8. The Mixed Regime and the Rule of Law: Aristotle’s Politics, IV
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8. The Mixed Regime and the Rule of Law: Aristotle’s Politics, IV

September 28, 2019


Professor Steven Smith:
Okay, where are we? Today, we’re going to
study–I’m going to talk about Aristotle’s–you might call it
Aristotle’s comparative politics and focusing on the idea of the
regime. This is the theme that you
remember in the opening day I said was really the central
concept or the leading thread of this course and it’s in books
III through VI of Aristotle’s Politics that he develops
his idea of the regime and regime politics.
Book I, that we spoke about last time, really in a way tells
us something about the–you might say almost the metaphysics
of Aristotle’s politics. Today Aristotle speaks more
empirically, more politically about what a regime is.
His idea of regime politea,
again, the same word, the same word that was used for
the title of Plato’s Republic is the
centerpiece of Aristotle’s politics literally.
It occupies the theme of the middle three books,
books III through VI. These books are difficult in
many ways; they’re complicated.
They’re not everybody’s favorite part of the book,
but they are my favorite part because it tells us more
precisely than anywhere else how Aristotle understands the nature
of politics and that after all is what we are most interested
in. A regime refers to both the
formal enumeration of rights and duties within a community,
but it also addresses something closer to what we would call the
way of life or the culture of a people.
Their distinctive customs, manners, laws,
habits, moral dispositions and sentiments,
and Aristotle’s constitutional theorizing begins by asking a
simple question. What is the identity of a city?
What gives it its identity and enduring existence over time?
His answer is the regime; the regime is what gives a
people and a city its identity. Aristotle distinguishes between
what he calls the matter and the form of the regime.
Let me examine both of these in turn.
The matter, the substance, the material basis of a regime
concerns its citizen body. That is to say the character of
those who constitute a city and here he rejects a number of
alternatives for what constitutes a citizen body.
He rejects the idea that the city is defined simply by a
group of people who inhabit a common territory,
the same space as it were. The identity of a polis
he writes is not constituted by its walls.
That is to say, it is not constituted by
geography alone, and similarly,
he rejects the idea that a regime can be understood as a
defensive alliance against invasion by others.
In our terms, for example,
NATO would not be a regime, a purely military or defensive
alliance. Finally, he denies the
possibility that a regime exists that whenever a number of people
come together to establish commercial relations with one
another, organizations like NAFTA,
or the WTO, the World Trade Organization do not a regime
make. A regime cannot be understood
simply as a commercial alliance. What is a regime then?
It is evident Aristotle said, is that a city is not a
partnership in a location or for the sake of not committing
injustice against one another, or for transacting business,
so what is a citizen body? The citizens who constitute a
regime, he tells us, do more than occupy the common
space but are held together, according to Aristotle,
by bonds of common affection. It is affection,
loyalty and friendship that make up a regime.
This sort of thing he says, this political partnership is
the work of affection, philia is his word,
is the work of affection. “Affection is the intentional
choice of living together.” 1280a, if anyone’s interested.
“It is the intentional choice of living together.”
Friendship, he writes, “is the greatest of good things
for cities, for when people feel affection for each other they
are less likely to fall into conflict.”
But what kind of friendship is he talking about?
Is it the kind of friendship that you feel for your best
friend, or for your parents or siblings?
What kind of a friendship are these bonds of affection,
that he says hold the city together and that make it a
regime? Political friendships,
he tells us, are not the kind of thing that
require us to forego our own individual identities in a way
that one might find in passionate relations of love,
right? Rather, they presuppose
relations, that is to say political relations,
not between lovers or even best friends of some kind,
but between civic partners who may in fact be intensely
rivalrous and competitive with one another for positions of
political office and honor. Civic friendship,
civic philia is in other words not without a strong
element of what might be thought of as sibling rivalry in which
each citizen strives to outdo the others for the sake of the
civic good. Many of you have siblings and
know a little bit about what sibling rivalry is like.
Siblings, as everyone knows, may be the best of friends,
but this does not exclude strong elements of competition,
rivalry, and even conflict for the attention of the parents,
and fellow citizens, for Aristotle,
are like siblings, each competing with one another
for the esteem, the affection,
and the recognition of the city that serves for them as a kind
of surrogate parent. That is the way that Aristotle
understands a civic body, a citizen body.
So that when he says that citizens are held together by
ties of common affection he means something very specific.
The civic bond is more than an aggregate of mere self-interest
or rational calculation as was going to be defended by someone
like Thomas Hobbes or by most of today’s modern economists who
believe that society can be understood simply as a series of
rational transactions between buyers and sellers of different
goods and that can be modeled along some kind of game
theoretic lines. Aristotle denies this,
explicitly denies this. He seems to have known
something about the modern economic theory of society long
before modern economics was even developed.
But again, when Aristotle speaks of the kinds of affection
that hold a citizen body together,
he does not mean anything like the bonds of personal intimacy
that characterize private friendships.
What he means, when speaking about civic
affection, is more like the bonds of loyalty,
camaraderie that hold together members of a team or a club.
These are more than, again, ties of mutual
convenience. They require loyalty,
trust, what social scientists today sometimes call social
capital, that successful societies require social
capital. A distinguished political
scientist at another university, I will not mention its name
here, at another university,
has spoken about the importance of social capital or trust as a
sort of basic relation, the basic component of a
healthy democracy. Aristotle knew that,
he didn’t use a kind of ugly social scientific word like
social capital; rather he spoke about civic
friendship and philia. The political partnership he
says must therefore be regarded as being for the sake of noble
actions and not just for the sake of living together.
The city, as he likes to say or the regime exists not merely for
the sake of life but for what he understands to be the good life,
the life of friendship, the life of again,
competitive relations for positions of honor and office.
So we can say that a regime is in the first instance
constituted by its citizen body. Citizens are those who share a
common way of life. The citizen in an unqualified
sense, Aristotle writes, is defined by no other thing so
much as sharing in decision and office.
Or, as he puts it a little bit later, whoever is entitled to
participate in an office involving deliberation or
decision-making is a citizen of the city.
Listen to the words he uses there in describing a citizen.
A citizen is one who takes sharing in decision and office,
who participates in deliberation and
decision-making. A citizen is one therefore who
not only enjoys the protection of the law, is not merely you
might say a passive beneficiary of the protection of society and
its laws, but is one who takes a share in
shaping the laws and who participates in political rule
and deliberation. Aristotle even notes,
you probably observe, that his definition of the
citizen, he says, is most appropriate to
citizens of democracy, where in his famous formulation
everyone knows how to rule and be ruled in turn.
It is this reflection and the character of the citizen that
leads him to wonder whether the good citizen and the good human
being are one and the same. Can a person be both,
as it were, a good man, a good person and a good
citizen? Famous discussion in
Aristotle’s book; Aristotle’s answer to this is
perhaps deliberately obscure. The good citizen,
he tells, us is still relative to the regime.
That is to say, the good citizen of the
democracy would not necessarily be the same person,
or the same kind of person as the good citizen of a monarchy
or an aristocracy. Citizen virtue is relative,
or we might say, regime relative.
Only in the best regime, he says, will the good citizen
and the good human being be the same.
But what is the best regime? At least at this point he has
not told us. The point he’s trying to make
is there are several kinds of regimes and therefore several
kinds of citizenship appropriate to them.
Each regime is constituted by its matter, that is to say,
by its citizen body as we’ve been talking about,
but also now by its form, by its formal structures.
That is to say every regime will also be a set of
institutions and formal structures that give shape to
its citizens. Regimes or constitutions you
might say are forms, or formalities that determine
how power is shared and distributed among citizens.
Every regime is an answer, consciously or not,
to the oldest political question of all,
who governs? Who should govern?
Every regime is an answer to that question because every
regime sets forward a way of distributing,
formally distributing powers and distributing offices among
its citizen body. So we move now from the matter
of the regime, as to what constitutes its
citizens and its citizen body, to the question of the form of
the regime, its forms, its formalities,
its structures and institutions you might say.
Entirely too much of modern political science is focused on
simply the forms and formalities of political life,
not enough, in my opinion, with questions of the citizen
body and what makes, what constitutes,
the character or the virtue in Aristotle’s terms of its
citizens. But nevertheless,
Aristotle gives extraordinary importance and attention to the
forms or formalities that make up a regime.
What does he mean by that? Aristotle defines the strictly
formal criteria of a politea twice in his
politics and I’m sure you noted both times where they appeared?
Yes. Book III, chapter 6,
famous definition: “The regime,” he says,
“is an arrangement of a city with respect to its offices,
particularly the one who has the authority over all matters.
For what has authority in the city is everywhere that
governing body, and the governing body is the
regime.” The regime is an arrangement of
a city, he says, with respect to its offices and
every city will have a governing body,
that governing body being a regime.
The second definition appears at the beginning of Book IV,
chapter 1. “For a regime,” he writes,
“is an arrangement in cities connected with offices,
establishing the manner in which they have been
distributed, what the authoritative element of the
regime is, and what the end of the
partnership is in each case, a similar but slightly
different definition of what constitutes the formal structure
of regime politics.” But from these two definitions
appearing in book III, chapter 6 and Book IV,
chapter 1 we learn a number of important things.
First, is to repeat, a regime concerns the manner in
which power is divided or distributed in a community.
This is what Aristotle means when he uses the phrase,
“an arrangement of a city with respect to its offices.”
In other words, every regime will be based on
some kind of judgment of how power should be distributed to
the one, to the few or the many to use
the Aristotelian categories of political rule or some mixture
of those three classes that constitute every city.
In every regime one of these groups, he says,
will be the dominant class, will be the dominant body,
the ruling body, as he says, in that definition
and that ruling body will in turn,
he says, define the nature of the regime. But Aristotle tells us
something more than this. A regime, his regime typology
is, to say, his division of power, his division of regimes
and to the rule of the one, the few and the many is based
not only on how powers are distributed in a purely factual
way, he also distinguishes between
regimes that are well ordered, well governed,
and those that are corrupt. What does he mean in terms of
this distinction? Aristotle’s distinction seems
to be not only empirical, again, based on the factual
distribution of powers. It seems to have a–what we
might call today a normative component to it,
it makes a distinction or a judgment between the
well-ordered and the deviant regimes,
the corrupt regimes. On the one side,
he tells us, the well ordered regimes are
monarchy, aristocracy and what he calls polity,
rule of the one, the few, and the many,
and on the corrupt side he calls, he describes them as
tyranny, oligarchy and democracy also
ruled by the one, the few, and the many.
But what criteria, we want to know,
does he use to distinguish between these,
as it were, six-fold classification of regimes?
How does he distinguish the well-ordered regimes from the
corrupt regimes? Here is where Aristotle’s
analysis gets, in some ways,
maddeningly tricky because in many ways,
of his general reluctance, to condemn any regime out of
hand. If you were to read more than I
had assigned for you in class, if you were to read throughout,
through all of Book VI for example, you would find
Aristotle not only giving advice to Democrats and democracies and
other regimes on how to preserve themselves,
you would find a lengthy description of how tyrants
should moderate, or how tyrants learn to
preserve and defend their own regime.
It seems as if, it seems almost as if,
living before the incarnation of pure evil in the twentieth
century with the rise of modern totalitarianisms,
that Aristotle seemed to think that no regime was so bad,
no regime was so devoid of goodness that its preservation
was not worth at least some effort,
think of that. Rather, in many ways,
he provides reasoned arguments for the strengths and weaknesses
of several different regime types.
Let’s consider the one that’s closest to our own,
democracy, let’s consider what Aristotle has to tell us about
that regime. In fact, it would be an
interesting question for people to consider, to know how would
Aristotle confront or what would his analysis be if a regime like
Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia,
the Iran of Khomeini, regimes that are clearly
tyrannies but do they even go beyond in some way,
the tyrannies that Aristotle spoke about and what kind of
advice, what would he have to say about them?
Anyway let’s think about democracy. Interestingly,
we find Aristotle defending democracy on the grounds that it
may contain collectively greater wisdom than a regime ruled by
the one or the few. In Book III,
chapter 11, for example, he writes, “For because they
are many,” that is to say the citizen
body, the ruling body of the democracy, “each can have a part
of virtue and prudence and on their uniting together,
and on their joining together he says, “the multitude with its
many feet and hands and having many senses becomes,”
he writes, “like a single human being, and so also with respect
to character and mind.” Think of that,
the people in a democracy he says, “coming together,
uniting together, become like a single human
being with many hands and feet,” and he says, “with greater
character and mind.” We even hear more than any
single individual, and then, in the same text,
we also hear Aristotle praising the practice of ostracism,
that is to say exiling, banishing those individuals
deemed to be pre-eminent in any particular virtue or quality.
He makes a similar point in Book III, chapter 15,
in describing the process of democratic deliberation as a
superior means of arriving at decisions.
He compares it to a potluck dinner;
any one of them, he says, that is to say any one
of the citizens, taken singly is perhaps
inferior in comparison to the best.
But the city is made up of many persons, just as a feast to
which many contribute is finer, is better, than a single and
simple one and on this account a crowd also judges many matters
better than a single person. Furthermore,
what is many, he says, is more incorruptible
like a greater amount of water than many is more incorruptible
than the few. So he gives there a powerful
argument in defense of democracy, like a potluck
dinner; each individual cook may not be
as good as the best chef but many taken together will provide
many more dishes and many more variety,
for a variety of tastes than does a single chef. He says, furthermore,
a crowd, the many, is more incorruptible than the
few. Less light incorruptible,
here, I take it in a kind of ordinary sense of the term,
less susceptible to bribery, you can’t bribe a lot of people
in the way that you can a single individual.
Are Aristotle’s views on democracy correct here in his
analysis? Do in fact many chefs make for
a better dinner than a single chef?
Well, I don’t know, would you rather have dinner at
the Union League with one chef, a master chef or would you
rather have dinner with a bunch of your friends each providing
some piece of the dinner? Well, it’s an interesting
argument; it’s open to debate anyway.
Yet at the same time, is Aristotle seen defending
democracy, providing reason and many sensible arguments for
democratic regimes? You find him,
in the same section of the book, providing a defense of
kingship and the rule of the one.
In Book III, chapter 16, he considers the
case of the king who acts in all things according to his own
will. Sounds like a kind of absolute
monarch of some kind; this is the part of Aristotle’s
politics that seems closest in a way to the idea of a platonic
philosopher-king, a king who rules without law
and rules for the good of all, simply on the basis of his own
superiority. Aristotle coins a term for this
kind of king overall, he calls it the
pambasileia, baseleia being the Greek
word for king, like the name Basil,
it’s the Greek word for king and pan meaning
universal, pambasileia,
the universal king, the king of all.
Aristotle does not rule out the possibility of such a person
emerging, a person of, what he calls excessive virtue,
almost hyperbolic excellence, he says, who stands so far
above the rest as to deserve to be the natural ruler overall.
But how, we want to know, does Aristotle reconcile his
account of the term baseleia,
the king of overall, with his earlier emphasis upon
democratic deliberation and shared rule,
the citizen, recall, is one who takes turn
ruling and being ruled in turn. When readers look at
Aristotle’s account of kingship and particularly this notion of
the pambasileia, the king overall,
this suggestion must at least occur that there is a hidden
Alexandrian or Macedonian streak to Aristotle’s political
thinking that owes more to his native Macedon than to his
adopted Athens, the idea of universal kingship.
Think of Alexander the Great later on, and in fact,
in one of my favorite passages in the book,
which you will read for next time, I cannot resist quoting
already a passage from Book VII, and near the end of the book,
Book VII, chapter 7, where Aristotle writes as
follows. He writes, “The nations in cold
locations, particularly in Europe, are filled with
spiritedness.” There is that platonic word
again, thumos, are filled with thumos,
“but lacking in discursive thought,” lacking in the
deliberative element in other words.
Hence, they remain free because they’re thumotic,
but they lack political governance.
“Those in Asia, on the other hand,” he writes,
thinking probably here of Persia,
places like Egypt and Persia, “have souls endowed with
discursive thought but lack spiritedness,
lack thumos, hence they remain ruled and
enslaved.” But then he goes on to say,
“The stock of Greeks share in both, just as it holds,” he
says, “the middle in terms of location.
For it,” that is to say the Greeks, “are both spirited,
are both thumotic and endowed with deliberative
thought, and hence, remained free and
governed itself in the best manner.”
“And,” he writes and he concludes, “at the same time is
capable of ruling all should it obtain a single regime.”
That these Greeks are capable of ruling all,
he says, all, who is all?
What does he mean by the all here?
The Greeks? The rest of the world?
Should our–are capable of attaining it seems a single
hegemony, a single regime, are if in fact,
circumstances developed. So here is a passage in which
Aristotle clearly seems to be pointing to the possibility of a
kind of universal monarchy under Greek rule,
at least as a possibility. This passage I read at length,
is important for a number of reasons, let me just try to
explain. In the first place,
it provides us with crucial information about Aristotle’s
thinking about the relations of impulse and reason,
of thumos and reason, as you might say the
determinants of human behavior or the crucial pet term in that
passage is this, again this platonic term
spiritedness which is both a cause of the human desire to
rule and at the same time a cause of our desire to resist
the domination of others. It is the unique source of
human assertiveness and aggressiveness,
as well as the source of resistance to the aggression of
others. It’s a very important
psychological concept in understanding politics.
And second, the passage tells us something about certain
additional factors. Extra, in many ways,
extra-political factors such as climate and geography as
components in the development of political society.
Apparently, quality such as thumos and reason,
thumos and deliberation, are not distributed equally and
universally. He says, he distinguishes,
between the people’s of the north, he calls them the
Europeans, spirited and war-like but lacking thumos;
those of Persia and Egypt containing highly developed
forms of intellectual knowledge, no doubt thinking about the
development of things like science and mathematics in Egypt
but lacking this quality of thumos which is so
important for self-government, for self-rule.
These are, one might think about this, these things,
he says, are at least in part determined by certain kinds of
natural or geographic and climatic qualities.
A modern reader of this passage that comes to mind is
Montesquieu, in his famous book, the Spirit of the Laws,
with its emphasis upon the way in which geography and climate,
and environment become in part determinants of the kind of
political culture and political behavior exhibited by different
peoples. Finally, this passage tells us
that under the right circumstances,
at least Aristotle suggests, the Greeks could exercise a
kind of universal rule, if they chose.
He does not rule out this possibility.
Perhaps it testifies to his view that there are different
kinds of regimes that may be appropriate to different kinds
of situations, to different situations.
There is no one-size-fits-all model of political life,
but good regimes may come in a variety of forms.
There seems to be at least built in to Aristotle’s account
of politics, a certain flexibility,
a certain latitude of discretion that in some passages
even seems to border on a kind of relativism.
But nevertheless, Aristotle understands that a
person, this pambasileia, this person of superlative
virtue is not really to be expected.
Politics is really a matter of dealing with less than best
circumstances which is perhaps one reason why Aristotle gives
relatively little attention to the structure of the best
regime. Such a regime,
which I do want to talk about Wednesday is something to be
wished for, but is not for practical
purposes something to which he devotes a great deal of time.
Most regimes, and for the most part,
will be very imperfect mixtures of the few and the many,
the rich and the poor. Most regimes,
for the most part, most politics for the most
part, will be struggles between what he calls oligarchies and
democracies, rule by the rich oligarchies,
ruled by the poor democracies. In that respect,
Aristotle seems to add an economic or sociological
category to the fundamentally political categories of few and
many. The few are not simply defined
quantitatively but they are defined, as it were,
also sociologically. The rich, the poor,
again defined as, the many and defined by him as
the poor. It was not, you have to see
when you read these passages, it was not Karl Marx but rather
it was Aristotle who first identified the importance of
what we would call class struggle, in politics.
Every regime is in many ways a competition between classes.
But where he differs from Marx, is not that he believes that
the fundamental form of competition between classes is
not just for resources, it is not a struggle over who
controls what Marx calls the means of production,
it is a struggle over positions of honor, of status and
position, of positions of rule. Struggle is,
in short, political struggle not economic struggle.
Every regime, he believes,
will be in some ways a site of contestation with competing
claims to justice, with competing claims to
political rule for who ought to rule. There is, in other words,
not only a partisanship between regimes, but partisanship within
regimes, where citizens are activated,
different groups of citizens, different classes of citizens
are activated by rivalrous and competing understandings of
justice and the good. The democratic faction,
he tells us, believes because all are equal
in some respects, they should be equal in all
respects. The oligarchs,
he tells us, because people are unequal in
some respects, they should be unequal in all
respects. For Aristotle the point and
purpose of political science is to mediate the causes of
faction, to help causes of faction that
lead to revolution and civil war.
Aristotle’s statesman, Aristotle’s statecraft,
his political science, is a form of political
mediation, how to bring peace to conflict
ridden situations. It is always surprising to me
that many people think that Aristotle ignored or has no real
theory of political conflict when it seems to me conflict is
built in to the very structure of his understanding of a
regime. And again, not just conflict
between rival regimes but conflict built into the nature
of what we would call domestic politics,
different classes contending with different conceptions of
justice and how can the political scientist bring peace,
bring moderation to these deeply conflict ridden
situations? Aristotle proposes–how does he
propose to do this? He proposes a couple of
remedies to offset the potentially warlike struggle
between various factions. And the most important of these
remedies is the rule of law. “Law insures,” he says,
“the equal treatment of all citizens and prevents arbitrary
rule at the hands of the one, the few, or the many.”
Law establishes what he says is a kind of impartiality for law,
he says, is impartiality. “One who asks the law to rule,”
he says, in Book III, chapter 16, “is held to be
asking God and intellect alone to rule while one who asks man,
asks the beast. Desire is a thing of this sort,
and spiritedness,” he writes again, “thumos,
spiritedness perverts rulers and the best men,
hence law is intellect without appetite.
Even the best men,” he says, “can be perverted by
spiritedness. Law is the best hedge we have
against the domination of partiality and desire.”
But this is not the end of the story.
In fact, it is only the beginning.
Aristotle raises the question, a very important question,
whether the rule of law is to be referred to the rule of the
best, the best individual. Typically again,
he seems to answer the question from two different points of
view, giving each perspective its due, its justice.
He begins in many ways by appearing to defend Plato’s view
about the rule of the best individual.
“The best regime,” he says, “is not one based on written
law.” Law, and his reason seems to be
something like this, law is at best a clumsy
instrument, a clumsy tool because laws only
deal with general matters and cannot deal with particular
concrete situations. Furthermore,
law seems to bind the hands of the statesmen and legislators
who always have to be responding to new and unforeseen
circumstances and yet at the same time Aristotle makes the
case for law. The judgment of an individual,
no matter how wise, is more corruptible whether due
to passion or interest, or simply the fallibility of
human reason than is law. He notes, as a practical
matter, no one individual can oversee all things. Only a third party,
in this case law, is capable of judging
adequately. Again, he seems to give reasons
and good reasons for both cases. So he, but he moves to
question, should law be changed? Is law changeable?
If so, how? And once again,
he puts forward different arguments;
in Book II, chapter 8, he compares law to other arts
and sciences and suggests why sciences such as medicine and
has exhibited progress, this should be true for law.
The antiquity of a law alone is no justification for its usage.
Aristotle seems to reject, you might say,
Burkean conservatism long before the time.
Antiquity or tradition alone is no justification,
yet at the same time he seems to recognize that changes in
law, even when the result is
improvement, are dangerous. He writes, “It is a bad thing
to habituate people to reckless dissolution of laws.
The city will not be benefited as much from changing law as it
will be harmed through being habituated to disobey the
rulers.” In other words he’s saying,
lawfulness, like every other virtue, is a habit,
it is a habit of behavior, and the habit of destroying,
disobeying even an unjust law will make people altogether
lawless. This emphasis upon law is a
constraint on human behavior. In many ways seems to introduce
a strong element of conventionalism in Aristotle’s
thought. This is the view that justice
is determined by laws, by customs, by traditions,
that it is conventions, nomos in the broadest
sense of the term that constitutes justice.
As I indicated, there’s also seems to be a
certain degree of relativism associated with this since
conventions vary from society to society.
The standards of justice will seem to, again,
be regime dependent and this seems to be entirely consistent
with parts of Aristotle’s anthropology.
After all, if we are political animals by nature,
then the standards of justice must derive from politics,
a right that transcends society cannot be a right natural to
man. Yet Aristotle’s conception of
our political nature seems to require standards of justice
that are natural or right for us.
Rule of law presupposes that there is a form of justice or
right natural to us. But what is the Aristotelian
standard of natural right or natural justice? Aristotle makes a surprising
assertion; unfortunately,
it’s an assertion in a book you’re not reading.
A book, the Nicomachean Ethics, Book V,
chapter 7, he says there that, ” all natural right is mutable
or changeable, all standards of natural
justice are changeable.” And by this he means that
natural right is revealed not in general propositions or
universal maxims, as for example,
Immanuel Kant would argue later on, but in the concrete
decisions of a community or its leaders about what is right or
wrong. Natural right is mutable
because different circumstances will require different kinds of
decisions. So does this mean then that for
Aristotle there are no universally valid standards of
justice or right? That all that ends in
circumstances that justice, like the good citizen is,
as it were, regime dependent? Is this not to fall into the
boundless field of Machiavelianism that declares
right and wrong to be entirely relative to circumstance,
context dependent, is that what Aristotle is
saying? Not at all.
Aristotle emphasizes the mutable character of natural
right in part to preserve the latitude, the freedom of action
required by the statesmen. Every statesman must confront
new and sometimes extreme situations that require
inventiveness and creative action.
And in such situations where the very survival of the
community may be at stake, we might call these emergency
situations, the conscientious statesmen must be able to
respond appropriately. Nine-eleven for example,
a moral law that refused to allow the statesmen to protect
the community in times of crisis would not be a principle of
natural right, it would be a suicide note. To a considerable degree
Aristotle, Aristotelian standards of natural right
reside in the specific decisions,
the concrete decisions of the ablest states;
these cannot be determined in advance but must be allowed to
emerge in response to new, and again, different and
unforeseen situations. What is naturally right,
what is right by nature in peace time, will not be the same
as what is naturally right or right by nature in times of war. What is right in normal
situations will not be the same as what is right in states of
emergency. The statesmen in the
Aristotelian sense is the one who seeks to return as quickly
and efficiently as possible to the normal situation.
This is what distinguishes Aristotle from Machiavelli,
and all those later thinkers who take their bearings from
Machiavelli. I’m thinking of thinkers like
Hobbes, like Carl Schmitt, and Max Weber in the twentieth
century. All of these thinkers take
their bearings from the extreme situation, situations of civil
war, of social collapse, of national crisis. The Aristotelian statesman will
not be unduly affected by the occasional need to depart from
the norm, whether this means this is
spent in the case, to take an American case,
the suspension of habeas Corpus,
as Abraham Lincoln did in the, during the Civil War,
or the regrettable need to engage in domestic espionage.
But in any case, the Aristotelian statesman’s
goal will be restoration of the conditions of constitutional
government and rule of law as quickly and again as efficiently
as possible. On that grim note,
I think I’ll let you go and we will conclude Aristotle next
time.

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