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.

Political World

We live in a political world
Everything is hers or his
Climb into the frame and shout God’s name
But you’re never sure what it is


I was thinking a day or so ago about some issues that used to be on my mind. I had endless debates with a mentor in photography, Harry Wilson, about the relationship of art and politics. Harry’s work carried with it a degree of political charge, though it wasn’t necessarily jingoistic or even overt. I felt that political posturing is responsible for a lot of bad art. For example, it has taken me decades to warm to Robert Adams. His photographs always reeked with judgment about the man-made landscape, usually making it out to be an entirely negative thing. In contrast, in a more contemporary example, I don’t find that to be true of Edward Burtynsky. He photographs the man-altered landscape as well, and you are free to judge it as beautiful or ugly, necessary or a blight, depending on your own politics.

I’ll never forget a conversation with a director of the Kern County Arts Council around that time, where she related to me (to the best of my recollection) this statement: “I don’t mind politics in art as long as I agree with the politics.” Makes sense, I suppose, but it’s hardly that simple. For example, Harry always loved Les Krims (because of his humor, I think, rather than his conservative politics) while I hated his work. I never cared that much for the contrived. I was interested more in the real world as a thing in itself, rather than  judgment of it. When I shifted my emphasis to photography in rhetorical studies, I wasn’t interested in politics for much the same reason. I didn’t want to produce any sort of writing that judged people for their political opinions and/or failings in that regard.

It dawned on me what the central issue for me is. While it’s possible to accept that we live in a political world, everything is not “hers or his.” I reject the idea that people and their relationships are the entire universe. There is a world, surrounding and dominating the political, that is far more interesting than the people who pass through it. People have an impact on it, to be sure, but understanding the world as it is (which includes people but also things) frequently involves agents and forces that are not human. Things matter more than politics, at least in my opinion. When politics distracts us from things, I think politics detracts from a complete understanding of the world.

The usual dodge “everything is political” is simply wrong. No, it isn’t. Everything can be savagely misunderstood and treated as a pawn in the pursuit of the political, but because the world is not merely of the people, by the people, or for the people— it isn’t exclusively or even dominantly political.