Aristotle in America: Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither

VII. The Republic of Labor

We saw in chapter four that, to a person, the delegates to the convention in Philadelphia were republicans all, but democrats not. Their fear of democracy balanced their fear of tyranny. In the middle stood republicanism, a safe, secure, and stable public space carved out of and protected from private enterprise. None of the framers of the constitution needed to lie, either to themselves or to one another. They knew that they were all—whether planters or lawyers, merchants or bankers—at heart businessmen each and every one of them, and that, therefore,  at least in Aristotle’s eyes, they did not even deserve so much as an honorable mention among the philosopher’s “three main types of life.”

As for the life of the businessman, it does not give him much freedom of action. Besides, wealth is obviously not the good that we are seeking, because it serves only as a means; i.e. for getting something else.

Private enterprise was not so much a way of life as a way of producing and reproducing life itself, mere life: bios (biology) as distinguished from zoe (creation). And, yet, each and every one of them also knew and aspired after that independence and freedom of action that, as Aristotle himself acknowledged, was unattainable without sufficient wealth. The question for everyone in Philadelphia was, how are these two related?

The answer—as everyone in Philadelphia realized—was that all private households and all private enterprise would contribute a portion from their own wealth to create a common space, res publica, protected from the differences, distinctions, and hierarchical relationships of domination and submission that are necessary and natural in every private enterprise.

Of course, since nearly all of us work in someone else’s household (someone else’s private enterprise, oikonomia), some of us quite literally, we, today, shrink from the full implications of Aristotle’s discussion. The framers of our Constitution did not. They understood that those engaged in the meaner sort of mechanical arts, farmers who tended another man’s crops, or tradesmen who used another man’s tools and worked in another man’s shop—they understood that these, too, were a kind of slave (literally any person who is subject to a despotic relationship).

The slave shares in his master’s life; the artisan is less closely connected with him, and only attains excellence in proportion as he becomes a slave. The meaner sort of mechanic has a special and separate slavery; and whereas the slave exists by nature, not so the shoemaker or other artisan.

Such are the relationships that prevail in any private enterprise. And, since nearly all of us work for all living, there is little need for us to be particularly embarrassed by them. All of us report to someone. All of us owe our employment to someone. All of us work in someone else’s private enterprise. The Greeks had a name for this relationship. They called it despotism. And they also had names for the parties in this relationship: master and slave.

We will have more to say about this relationship—so crucial to American history—later on. For the moment, I want us to recognize, as the framers of the Constitution recognized, how and why this relationship is absolutely essential for republican self-rule. Therefore, in an attempt to avoid any confusion, I am going to build upon the definition to which Aristotle called our attention above and, rather than referring to all workers as slaves, I am instead going to use the more general terms “worker” or “laborer” to refer to all of those who work in another person’s private enterprise.

To begin with, Aristotle calls attention to the obvious: a worker is a tool employed by another human being to achieve that other human being’s objectives. Or, as he put it in his Politics: “any human being that by nature belongs not to himself but to another is by nature a slave; and a human being belongs to another whenever, in spite of being a man, he is a piece of property, i.e., a tool having a separate existence and meant for action.” Again, we need not put on airs for one another here. Any of us who hold a mortgage, who have unsecured debt, who work out of necessity and not for love, and who were born to parents in a similar lot; in Aristotle’s view, we are workers, laborers, and slaves “by nature.” Or, if you prefer, we are tools in another man’s household.

Next, Aristotle establishes, once again, that this relationship of domination and submission, of master and slave, is everywhere evident in nature. Aristotle does not ask us to like or approve of these natural relationships between men and women, parents and children, employers and workers, masters and slaves. But nor does he want us to ignore them since, in his view, without them, there can be no res publica, no public space where citizens do not work for a living.

After establishing the universality of the slave-master relationship in nature, Aristotle moves next to the purpose of the private enterprise based on such unequal relationships. And Aristotle’s first question is whether the acquisition of wealth is separate from or subject to the occupation of household management. In other words, as I manage my private enterprise am I simply trying to maintain my household, or do I aim to make it grow ever larger? And, if my aim is the continuous expansion of the household, the private enterprise, then am I any longer a household manager, or have I not become something else?

To answer this question, Aristotle first considers households that produce all that they consume and produce no more than they consume, which was a natural consideration not only in 4th century BCE Athens, but also for many independent farmers setting up homesteads on the frontier in 18th century CE America. Consuming something that the household did not produce was not only viewed a luxury, but a waste. And, in Aristotle’s view, “such a mode of acquisition is clearly given by nature herself to all her creatures, both at the time of their birth and when they are fully grown.”

Aristotle’s next question, is why? To what end has nature made the private household or private enterprise? Has nature made the private enterprise solely to reproduce itself? Or does it not have a higher calling?

The answer, of course, is that nature has designed the private enterprise to fulfill a higher calling, to produce a surplus “necessary for providing a livelihood or useful to household or polis as associations.” The purpose of the private enterprise is to support other associated households or even the polis itself. Yet, even this may not be sufficient to support the common weal. And, so, Aristotle recognizes, in addition to household management, there is also the “acquisition of wealth” proper, which he considers over and above household management. In other words, there is business.

With the appearance of business and the express aim of acquiring wealth, we also, once again, are faced with the question why? To which Aristotle answers, much the same as Adam Smith would answer two millennia later:

Mutual need of the different goods made it essential to contribute one’s share, and it is on this basis that many of the non-Greek peoples still proceed, i.e., by exchange: they exchange one class of useful goods for another—for example they take and give wine for corn and so on.

Nor, admits Aristotle, is there anything the least unnatural about such exchanges. “Such a technique of exchange is not contrary to nature and is not a form of money-making; for it keeps to its original purpose: to re-establish nature’s own equilibrium of self-sufficiency.” Yet, even Aristotle recognized that it was “out of this technique that money-making arose.” The process, as Aristotle outlines it, is simple enough. We go to market with an item that someone else needs, but we fail to find there the item that we need. And, so, naturally enough, we accept a place-holder for that item: money. But, since money is infinitely transferable (infinitely “liquid,” we would say), it has a value greater than all other finite items. (Aristotle then recounts the story of Midas who, though infinitely wealthy, starves because he cannot eat his gold.)

And, with this, the scales tip from the natural to the perverse because, rather than producing goods in order to supply some private or public need, those who fall under the spell of unending wealth produce goods only for that end and for no other.

There is no limit to the end which this kind of acquisition has in view, because the end is wealth in that form, i.e., the possession of goods. The kind which is household management, on the other hand, does have a limit, since it is not the function of household-management to acquire goods.

The dividing line separating the two is almost imperceptible. And, yet, it is also insidious. “They overlap in that both are concerned with the same thing, property; but in their use of it they are dissimilar: in one case the end is sheer increase, in the other something different.” Yet, on account of their similarities, “some people therefore imagine that increase is the function of household management, and never cease to believe that their store of coined money ought to be either hoarded, or increased without limit.” And, so, the perversion sets in.

To be absolutely clear, Aristotle was not arguing against the acquisition of wealth. For, without surplus wealth, Aristotle knew, there could be no res publica, no common wealth in a republic of equals. Rather was Aristotle calling attention to how easy it was to slip over the line separating the acquisition of wealth for public good and the mere acquisition of wealth for its own sake. The former was natural and virtuous, the latter unnatural and perverse.

But, then, how could one tell the difference? One could tell the difference, thought Aristotle, by considering the actions and the intentions of those who were acquiring wealth. On the one hand are those who pursue not mere life (bios), but who pursue the good life. Today, of course, the two have become nearly indistinguishable. The good life is the life of those who are wealthy. For Aristotle, however, as for the framers of the Constitution, the good life still maintained the overall connotation of doing good, i.e., of virtuous deeds on behalf of the public. And, yet, for many, even in Aristotle’s times, the boundary separating mere living from the good life could easily get blurred.

The reason why some people get this notion into their heads may be that they are eager for life but not for the good life; so, desire for life being unlimited, they desire also an unlimited amount of what enables it to go on. Others again, while aiming at the good life, seek what is conducive to the pleasure of the body. So, as this too appears to depend on the possession of property, their whole activity centres on business, and the second
[perverse] mode of acquiring goods owes its existence to this.

As individuals turn there attention away from the public good and toward unending private acquisition, they slowly begin to see all of creation as a mere means to this same end.

And if they cannot procure it through money-making, they try to get it by some other means, using all their faculties for this purpose, which is contrary to nature: courage, for example, is to produce confidence, not goods; nor yet is it the job of military leadership and medicine to produce goods, but victory and health. But these people turn all skills into skills of acquiring goods, as though that were the end and everything had to serve that end.

Who would ever consider using the rhetoric of courage or the deaths of soldiers in combat to make money? Who would ever consider making money promoting militarization and war? Who would ever consider making money selling good health? Aristotle, of course, knew who. So, too, did the framers of the Constitution:  Pericles.

But, the delegates also knew how close they too stood to the precipice. They, too, after all, were businessmen. They were all more than interested in acquiring wealth and they were interested in more than the common weal. However, this is not to say that their support for republican values and institutions was insincere. For, although they were businessmen all, they were also men of property, real estate, wealth, and education. In other words, they enjoyed many, if not all, of the qualities that Aristotle had recommended for those who would be leaders in a politeia, a common wealth. Indeed, three of their states had even elected to attach this precise designation—common wealth—to their states’ names: Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. (The Commonwealth of Kentucky, a fourth commonwealth that had been a part of Virginia, was admitted into statehood in 1792.) And, yet, they were also sufficiently acquainted with Aristotle’s Politics to be wary of admitting despotic, hierarchical relationships into their new republic.

Would the bankers, lawyers, and merchants who hailed from America’s northern and central states use their seats in Congress to benefit their despotic business relations? Would the merchants and planters from America’s southern states use their seats to introduce the despotic spirit of slavery into the federal government?

All indications are that the delegates meeting in Philadelphia genuinely believed that they could preserve and protect a meaningful wall of separation between their private, despotic, self-interests and the “general welfare” of their republic, to use the words of written into the Preamble to their Constitution. They had done all they could to isolate and separate the Chief Executive Office from the erratic, untutored, and unpredictable will of the people. The President, in their view, should be elected not by popular vote, but by an electoral college composed of trustworthy state electors, which were themselves to be selected in a way that protected them from private self-interest. Members of the Senate, who were to make up the aristocratic body in Congress, would likewise be insulated from the people. (Senators would not be elected by popular ballot until 1913.) Only the House, the democratic arm of Congress, would be popularly elected. And, yet, even here most states set such strict property and wealth restrictions on who would be granted the franchise that there was almost not danger that the “wrong sort of individual” would make their way into Congress.

We, today, view these protections as a slight against democracy (which, indeed, they were). Not only do we tolerate private, self-interest. We expect it. Indeed, we promote it. We support candidates for public office not because we believe that they will promote public institutions and broaden the common wealth, but, to the contrary, precisely because we feel they will advance our own private, self-interest. Candidates who fail to make the private interests of their constituents a leading element in their stump speech, or who invite voters to promote and protect public institutions, are regularly turned out of office. Candidates are expected, instead, to show how and why their voting record in Congress has built up, expanded, and promoted the interests of private businesses and industry.

Not, of course, that ever greater public political participation is their goal. Far from it. Wherever constituents are likely to support public values and institutions, wherever voters favor public health, public education, public transportation, parks, housing, or the “general welfare,” there we can anticipate massive voter suppression campaigns. In such places, it is as though the republican ideals of our Founders were turned on their heads. Where the framers were eager to protect and promote public values and institutions, these politicians aim to suppress and destroy them. And where the delegates in Philadelphia aimed to prevent private self-interest from gaining a foothold in Congress, these household managers appear to have no other interest other than promoting the same.

The challenges today are no different than they were in 1787 or, for that matter, 350 BCE. Private enterprise is natural. Indeed, it is necessary and even good. Without it, public institutions could scarcely exist. And, yet, in the end, private enterprise, by definition, does not aim at best interests of the common wealth. As Aristotle noted two and a half millennia ago:

Of forms of government in which one rules, we call that which regards the common interests, kingship or royalty; that in which more than one, but not many, rule, aristocracy; and it is so called, either because the rulers are the best men, or because they have at heart the best interests of the state and of the citizens. But when the citizens at large administer the state for the common interest, the government is called by the generic name—a constitution.

What the framers were aiming at was a constitution, a republic. But, it is clear, they were also aiming at a form of constitution composed by “the best men,” a “more perfect Union” that had at heart “the best interests both of the state and of its citizens.”

Could such be formed by men so deeply implicated in private enterprise? For, like all things in nature, private enterprise they knew was grounded in the differences that set individuals apart from one another. It is based on the principle of despotism. Some must labor so that others need not. Those who are bound to labor as well as those by whom they are managed are locked, as it were, in despotic relationships; the managers as much dependent upon the laborers whom they manage as the laborers are dependent upon the private enterprise that pays their wages.

How can we both found a nation on labor and, nevertheless, that nation be free?