Unnatural Wealth

Graceful SimplicityReturning for now to Jerome Segal’s book, there are some interesting leaps from Aristotle. I do not really understand some of the leaps he makes to declare some perspectives “Aristotelian.” Taxonomies that appear in Aristotle are frequently sketches that are contradicted elsewhere, deployed as matters of argumentative convenience.

What seems clear in my reading of Book I of the Politics is that Aristotle builds an analogical argument from nature, with the household as the central “natural” unit of human interaction and structure.

Economics, as such, is an element of only passing interest. Economics is important because it plays a part in the management of the household, just as it does in other political units. In the household, economics is of lesser importance. The status quo of power relations is of the most compelling interest to Aristotle, and it is unlikely that the status of economics is generalizable across all fields of political endeavor. Nonetheless, Jerome Segal identifies an Aristotelian approach to a “politics of simplicity” in neat bullet points:

  • There is no distinct economic realm
  • Economic institutions and policy must be judged in terms of how they affect the good life and the healthy personality
  • The central institution to be supported by economic life is the household (which in turn supports activity in the larger world).
  • The good life is not one of consumption, but of the flourishing of our deepest selves
  • Absorption in a life of acquisitiveness distorts the personality out of all recognition.
  • What we need for our well being is only a moderate supply of material goods. As we acquire more, material possessions are of diminishing value. (9)

What troubles me most is his first point: “There is no distinct economic realm.” I just can’t see where he gets this. Aristotle actually divides “economics” into two types. There is an economics of wealth given by nature which is essential to supporting a household. However, there are those who cannot restrain their desire, in a manner somewhat analogous to drug addiction (my comparison, not Aristotle’s):

The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well; and, as their desires are unlimited, they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit. Those who do aim at a good life seek the means of obtaining bodily pleasures; and since the enjoyment of these appears to depend on property, they are absorbed in getting wealth: and so their arises the second species of wealth getting. For, as their enjoyment is in excess, they seek an art which produces the excess of enjoyment; and, if they are not able to supply their pleasures by the art of getting wealth, they try other causes, using in turn every faculty in a manner contrary to nature. (1: 9, 1258b)

The “contrary to nature” part is the key—Animals seldom kill more than they can eat, for example. It isn’t that the “economic realm” doesn’t exist, so much as the danger of managing wealth in a manner that is unhealthy. In Book 10, Aristotle continues to explain that just as a weaver must know how to tell good wool from bad, and know how to take it from nature and use it, so must the head of a household deal with the getting and spending associated with household goods. It is a part of household management, and as such is “natural.”

As for the problem of excess, in a later treatise, Economics, once attributed to Aristotle but now thought to be by a pupil of his, the problem is compared to trying to haul water in a sieve. There is no need for wealth that one cannot protect or use effectively. That’s where the “diminishing value” thesis is actually based: it’s not really commensurate with a “too much wealth is bad for you” admonition. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad to Aristotle’s schema, only that it can be unnatural and not worth the effort.