There is no surreptitiousness surrounding the fact that much of Western thought and civilization is Greek. Poet-philosopher Samuel Coleridge’s famous quote “every man is born either an Aristotelian or Platonist” invokes concern if it holds true. Frankly, the choices are unprepossessing: a dictatorial communist or a consistently self-contradicting and confused arriviste, but if I had to choose, I think the latter is the lesser evil of the two. Moreover, the title of this post (as well as the prologue) is purposefully facetious.
While Plato and Aristotle both had interesting contributions to the history of economic thought (which I will touch upon) I will also be addressing and vituperating the bizarre, sententious, and magisterial harangues for which Plato and Aristotle both had predilections.
Plato’s vision of utopia can be adumbrated by his most famous and influential work The Republic, and in his later work The Laws. Plato’s adumbration of the ideal city-state is characterized by there being a ruling oligarchy ran by philosopher-kings and their cohorts, and therefore, allegedly securing rule by the wisest of the city-state. Beneath these philosopher-kings are the soldier thugs that Plato refers to as “the guardians,” whose purpose is to pillage other cities and lands, as well to the defend the “polis” from invaders. These guardians were also to function as a police force. Lastly, beneath the philosopher-kings and the soldiers were the detested laborers, merchants, and producers who were to supply goods for the kings and guardians to sustain themselves.
According to Plato, every human fits within one of three categories: one that craves, one that fights, and one that thinks. With that, Plato ranks as the thinkers above all, followed by the the fighters and then desirers as the most lowly. In Plato’s ideal city-state, the philosopher-kings and the guardians are stipulated to live under communism. There is no private-property for the kings and guardians: everything is communal including women and children. Plato’s apologia for this totalitarian dystopia is that money and possessions are venal to virtue. Marriage partners are arranged through pre-selection from the state. Plato’s proposal to keep the elite and subjects orderly is to spread what he considers to be a “noble” lie: for the philosopher-kings to spread the lie that their stock is from that of gods, and therefore, naturally superior to those of inferior stock. Freedom of speech was to be verboten. Any dangerous or rebellious thoughts of the populace was to be suppressed.
As is the nature of the communist, Plato hated money. For Plato, the love of money is detestable, and the producers “are by nature most insatiable for money.” How did Plato justify the tyranny of the philosopher-king? With metaphysics and epistemology. To Plato, humans are divided into three different races, Most souls are cursed to subjugation by the depraved appetitive soul. Given the depravity of the masses, communism must be imposed to establish social order and usher in the utopia. Absolute dictatorial power must belong only to the lionized philosopher-kings, those who are innately gifted with rationality and wisdom. All must be subjugated to the philosopher-king, for it is he who is blessed with knowledge.
Interestingly enough, however, Plato did state the importance of division of labour in society. In The Republic, Plato has Socrates state that specialization arises because ‘we are not all alike; there are many diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations’. Plato further elucidates by stating that the specialization of labor increases the production of goods.
Plato’s communist nature still persists in spite of acknowledging the specialization of labour. Plato was opposed to the use of gold and silver as currency since they cannot be easily regulated by the “polis” and served as internal currencies. Plato advocated for a government fiat currency, in addition to heavy fines on the importation of gold from outside the city-state. Plato believed that in order for the city-state to remain manageable there must be little or no change, and therefore, no innovation or economic growth, as well as no population growth. Plato supported keeping the population of the utopian city-state stagnant.
Moreover, it’s clear that Plato’s utopia is anything other than that. Considering that Plato’s justifications for a dystopian totalitarianism were rooted in mysticism and superstition, why historians and philosophy scholars give accolades to Plato’s totalitarian ideas and apologia eludes me.
Aristotle’s Contributions and Confusion
While far from a proponent of free-market capitalism, Aristotle had a scathing opprobrium of Plato’s advocacy for communism of the ruling class. Aristotle pronounced the importance of private poverty, and the fact that private property is conducive to the productivity of goods and services. One of Plato’s arguments for the salience of communal property is that it’s a prerequisite for serenity, since there would be no envy amongst the masses. Aristotle’s gainsay to Plato’s defense of communal property is that people will complain that they have worked harder than another, and therefore, deserve more of the share of the common store and conspicuously resulting in turbulence.
Another one of Aristotle’s defenses of private property was that private property is innate to the nature of man. Since man has a love of money, property, and self, and the fact that private property had always existed ubiquitously, the engendering of communal property on society would be to fly in the face of human nature, history, and experience. Furthermore, Aristotle concluded his cogent defense of private property by arguing that private property grants people the ability to act morally, and exercise largesse and philanthropy. Despite Aristotle’s criticism of the accumulation of wealth, unlike Plato, he did not advocate for draconian restrictions on the ability of people to accrue private property, but rather, to educate them on virtue so that they don’t develop avarice. In fragmented works such as in Topics, Aristotle analyzes what he called the ‘instruments of production,’ in addition to talking about the importance of economics factors in calculating their value. Aristotle, in his famous example in relation to the history of economic thought, points out that a saw is more valuable to than a sickle in the business of carpentry, but is not valued the same everywhere and with all endeavors.
Aristotle, however, was no Chuang Tzu. Aristotle made a fallacious distinction between “natural needs,” and “unnatural wants.” Aristotle does not give any rationale as to why desires satiated by subsistence labor are natural, but those done with the intention of monetary gain are frivolous and unnatural. It becomes conspicuous that Aristotle has a penchant for self-contradicting statements. Aristotle reprimands monetary exchange as immoral, but also claims that such a system is conducive to the functioning of a city. Aristotle stated that money “holds all goods together,” but also claims that lending money with interest is ‘unnatural.’
Aristotle had a proclivity to conflate economic analysis with judgement of virtues. To be able to elaborate upon the implications of this affinity, I must discuss why he engages in this sophism, and the origins of his conflation. Greek philosopher, Pythagoras of Samos, developed a school of thought that believed in the idea that the only purposeful reality is number. The world is a number, and every number is the embodiment of certain virtues or abstractions: the number four according to Pythagoras and his followers, embodied the virtue of justice. Although it is incontrovertible that Pythagoras contributed to the field of mathematics, his mysticism of numbers was clearly what one would call today mumbo-jumbo. Unfortunately, Aristotle was wooed by Pythagoras’s numerology, and therefore, felt it was necessary to incorporate murky mathematical terminology where unnecessary. This all amounts to what is an amalgam of superstition, obfuscated economic logic, and unorthodox mathematics being lionized as a holy, unquestionable masterpiece by the standard devotees: historians and philosophy-scholars.
What the hagiographic followers fail to see is their idol’s tendency to sometimes spout gobbledygook. In book five of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle exhibits horseplay when discussing a builder trading a house for shoes produced by a shoemaker.
The number of shoes exchanged for house must therefore correspond to the ratio of builder to shoemaker. For if this is not so, there will be no exchange and no intercourse.
Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics
It is conspicuous that this is a completely obfuscated amalgam. Why is there an equating of the ratios of shoemakers/builders to the shoes/houses themselves? Furthermore, how is it probable for there to be a ratio of builder to shoemaker in the first place? The truth is that this equivocation has no meaning, at least no discernible one. Sadly, this is not Aristotle’s last blunder. Aristotle states that the necessary prerequisite for the exchanging of goods is that both goods are of equal value; goods being exchanged must be equal because only objects of equal value will be exchanged.
Moreover, while it is incontrovertible that Aristotle had contributions to the history of economic thought, he also contributed a lot of contradictory statements as well as absolute poppycock. As much as historians and philosopher-scholars would not like to admit it, Aristotle was far from infallible or purely sensical.
Citations and References
Aristotle, and Richard McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Random House, 1941.
K., Thomsan J A. The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics Translated. Peguin Books, 1953.
Plato, and D. J. Allan. Republic. Methuen, 1965.
Plato, and Robert Gregg Bury. Laws. Harvard University Press, 2001.
Rothbard, Murray N. Classical Economics: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought. Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2006.