What sort of government is the best sort? Aristotle examines some of the contenders, both from the examples of societies around him and from some of the yet-untried schemes dreamed up by philosophers, in the hopes of finding out, starting in book two of the Politics.
Not to put us in suspense, Aristotle tells us from the get-go that as far as he has been able to determine, nobody has yet struck on the best system. The best we can hope for is to examine the range of existing schemes and pick some features that seem most appealing from here and there.
He starts off by examining the utopian plans of Plato as found in the Republic and the Laws. It’s been a while since I’ve read either of those, and in T.J. Saunders’s annotations in my copy of the Politics, he notes that Aristotle seems to be straw-manning Plato’s arguments, so we are probably not getting all the nuance of Plato’s views here. So be it.
Plato argued that the best sort of city-state will have a “guardian” class of people that is its life-blood. That class will have been carefully brought up, and as part of the way their class is structured, they will hold all spouses and children and property in common, and children will be separated from their parents so that nobody knows who is related to whom.
When I think of this, I get flashbacks of lots of vaguely-remembered 60s sci-fi movies and television episodes; I’m also reminded of the anarcho-socialist culture of the planet of Anarres in Ursula K. LeGuin’s sci-fi novel The Dispossessed. Plato’s ideas, directly or indirectly, spawned many other similar utopias and dystopias.
Not all of these have been entirely fictional. The early Christians said they “were together and had everything in common” according to the Bible, and Jesus renounced any special ties to his biological family, saying of his followers “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” The Oneida Community in New York is a more recent example; they practiced communal ownership of property and “complex marriage” which seems to have amounted to the sort of free sharing of spouses Plato anticipated.
But in Aristotle’s time, such a thing was still an untried theory, and he didn’t think much of it. He first attacked the idea that people in an ideal city should hold spouses and children in common and should have no knowledge of their own relations. He finds this idea foolish for several reasons:
- If part of the goal of this scheme is to smooth out the differences in society by making everyone treat everyone else equally, the goal itself is a poor one. A good polis is a coordination of diversity, not a blending into uniformity. Uniformity makes an association more brittle and less enduring; diversity is advantageous.
- If something (or someone) belongs to everybody, it belongs to nobody. If wives and children belong equally to every man, no man has a wife or any children, really. So Plato’s plan results in depriving people of their spouses and children, and of the matrimonial and familial bonds we value so much.
- This is also true of the facile idea that in such a society “all men are brothers” — really, in such a society, nobody will be a brother or experience real brotherhood, as this will be diluted to the point where it no longer means anything.
- Fortunately, human nature will prevent anything like this from taking place. It’s hard to imagine not being able to identify and sympathize with your kin.
- Imagine if nobody knew who their parents or siblings or children were. What would stop people from committing incest or other things we consider offenses against the family?
- While there’s something to be said for degrading familial ties in the underclass, so they don’t develop rival clan loyalties that undermine the state, in the ruling class “the existence of affectionate feelings… is a very great boon [and] a safeguard against faction.”
In the next section, Aristotle will criticize the idea that people in the ideal polis ought to hold property in common rather than have private property.