Aristotle Understood The Importance Of Property
When we turn to another famous ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384 B.C. – 322 B.C.), we find little of the political regimentation that characterizes his teacher, Plato. For Aristotle, the appropriate behavior is the “golden mean,” that is, the avoidance of “extreme” or unrealistic goals or conduct in the affairs of men.
While he hopes that wise policies may help to improve the conditions and actions of men, Aristotle recognizes that man possesses a human nature that cannot be molded or bent or transformed to conform to some ideal of a perfect State populated by transformed people in the way that Plato believed was in principle desirable and possible.
Aristotle and the Importance of Private Property
This idea comes out most clearly in Aristotle’s discussion of private property, and in his rejection of Plato’s call for a communist social order in which material things are held in common. Aristotle argued that if all land was owned communally with work performed jointly, there existed the potential for animosity and anger among the participants.
Why? Because then individuals would feel that they had not received what was rightly theirs since work and reward would not be strictly and tightly connected, as they are under a system of private property.
Aristotle saw property rights as an incentive mechanism. When individuals believe and feel certain that they will be permitted to keep the fruits of their own labor, they will have an inclination to apply themselves in various, productive ways, which would not be the case with common or collective ownership. Said Aristotle:
“When they till the ground together the question of ownership will give a world of trouble. If they do not share equally in enjoyments and toils, those who labor much and get little will necessarily complain of those who labor little and receive or consume much …
“Property should be … as a general rule, private; for when everyone has a distinct interest, men will not complain of one another and they will make progress, because everyone will be attending to his own business …”
Break this connection between work and reward and you weaken the productive impulse, and instead plant the seeds of envy and anger among men concerning the distribution of what they have been made to produce in common.
Private Property and Human Benevolence
There was another reason that Aristotle defended the right to private property against the claims of Plato. He believed that a right to property often led to a spirit of benevolence and liberality toward others. Aristotle explained:
“How immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own … And further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friend and guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property. The advantage is lost by the excessive unification of the State.”
Aristotle seemed to think that there was a healthy balance on the issue of property in society when property was private, so as to reap the benefits from the greater productivity and work that would be forthcoming under such a system. At the same time, he believed that the fruits of property should be generously shared with others by a spirit of benevolence on the part of the those who had prospered from the ownership and use of property, in the form of hospitality and charity.
The Character of Man within Society
While Aristotle defended private ownership of property, he did not place the individual at the center of social concerns. Aristotle referred to man as a “political animal.” In his view, there was no life for man outside the city-state into which he was born – neither a physical nor a moral existence independent of the community and the State. Man is born into, and lives his life as a citizen of, the State; and as such, he is subject to being regulated in the various aspects of his life by the laws and customs of the city-state into which he is an inseparable part.
Aristotle referred to man as a “political animal.” In his view, there was no life for man outside the city-state into which he was born.Like his teacher, Plato, Aristotle was concerned with asking: what is “the good,” and what life is best and proper for man? The highest ideal, in Aristotle’s view, is the life of the philosopher; the next best life is that of perfect moral virtue, as manifested in the interests and conduct of the individual as a participant in the life of the city-state. Neither the philosopher nor the good citizen can fulfill this potential without leisure. And leisure requires wealth so as to have the time to pursue and live a life of truth and virtue.
In this context of the two highest “callings” for man to follow, wealth and its acquisition could never be an end in itself. Rather, the acquisition and use of wealth is a means of pursuing and attaining those two “higher” ends. The free man must have a sufficient access to wealth so that he may separate himself from the concern of earning a living that would, otherwise, distract him from the pursuit of these higher goals.
Aristotle’s defense of slavery, under the presumption that some people may be born “naturally” for servitude since they lacked the potential for these “higher” callings, helped reinforce an institution that freed up the enlightened few of ancient Greek society to supposedly devote their lives to the non-material purposes of life, while others, under coerced compulsion, provided the goods and services permitting the “higher” people their lives of leisure.
Aristotle also distinguished between “art” and “action.” In the creation of a work of art, we do not require that the artist be “good” in any ethical sense, only that the finished work of his artistic efforts express and capture “beauty” and “perfection.”
But the chief aim of man, Aristotle argued, is not the production of products or even works of art, but rather the “actions” themselves. Man’s conduct in “action” was an end in itself, not the specific, concrete result of the action. What Aristotle is arguing may be captured in the phrase: it is not whether you win or lose, but how you played the game.
That is, has the individual acted with honesty, integrity, courage, modesty, and loyalty to his values? Here the individual is being judged and evaluated in terms of the standards he has set for himself to follow, whether these standards guiding action were “virtuous” ones, and whether he acted according to them, regardless of the outcome.
Virtuous Economics vs. Unnatural Wealth-Getting
Wealth, therefore, in Aristotle’s view, is a legitimate subject for study as an essential means to the proper ends of man. Thus, we find in Aristotle a subject matter called oikonomik , or “household management.” The concern is with the wise stewardship of the landowner’s or property owner’s material wealth so as to not squander it or misuse it in the pursuit of man’s “higher” human ends.
Household management in this context meant more than an economical use of land, tools, and other means of production. It also carried the meaning of a wise