Money-Making Is Unnatural, says Aristotle

In the next section of the Politics, Aristotle inquires into how we get our material needs met, and of these methods, which are the “natural” ones.

Nature seems geared to provide for its creatures. When mammals bear young, the mothers also begin to produce milk for example. Each sort of animal has a sort of food that is appropriate for it, and nature produces just that food and provides the animal with the means to obtain it. Humans too are likely to have certain natural needs and natural ways of providing for them.


Aristotle’s repeated inquiry in to what is “natural” had me puzzled. He seems to believe that what is natural for man is what is right for man, and that one way we can learn what is natural for man is to see what he has in common with other animals or what is practiced universally by people. But at other times he seems to say that what is best or most noble for man is what is exceptional in him, what he shares with no animal, such as reason, which Aristotle apparently believes is indeed only really practiced by certain Greeks.

In Aristotle’s Physics he goes into more detail about what makes something “natural.” To oversimplify, something is natural if its becoming and being and changing are self-contained. So a tree that develops from an acorn is natural in all its phases. But when a tree is chopped down and carved into a bed, that bed is not itself natural but is artificial because it had its form and function imposed on it from outside. Aristotle also defines “nature” in the Metaphysics. But unfortunately I felt nearly as confused about Aristotle’s purpose in the Politics after having read the explanations in these works as I did before.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gave me a helping hand. Aristotle apparently here is working within his framework of causes as given in the Physics. Things that people purposefully create have a material cause (the substances of which they are made), a formal cause (the form into which it will be made), an efficient cause (the person or people or mechanism that molds the material into its form), and a final cause (the purpose or telos for which it is made). Aristotle is apparently trying to carefully discern what the raw material of human nature is out of which the well-educated legislator can purposefully craft a well-functioning state in order to thereby better serve human flourishing. He wants to make sure we understand the material cause first before we move on from there, and that material cause is human nature.

Here, in the Politics, Aristotle is going to provide a dividing line between natural and unnatural behavior in people. Among the natural ways that Aristotle identifies in which humans provide for themselves are pastoral nomadism, fishing and hunting, stationary agriculture, and piracy or raiding. For a human being to seek to sustain herself or her family in one of these ways is just a natural part of what it means to be a human, just as gobbling grass and chewing the cud is part of what it is to be a cow. But when a human sustains herself in certain other ways — such as by the accumulation of coinage through trade, speculation, or usury, she is behaving unnaturally.

How does Aristotle come to this conclusion?

First, he tries to trace the genealogy of commerce. Items of property have use-value (what it is that they’re good for in the first place — what Aristotle calls their “proper use”), and exchange-value (what you could get for them by trading them to someone else who needs them). Aristotle believes that early barter — the occasional, exceptional use of property for its exchange-value — was a natural extension of natural forms of human acquisition of material goods.

But at some point, people began using coinage to facilitate exchange and to make exchange more flexible, and at that point we started to leave the realm of the natural. (See Aristotle’s theory of how and why people invented money from The Nicomachean Ethics.) This is because trade stopped becoming a way of directly satisfying human needs, and started to become a way of accumulating coinage-denominated wealth (this activity of money-accumulation he calls χρηματιστική), even when this wealth (or “wealth” in the cases of currency that was subject to devaluation or that was itself a form of speculation) had stopped being useful for meeting the needs of the household.

Another problem with money-making is this: Providing for the needs of the household has a natural upper-bound. Once the needs of the household are met, you are done, and you can move on to more important things. But money-making has no upper bound. When you have made some money, you can always make even more money, and when you make even more money, there’s still more money to be made. So if your focus is on making money you may never get around to the more important things at all.

Aristotle has an interesting analysis of how people come to find themselves on this money-accumulation treadmill:

The reason why some people get this notion into their heads may be that they are eager for life but not for the good life; so, desire for life being unlimited, they desire also an unlimited amount of what enables it to go on.

Others again, while aiming at the good life, seek what is conducive to the pleasure of the body. So, as this too appears to depend on the possession of property, their whole activity centres on business, and the second mode of acquiring goods [χρηματιστική] owes its existence to this.

For where enjoyment consists in excess, men look for that skill which produces the excess that is enjoyed. And if they cannot procure it through money-making [χρηματιστική], they try to get it by some other means, using all their faculties for this purpose, which is contrary to nature: courage, for example, is to produce confidence, not goods; nor yet is it the job of military leadership and medicine to produce goods, but victory and health. But these people turn all skills into skills of acquiring goods, as though that were the end and everything had to serve that end.

All this would have fit comfortably alongside some of Thoreau’s musings in the opening chapter of Walden, where he says:

[M]en labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.…

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.

Another reason why professional commerce is looked down upon, says Aristotle, when compared to more primary ways of making ends meet, is that unlike the natural modes of providing for the household, which take from nature (or, in the case of piracy/raiding, from the unfortunate victims you prey on), in commerce your gains come from profiting off your neighbors (Aristotle evidently sees the marketplace as a zero-sum game in which sellers gain only at the expense of buyers). Usury is the ultimate and most unnatural degradation in this direction, and is the one that treats currency the least like a medium of exchange and most like an end to itself.

In brief, the ways people make money (natural and unnatural) are through agriculture, fishing and things of that sort; commerce, usury, and employment; timber, mining, and things of that sort; and speculation or monopoly acquisition. (He amusingly illustrates the latter variety with a story of the philosopher Thales, who, when someone accused philosophers of being impractical and their wisdom of no worldly use — “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” — used his philosophically-attuned foresight to corner the market on olive press leases before a bumper harvest and then made out like a bandit, merely to refute the accusation.)

Aristotle acknowledges that while wealth accumulation is an unnatural and unwise goal for a person or a household, knowledge of how to promote wealth in society is useful for a polis and therefore also for a statesman or student of political science.

And then to conclude the first chapter, Aristotle changes direction. He first says the statesman∶citizenry relationship can be compared to the husband∶wife relationship, while the king∶subjects relationship is more like the father∶child relationship. (One difference is that citizens, he says, typically trade off in terms of who is in office and who is out of office, while husbands and wives don’t trade roles in this way.)

What are the virtues of those who are in the subordinate roles — slaves, women, and children? Do such as these have any virtues all, properly called? Do they have the same ones as free men? Aristotle thinks that such people have their own sort of virtues, though not the same set as those of free men, and that even to the extent that they have virtues with the same names as those of free men, they mean somewhat different things. For example, some virtues that are suitable for masters would be superfluous in slaves who only need a smaller set of virtues sufficient to make them useful and keep them out of mischief. The reverse can also be true, that a virtue in the subordinate class would not be appropriate for the superior: silence is considered a virtue in women, for example, but not in men.

Here, Aristotle makes an interesting aside about employees, when he muses over whether they should have slavish virtues or free-men’s virtues:

[T]he slave shares his master’s life, whereas the craftsman lives away from his employer and participates in virtue in the same measure as he participates in slavery; for the skilled mechanic is in a restricted sense in a condition of slavery.

This again reminds me that we have to be careful that we pay close attention when Aristotle speaks of slavery what it is that he intends to encompass by the word. And it reminds me again of Thoreau, who had these similarly blasphemous thoughts in Walden:

I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both North and South. It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. Talk of a divinity in man! Look at the teamster on the highway, wending to market by day or night; does any divinity stir within him? His highest duty to fodder and water his horses! What is his destiny to him compared with the shipping interests? Does not he drive for Squire Make-a-stir? How godlike, how immortal, is he? See how he cowers and sneaks, how vaguely all the day he fears, not being immortal nor divine, but the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, a fame won by his own deeds.

Aristotle ends by noting that it will be important for a good state that its designers have a good understanding of the proper relationships between members of a family and the virtues appropriate to its various members, and to promote the health of these relationships and virtues, for the good of the state and those in it. Next he will consider some of the options that have been proposed for doing just that.