Tuesday, December 1, 2009



As I mentioned last week, I'm re-reading Aristotle's Politics. Surprisingly, I found myself agreeing with many of his points about human beings and their motivations. That surprised me because I always took a prejudiced view against Aristotle. In college, I dismissed him because he was an "absolutist" about truth. But now that many years have passed--and now that I have read so much more--I approach Aristotle with more forgiveness. I do not read him with a smirk anymore. Rather, I read him for what he is: A classical metaphysician. I like some points; I don't like others. It's like reading anyone else.

Yet Aristotle is no average writer. He is a giant among Western philosophers. His views on virtually every subject became dogma for centuries. Men died challenging Aristotlean doctrines in the Catholic church during the Middle Ages. Others risked everything to dispute Aristotle's teachings about ethics and astronomy. As time went on, scientific advances dethroned Aristotle's pre-eminence in some areas. But in others, his influence remains strong--and still relevant. After all, Aristotle wrote about politics, ethics, human beings and beauty. These things cannot be reduced to mathematical fact. Rather, they constantly invite debate, interpretation and reassessment.

Aristotle's political work certainly has continued relevance. Like all the political philosophers who followed him, Aristotle begins by discussing human nature. Aristotle approaches the question with his usual confidence: He makes conclusions as if they were obvious, even if they are just assumptions. He also plays the biologist, constantly comparing humans to their analogues in nature.

I love any discussion about human nature. And I have always disagreed with Aristotle's view here.

Aristotle claims that men are "political animals...by nature." The Politics, Book I, ch. ii, para. 1253a1. He makes this conclusion by examining the key difference between men and beasts: Men have speech. He acknowledges that both animals and men have voice--cows can moo and dogs can bark to voice their feelings--but speech is unique to man.

This might not seem like a profound observation, but Aristotle's understanding of speech is remarkable. The consummate metaphysician, he argues that "speech has a single purpose" and no other. Namely, it enables men to "indicate what is useful and what is harmful," and "what is just or unjust." Id. at para. 1253a7. Finally, he draws the ultimate distinction between men and animals: "[H]umans alone have perception of good and evil, just and unjust." Id.

For Aristotle, then, speech has a justice function. It not only allows men to communicate their feelings, but it exists to help them find what is useful and just for all. This is the natural purpose of speech. It is imbued with a sensitivity for morality (good and evil), practicality (useful and not useful) as well as justice. These are profound concepts. And Aristotle speaks in absolute terms. There is one "good," one "evil," one "justice" and one "useful." In his view, speech enables man to find them all--and to organize States on that basis. Man is not only a speaking animal; his speech allows him to unite with other men to find universal justice in a useful society. What a remarkable assertion.

It is a remarkable assertion because it invites so much scorn. I naturally shy away from absolutes. Aristotle always offered me a tempting target because he reduces complex issues into absolute "sayings." His argument about speech--and human nature--strikes me as impossibly naive. Aristotle's philosophy of "specific purposes" (teleology) always leads to moments like this. After all, how can we say "speech is for justice and unity" when even brief life experience reveals that men often do not use speech for those purposes? Aristotle assumes that speech leads to cooperation and good. But life experience refutes this: Men lie. They don't cooperate. They don't tell the truth. They divide from one another and twist language to advance their narrow interests. And they certainly do not always use language to find justice. In most cases, language leads to injustice.

For his part, Aristotle would say that deceivers do "not use speech according to its purpose." This is a laughable objection, unfortunately: If language's "natural purpose" is to "find justice," then I would argue that people rarely use it "naturally."

Broadly speaking, Aristotle's theory of language reflects a good view of human nature. Aristotle believed that men naturally worked with one another to achieve a "good life." See Politics, Book I, ch. ii at para. 1252b27. He thought that speech gave them a natural tool to discover useful methods for securing a "good life," as well as to distinguish "good from evil," "right from wrong" and "just from unjust." Finally, he thought that men naturally cooperated with each other to achieve a "good life" filled with justice.

These are admirable sentiments. The problem is that Aristotle assumed everything he concluded. Every philosopher must assume certain basic principles in order to develop his theories about life. Aristotle's assumptions sound appealing, but they remain assumptions. For my part, I cannot assume that men are good by nature. And because of that, I cannot assume that men generally use speech for good purposes. Men unite with speech, but they also deceive with it. Men do good with speech; they also do bad. It is no answer to say--as Aristotle does--that they are merely "ignoring speech's natural purpose." There are no overreaching purposes. We simply attach them according to our individual sensitivities.

Aristotle thought that he could find truth by assigning specific purposes to everything open to human experience or imagination. And he assumed that one "truth" exists to be found: That was his worst assumption of all.


MaxThrust said...

Good/Bad, the good life, what do people seek?

I think everyone does seek for the good, the caveat is it's FOR THEMSELVES.

The difference, in my mind, is that there is win-win and win-lose behavior. Some people feel pleasure when they help others, this is win-win behavior. It results in honorable conduct. Some people, sociopaths, when they hurt others, they do not notice. They can engage in win-lose behavior without feeling moral or conscience pains.

A sociopath can learn to intellectually understand why win/lose behavior is not beneficial, but will never fully abide by it. Why would they? A wolf does not respect sheep.

Men do seek the good, it's just a question of the manner in which they seek it. Similar to power, it's not power which is good or bad in itself, it's the use of it which determines it.

nothingprofound said...

Fascinating. I like Aristotle and am taken with so many of his remarks, especially when he speaks of individual responsibility. "What it lies in our power to do, it also lies in our power not to do." "Happiness depends upon ourselves," etc. But I agree that his outlook on speech and human nature is naive. Rather than helping to distinguish good from evil, I'd say speech is responsible for inventing them, for in fact they don't exist in nature but only in the human mind.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thank you for the comments! It is always nice to hear from two fellow Nietzscheans, and you both have hit on the reason why I always defined myself against Aristotle. He is the consummate absolutist, while Nietzsche is the consummate relativist.

I agree that there is no such thing as a "good life," at least expressed as a categorical abstract beyond human individuality. Good and evil, as well as just and unjust, are moral judgments based on human perspective and human power. They do not exist "a priori."

But hey, we're reading Aristotle here: This guy didn't know the word "poly-perspectivism." There was only one perspective: His.

It sure makes the world easier to digest, though, doesn't it? Maybe that's why Aristotle took such root in Western institutions for so long: He makes "understanding life" easy. People, after all, love deluding themselves and ignoring theoretical inconsistencies all around them for the sake of comfort and "manageability."

Believe it or not, there are probably far more Aristotle-like minds out there than Nietzsche-like minds. Just about everyone with political power is in some sense an Aristotlean: It is hard to maintain order if you believe in Nietzsche. Rather, in order to govern, you need rules, categories and stern moral judgments. Aristotle provides a philosophical basis for such things, even if they are mere inventions.