Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle on Human Nature and Political Virtue

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle on Human Nature and Political Virtue

Article excerpt

Aristotle gives us an account of [theta][upsilon][sigma][iota][sigma] or nature in the Physics which is adequate for his immediate purposes there, but gives little indication of his broad deployment in the ethical and political works of the concept of the natural. He never systematically investigates nature as an ethical or political concept. Had he done so, he could not have failed to see that there are some tensions within the roles he assigns to the natural. He might thereby have avoided several problems, including one of his most unfortunate legacies, that of reactionary political attitudes which have appealed to nature, often in Aristotle's name, to uphold existing inequalities in society, such as slavery and the subordination of women. Some of this legacy has got attached to Aristotle unfairly; appeals to his works to defend race-based forms of slavery, for example, are patently specious. However, Aristotle's own lack of precision about the role of nature in his ethical and political arguments must bear some of the responsibility.

Nature in the Politics has been most extensively studied in the context of the book 1 argument that the polls is "by nature." Fred Miller's Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics is a landmark in this respect as in many others, and his discussion of the naturalness of the polls is, I think, definitive, and should put an end to the notion that according to Aristotle people find their natural end functioning as mere parts in some large organic social whole. However, nature in Aristotle's ethical and political works contains complications outside book 1, and I hope that there remain some points to be made and issues to be elucidated.

One source of confusion is Aristotle's tendency, in the ethical and political works, sometimes to stress a particular strand in the Physics account and sometimes to ignore it, and even to say things which conflict with it. This is notably so with the idea that the natural is that which occurs always or for the most part. The main Physics discussion, which revolves around the idea of an internal source of changing or being changed, does not discuss this, but it emerges slightly later.(1) Something is natural or by nature if, starting from some internal principle, it develops continuously "always something going towards the same thing, if nothing interferes."(2) Thus the natural is the usual. We can see why this emerges as an assumption, expressed but never defended, in the physical works, where it is reasonable to assume that the kinds of changes that a thing can engage in which are due to its internal principle of change, rather than external interference, will be revealed by its usual behavior, rather than by any imposed or freakish occurrences.

Sometimes Aristotle carries over to the ethical and political works this assumption that "nature is the cause of what is the same way always or for the most part, and chance of the opposite."(3) It is difficult to believe that this assumption plays no role in Aristotle's argument for the naturalness of the polls and of slavery. In Aristotle's world every known society contained slavery, a fact that clearly prevented Aristotle from being able to think of it as an institution based on force rather than nature. Furthermore, societies other than the Greek polls could well have seemed to Aristotle to be, like the Persian Empire, based on force. Thus the Greek polls might well seem like the usual form to develop when no interfering conditions were present.(4) Sometimes, on the other hand, he develops an argument based on nature that conflicts with this, as with his third major argument in book 1 (chapters 8-10), the one that establishes that only certain forms of money-making are natural. For the conclusion of this argument is that the only form of natural money-making is one which is extremely rare; indeed, for it to be usual the whole of the ancient economy would have to be revolutionized. …

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