Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Reading :: The Politics

The Politics
by Aristotle

I'm not a classical scholar by any means, but I'm enjoying reading some classical works lately. Aristotle's Politics is one of them. Although it's rather uneven in parts, what really struck me is how deeply it has influenced later authors, from Machiavelli to Marx. Aristotle's main concern here is constitutions: what kinds of constitutions there are, how to draft them, how to sustain them, and how to avoid common errors. Aristotle was well qualified for this work, having had a hand in several constitutions. He evidently thinks he's better qualified than Plato, since he takes aim at the Republic several times, perhaps unfairly. Nevertheless, it's an interesting read.

"Interesting" doesn't always mean "good." For instance, Aristotle's spirited defense of slavery is not an example of strong reasoning; it seemed like he was just trying to put the issue to bed so that he could get on to other matters. On the other hand, Aristotle's catalogue of types of constitutions, and how each one declines, clearly sets the stage for Machiavelli's parallel discussion in the Discourses; his summary of what each type of constitution values (aristocracy - virtue, oligarchy - wealth, democracy - freedom) is wonderfully concise (p.260). His discussion of how to sustain a tyranny is somewhat similar to Machiavelli's in The Prince. Similarly, his exhaustive discussion of labor and its role in a constitution influenced Marx.

One thing that really struck me was Aristotle's long list of features of democracy -- features that almost all made it into the US Constitution (p.363). And his bias in favor of agrarian people in a democracy (p.368) is echoed in Jefferson's writings. Fascinating!

Aristotle, however, was no democrat per se. In fact, he had a lot of ideas about how to run a state that involved controlling the minutiae of public life, down to the age that men and women should wed (men at 37, women at 18, so they will pass out of childbearing age at about the same time) (pp.441-442). He also wanted to ban "unseemly talk" and porn (p.446).

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