I may not be graceful or simple, but I’m trying to be persistant

Graceful SimplicityOne of my deepest difficulties as a reader and a researcher is my tendency to chase footnotes and citations, sometimes until I wander off permanently from the primary text. It was a real pain in grad school, because it usually ended up with other people thinking I was showing off my extensive reading. That’s not really what I was after; mostly, I just get curious. For example, even though I read and didn’t really care for Thoreau’s Walden, I just ordered a cheap dover copy since I hate e-books and PDFs. I blame Jerome Segal. It may not be obvious that’s what I was doing when I wandered down the alleys of some of the recent posts.

I’m still trying to process the Segal (and EP Thompson’s book on William Morris too, for that matter). It’s hard to try to focus when there are so many interesting topics at hand. To recap a bit, I summarized the basic framework Segal establishes for impoverishment and listed his criteria for a so called “Aristotelian approach” to political life.

Segal invokes Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech , focusing particularly on the lines:

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”

There are some interesting rabbit holes to fall down in this book. I had encountered Edward Bok before in a journalism independent study back when I was working on my master’s degree, but didn’t realize until Segal brought it up that his magazine, Ladie’s Home Journal, was a big proponent of “simple living” at the turn of the twentieth century. I’ve trolled their archives on ProQuest for a while, finding all sorts of things that I won’t get lost in here. As Zoe Nyssa once remarked, my mind is a strange and mysterious place.

Segal summons John Woolman, Ben Franklin, and Thoreau to establish a different version of the “American Dream” that begins with simple living. It’s an alternate sort of economics, which he sums up:

The point of an economy, even a dynamic economy is not to have more and more; it is to liberate us from the economic—to provide a material platform from which we may go forth and build the good life. That’s the Alternative American Dream. (22)

The material that follows isn’t really as interesting as the primary sources he cites. He’s got a survey of various “simple living” self-help books, and some political policy arguments about the state of NRI (needs related income) and the difficulties of simplifying things when it’s actually harder to get enough money to maintain a basic standard of living than it has been in the past. Segal has some unique and concrete policy ideas working within existing government programs, like the earned income credit and medicaid, to assist people in finding a better basic quality of life. The general conclusion, after exploring the increasing costs of security, education, transportation, housing, etc. is this:

A general picture emerges. Yes, Americans over the years have increased consumption expenditures quite considerably. Much of this increase in household expenditure has gone to meet fundamental needs, either because needs were previously unmet, or because in real terms the cost of meeting these needs has increased dramatically.

This is quite a different picture than is commonly portrayed of our affluent society. For most Americans, their subjective experience that they always need more money than they have—is not to be explained by inflation in their appetites or standards of decency (e.g.”I must have more square feet, a newer car, better furniture, new gadgets, or I’ll just die), but rather by socioeconomic conditions that have resulted in unmet need or increased cost of meeting long-existing needs. (65)

It’s Segal’s framing of these “unmet” or “long-existing” needs that I find most fascinating. He actually discusses aesthetic impoverishment. It’s not something you see much outside of Morris and other Arts and Crafts literatures. In a long series of bullet points he frames a social conception of beauty that has some interesting twists, which I’ll turn to next. It’s almost socialist in its approach rather than individualist; coming on the heels on so much about standard economic needs, it’s a surprise. Rather than the conventional “ugly American” indictment of consumerism, Segal is on to something quite different.

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.

Productive Slaves

Part of the problem in looking to Plato or Aristotle for theories of “craft” is the low social status of artisans in their schema of a perfect world. It’s a class thing, and people who made things were beneath the heads of household that made up the polis in the ancient world. It’s confusing, because both might occasionally speak glowingly of techné (art and craft) one moment and then speak as if artisans were barely a step above slaves. The difference, as I see it, is a thorny distinction between productive and practical crafts. But determining the difference difficult: rhetoric, for example, is classed as productive by Aristotle although it’s product (persuasion) is hardly tangible in the same sense as say, pottery.

In the Nicomachean Ethics 6:4 Aristotle defines techné as a “reasoned habit of making,” as distinguished from habits of doing. In other words, action is a separate matter which though it might require reasoned habits as well, but doing is separate from making. Things that come into being by accident are atechnic, while things that are consciously brought into being are the result of a techné. You’d think that being excellent or skilled as a maker of things would be well respected, but they aren’t— there’s an anxiety that is hard to figure out.

The problematic passage that has occupied me for several days is 1:12 of Politics. It begins:

Thus it is clear that household management attends more to men than the acquisition of inanimate things and to human excellence more than the excellence of property which we call wealth, and to the excellence of freemen more than the excellence of slaves. A question may indeed be raised, whether there is any excellence at all in a slave beyond those of an instrument and of a servant— whether he can have the excellences of temperance, courage, justice, and the like; or whether slaves possess only bodily services. And, whichever way we answer the question a difficulty arises; for, if they have excellence, in what will they differ from freemen?

It’s a thorny issue, given even greater depth as artificial intelligence makes it possible that “thinking machines” will soon work along side us. If machines or tools have “excellence” then at what point do they have the same privileges as the masters? Aristotle argues from what he considers to be a “natural” hierarchy, for differences in kind and degree:

All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women, “silence is a woman’s glory” but this is not equally the glory of man. The child is imperfect, and therefore his excellence is not relative to himself alone, but the perfect man and his teacher, and in like manner the excellence of the slave is relative to a master.

It’s my understanding that the introduction of differences in kind was a move to distance him to the simple distinctions of degree in Plato’s Republic, but it’s obviously a difficult move to support. One of the problems of this argument from analogy is trying to introduce degrees of slavery. That’s where the artisans come in:

Now we determined that a slave is useful for the wants in life, and therefore he will obviously require only so much excellence as will prevent him from failing in his function through cowardice or lack of self control. Someone will ask whether, if what we are saying is true, excellence will not be required also in the artisans, for they often fail in their work through a lack of self-control. But is there not a greater difference in the two cases? For 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.

Now it might be possible to read this generously that being a “slave to art” is a good thing, but the next line makes it clear that Aristotle isn’t thinking of that:

The meaner sort of mechanic has a special and separate slavery, whereas the slave exists by nature, not so the shoemaker or other artisan. It is manifest, then, that the master ought to be the source of such excellence in the slave and not a mere possessor of the art of the art of mastership which trains the slave in his functions.

The distinction is that the slave is “natural” whereas the artisan pursues his special form of slavery by choice. To the degree that the artisan (as a special slave)  is subservient to the master/purchaser of his wares, he might become excellent. The argument seems particularly weak here. The best selling (or at least those who sell to the best people) are therefore the best?

Holt N. Parker reads this a bit differently, distinguishing two analogical chains:

Master -> slave -> tool -> product
Craftsman (ἀρχιτέκτων) -> assistant (ὑπηρέτης) -> tool -> product

The move, as he sees it, is distancing the master/craftsman from the tools through an intermediary, literally keeping their hands clean:

Between the master and the tool is the slave/assistant, a tool for using tools (1253b33)49. The master does not weave: he orders the slave (the ensouled/intelligent-at-least-to-the-point-of-understanding orders/endowed-with-a-soul-albeit-a-defective-one possession) to weave on a loom (the tool) which produces cloth, another type of possession. Aristotle then reverses this argument by analogy. Since slaves are the ones who handle tools, anyone who handles tools ought (in a well-run polis) to be a slave. (87)

Curiously, this argument isn’t sustained through the Politics. Aristotle reverts to a body/soul analogy to argue for natural slaves. In short, any hierarchy in service he could marshall to support the status quo. I was really most amused by Parker’s notation of Eric A. Havelock’s observation regarding the Politics in a footnote:

The Politics is an arid treatise, intensely condensed and codified, the work of a mind that has now perfected its own self-analysis and brought every one of its prejudices and moods to total abstraction (382)

Women, slaves, artisans— Aristotle clearly wanted to look down upon them all.

Robot action

Now instruments are of various sorts; some are living, others lifeless; in the rudder, the pilot of a ship has a lifeless, in the look-out man a living instrument; for in the arts a servant is a kind of instrument. Thus, too, a possession is an instrument for maintaining life. And so, in the arrangement of the family, a slave is a living possession, and property an number of such instruments; and the servant himself is an instrument for instruments. For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which says the poet, “of their own accord entered the assembly of the gods;” if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre, chief workman would not want servants nor masters slaves. (Aristotle Politics 1:4)

Aristotle may not have anticipated robot hotels and bank tellers per se, but he did set forth a condition where slavery would be superfluous. It’s a technological problem, in this view. But from the perspective of the slave, as “an instrument for instruments,” the path doesn’t seem that clear. The development of machines that can read emotions is not targeted at easing the burden of the human race so much as a way of filling a labor shortage and improved robot stamina is destined to increased productivity, not quality of life.  A comment in “Industrial robots steal a march in east Asia” from the Financial Times this morning gets right to the point:

“Doubling productivity takes a long time,” he said. “Doubling computer power takes just two years.”

Robot servants aside, the arena where robots are likely to have the first and greatest impact is manufacturing, but just what is being produced at such an increased rate? Possessions to be consumed and deployed. Obliquely addressing the question of whether we need to double productivity at this accelerated rate, Aristotle teases out differences between types of possessions:

Now the instruments commonly so called are instruments of production, whilst a possession is an instrument of action. From a shuttle we get something besides the use of it, whereas of a garment or a bed there is only the use. Further, as production and action are different in kind, both require instruments, the instruments which they employ are likewise different in kind. But life is action and not production, and therefore the slave is the minister of action. (Aristotle Politics 1:4)

Aristotle goes on to elaborate on the details of slavery: “he who is by nature not his own but another mans” A man who does not possess himself is in turn a possession, and for Aristotle this is simply part of nature. Because he can then be separated from from his possessor, he is “an instrument of action.”

The key thought for me, however,  is that life is action and not production— therefore production does not in any way equate with a better life.

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.



Graceful Simplicity

Graceful SimplicityJerome M. Segal’s book was published in interesting times. First publication was in 1999, with a second paperback edition prepared for publication in 2002, in the aftermath of September 11th.

The preface to the paperback raises interesting issues around the “why do they hate us” line of thinking that was prevalent, and highlights the relevance that Segal finds in thinking about what a philosophy and politics of simplicity might look like. In a world increasingly filled with haves and have-nots, questions about the concentration of wealth are certainly still relevant.

The first chapter attempts to bring a philosophical underpinning to things, traveling first to Aristotle’s Politics and on to the usual touchstones such as Thoreau, but with an odd dalliance on Jimmy Carter, which I will revisit later. Turning from here, Segal makes an interesting point that the literature on simple living tends to largely be of a “how-to” variety. I find an curious parallel there with most crafts, such as rhetoric, whose history is filled with more how-to manuals than philosophies; philosophy is hard to come by when it comes to the productive arts.

Segal spends some time dismantling several popular selling books on frugality in the second chapter, but by the time he reaches the third he starts to dig into a core question: What is wealth, actually? Or better, what does it mean to live in poverty? His foray into Aristotle solves the problem of equating wealth with money to a certain extent, so we get to the core of his project. Rather than define what wealth means, Segal isolates some potential forms of impoverishment:

  • Material impoverishment
  • Intellectual impoverishment
  • Spiritual impoverishment
  • Aesthetic impoverishment
  • Social impoverishment

Most of these are straightforward, and obviously the book spends much time discussing them. Material impoverishment occurs when the “needs required income” falls short of what we need to fit certain basic requirements such as food, housing, health care, transportation, etc. Segal argues that rather that Americans, contrary to popular conception, frequently have less than they require because although incomes are high, the basic cost of these areas has risen so much that they wipe out most of the gains, not because of inflation per se., but because of shifting social requirements. It is increasingly difficult for people to afford houses in good school districts, or live close to where they work (thereby increasing transportation expenses). In areas where spending has remained constant or declined (food and health care, for example) the social costs of maintaining the food system or health care system have increased so drastically so as to erode any improvements.

The access to education, again, hasn’t increased in cost nearly so much as our need to achieve much higher levels to be “secure” in our income earning potential, not to mention simply being good citizens. Spiritual and social impoverishment are real things that don’t get much discussion, but I find it interesting that the Nearing’s book on “simple living” enumerates among their failures their failure to adequately address the need for social involvement and enrichment. It’s not just about money; in fact, poverty is quite a variegated problem.

Most interesting to me, however, is the inclusion of aesthetic impoverishment as a crucial factor. The lack of beauty in our lives was also an overriding concern of William Morris, and is deserving of much discussion. But the first part of the book is largely devoted to the material and social needs of the population more so than the spiritual or aesthetic.

The summation of the first three chapters boils down to this:

A general picture emerges. Yes, Americans over the years have increased consumption expenditures quite considerably. Much of this increase in household expenditure has gone to meet fundamental needs, either because needs were previously unmet, or because in real terms the cost of meeting those needs increased dramatically.

This is a quite different picture than that commonly portrayed with respect to our affluent society. For most Americans their subjective experience—that they always need more money than they have—is not to be explained by inflations in their appetites or their standards of decency but rather by socioeconomic conditions that have resulted in unmet need or an increased cost of meeting long-existing needs. This is true of housing, transportation, education, and income security. Collectively these increases have kept us concerned about money despite income growth. (65-66)

While I really enjoyed the Nearing’s book, and am a bit bemused by Thoreau’s Walden, I have no rich acquaintance who would allow me to move into their backyard, as Thoreau did, and land in Vermont can no longer be purchased for $30 an acre or so. Most “back to the land” options are off the table for the majority of people. Segal suggests that the problem isn’t necessarily that our sense of “needs” is inflated (though I do have a great difficulty accepting that part of his thesis) but that our political structure makes attempts and simplicity nearly impossible, hence his turn to formulate a “politics of simplicity. I don’t disagree with that.

I dug back into the Aristotle, among other things, at Segal’s prodding, and these things are worth writing about at more length.