Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle on Property

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle on Property

Article excerpt


JONATHAN BARNES HAS WRITTEN RECENTLY that "Aristotle's remarks [on property] in the Politica are too nebulous to sustain any serious critical discussion."(1) Some scholars are (a bit) more confident about successfully getting to the bottom of Aristotle's opinions concerning property, but few have dealt with the topic in any detail.(2) In this essay I shall investigate the relevant texts on property from the Aristotelian corpus, beginning with an especially careful look at Aristotle's criticism of Plato's communism of property. I shall also consider the historical and cultural context in which Aristotle was writing. The result will be, I hope, a full account of, and hence a better understanding of, Aristotle's views on property.(3)


It hardly needs to be said that Aristotle is not an ascetic of any kind: he believes that human happiness requires all kinds of external goods, including wealth or property.(4) The important question for us is, In what form (politically, socially) should property be held?

Aristotle considers three possible arrangements concerning property(5) and its use: (1) property is private, use is common; (2) property is common, use is private; (3) property is common, use is common. Why does Aristotle not consider a fourth option: property is private, use is private? Miller claims he omits this option because "he is not defending a system of unqualified privatization."(6) But this is not the reason. As we shall come to find out (in section IV below) one friend giving something to another, or in fact any act of generosity, falls under private property, common use (view [1]). For instance, this horse is mine, but I share it with (that is, make it common to) my friend. Thus, this fourth option--private property, private use--is no option at all, for it would be a property arrangement that systematically rules out any kind of giving or sharing of one's private property.(7)

Aristotle gives examples of each of these arrangements:

For example, [1] the plots of land are separate [that is, private], while the crops are brought into the common [store] [unkeyable] and consumed [in common], just as some of the nations do. Or [2] the opposite: the land is common and farmed in common, while the crops are divided with a view to private use (some of the barbarians are said to share in common in this way, too). Or [3] the plots of land and the crops are common. (Politics 1263a3-8)(8)

It is extremely important to keep in mind that the three examples he mentions are just examples. So although Aristotle's position will fall under one of the three possibilities--we later find he accepts view (1)--that position may be quite different from the example he gives here.(9)

The question for Aristotle now becomes, Which is better, a private property arrangement (view [1]) or a system where property is common (view [2] or [3])? Aristotle presents several arguments against the latter and for a private property system.


Aristotle begins his criticism of the communism of property with what has been (correctly) called a "standing difficulty of communist schemes":(10)

Now if the farmers were different [from the citizens], the manner [in which property would be managed (cf. 1262b37-38)] would be different and easier; but if they [that is, citizens who are farmers] do the hard work [unkeyable] by themselves, the arrangements concerning possessions will lead to greater discontent [unkeyable]. For in fact, when in enjoyment and in work they are not equal, but unequal, accusations [unkeyable] will necessarily be raised against those enjoying or taking many things while laboring [unkeyable] little, by those taking less while laboring more. (Politics 1263a8-15)(11)

Is Aristotle criticizing the communism of property here simply because he thinks it is impractical (that is, it leads to greater discontent, which is inimical to the city's unity), or, beyond this, does he hold that such a system is unjust as well? …

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