Friday, January 6, 2012

Let's Keep Things The Way They Are

For Aristotle, the natural order of things is the hierarchical order of city-state Greece.  Masters rule over workers, patriarchs over households of women and slaves,  and statesmen over states.  Every action aims at some good, and the arts that combine subsidiary arts are better.  Thus the highest good involves the rule of the state, for politics encompasses all the other arts as its rule encompasses the rule of all the subsidiary groups.

"Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal."  Anyone outside the state, by nature rather than accident, is like Homer's denounced "tribeless, lawless, hearthless one."  But Aristotle is taking Homer's words out of context.

When the ageing Nestor pats Diomedes on the back and tells him he's young enough to be his son, and is really a good chap, he says
Surely a tribeless, lawless, homeless man
Is he who loves to stir the strife of war
In his own people
and not a nice young man like Diomedes.  Nestor is trying to calm the Achaeans, stirred up by Diomedes' harsh words against Agamemnon.  Agamemnon has had it with the Trojan War and Diomedes, to the approval of the troops, wants to continue.  Calm down, chaps; let's put a steak on the barbie, says Nestor.

By interpreting Nestor's remarks as a put-down of all heads of rebellion, Aristotle is revealing his wider agenda.  He wants not just the natural evolution of things, but a specific order of things.   He asserts the natural evolution of separated villages to coalesce into a state, thus enabling the bare needs of life to expand into the good life.  Parts coalesce into wholes, wholes into bigger wholes and the more developed a thing, the closer it is to its nature.  But that is not enough.  He wants the old to rule the young, for the old aim at knowledge, not action.  And of course men should rule over women and slaves and the Greeks should rule over barbarians, as today we would say that the educated should rule over the bigots and the bitter clingers.

This is a view of social life that experiences the good as an eternal hierarchy, a return to a golden age after the humiliation of the Peloponnesian War.  It does not seem to comprehend the cycle of rise and fall, of birth and death.  We moderns believe it is precisely in the conflict between young and old, between the established order and the rebellious tribeless, lawless, hearthless ones that life is injected into a declining dynasty, and a new social order grows out of an exploitative patriarchy. Natural to us means to maintain a harmony with the growth and the cycles of Nature.

For Aristotle the "final cause and end of a thing" is the best.  For us it is the fleeting moment before the onset of "creative destruction" or the fin de si√®cle before the revolution.

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