what he calls constitutional rule, claiming it is better than both democracy and oligarchy. Constitutional rule is a mixture of equal parts oligarchy and democracy. The example of a well constituted regime of this type is such that it is possible to refer to it as either an oligarchy or a democracy “because they are so beautifully mixed that people who speak that way are led to do so.”[xlvi] He later explains that a city is intended for people who are alike in many ways, and that an important division for the sake of acquiring the mean in governance is the division of wealth. Those with excessive wealth and those with little wealth surround the mean being sought as the best place to be so long as the middle group is large, especially if it is also more powerful than the groups on either side of it.[xlvii]
For & Against Mixed Regimes
It seems ludicrous to say that there is a good, or even a best, argument against a mixed regime if one assumes a mixed regime is the rule of the many with an eye toward the common good, and the good is happiness from living a virtuous life. The people, citizens and subjects alike, would be educated rightly, habituated properly, and given appropriate honors at the right times and for the right reasons. The people in this democracy would tend to justly sever those who are not capable of seeing the rightness of virtue and act in opposition to virtue from the society either through imprisonment, banishment, or death. This would create a homogonous people, like-minded enough to be similar to family, with the same or similar traditions and folkways. Even if the sovereign laws and the rulers within a mixed regime of this sort fail to create citizens who are in all ways virtuous, they would succeed in creating a commodious society where the behavior of those who are not virtuous would be indistinguishable from those who are authoritatively virtuous. At least it seemed ludicrous to say there is no best argument against a mixed regime.
The argument against the mixed regime presented above is the same argument used against Plato’s idealized city in the Republic, and it is the same argument used against any practically unattainable utopian dream where people are as they were depicted above. The practical problems of a mixed regime are little different than those suffered by any pure regime, or administration as Plato called them. People seek gain. People seek pleasure. People seek power over others. These mixed regimes where there are some aspects of each type of rule – the one, the few, and the many – still need laws, regulations, policies in place that serve to moderate the conflicting desires of not only the individuals in the city but the factions they will inevitably create through the various forms of friendship. The argument is for the rule of law over all other forms of rule, but with an eye toward the common good regardless of the specific form a regime takes. While it might be possible for a city to start small and grow in accordance with the laws and customs designed for their happiness, it seems unlikely that such a condition would be able to continue indefinitely. Even the idea of culling the society of the non-virtuous through imprisonment, banishment, or death, can be argued to be the result of an unjust application of force, especially by those in opposition to the normative beliefs the punishments are based on. The other side of that argument is obviously based in a normative morality that states those being punished are being rehabilitated or habituated toward virtue, or separated from the society in the most just way possible to minimize the threat the “criminal” poses to the life of the people in the city. This sort of response could indicate an affinity for some form of totalitarian fascism. The people, having no trust in the laws and in their rulers, and those who would seek power through demagoguery, could generate ideas of conspiracy. In this environment, how could one know with any certainty of the rightness of the actions of those in positions of rulership? It might be that the rulers have identified threats to their positions of authority and are merely following the advice of Periander to Thrasybulus and cutting down those who stand out within the citizenry.[xlviii]
For & Against Divided Powers
A virtuous king of a well ordered city may act quickly to take care of the people. A group of truly virtuous oligarchs of the same city could do just almost as well as the king, being hindered only in the necessity of coming together to affirm agreement on the matter at hand. Likewise, a citizenry with the same characteristics would do less well than the oligarchs for the same reason, and the larger the population of citizens the greater the delay would be. Efficiency is the best argument against divided powers, though it does not speak to what the desired role government should play, especially in relation to the virtues and the citizens. When one considers and gives at least some credence to the warning from Kronos’ understanding that, “human nature is not at all capable of regulating human things…without becoming swollen with insolence and injustice,” the importance of dividing and balancing the various powers in a city becomes self-evident.
Aristotle asserts happiness is an intrinsic good which people aim at for itself and not for another end. He further asserts the function of a person is “an activity of soul in accord with reason, or not without reason,” and, “the human good becomes an activity of the soul in accord with virtue, and if there are several virtues, then in accord with the best and most complete one.”[xlix] The subjective nature of this idea is reflected well in the previous sections regarding slavery and the role of women. The issue of subjectivity is even somewhat problematic when applying the Aristotle’s Ethics to the political world.
The better persons are those who are the most virtuous, and should, in the interest of justice, be accorded honors in proportion to their virtue. Virtue is learned through habituation and education. One can be assisted or hindered by natural inclinations toward or away from moderation and self-control. Differences in inherent characteristics and differences in the way one is habituated and educated to virtue will play a role, large or small, in the honors one will earn, whether given or not. Those who have either difficult or untamable natures affecting virtue will be perceived by those around them to be less virtuous than others who are naturally gifted with moderate temperament, all other things being equal, even if the one with the more difficult nature is more authoritative in their attempts to fight their inclinations against self-control and their irrational passions of the soul. There are some natural talents that can more easily be seen by onlookers and used to properly judge the degree of virtue exhibited. As an example of this, a courageous act of martial skills would likely be a grander spectacle to witness when performed by the well trained and strong soldier than what would be seen when the same degree of courage is exhibited by a prepubescent, untrained child. The visible and properly intuited differences are much more readily seen in this case than are those differences in inclinations of the soul, as Aristotle would put it. The result here is that there will likely be at least some who may attempt virtue, but are operating from such a disadvantage through nature and circumstance, that honors would be unjustly denied them due to the failures of perception and knowledge on the part of those who should be granting the honors. The good thing about the Ethics is that the virtuous person will realize this is what is happening, pat themselves on the back for a job well done and be pleased they did the right thing regardless of the injustice of not receiving appropriate honors.
More problematic is the need for homogeneity within a city or other political jurisdiction. The Ethics only works for those who are separate from all other people or within those communities that agree with the precepts of virtue presented. A community of Benthamites would likely believe wallowing in hedonistic pleasures to be more virtuous than refraining, and a community of Muslims would likely believe that drinking wine is evidence of vice or sin, and lacking in virtue. In a widely diverse community of beliefs virtue ethics seems to fare as well as many other belief systems trying to address ethical rules. Both Plato and Aristotle knew normative beliefs of what is and is not moral or virtuous would be problematic, especially when one set of beliefs is mutually exclusive to another. It was noted, but then glossed over by Plato in book three of the Laws when a simple selection of lawgivers presented to the chiefs were presumed to, perhaps magically, make these differences in beliefs capable of coexisting peacefully when this is not necessarily always possible, regardless of the good intentions of the people and their rulers.[l] Even granting there is an intuitive draw toward Aristotle’s accounting of what it means to be human, and that reason, prudence, and intelligence are all necessary and right for people to live in accordance with, and that the account is aspirational, there is still a subjectivity problem. Politically, it has already been shown how involving the gods and religion might affect those who do not adhere to the same beliefs; prison, banishment, or death. Anything else believed to be as sacred or divine and godly, as virtue is portrayed, is likely to conflict with other core beliefs involving anything seen as godlike and sacred. The texts provide no answer to these particular issues, other than an appeal to prudence when the authors knew that one man’s prudence is another man’s failed attempt to reason rightly.
[i] The Laws of Plato. Book 3. 690a -690c. Page 74.
[ii] Ibid. 690b.
[iv] Ibid. 690c.
[v] Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Book 5. Chapter 6. 1134b8-12. Page 104.
[vi] Ibid. Chapter 11. 1138b11-13. Page 114.
[vii] Aristotle’s Politics. Book 1. Chapter 6. Note 56. Page 12.
[viii] The Laws of Plato. Book 5. 739e1. Page 126.
[ix] Ibid. 740a. Page 127.
[x] Ibid. 740b-d. Page 127.
[xi] Aristotle’s Politics. Book 2. Chapter 3. 1261b35. Page 30.
[xii] Ibid. Chapter 4. 1262b17. Page 32.
[xiii] Ibid. 1262b23.
[xiv] Ibid. Chapter 5. 1263a8-1263b2. pp 33-34.
[xv] The Laws of Plato. Book 5. 744d. Page 132.
[xvii] Ibid. Book 9. 870a. Page 264.
[xviii] Ibid. 869e.
[xix] Ibid. Book 1. 631c. Page 10.
[xx] Ibid. Book 5. 726-a-727a. Page 112.
[xxi] Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Book 5. Chapter 2. 1130b25. Page 94.
[xxii] The Laws of Plato. Book 1. 631c-632c. pp 10-11.
[xxiii] Aristotle’s Politics. Book 2. Chapter 5. 1263b30-41. Page 35.
[xxiv] The Laws of Plato. Book 4. 716e-717a. Page 103.
[xxv] Ibid. Book 4. 721b-721d. pp 108-109.
[xxvi] Ibid. Book 7. 799a-799b. pp 187-188.
[xxvii] Ibid. Book 8. 840d-842a. pp 232-233.
[xxviii] Ibid. Book 10. 908b-909c. pp 308-309.
[xxix] Aristotle’s Politics. Book 5. Chapter 11. 1314b38-1315a5. Page 176.
[xxx] The Laws of Plato. Book 1. 624a. Page 3.
[xxxi] Ibid. Book 3. 681a-681d. pp 63-64.
[xxxii] Aristotle’s Politics. Book 1. Chapter 12. 1259b5-10. Pp 22-23.
[xxxiv] The Laws of Plato. Book 5. 739c. Page 126.
[xxxv] Ibid. Book 6. 785b. Page 174.
[xxxvi] Aristotle’s Politics. Book 5. Chapter 11. 1313b35. Page 174.
[xxxvii] The Laws of Plato. Book 4. 712c-713a. Page 99.
[xxxviii] Ibid. 709e-710a. Page 95.
[xxxix] Ibid. 711c-711e. Page 97.
[xl] Ibid. 713b-713e. pp 99-100.
[xli] Ibid. 715d. Page 102.
[xlii] Aristotle’s Politics. Book 3. 1286b. Page 96.
[xliii] Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Book 8. Chapter 11. 1161a10-1161b10. pp180-181.
[xliv] Aristotle’s Politics. Book 3. Chapter 1. Page 66.
[xlv] Ibid. Book 4. Chapter 4. 1292a. pp 112-113.
[xlvi] Ibid. Chapter 9. 1294b15. Page 119.
[xlvii] Ibid. Chapter 11. 1295b25-40. pp 122-123.
[xlviii] Ibid. Book 3. Chapter 13. 1284a26-33. Page 90.
[xlix] Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Book 1. Chapter 7. 1097b1. Page 11.
[l] The Laws of Plato. Book 3. 681a-681d. pp 63-64.