Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Soul and Politics in Aristotle's Politics

by John Christodoulou
The Examined Life On-Line Philosophy Journal, Vol. 04 Issue 15
Aristotle believes that all living beings consist of body and soul. There is a natural law, according to which the soul governs the body. This natural law could be verified if we observe the natural behavior of some animals. However, there are corrupt animals, which do not follow the natural order. In their case, the body controls their soul. The best example of the ideal relationship between the soul and the body, is that of a man who manages to keep his body under the control of his soul. On the contrary, in the case of morally corrupt men, who live in conflict with nature (para physin), the body, many times, imposes its rash desires on the soul. In the case of such men, their body, instead of their soul, controls the whole of their being.(1)
Now, the human soul is divided into two parts. The first part is that of reason, which is the part of intellectual ability, which combines speaking and thinking. The other part is that of appetite, which is represented by the ability to desire.(2) As Aristotle says elsewhere in Politics, the first part of the soul has reason. Moreover, it is reason itself and everything we mean by reason. The other part has no reason, but it could obey reason. It communicates with reason and it is also capable of following reasoned decisions. Aristotle underlines that, “for those who make the division the way we do”, the real purpose is obvious. (3)
Inferior things exist for use by superior things. This can be proved if we observe nature itself. Without doubt, reasoning creatures are superior. This reasoning is divided into two parts. The first is the part of practical reason, which relates directly to things and actions. The second part is that of theoretical reason, which works with notions which have to be distinguished, as much as possible, from sensual perceptions. (4)
Nevertheless, Aristotle says that the body is constructed before our soul. Because of that, the non-reasoning part of the soul, the inferior one, which has no reason, has to be ‘looked after’ before the reasoning part, that which is reason itself. We can understand this as follows. As soon as a child is born, it has wishes, while thinking, by nature, develops in natural stages, together with physical growth. For this reason, first we have to look after our body and then after our soul; we have first to look after our wishes and then after our intellect. In fact, we look after our body for the sake of our soul. We first look after our wishes for the sake of our intellect. These are some principles that a lawmaker has to bear in mind, when he decides on the laws of education. (5)
Thus, the authority of the soul over the body is arbitrary, but when our intellect controls our wishes, it exercises its authority politically or autocratically.As we said at the beginning, the control of the soul over the body and the authority of the logical part of the soul (nous) over the passive part of the soul, which is the non-reasoning part, complies with the natural order of things. It is also advantageous. The common sharing of power between the logical and the non-logical part of the soul, or, even worse, the inversion of these roles, could mean the assuming of authority by the body and the wishes of the body could prove harmful.
Now, a slave is a human being who is different from other human beings, in the same way that our soul differs from our body, and in the same way that a human being differs from an animal. The best thing for a slave, is to be under the authority of others. (8) Someone is a slave by nature when he could belong and he really belongs to another man. His reason helps him to understand but, in fact, he possesses nearly no reason at all.
Nature constructs the bodies of free men and the bodies of slaves differently. Thus, the bodies of slaves are strongly constructed, because they need to work with their hands, while the bodies of free men are ably constructed, but incapable of heavy work and more useful for a political life. Many times, however, the opposite occurs: some persons may have the body and some others may have the soul of a free man. Concerning the construction of the body, if, indeed, the bodies of some men are so different from the bodies of others, that they may appear to be like gods, it is natural for the men who fall short of them to obey and bow to the superiority of others.
If, now, this stands true for the body, it stands even more true for the soul, even though we cannot see the beauty of the soul as we can see the beauty of the body. (9) For Aristotle, it is obvious that, by natural predetermination, some men are free and others are slaves. For the latter, it is in their interests to serve the former, but moreover, it is also right. (10)
Concerning the characteristics of slaves, Aristotle poses a critical question. The question is if the slaves possess, apart from their natural ability for manual work, more valuable virtues, like prudence, bravery, justice etc. because if they possess the last-mentioned, how do they differ from free men? On the other hand, if they do not possess these virtues, although they are human beings with reason, the argument is absurd. The same question is posed concerning women and children. Is it possible for a woman to be prudent, brave and just? Could a child be both dissolute and prudent, or not?
So, is there any difference between the virtue of a person whose natural destiny is to be a ruler, and the virtue of another, who is under the ruler’s authority? Because, if both of them could participate in goodness, if both of them could be qualified and have a strong character, what kind of necessity forces the one to be a ruler and the other to obey him? Obviously, if a ruler is not prudent and just, he cannot govern the way he should. On the other hand, if slaves are lazy and cowardly, they cannot fulfill their duties. Therefore, both of them have to demonstrate virtue. Moreover, this reminds us of all the things we have said about the soul because in our soul, by nature, the one part is the ruler, and the other part is subservient. Each of these conditions, of course, has its own special virtue. (11)
So, all people, whether free men or slaves, have to demonstrate moral virtues, but not in the same manner. It is prerequisite only to the extent that one requires virtue in order to be able to do one’s work. So, the moral virtue of a ruler has to be perfect, while the virtue of others should correspond with their nature. Everyone has elements of moral virtue, but, for example, the prudence of a woman and the prudence of a man are not the same. Bravery, also, and the sentiment of justice are not the same for all. There is a difference between the bravery of a ruler and the bravery of a slave.
Now, concerning virtue itself, according to Aristotle it is wrong to believe either that the good condition of the soul or that right actions constitute virtues. On the contrary, we have to make a distinction between several virtues, and, also, we have to distinguish the same virtue according to each particular case.
“For a woman”, for example, “silence is an ornament”, but, as Aristotle says, one could not maintain the same for a man. It is obvious, also, that the virtue of a child is not his own concern. It serves a purpose unknown to him and this purpose is determined by the man who takes care of the child. This applies, also, in the case of the relations between a slave and his master. A slave does not need so much virtue, because his work is manual. Thus, he needs to have a certain amount of virtue, in order to do his work, and avoid being overtaken by viciousness or cowardice. (12)
Everybody deserves happiness, as long as they possess virtue and prudence and try to act in accordance with them. The deep and sacred nature of happiness is accentuated by Aristotle’s reference to God. God is happy and in a state of bliss not because of the possession of material goods, but thanks to Himself and His nature. That is why happiness is different from joy. Joy refers to things that have nothing to do with our soul; material goods are a matter of fortune.

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