Familiar Territory

Screen-Shot-2014-03-03-at-5.03.37-PMI’m often a long way behind the curve with movies, and last night we finally watched 12 Years a Slave. It was an odd confluence to watch this while reading the various justifications for slavery in Aristotle, but it was even weirder to figure out that (according to the movie, at least) that Solomon Northrop was from Saratoga, New York. I hadn’t heard of Saratoga, only Saratoga Springs. So of course I had to research it. The Wikipedia entry notes that Northrop owned property in Hebron. Turns out that’s just about 8 miles from my favorite place to buy milk just outside of Salem, NY—Battenkill Valley Creamery.

Apparently, he moved into Saratoga Springs in 1834. However, the businessmen that freed him from captivity were from Saratoga, which is next door. I’ve travelled around there quite a bit and I was familiar with the Revolutionary War battlefield to the south of there, though we just drove through it. I didn’t remember a “city” of Saratoga. Turns out the northeast corner of the town of Saratoga is the village of Schuylerville. Now, the weirdness of all this is that I usually stop in Schuylerville  for lunch when we’re on our way to the dairy, which is about a three hours from where we live.

It’s beautiful country, and I always thought it was an interesting town. I was bit shocked to find this tidbit in Wikipedia:

In the March 25, 1990 issue of The New York Times, writer James Howard Kunstler published a piece entitled “Schuylerville Stands Still”. This piece used Schuylerville as an example of rural “rot and disrepair”, citing unemployment, broken sidewalks, and dented cans at the local mini market, Mini Mart. Reaction to the article from members of the community was strongly negative. Kunstler also used Schuylerville as an example of a town in decline in a chapter titled “The loss of community” in his 1993 book, The Geography of Nowhere.

I never thought of Schuylerville as “nowhere” in any sense of the word. The country around there is simply beautiful, right on the edge of the Hudson. I wasn’t aware of the PCB spill, or any of the contemporary history; I was equally ignorant of the deep history of the area, including Solomon Northrop. My main intercourse with the Saratoga Springs area has been to go to a woodworking show there, and pass through on the way to the dairy. On a trip there not long ago, we drove past the front gate of Yaddo, another feature of the area that I was unaware of until my wife schooled me about it.

My enduring memory of Schuylerville is this. On our last stop there at a really nice local lunch establishment, The Over the Moon Cafe and Bakery, we sat next to an older couple. Slowly, we realized that on our first trip there, we sat next to the exact same couple. They were regulars, and after some chat about how delicious the food was (it really is, the place is well worth a visit), we got to talking about the area. They had a place they wintered in Florida, but had mostly lived in Schuylerville their whole lives. It was incredible to hear the description of all the changes in the town, including previous businesses that had occupied the building we were eating in, and all the places in direct sight.

I admired them so much for being around to see the changes. They had travelled, yes, but they had also simply paid attention to the changes all around them. It was then that I really began to appreciate that in order to understand change you really have to sit still. Travel can always show you differences—when you go from place to place you always notice how different it is from where you were before— but to understand change, you just have to stand still. Standing still is much harder than moving.

That area is simply beautiful. I could really understand why Solomon Northrup would feel heartbroken being ripped from it and taken to the south. The film emphasises the beauty of the South, which I have spent some time in— but where he came from was beautiful too. I just couldn’t shake the thought of just how much he really must have missed it.

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.