Aristotle & Distributism: Part II

(Part I may be read here. Some of the discussion may be followed on my blog. Note: the presentation of this essay on this blog may differ somewhat from the outline I set forth in the introduction in Part I. The critique of communism/welfare-statism will be published tomorrow.)

In an academic culture that is often characterized by historicist and relativist viewpoints, the notion that Aristotle may have had anything relevant to say about modern economic systems seems a little strange to us. While it must be admitted that we cannot expect the ancient versions of capitalism and communism to be identical to their modern counterparts, we can nonetheless differentiate the historically-shaped form from what is arguably the timeless content. Moreover, by way of critique of the two dominant economic paradigms (for in the final instance, welfare-statism/Social Democracy incorporates the worst features of both), we can arrive at a more clear vision of the Distributist alternative.

Though it ought to become obvious through the critique of communism, it bears stating up front that the Aristotelian critique of capitalism is not an attack on private property. Difficult as it may be for some readers, the notion that the essence of capitalism is the possession and use of private property is a fallacy bequeathed to us not only by certain capitalist ideologists, but by many (though not all) communists and assorted “anti-capitalists” as well.

A definition of capitalism that accords well with Aristotle’s critique is an economy in which production for exchange is predominant, as opposed to production for immediate use/consumption. Though it is modern technology since the Industrial Revolution that actually allows such an economy to come into being, the pre-industrial tendencies towards this type of economy have been in existence since the dawn of civilization, and reached a pinnacle in the great civilizations of antiquity, including the ancient Greece in which Aristotle lived and wrote.

According to Aristotle, there are two forms of the “art of acquisition” or “wealth-getting”, the natural kind and the unnatural kind. The natural kind is that which is necessary for the maintenance of one’s household, while the unnatural kind is that which is derived solely from exchange. It must be noted that Aristotle does not oppose all trade; the exchange of surpluses beyond what is needed for survival is perfectly acceptable and necessary for the satisfaction of genuine needs. It is when men begin to produce things solely for the money they can acquire for them through exchange that it becomes unnatural.

Men do not need unlimited wealth to exist or to attain happiness, yet the unnatural art of wealth-getting enables them to do so. Because men erroneously identify the unnatural, unlimited art of acquisition with the natural kind, as household managers they become convinced that the acquisition of money and its retention is the most important goal in life. Aristotle further explains:

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… 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… some men turn every quality or art into a means of getting wealth; this they conceive to be the end, and the promotion of the end they think all things must contribute. (1258a)

The pursuit of unlimited wealth is ultimately rooted in man’s unnatural desire for excess pleasures. “An art which produces the excess of enjoyment” is perhaps the most concise summary of modern consumerism and capitalism which one is likely to find. Intent upon “living only” – upon gratifying the urge of the moment – as opposed to “living well”, that is, a life of virtue and contemplation, men develop an art of acquisition that corresponds to their malformed desires.

In a society that is prides itself on its ‘pluarlism’, oftentimes to the point of relativism, the notion that one form of living would be superior to another will not make a favorable impression upon many readers. And surely life is much better for those of us able to partake in the fruits of modern capitalism, though it is arguable that the technological progress which provides us with a higher quality of life was not necessarily linked to one particular mode of production. Elsewhere Aristotle presents a logical case for his own vision of happiness. For now, what is relevant is that a disordered desire for excess pleasure, and the economic system that results from it, diminishes the pursuit of higher spiritual goods.

This is not the only problem with capitalism, however. It can also serve as a source of social polarization, insofar as those who devote themselves to unlimited wealth acquisition gain political power and influence within the political community. Though recognizing the moral defects and problems of the poor, it is arguable that the defects of the excessively wealthy are of a greater danger to the body politic. The rich may become “great and violent criminals” who are “neither willing nor able to submit to authority”:

The evil begins at home; for when they are boys, by reason of the luxury in which they are brought up, they never learn, even at school, the habit of obedience. Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship in states than this… (1295b)

The increase of incidents of corporate criminality over the past few decades, including the most egregious examples that led up to the economic collapse in the fall of 2008, are indicative of a ruling elite that is almost completely disinterested in the well-being of society. Hardly a month goes by in which we do not hear of yet another multi-million or multi-billion dollar fraud perpetrated by the executives of a large firm, most often financial in nature. Usury, or the art of making money from money itself, is condemned by Aristotle (and, as he indicates, by many of his contemporaries) as even more perverse and unnatural than acquiring wealth through production solely for exchange (1258a). To the extent to which modern capitalism has come to depend upon this form of wealth creation then, it has moved itself further from the true purpose of economic activity.

Very closely related to this argument in Book IV, is Aristotle’s account of the causes of revolution in Book V. The Aristotelian view of society is that of an organic whole consisting of mutually dependent parts. All organisms grow, but great dangers can arise if there is disproportionate growth. In a democracy, the greatest danger of disproportionate growth is the growth of the poor (1302b). In today’s economic debates, an entirely false dichotomy is often made between the creation and distribution of wealth. Skeptics of the ability of the free market to solve all or most of society’s problems, and those who suggest plans for the redistribution of wealth, are often told that “wealth creation is not a zero-sum game”, and that economic growth is the most important, if not the only solution.

Following Aristotle, however, it should be obvious that wealth creation does not need to be a “zero-sum game” in order to create significant political problems if it is poorly distributed. It would be just as foolish and pointless to dismiss the necessity of sound distribution policies as it would be to discount the importance of creating and maintaining the conditions for greater productivity. As we will later see, there is most certainly more than one way to distribute the wealth created by society; the false dichotomy drawn by proponents of free markets, I believe, is a reaction to those who travel too far in the other direction, who believe that bigger welfare budgets are the ultimate solution to social ills. It would be a sorry commentary on human society if our choices were confined to unlimited wealth acquisition and the resulting social imbalances on the one hand, and the redistribution of wealth through bureaucratic and impersonal welfare mechanisms on the other. Fortunately that is not the case.

Thus the social instability that is immanent in the division of society into a class with the ability to acquire unlimited wealth, and classes which are unable to so, is another point in the indictment of modern capitalism. What is good for society, Aristotle argues, is that which would maintain it. That which would destroy it cannot be good in principle or in practice. While we wish to preserve private property as well as trade, it is equally important that we maintain proportionate growth, and of much greater importance that we maintain the conditions for the cultivation of virtue.

The best society is one wherein, therefore, the pursuit and acquisition of wealth are moderated by the integrity of society and the well-rounded development of the soul, and indeed they exist to further these ends and not vice-versa. This becomes difficult, if not impossible, in a society where the prospect of unlimited wealth acquisition is seen as the most important thing to maintain, as has arguably occurred within modern capitalism.

3 Responses to Aristotle & Distributism: Part II

  1. Thus the social instability that is immanent in the division of society into a class with the ability to acquire unlimited wealth, and classes which are unable to so, is another point in the indictment of modern capitalism.

    I would want to think about and unpack this a good deal. It seems to me that it’s not so much the economic structure which results in this, as that a mass society and many of the modern technologies we have allow people with certain skills to create far more wealth than those who lack those abilities or tools.

    To take my own example, because I do pricing analysis for a company with a very large sales base (hundreds of thousands of orders per day throughout the country) a fairly small amount of work on my part (say, a few days worth of hard work on an analytical problem) can result in price moves which generate an two to four million dollars in additional profits over the course of a quarter.

    Now obviously, very little of that money sticks to me, most of it goes to pay for other people whose actions have a less direct but not necessarily less essential effect on the bottom line. But the fact that only a certain percentage of people have the aptitude and interest to do that kind of work tends to make it more highly payed than doing facilities work or working on the factory line.

    I can see how cultural solidarity can decrease people’s desire to capture large amounts of the wealth they create through their work, making them more willing to see that spread throughout all a company’s workers instead, but it seems to me that as this kind of disproportion in economic productivity increases (which technology seems to encourage) you’re almost necessarily going to see the most productive workers getting faster growing incomes than the workers whose productivity remains the same, though they too will benefit to an extent.

    Would you say that people should just forgo collecting the benefits of their own increased productivity? To an extent, I can see that as being a virtuous route, but like many more extreme forms of virtue it seems unlikely.

    Or should these sorts of activities simply not be pursued, according to Aristotle’s formulation?

    I guess I’m also having trouble with the division between production for exchange versus production for use. I think I can see it at an aesthetic level — a preference for a lifestyle in which you know and are involved in the production of nearly everything you use in order to feel “rooted” — but I’m wondering to what extent that is ever the case in any society. Division of labor is a pretty basic feature of any developed society. The distributist ideal of a medieval town with thriving guilds was still a center of a great deal of exchange.

    And where exchange is taking place, the work of finding out who wants one thing more than another is in fact productive work — at least from an economic point of view.

    What would Aristotle think of the Radford’s classic paper on the economics of a POW camp, and the roll of middlemen therein?

    (Serious question. I’m trying to see how this all fits together in this picture.)

  2. Joe Hargrave says:


    As soon as I’m not violently ill, I would love to take up these questions with you 🙂

  3. Yeah, sorry, I wrote that novella of a comment before I saw your note. Hope you feel better soon.

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