Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia

Leveraging Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethicsin a Critique of the Modern Indian Caste System: Part I

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia

Leveraging Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethicsin a Critique of the Modern Indian Caste System: Part I

Article excerpt


No one can deny that one of the greatest thinkers in all of Western history lived during a time in which human slavery was accepted as a social, political, cultural and economic norm. We are speaking of Aristotle (384-322 CE). The great Greek metaphysician,2 however, could not have foreseen that eventually the ancient system of slavery as a form of labor would gave way to the hierarchical feudal order of caste in the Middle ages to eventually free citizens/labor of modern, capitalist democracies. This is the case regardless of what some may think - after Marx - about the profound inequality and alienation of the human essence that has emerged with the advent of modern capitalism. The question, however, is how can the concepts and arguments of this great, perhaps unparalleled genius of Western antiquity, be leveraged in terms of his insights on morality and ethics in another cultural, historical, civilization context, namely Hinduism in India? If slavery and hierarchical caste disappeared in the West, why does it continue to persist in modern India? Can Aristotle be leveraged in an engagement with Ambedkar, the great twentieth century Indian critic of the caste to deepen the latter's explorations? This paper will argue that Aristotle's enduring Nicomachean Ethics retains great value that can expand Ambedkar's critique of the caste system in new philosophical directions.

Taking the powerful metaphysical thinking of Aristotle in a head on confrontation with the metaphysics of Hinduism is by no means an easy task. It is interesting to note that there is a great tradition of Jewish, Christian and Islamic engagement with Aristotle through Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas and Averroes respectively. But how do we raise the issue of Aristotle's magisterial thinking in an unapologetically deconstructive relation to Hinduism and its metaphysical justification of caste? The question is particularly difficult to raise since other major world religions in existence today have a long standing relationship with Aristotle.

What we are about to attempt is not recommended for the light-hearted. The very notion of a 'self' and how it is to be understood metaphysically is at stake: that is when we think about the very conditions of reading Aristotle's great treatise on ethics while creating an unrelenting, unremitting, and all-out attack of any metaphysical justification of the caste system. That includes the so-called religion known as 'Hinduism.' Whether that constitutes a proper and appropriate analysis of Hinduism and its basic tenants or not is not the issue for this investigation.3

Main Text

Aristotle makes an opening assumption that 'every art, inquiry, action and pursuit' is directed towards some 'good.' But then beneath the 'good' that all actions tend to, there are also different 'ends.' These he divides into 'activities' and others are 'products' of those activities. Finally he makes a distinction between an 'action' and an 'end' (or goal to which the action tends), and instead of glorifying the activities for the sake of activities, the products (which 'aim at some good') is always superior to the activities.

Let us contrast that with the Hindu maxim to do one's duty and leave the 'fruits' to some higher being; the latter of which is not only not verifiable as a higher Being beyond beings4 but can easily take the form of a being (say a human being) in some celestial incarnation that mixes myth and truth at the same time. Execute the duty of one's caste, say if you are warrior, then your job is to go to war, and not question the ethical basis for your action.5 What we find in the caste system is a completely reversal of Aristotle's opening assumptions. The duty to fulfill the task, i.e. the activity, has to occur regardless of what 'end' or 'product' is achieved. Duty for the sake of fulfilling the duty in a role, say in a caste occupation, is higher than any 'good' that might come of it. The role is the good itself, not the telos which tends toward some outcome. …

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