Standpoint

The Platonic idea of the good illuminates a future, and only a preview that it itself grants puts the mind in a position to recognize it. This preview, the special gift of Plato, is absent in Aristotle. He therefore must derive his knowledge of the just from the existing, perceived in certainty, without enthusiastic intuition. His basis is the world as it is, and the laws that visibly obtain their existence and rule. For him, the cause and measure of the just is not a freely designed shape that floats over reality, futuristically, unattained, perhaps unattainable; but nature herself, the impulse of which acts in unconscious things and the relations of men.

That arrangement [Einrichtung] is just which follows this impulse. Aristotle’s motto: “nothing can be good and noble that is against nature.” So he derives the ethical law from the natural. The content is one and the same to him, only that in the former case, freely choosing essence implements it.

This assumption seems already to have a contradiction in itself. Nature namely acts with irresistible power. Where, therefore, it expresses its drive, there is no choice, therefore no ethical law conceivable. Where, however, there is choice and resolution, hence room for ethical regulation, there also nature has retreated, and vouchsafes no standard. Furthermore, nature arouses conflicting impulses. Selfishness and self-sacrificing love are both its work, and it is certain that the ethos usually requires precisely that a natural impulse be overcome. If, therefore, a choice is made among these conflicting things, one would think that a different measure than the law of nature would have to be found, a peculiar ethical law in the background, from which the decision comes.

But Aristotle had no need of such. These contradictions are only grounded if one pays attention to the individual effects. But for Aristotle the measure of the just is nature and its intention as a whole. An activity runs through the whole of creation which, in appearance and in detail eliciting opposites, when taken as a whole acts in agreement. Unconscious nature everywhere manifests a creative impulse, an impulse seeking after preservation, propagation, increase of existence, through which creatures exist and multiply. It also displays the sphere of spiritual beings. By the usual needs, it pushes people to combine, links them instinctively together, and so generates the manifold social relationships. Nature desires absolutely the richer, the manifold, the developed, even if, rebelling against its own goal, it here and there seems to wish to destroy existence and dissolve its creations into simple matter. It is therefore in accordance with nature to keep the elements away from organic plant life by damming, it is in accordance with nature to secure the reign of the drive to relationship and its constructions in the spiritual world against outbreaks of selfishness. It is a natural drive by which man seeks the constant expansion of wealth, of luxury, since each activity is directed to its enlargement; but the general instinct of nature sets a limit to him by showing that wealth is to be used only for one’s own preservation, for the family and the state.

So Aristotle requires no other measure than reality, it provides this to him while he finds the universal in reality and recognizes it for what he truly wants and what should be. This is not irresistible urging; rather, whether he will obey it in detail or not is an open question. It is not conflicting in itself; the conflicting drives are not the ones which generally run through things. And it is clear that its requirements are not to be overcome by the ethos, but rather correspond to what is recognized as ethos.

The measure of Aristotle is the purpose of nature (τέλος). This is something quite different from what one usually understands by the concept of purpose (teleology). It is a goal that lies in the thing itself (objective), not one arbitrarily set by man (subjective), and it is goal always already effective and fulfilled in the natural or social formations, not one lying outside of them, by which it does not thereby be anything but a mere means, hence valueless in itself. But thereafter the method of Aristotle is observation. He traces the phenomena of nature in order to find through their analysis and comparison what the intention, the inner aspirations, of nature is therein. By this course and in this manner he examines human life relations, beginning with the simplest and climbing to the more prolific, more intricate, and this leads to his political theory [Staatslehre].

Principle and Progression of Aristotle’s Politics

The first human life relation effected by nature is the union of man and woman, the purpose of which is the propagation of the race. To this attaches the parental relation and the lordship relation (i.e., between masters and slaves); these differ essentially from each other in that the parental relation is for the benefit of both parts, the obedient as well as the ruling, while the lordship relation only serves to benefit the ruling part. Nature leads to other connections, to villages, hamlets, finally to the state (taking city and state in the Greek manner as equivalent). The state is the supreme relation, it is the fulfillment of that which nature aimed at in those leading up to it; because it alone has self-sufficiency (αὐτάρχεια), while those others always require another and higher connection that receives or protects them. That is why the state is the final purpose of nature, and man is a creature destined for the state (πολιτικὸν ζῶον). He who wishes to live without the state, would have to be a being of higher or lower nature than man. The state is therefore for the people, that is, the state is that which nature, already in the individual, aims at as its final goal, as it everywhere refers the part to the whole, in the part pursues the whole. But the purpose of the state is first and foremost the life [Erhaltung] (ζῆν) of its citizens, thereafter the good life [Wohlerhaltung] (εὖ ζῆν). The latter requires many external circumstances (good soil, convenient location and the like), but above all it requires virtue, for in it, not in external goods, consist satisfaction and well-being, and the education of the citizens to virtue therefore manifests itself also in Aristotle as the first task of the state.

For the constitution of the state, the first and general requirement, in accordance with this purpose, is that it, like the parental power, be oriented toward the benefit of the subjects as the rulers, and not like the lordly power, exclusively for the benefit of the rulers. Accordingly, in each of the three basic forms – monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy – one distinguishes a true representation and a degeneracy (παρέχβασις) of the same, depending on whether it meets that requirement or not. It is necessary to distinguish kingship (βασιλεία) from tyranny, depending on whether the monarch is restricted by laws to the welfare of his subjects or not; aristocracy from oligarchy depending on the whether the meritorious are appointed to positions of rule for the general benefit, or simply the rich for their own benefit; polity from democracy, depending on whether the rule, which belongs to the whole, is really for the benefit of all or merely for the benefit of the poor, who constitute the majority. The polity – Aristotle considered it to be the most perfect form of government – is to be achieved through a combination of oligarchic and democratic aspects, not simply through an organic expansion and arrangement of both classes, but rather by an intermediate path between the two principles, e.g., that the oligarchic means of punishing the rich with fines for absenting themselves from the popular assembly, and the democratic means, the appearance of the poor in the assembly by rewarding them with donations, are used together, that access to the popular assembly is linked to a moderate income, that the offices are not awarded by lot or taking turns (in the manner of Greek democracy), but by election with reference to competence.

Taking that general requirement, the orientation toward the common utility, as a given, then for each state the first standard of the constitution is the relative one, i.e., the consideration as to which constitution is the most appropriate to its particular condition and the elements existing in it. Where the citizens are equal to each other by birth, wealth, education, then the democratic form exists, where a smaller number predominate, the aristocratic form does, where one protrudes above all others, the monarchical form does. A constitution that would be generally and unconditionally imperative and right does not exist; because none can attain the purpose of nature in the state, the good life, education to virtue, under all circumstances, or at any rate is best at it. But even so there is also an absolute standard of the constitution, namely that constitution – provided its appropriateness regarding the given elements – that in itself gets closest to achieving that purpose, or one could also say, that constitution corresponding to the elements that are best for that purpose. This is precisely what the polity is. Because in his Ethics Aristotle refers to the virtue which indeed is the purpose of the state as being a mean between two vices, e.g., between greed and waste, cowardice and foolhardiness. That is why the condition of achieving the purpose of the state is most favorable where the middle class predominates, because, without the temptations of wealth or poverty, it is most likely to go the middle way everywhere. This condition of the hegemony of the middle class corresponds to the polity.

Position vis-à-vis Plato

Thereafter, Aristotle shared with Plato the mode of treatment whereby he derives his knowledge from objects, not human reason. His purpose in nature, like the idea of Plato, has a content in itself that can be found, not by examining thought determinations, but only through an activity of mind directed to the object, i.e., observation, contemplation. Of course, by direct observation, as in Plato’s moral ideal, Aristotle cannot find the purpose of nature, he lacks abstraction. For Plato sees inwardly in the spirit a future, and this view is sufficient in itself alone to recognize what is just, because its content is precisely that which is contained in the idea, perfection; Aristotle on the other hand sees only what is real, and as such this cannot be the measure of the just; he must therefore compare the manifold manifestations of what is real, discover the universal from the particulars. But this abstraction of Aristotle’s has the true use, the negative of limiting, ordering, maintaining. It by no means grants him the content; this he also derives from observation, which he adjusts with every step. Currently it is unjustly claimed of Aristotle, that he understood pure thought free from sensorial particularity, the logical law, as the essence and the truth of things. It is far from him, as from Plato, to attempt to disregard actual things, and to derive the necessity of some existence from a thought [Gedanken]. For him as well, justice is not a system of rules, but a condition of men. And legal institutions have their measure and their valuation not in consistency but in the actual effects they exert on circumstances and the opinion of men.

The undertone is also the same for both. For them the state comes first, and the people are subordinate to the purpose of its existence. Aristotle herein apparently approaches the modern point of view, especially in view of his objections to Plato. He seems to desire personal freedom and satisfaction, since he blames Plato for rendering it impossible, by forced poverty, for his guardians to exercise charity and moderation, and that he sacrificed the happiness and perfection of man to the state. But on closer inspection, Aristotle shows that he does not differ essentially from Plato. He also considered, by virtue of that pronouncement that the state is before the people (i.e., that the state is the purpose of nature in man), man in all his existence is a mere subordinate member and agent of the state without a higher relation independent of the state, because it is the absolute end. Also, the will of the people is not the purpose of the institutions [Einrichtungen], nor is it their cause. The noblest must rule whether the others like it or not, otherwise, he says, they would only concede equal rights even to Zeus himself if he lived among them. In his constitutional doctrine as well, the idea of ​​a personal claim to dominion or freedom, of an acquired right on the part of a prince or a state or nation, can nowhere be found; the crucial consideration is only ability, qualities [Eigenschaftung] to achieve success that will redound to the whole. Thus in terms of type, Aristotle shared with Plato this trait of the subsumption of men in the state, although in lesser degree and thus less conspicuously.

Therein, though, Aristotle is opposed to Plato: Plato recognizes a purpose, beyond all that the real world with its phenomena has to offer, even, it would seem, out of its reach. Aristotle recognizes no ought, no purpose (τέλος) of things, as that which nature manifests to be its will that it either has already attained, or at least provides the means to attain. His opposition to Plato therefore does not carry the usual meaning: “these designs are certainly just and noble, but not capable of implementation,” but “they contradict the preconditions of nature, wherefore they are not what the source of the ethos desires and pursues, they are untrue and unjust.” Added to this is the uniform difference of character and treatment.

General Relationship between Nature and Ethos

Aristotle requires the examination of all that nature has hitherto formed, which alternately and repeatedly is everywhere evident. The diverse social conditions, the differences among people, their activities, earthly possessions, talents, their relations determined by preceding events, their desires and motives, also the functions of state – judiciary, government, the armed forces, the possibility of their distribution, mixture, complementary position, whence the infinite variety of constitutions – all this, as it is produced, and what it in turn effects, Aristotle finds necessary to examine to find out what maintains itself, and thus is in accordance with nature, and is just. He is therefore the creator of actual political science, i.e., the science of the natural action and reaction of the institutions that everywhere are found in the same or similar manner, and relate to the living aspirations of every time and nation in the same manner as mechanical laws to individual organic beings. This knowledge, which is essential to the statesman in order to choose the means for his intention, Aristotle requires in accordance with his standpoint, in order to find the purpose from it.

So this is the basis and the path of his investigation. Therein he only aims at [Er richtet… zurechte] reality, and finds the result from many isolated observations. But for all the sharpness of this investigation and the truth of individual observations, the final shape that is to arise – the state, which fully conforms to the purpose of nature – is not at all clear. The investigation is like a stream, which after a magnificent course loses itself in the sand. Plato, by contrast, does not require all of these investigations to find the just. It is given to him directly, something more glorious than any comparisons of the real could grant. Fulfilled by his archetype, he creates new forms, he aims only at the one single state, the perfect, he sees it all at once and outlines it with the clarity of a real life. If in details, in which Aristotle is so trenchant, he often considers the unseemly, the contrary to nature, nevertheless around this whole there hovers a halo of moral height that pertains to an entirely different world than the natural strength and safety of the Aristotelian institutions.

With such opposite starting points they also certainly must come to conflicting results. But it is one and the same power that affects the natural conditions and drives, and that also provides the purpose to which man and his chosen connections have to emulate. This explains the relationship between nature and ethos, which reality illustrates, and thus also the relation between Plato and Aristotle.

The conditions wrought by nature are the necessary basis of the ethos. Marriage, parental authority are based on the natural instinct of procreation, the helplessness of children, etc. But as such they not only receive a law from the ethos, they also lay down a law for it, only in a different way. The ethos prevails over nature through its deed (actual), by what it positively wants, arranging in terms of its purposes, such as the master over the servant. In this manner it shapes natural copulation into the thoroughly ethical institution of marriage. But nature gives a law to the ethos by its constitution (substantial), by what it is, as with the servant vis-à-vis the master. Though something is demanded of him, nothing can be demanded that he is not able to accomplish. A law could not implement force by children over adults, for example, even if it were absurd enough to wish it. But true moral demands thereby receive a barrier in the incapacity of earthly nature, and they become untrue, like nonsensical laws of that kind, if they do not take this restriction into consideration; they should rather assume the removal of such.

However, the natural conditions are also the prelude to the ethical. They are then the first link in the great chain which forms the historical progress in the ethos itself. Already in the instinct of animals, in the insensate drive of the plant, is that which, as morality, prompts men in ever more exalted form in the various epochs. This is the justification of Aristotle. From the effort of unconscious things, he goes over to the ought of conscious beings, following along the uninterrupted climax.

Finally – besides the fact that nature is the substance of the ethos and the less developed representation of the shapes thereof – nature has a communion with the ethos, in that it leads to the same outcome in ethical relations, independently of the ethos. The natural impulse is set up so that it, purely in accordance with its own qualities, is a determining factor to meet the requirements, which do not have the same root that it does. If people wished to isolate themselves, the natural need for aid would drive them to the state. And yet the peculiar significance of the state is not this aid. The want of security calls for public punishment to deter crime. Yet it is this public punishment as just retribution that is grounded in the higher order of the ethical world. This is the basis of the community of Plato and Aristotle, through which they, pursuing opposites, on the whole not wishing, yet arrive at similar results. Plato requires a multiplicity of forces and their fulfilled formation for the rich harmony of his depiction; so does he obtain the gradation of classes [Ständen]. Aristotle illustrates the natural want of this gradation, but he obtains thereby the fullness of the shape, like Plato. Plato has his state seek after the idea of the just, and in consequence happiness follows along. Aristotle merely has it seek happiness, and this also results in the virtue. It is comparing two architects, one of whom, by seeking merely to answer the purpose of the building, unintentionally makes a work of art, while the other wishes to answer all the demands of beauty, and so as a matter of course cannot leave unsatisfied any of the building’s requirements.

Value of the Ideal View and of the Empirical

Both also recognize the single spirit that prevails through all creation; but Plato believes he can see it immediately at a higher level than what is given and can behold it without the aid of what is given; Aristotle wishes to recognize it in its expression in the lower levels, and thus be certain of the higher. This also shows the only two true human ways of knowledge, ideal contemplation and empirical investigation.[1]

They also are inseparable. For Plato, the contemplation of reality always serves to elevate to its primeval image [Urbilds], and if Aristotle were not already filled in advance with a harmonious contemplation, he would not have arrived at these results. It is only that with each of them the one or the other is repressed. Both approaches therefore are clearly presented right at the beginning of philosophy and so guarantee the unity of its object. But no less their own inadequacy. The empirical way appears safe and all-attaining, mediating the law of its progress from the antecedent course to its climax and thereby determining its future stages. But progress in nature is not like a straight line in which two points determine a third, but is like the vibrant growth of a plant, whereby its flower and the fruit cannot be extrapolated from its seed and stem. So he who understands the significance of the beginning, would have to know the end. But just as true and apt is that which corresponds: we do not understand the importance of the beginning, because the end is hidden from us.

Hence comes the continuous uncertainty and often the wrongness of the Aristotelian analogy. “Every whole of nature is greater than the parts.” From this he concludes: “The state is also higher than man.” But with any natural whole, the invigorating drive proceeds from it and not from the parts; in the state, however, it is people and not it that put people in motion. And who can guarantee that the highest vocation is not the perfection of man without the state, whereby, as Aristotle himself says, he becomes like the gods? While for every activity nature provides tools which are not for itself, but for someone else, Aristotle deems slavery justified as a tool for the family and its care. But whether or not in the higher sphere of free beings, the existence of a mere tool will be discarded by the spirit that used it in the lower sphere, is something which that comparison cannot reveal.

Here, then, is the seat of the error, which is the basis of the much-discussed defense of slavery. Although this no longer receives recognition, the reasoning on the basis of what nature calls for is still held by many to be infallible. The higher level always has a law of an entirely new sort, if only because it is the higher. Wealth contains poverty, but poverty does not contain wealth. The observation of that which precedes, and of progress itself, therefore can only direct, determine the selection, confirm, but cannot provide the proper knowledge for itself. So it is that for what it should be or will be to be recognized, an immediate observation of the same is necessary, because it first makes the previous course understandable, is not given by it – that is the ideal contemplation. But it is a special gift and it promises, in accordance with its nature, only a limited knowledge. If the eye only sees by the sun, it will only see what Helios wills more or less to illuminate for it. So also when the mind though the idea, which it itself is not, receives the power to recognize the good, its knowledge is dependent on how far that other sends its rays into the world and to its eye. And so far it has not granted to mortals all the splendor of its light. Plato himself, who to this day is held to have the glory of the sublimest mind that has turned to philosophy, is likewise only struck by a ray thereof. History after him has engendered higher thoughts, a life of nobler and deeper meaning, than he intuited, and he could not even keep his depiction free of untrue, opacifying traits.

If empiricism and the ideal view interpenetrate, knowledge will probably increase in degree, but deficient knowledge will not be made into perfect knowledge.

Explanation of the Conflict between Plato and Aristotle

Now the question arises: from whence does it come that these two paths here appear divided, indeed hostile to each other? Why does Plato not question the real and concrete activities of nature, even to form the state in part in a manner contrary to its conditions; and even more Aristotle, close his eyes to what is higher, and be content with the imperfect world? This is explained only by the lack of historical character in Greek philosophy. A drive is assumed by both, which is working towards a conclusion in simultaneous progress from the lowest stages of unconscious nature to the highest stages of men and philosophers. But the same sequence of stages in time, the progress of generations and world epochs, and beyond that, the future transformation of conditions to which men are subjected on earth, these things they do not consider. So the unity of the given condition and its imperfection with the advanced condition and its perfection is wanting, and lopsidedness to one side or the other is inevitable. Plato steadfastly maintains that the perfect ought to exist. But he finds no relation of reality to it, and this lack appears to him to be accidental, or at any rate unaccounted for: and yet he cannot learn anything from it, nor is there a reason to consider it. Aristotle on the other hand steadfastly maintains that the real does not allow for perfection. Therefore what seems to him to be the highest, in fact the final object, is precisely the imperfect. So he falls into the contradiction: nature strives after perfection, and yet it has in itself the law that it cannot attain perfection.

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[1] It hardly needs mentioning that empiricism here is not meant in the ordinary sense as a merely passive recording, without the control and penetration of mind.