Before proposing his own theory of government, Aristotle examines other theories of government and reviews existing constitutions of well-governed states. He begins with an extended criticism of Plato's ##Republic##, interpreting its main thrust to be that citizens should share in common as much as possible, including wives, children, and property. The goal of this community is to achieve as much unity in the city as possible, but Aristotle counters that the city involves an essential plurality: different people must make different contributions, fulfill different roles, and fit into distinct social classes. Otherwise, a city will not be able to perform the many functions necessary for it to remain self- sufficient.
Aristotle disapproves of Plato's suggestion that men share the women of the city and that children be taken from their mothers at birth and raised collectively in state nurseries. By this proposal, no child would receive proper parental care, and the lack of family ties would render citizens less capable of showing friendship and love. Aristotle also notes that Plato does not explain how children can be transferred between social classes without great discord.
Aristotle also attacks Plato's remarks on the community of property, stating that the practice of generosity, an important virtue, requires individual ownership of property. The problems people often associate with ownership of private property arise not from privatization but from human wickedness. The solution is to share education, not property. Aristotle also points out that Plato is not clear on exactly what kind of ownership the farming class should have over its property. In any case, Aristotle finds none of the possible kinds of ownership satisfying.
In a final comment on Plato's republic, Aristotle notes that it is dangerous to leave the governance of the city entirely in the hands of one class. Besides, Plato's system seems to deprive the guardian class, and by extension the whole republic, of happiness, thus defeating the purpose of association.
Aristotle then details the faults he has found with Plato's Laws: (1) Plato's proposed city requires a vast territory but makes no provision for safe relations with neighbors; (2) generosity, like temperance, should be a guiding principle regarding wealth; (3) Plato says that land should be divided into even lots and distributed evenly between citizens but makes no allowance for fluctuations in population; and (4) Plato seems to want a politeia, or balanced constitutional government but ends up with an oligarchy.
Aristotle then criticizes the theories proposed by Phaleas of Chalcedon and Hippodamus of Miletus. Phaleas's primary concern is the equalization of property, but he does not realize that material equality alone cannot make people good; rather, happiness arises out of moderation and education. Hippodamus's class distinctions are confused, his legal reforms unsavory, and his system of rewards dangerous.
Having dealt with these theoretical systems, Aristotle turns his attention to existing constitutions and finds none that is wholly satisfactory. He finds a number of problems with the much-admired Spartans' government: (1) the system of serfdom leaves the ever-present danger of revolution; (2) the undue freedom given to women presents many hazards, the worst of which is a dowry system that hurts the economy and the military; (3) the Ephors, or overseers, are elected almost at random from the general populace; (4) both Ephors and councilors are susceptible to bribes; and (5) the state's two kings are not elected on the basis of merit.
Aristotle is dissatisfied also with Crete and Carthage. The Cretan system is elitist, susceptible to feuds, and has only remained safe thanks to its isolation from other states. While Carthage is superior to both Sparta and Crete, it rewards the rich too much, which encourages greediness.
Aristotle's goal in Book II is to demonstrate the need for a new theory of government, since neither a perfect theory nor a perfect government exists. As a result, this book reads more like a polemic than a balanced discussion. Aristotle makes concessions here and there, but on the whole he is not interested in the merits of the theories and constitutions that he is discussing. The more flawed he can make these examples appear, the more responsive his audience will be to his own theory. Rather than engage in a balanced critique, Aristotle seems for the most part to isolate individual points out of context and portray them in the worst possible light.
Aristotle's discussion of Plato's ideal republic had the potential to be one of the greatest intellectual encounters of all time but is instead painfully unsatisfying. Aristotle seems to be misreading Plato almost intentionally, and he rarely levels criticism of any value. One might defend Plato on a number of counts: (1) Aristotle's claim that Plato's desire for as much unity as possible disregards the essential nature of the city is nonsensical, since Plato's ideal republic is strictly divided into three distinct social classes; (2) Plato proposes only that wives and children should be shared in common by the ruling guardian class, so that children who grow up to be guardians are loyal to the state first and are not distracted by family ties. He makes no suggestion of eliminating family ties within the other classes; (3) Only the guardian class is supposed to do without private property; and (4) Plato's arguments for the happiness of the city are meant to ensure the happiness of the individuals within the city.
Aristotle's attack on the Laws is even farther off the mark, and commentators have suggested that perhaps Aristotle was referring to a version of the Laws different from the one available to the modern reader. The criticisms of the constitution of Sparta are more valid, though Aristotle makes no reference to the many virtues of the respected Spartan constitution. Little beyond what is stated in the Politics is known about Phaleas, about Hippodamus, or about the constitution of Carthage. It is interesting that Aristotle reviewed Carthage—and with a relative amount of favor at that—since it was a city in North Africa and thus outside the pinnacle of civilization that was ancient Greece.
In spite of the weakness of Aristotle's attacks, Book II is not without merit. Most significantly, Aristotle sustains a defense of private property. Most of the theorists he attacks that seek to abolish private property do so with the intention of abolishing the greed and selfishness that accompany private property. Aristotle argues that these vices result from human wickedness, not from the mere existence of private property. Consequently, abolishing private property is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for eliminating vice. If people were equal and equally wealthy, for example, they would become lazy in their luxury. If people were equal and equally poor, they would quickly become discontented. The history of communism in the twentieth century has done a great deal to support Aristotle's claim that the abolition of private property is not enough to make people happy or virtuous.
Early in book one, Aristotle states, “for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.” The wording of “they think” in his statement implies that humankind seeks “good” based on their subjective definition of the term. If humankind seeks what they think is good, it naturally falls that individuals will seek what they believe to be good for themselves, which then seems to lead naturally to the accumulation of coin because of its ability to bring material comforts.
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