Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Aristotle's Politics

Because Aristotle sees society as being built out of small units of human relationships, he also sees the problems of society as being the problems of these individual relationships.

Because a large nation is composed of many parent/child units, many man/woman units, and many employer/employee units, if something starts to go wrong with the way people treat each other in those settings, it will be a problem for all of the nation. Specifically, for Aristotle, three problems that can affect society are: divorce, adultery, and illegitimacy. A marriage is a contract, a covenant, a working relationship, and a promise: if people do not fulfill their commitments to treat each other well, and to care about each other, then not only will the marriage suffer, but society as a whole will suffer, and if there are too many divorces, it will be a serious problem for the nation. Adultery is a failure to be faithful to one's spouse: too much of it will bring down a nation. If a child is born illegitimately, not only will the child face hardships, but the energy of the nation will be partially spent trying to rectify the situation, and that energy will not be available for other needs.

Remember that Aristotle discovers these principles as natural laws, like the laws of chemistry and physics. Human societies all start as monarchies, and the human tendency toward forming a state is simply part of natural human growth.

Monday, October 1, 2007


Thucydides holds up two scenes for us: a speech by Pericles and a record of discussions between a delegation of Athenians and a delegation from the island of Melos.

The speech by Pericles is complex: on the one hand, he mainly makes some attempt to paint the Athenians with an element of the moral high ground, but on the other hand, he occasionally also lets some of their merciless aggression show. One certainly gains the impression that he is doing his best to present Athens as noble, and he uses the words "virtue" and "virtues" a number of times. The matter is compounded by the fact that he is giving this speech at a funeral during the Peloponnesian War, which the Athenians can hardly paint with the brush of ethical righteousness: if Athens wins this war, it means that they can continue the financial exploitation of the other Hellenic communities.

The record of the negotiations with the island of Melos is more direct in showing the Athenian motives: the Athenian diplomats - one is tempted to call them thugs - begin by saying that they're not even interested in discussion justice, and acknowledging that their aggression against Melos is largely unprovoked. The Athenians will make no effort to justify their actions, they simply point to their military superiority and make demands.

Thucydides presents us with both events; he wants us to wrestle with the contrasts between the high-sounding attempts by Pericles to paint Athens with a virtuous brush, and the blunt reality of the military annexation of Melos.