Instruments of Action

Property is a part of the household, and the art of acquiring property is a part of the art of managing the household; for no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he is provided with necessaries. And as in the arts which have a definite sphere the workers must have their proper instruments for the accomplishment of their work, so it is in the management of a household.

Aristotle, Politics 1:4

Segal’s book refers to the Politics mostly for its theory of marginal utility, i.e. the assertion that managing money is a part of managing a household, but it’s possible that a surplus of money is damaging to a household’s well being. In short, money isn’t everything. But when I looked back to Aristotle’s Politics, which I’ve only encountered in passing before, I found a lot more to consider.

When I was studying rhetoric, in a terrific ethics class taught by Art Walzer, we spent quite a bit of time with book six of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I suppose that’s where my obsession with in techné began. Techné is usually translated as art or craft; rhetoric is one craft among many. In class discussions, Art pointed out that rhetoric was actually considered by Aristotle to be a sub-art to politics; I didn’t really know what to do with that, and we didn’t really delve too deeply into the implications of that as I recall. Now, I feel like I need to get a better translation of Nicomachean Ethics. There are some really confusing parts about the structure of politics, which comprises household management and military tactics, mentioned in the same sentence as rhetoric.

Reading Book one of the Politics I was amazed how central that household management was to his structure of the ideal state. That’s refreshing, after recently reading Bellamy’s complete dismissal of household duties as if “in the future” we need not worry about things like cooking and housework. In a sense, Aristotle treats politics as a craft, but not the same sort of productive craft as rhetoric or carpentry. Rather than being productive, politics is practical. I read a bit about these topics (techné and phronesis, or practical wisdom) on Art’s suggestion. Part of the problem is that since the time of Plato, those forms of techné are given second class status, hence the “sub discipline” status for rhetoric, military tactics, and household management. Though they are only a part though, they are an important part.

What I was most interested in was the depiction of “instruments” as being central to household management. By instruments, Aristotle isn’t talking about money, or vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators. In his schema, these instruments include your wife and your slaves. They are instruments of action, not just possessions. They are your property, not to covet or sell for profit, but to deploy toward your ends. That’s why money is largely of secondary importance to Aristotle, not because money is evil but because it isn’t how you accomplish the good life; having people to satisfy your needs is essential. The necessaries of life are delivered by using your “instruments,” and owning the correct tools is important— more important than having an excess of money.

Cutting to the chase, what “the good life” was all about wasn’t wage slavery, but actual slavery. A practical man, Aristotle didn’t have a problem with that.



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