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Friday, September 26, 2008

Political Science Review: Aristotle and Cicero

I realised I ought to keep going with the political science reviews before I get too involved in my stuff this year and forget. I decided to cover both Aristotle and Cicero in one post since, to be honest, I didn't actually read most of Cicero. His text happened to come up during a particularly busy part of the summer, and I just never got around to getting back to it. However, one interesting thing my TA told me about with Cicero's On Obligation (which is the text we were reading) is that it used to be one of the most widely read pieces of historical political theory up until about a hundred years ago. Then, for whatever reason, it began to decline in popularity. It isn't even usually included in the list of texts for the course I took, but my professor used to be a classics professor and he liked it. Also, there is a line which will take on some significance in the next installment of Political Science Review, and that is: "wrong may be done, then, in either of two ways, that is, by force or by fraud, both are bestial: fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man..."

Anyway, after my confession of not actually reading Cicero, I will hop back to Aristotle's Politics, which was the next text after Plato's Republic. Do you remember how I said that I did not really like Plato? Well, after starting Aristotle, I missed Plato. A lot of my dislike for Aristotle is from my modern perspective of being sensitive to subjects like slavery and misogyny, but there were other issues I found unresolved. The most important one was that Aristotle defined politics as the defining characteristic of man, and citizens as the most important members of a city as they practiced politics together as equals. However, when he defined the three 'good' governments (monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government), he stated a clear preference for absolute monarchy provided the ruler was a wise and good one well above all his peers. Leaving out the missing information of who should be the judge of the ruler's wisdom and goodness, such a stance begs the question of who is doing the political deliberations that makes life in a city good? I'm not sure I expressed that clearly, but if it doesn't make sense, someone can call me on it in the comments. Basically, I don't think Aristotle has much to offer other than an interesting historical perspective.

Before I disparage the ancient thinkers too much, however, I should note that one thing I found interesting was virtually all of them thought that it was most appropriate that only the educated citizenry ought to have political power. While I know any sort of check on political power (in other words, the right to vote) is wildly open to abuse in terms of marginalizing a portion of a population, at the same time I think it is an important thing that should not be dismissed out of hand simply due to fear of oppression. There are many things that could be used in the wrong hands for oppressive power (such as a police force or an army), but at the same time not having them is worse. I should probably devote a post solely to this topic if I decide to pursue the thought process further, but I would be interested to see if anyone has strong feelings on the matter as it stands.


cornucrapia said...

We just covered Aristotle briefly in my ideologies class, I had him explained in a slightly different way, it was said that he viewed the 3 forms of government you listed as having both a good and bad side, a sort of janus for each system. There was monarchy, as opposed to tyranny, oligarchy, as opposed to.... something else, can't remember the term, but it was the one I think he preferred, wasn't he the one who advocated rule by a sort of collective of philosopher kings? Or was that Plato? Perhaps I should study a bit more. Anyway, the final ones were polity and democracy. I think the key to reading the ancient greeks is to look at them solely as a building block to modern values and not as an actual end product.

Mozglubov said...

Well, that is why I specified three good types of government... Aristotle explained that there are six forms of government, with two types of metrics: how many people rule, and whether or not they are good or bad. Thus, there is monarchy/tyranny, aristocracy/oligarchy, and polity/democracy. Polity was also called constitutional government by him, which is the name I could remember more easily than polity, so I used it. The group of philosopher kings was Plato. Of course, my reading of Aristotle was fairly superficial mostly because I don't like Aristotle...

Anyway, that is one of the things that I find frustrating about political science... there is no end product. Despite the claims of so many lauded thinkers, there is no ultimate political theory or set of theories. They build on each other, but are all so dependent on the people enacting the policies as well that there is no perfect choice.