Some Notes on Aristotle’s Politics

What is so fascinating about Aristotle’s treatment of politics is that he links the social, political and economic aspects of life with the philosophical aspect. That is to say that not only are we political animals, not only do we organize our production system in households, not only do we relate as freemen and slaves, workers and employers, but we do so for a purpose: the eudaimonia, i.e. happiness. In most political treatises it must be observed that a philosophical rationale may exist, but is not overarching, i.e. it has not a single telos for which sake all other things are done. One might think of Hobbes’ account of a monarch and his subjects in a well-governed polity that prevents anarchy and misery. Or one might think of Locke’s account of individual liberty through the possession and maintenance of property. Another interesting philosophical appeal was made by Marx, when he theorized about a potential communist society in his “German Ideology”. But while these particular modern ideas are useful and powerful in themselves, a rigorous comparison with Aristotle might reveal that these accounts are incomplete. Because stating and formulating the importance of a social contract or a functioning social organization is not enough. What humans need on top of that is a telos, or a goal. And the goal is create a society, in which people are citizens, who share in their government and act virtuously. The polity exists in order to create happiness to the largest extent possible.

The second interesting Aristotelian idea has been handled in today’s lecture: namely, Aristotle’s classification of the three forms of ideal and three forms of perverted governments. According to Aristotle, there is a kingship, aristocracy, and constitutional government on the ideal side, and a tyranny, oligarchy and democracy on the perverted side. Aristotle not only handled each of these categories in detail with many examples, he also empirically observed the ways in which one form can change into another: how a democracy is taken over by a demagogue, who becomes a tyrant. That tyrant might be overthrown by a group of oligarchs and so forth. History is a process, which is dominated by various groups. In the ideal form, the best elements of human nature are combined to form a government that can satisfy the needs of all the people, whereas all perverted governments only take care of the parts: tyranny for the single ruler, oligarchy for the rich and democracy for the poor. Upon reading the Aristotelian account, I find it enormously useful to see how his political scheme can be applied to the contemporary world. Even though, the people involved change, the basic scheme is still relevant to this day.

The most recent application of this, I observed, perhaps, is the debt crisis in Cyprus. Cyprus is suffering from an enormous banking debt, which makes them apply to the EU for bailout help. The EU officials (especially Germany) will only extend a bailout to Cyprus if they tax bank deposits above 100,000 Euros. The delicate matter is that a lot of the money stored in Cyprus belongs to Russian oligarchs who seek a tax haven in Cyprus. There is evidently a clash of different oligarchic interests: the Russian oligarchs vs. the German and the French oligarchs (the latter of which try to roll over the costs of the bailout to the former). Eventually, the common (poor) people in Cyprus will have to pay for the crisis, because EU bailout packages are normally tied to enormous austerity measures, which is necessary to repay debts to the benefit of foreign oligarchs. What this analysis means from an Aristotelian viewpoint is that the conflicts between groups and classes of people is well and alive, and that the perverted forms of government are much more likely to be the norm than the ideal form.

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