I’ve been trying to read Aristole’s Politics on his terms, but I’ve also been hovering over it from an anarchist viewpoint taking notes.
Aristotle was no anarchist, and there is little evidence in the Politics that he considered an anarchist point of view. Nonetheless, I think we can draw useful lessons for anarchism from what Aristotle taught.
What would an Aristotelean anarchism, or anarchist Aristotelean politics, look like?
I thought I might try to consider the anarchist constitution using Aristotle’s method and some of his initial assumptions about ethics and purpose. Originally I was going to write “Aristotle’s Guide to Anarchism” but that overstates my ability to keep up with the thinking of the original, and would be liable to mislead some poor undergraduate into citing it as a genuine source.
So meet Alice Turtle. Alice Turtle is a wise old creature with an Aristotelean outlook on life and a keen interest in human politics. She doesn’t have any patience for the sexist and slavery-condoning aspects of ancient Greek civilization, however, which is fortunate for us, as most modern human anarchists don’t either.
Alice will fill in the gap that Aristotle left in his Politics. But why did Aristotle have this blind spot to anarchist political organization in the first place?
A likely possibility is that his Politics derives from his notes for lectures he was giving to students of political science, who would have been members of the ruling class preparing to take their place ruling or advising the rulers of existing, very archical states in Greece. Advice on how to found and maintain anarchist constitutions just wasn’t what his students were interested in.
It’s also possible that he did have opinions on the subject, but they have been lost. The Politics is fragmentary in many ways, and if Aristotle had anything to say about anarchy it may have fallen through the historical cracks.
Or perhaps Aristotle did express an opinion about anarchism in the Politics, but you just have to look very carefully to find it. There is something of an academic industry that concerns itself with “esoteric” readings of the ancient philosophers. The idea is that for various reasons, these philosophers could not explicitly state or record the full extent of their teachings — for example they feared reprisals, or they feared the effect their teachings would have on the mass of untutored people who might get ahold of them. Only those students who engaged with these philosophers in a substantial, non-superficial way would be able to discern the nod-and-wink message under the surface.
If I were going to try to find an esoteric anarchism in Aristotle’s politics, I would start with two sections in particular. In chapter ⅹⅲ of book Ⅲ, he considers the person of extraordinarily superior virtues. What should we do with such a person? Should we put them in charge? Aristotle says no, instead: “such men we must take not to be part of the state… [T]here is no law that embraces men of that calibre: they are themselves law.” Then, towards the end of the same book, he explains that “in the best state… the virtue of a man and of a citizen are identical.”
Explicitly, Aristotle says that men of extraordinary virtues are dangerous to the state and ought perhaps to be exiled. But this is a strange thing for Aristotle to say in light of his other teachings, and seems to invite a search for an esoteric reading, perhaps along these lines:
- the best man is the most virtuous man
- such a man is outside of the state and is a law unto himself
- in the best state, the virtue of a man and of a citizen are identical
- ∴ in the best state, the best citizens will be outside of the state and a law unto themselves
- ∴ the best state is anarchy
This reading, in other words, puts Aristotle’s definition of the best citizen in line with Ammon Hennacy’s definition of an anarchist: “someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave.”
But another possibility is that Aristotle did not consider the workings of an anarchic society to be a problem that needed solving, or to be a problem for which his framework for solving the problems of monarchies, oligarchies, and democracies would work as well. To admit anarchy under his framework, in some places we will have to stretch it a little, and in others we may need to be more inventive.
That said, Aristotle’s concentration on the political concerns of small, polis-sized units (as opposed to nation-, empire-, or confederation-sized ones) makes it potentially more useful to students of anarchist political constitutions than a lot of what gets taught under the “political philosophy” label today. Aristotle thought that the polis was the final stage of human organization, and he likely would have frowned upon those more ginormous political organizations (he is pointedly silent about empires at a time when his former student Alexander was busy conquering his). It may be easier to stretch his philosophy to cover an anarchic polis than to cover an oligarchic empire.
The name Aristotle gave to the goal accomplished by a successful polis was autarkeia — self-rule, or self-sufficiency. So it will be Alice Turtle’s task, and ours, to show how this can be accomplished and maintained in an anarchic polis.
To be continued…
Index to Aristotle’s Politics
- Book Ⅰ
- Book Ⅱ
- Book Ⅲ
- Book Ⅳ
- Book Ⅴ
- Book Ⅵ
- Book Ⅶ
- Book Ⅷ
- Alice Turtle’s Guide to Anarchism