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Aristotle on property.


JONATHAN BARNES HAS WRITTEN RECENTLY that "Aristotle's remarks [on property] in the Politica are too nebulous to sustain any serious critical discussion."(1) Some scholars are (a bit) more confident about successfully getting to the bottom of Aristotle's opinions concerning property, but few have dealt with the topic in any detail.(2) In this essay I shall investigate the relevant texts on property from the Aristotelian corpus, beginning with an especially careful look at Aristotle's criticism of Plato's communism of property. I shall also consider the historical and cultural context in which Aristotle was writing. The result will be, I hope, a full account of, and hence a better understanding of, Aristotle's views on property.(3)


It hardly needs to be said that Aristotle is not an ascetic of any kind: he believes that human happiness requires all kinds of external goods, including wealth or property.(4) The important question for us is, In what form (politically, socially) should property be held?

Aristotle considers three possible arrangements concerning property(5) and its use: (1) property is private, use is common; (2) property is common, use is private; (3) property is common, use is common. Why does Aristotle not consider a fourth option: property is private, use is private? Miller claims he omits this option because "he is not defending a system of unqualified privatization."(6) But this is not the reason. As we shall come to find out (in section IV below) one friend giving something to another, or in fact any act of generosity, falls under private property, common use (view [1]). For instance, this horse is mine, but I share it with (that is, make it common to) my friend. Thus, this fourth option--private property, private use--is no option at all, for it would be a property arrangement that systematically rules out any kind of giving or sharing of one's private property.(7)

Aristotle gives examples of each of these arrangements:

For example, [1] the plots of land are separate [that is, private], while the crops are brought into the common [store] [unkeyable] and consumed [in common], just as some of the nations do. Or [2] the opposite: the land is common and farmed in common, while the crops are divided with a view to private use (some of the barbarians are said to share in common in this way, too). Or [3] the plots of land and the crops are common. (Politics 1263a3-8)(8)

It is extremely important to keep in mind that the three examples he mentions are just examples. So although Aristotle's position will fall under one of the three possibilities--we later find he accepts view (1)--that position may be quite different from the example he gives here.(9)

The question for Aristotle now becomes, Which is better, a private property arrangement (view [1]) or a system where property is common (view [2] or [3])? Aristotle presents several arguments against the latter and for a private property system.


Aristotle begins his criticism of the communism of property with what has been (correctly) called a "standing difficulty of communist schemes":(10)

Now if the farmers were different [from the citizens], the manner [in which property would be managed (cf. 1262b37-38)] would be different and easier; but if they [that is, citizens who are farmers] do the hard work [unkeyable] by themselves, the arrangements concerning possessions will lead to greater discontent [unkeyable]. For in fact, when in enjoyment and in work they are not equal, but unequal, accusations [unkeyable] will necessarily be raised against those enjoying or taking many things while laboring [unkeyable] little, by those taking less while laboring more. (Politics 1263a8-15)(11)

Is Aristotle criticizing the communism of property here simply because he thinks it is impractical (that is, it leads to greater discontent, which is inimical to the city's unity), or, beyond this, does he hold that such a system is unjust as well?(12)

This question can be answered by considering some key texts outside of Politics 2.5. The first is from Nicomachean Ethics 5.3:

For if [the people involved] are not equal, they will not [justly] possess equal things, but from this comes fights and accusations [unkeyable], whenever things are distributed and equals possess unequal [shares] or unequals equal [shares]. Further, this is clear from what is according to worth [unkeyable]. For everyone agrees that the just in distributions must be according to some worth; the worth, however, everyone does not call the same thing. (Nicomachean Ethics 1131a22-27; cf. Politics 1280a16-22)

In Politics 5.3 he writes:

It is also clear what honor is capable of and how it is the cause of factional conflict [unkeyable]. For being dishonored and seeing others honored, [people] engage in factional conflict. These [that is, the honoring and dishonoring] happen unjustly whenever certain persons are honored or dishonored contrary to their worth [unkeyable], and justly whenever according to their worth. (Politics 1302b10-14)

Justice, of course, involves equals getting equal shares (of whatever is being distributed), and unequals unequal shares. This idea runs throughout Nicomachean Ethics 5. Whether one deserves equal or unequal shares depends on each person's worth (and on what is held to be worthy). A lack of justice or an apparent lack of justice leads to quarrels and accusations, the latter being mentioned in the passage from Politics 2.5 now under consideration. One is honored or dishonored justly depending on whether he gets what he deserves (that is, what he is worth), and unjust (that is, contrary to worth) dishonor can lead to factional conflict.(13)

So it seems Aristotle is making the following two points: First, having some people work more and yet receive the same as others (who work less) leads to discontent (and possibly to conflicts). This occurs under communism of property. Second, this situation is unjust, for unequals are clearly receiving equal rewards. True, equality and inequality depend on what is thought worthy and unworthy, but in this context, the standard must be the ability to work well or hard.(14) This second point implies that Aristotle's criticism of the Republic is less consequentialist than some have thought. Aristotle's position is not simply that the Republic's position is unworkable, but that it is also in some ways unjust.(15)

Aristotle concludes that "in general, living together and sharing in common in all human matters is difficult, and most of all in these sorts of things," that is, concerning property (Politics 1263a15-16). This conclusion is justified from the earlier criticisms of the communism of women and children (some of which apply to property as well),(16) from the criticism just discussed, and from some easily observable facts, of which he gives two examples.(17) First, "the communities of fellow travelers reveal this, for most of them are at odds from clashes [unkeyable] with one another over pedestrian and small things" (Politics 1263a17-19; cf. 1303b17-18). It is unclear whether this is an example of a "human matter" generally, or of the sharing of property in particular. But in any case, fellow travelers have some kind of community, and thus to that extent they share something in common (see Nicomachean Ethics 1159b26-32). For example, they may buy some wine, bread, and onions to share during their trip, and they might even have common funds. But they could very well come to blows over who drank more wine, had more bread, and so on. "And further, we clash most of all with those of the servants we use most for ordinary tasks" (Politics 1263a19-21). Humans are such that they do not even need to share property for disputes to arise. Simply occupying the same space, working together on the same job, and the like, will do it. Where there is human association, the potential for conflict exists. An increase in association (as in communism) will produce an increase in the potential for conflict.

We have seen problems not only with the full-fledged communism of property, but with a very limited sharing of life and property as well. Aristotle believes these problems are enough to rule out the communism of property. But one could argue that although communism might lead to some problems, it would avoid others. This in fact is the reputation communism has come to have. Aristotle writes that

this sort of lawmaking [communism] is fair of face [unkeyable] and might be thought humane [unkeyable], for he who hears it receives it gladly, thinking that some marvelous affection will come to be in all for all, especially when someone charges that the evils now belonging to regimes come about through property not being common. I mean lawsuits against one another concerning contracts, trials for perjury, and flattery of the rich. (Politics 1263b15-22)(18)

Aristotle has in mind the view that perjury, contractual disputes, flattery of the rich, theft, and the like can exist only when property is held privately and unequally, and thus the communism of property should be instituted, since it will eliminate such injustices.(19) He replies, "None of these things come about through lack of community, but through wickedness [unkeyable], since we see those who possess in common and have much in common at odds more than those holding property separately" (Politics 1263b22-25). Communism is not the answer, Aristotle says, because the cause of these injustices is not private property, but wickedness. The evidence for this is that although we might see people who hold property privately committing these acts, we see these same actions, or some of them, committed by those sharing property in common--in fact, even more of these actions.(20)

But if the communism of property is not the answer to these problems, what is? We cannot simply say the answer is private property, since these acts can also be committed when property is private. To find Aristotle's answer we must go to Politics 2.7, where he criticizes the view held by Phaleas and others that property should be leveled.(21)

It is claimed that the communism of property--or leveling property generally--could cure the injustices associated with property, since all (or nearly all) crimes are committed in order to acquire the necessities of life. After ensuring that everyone has the necessities of life, and equal amounts of these, there would be no reason to commit unjust and shameful actions--neither to get what one wants, nor because of envy. Aristotle rejects this claim, for he challenges the idea that crimes are committed only in order to acquire necessities.(22) There are in fact, he says, three reasons why crimes are committed (Politics 1267a2-9): to acquire the necessities of life (for example, food, clothing); to satisfy desires for things that are beyond what is necessary (for example, a drunk who wants more wine than is good for him, or a man who kills from a desire for revenge); to experience painless pleasures (for example, through tyranny or philosophy).(23) There are three remedies corresponding to the three causes of crime (Politics 1267a9-12): a minimum amount of property and work, for whoever has these would not need to commit crimes in order to possess the necessities of life; moderation, for a moderate man does not desire more than is proper;(24) the philosophical disposition or life, for this is the greatest of the painless pleasures, and the man with a truly philosophical disposition will not commit crimes.(25)

Aristotle claims that in fact the greater crimes are not committed to acquire necessities, but for one of the other two reasons:

They commit the greatest injustices because of excesses, but not because of necessary things, for example [people] are not tyrants in order not to be cold . . . . So it is with a view to minor injustices alone that Phaleas's type of regime is of assistance. (Politics 1267a12-17)

The solution to the problem of what to do about crime is not the leveling of property, but the improvement of character through education (Politics 1266b28-31). It is better if desirable ends are achieved by the improvement of a citizen's character through education than by an attempt to compel citizens to act in certain ways through the control or abolition of their property. As we shall see, this is a central part of Aristotle's view of property.

Aristotle also claims the communism of property will reduce productivity. He writes that "dividing the care [of possessions], they will not make accusations against each other, but rather they will improve, as each attends to his own" (Politics 1263a27-29). Now what does Aristotle have in mind? He probably wants us to think back to Politics 2.3, where he was criticizing the communism of women and children: at Politics 1261b32-40 he says that people who share things in common neglect those things because they think others are taking care of them. This applies to property as well.(26) If I own one acre of land I shall most likely see to it that that one acre is cared for and is productive. But if I am one of one thousand citizens who share one thousand acres in common, each acre is likely to be much less cared for and much less productive. That is Aristotle's point. Not only does private property avoid the accusations and conflicts discussed so far, it also improves the citizens' well-being by making them more productive.

In addition to the above problems, Aristotle argues, the communism of property would diminish or destroy certain kinds of pleasure:

Further, with regard to pleasure, too, it makes an immense difference to consider something one's own. For it is not without reason that each person has affection for himself; this is natural. (Politics 1263a40-b1)(27)

Aristotle is claiming that because we naturally feel affection for ourselves, what is our own is therefore pleasant to us. But it is surely unclear how or even if this inference is justified. A passage from Rhetoric 1.11, however, sheds some light on the point he is trying to make.

Since that which is according to nature is pleasant, and things related to each other are according to nature, all related and similar things are pleasant [to each other], for the most part; for example, man [is pleasant] to man, a horse to a horse, a young person to a young person. . . . And since everything that is similar and related to oneself is pleasant, and each man himself is this way most of all in relation to himself, everyone necessarily is a lover of self, more or less. For all such things belong most of all [to one's relationship] to oneself. And since everyone is a lover of self, one's things [unkeyable] are necessarily pleasant to everyone [individually], for example, deeds and words [unkeyable]. (Rhetoric 1371b12-23)

It does not seem at first that we have made progress, for Aristotle at the end of this passage claims that a man finds his things pleasant because every man is a lover of self. But this is precisely what we are attempting to explain. We have to see if there is in Aristotle some way of justifying this inference. A way has been suggested by Miller:

True self-love is embodied in persons who act according to their own rational judgment (cf. Eth. Nic. 9.8.1168b34-1169a3). True self-love thus requires that persons be able to act according to their own judgment, and the existence of private property provides them the sphere in which they can do so. (28)

So the important part of Aristotle's argument for our purposes, given Miller's suggestion and the above passages from the Politics and the Rhetoric, may very well be something like the following: (1) Every man (or good man) has affection for himself. (2) The natural, including what is naturally beloved, is pleasant. (3) Therefore, every man finds himself pleasant. (4) For a man to find himself pleasant is for him to find all those things that essentially make up his self pleasant (his character, his own rational judgment, his actions that follow his judgment, his deeds and words). (5) By extension, a man will find pleasant whatever makes his self possible--for instance, whatever makes possible voluntary action according to his own rational judgment. (6) Having his own things, including private property, makes possible such judgment and action. (7) Therefore, a man finds having his own property pleasant.

The important premises are (4) through (6). Although Aristotle does not state them explicitly, they are necessary if the argument is to be complete. Aristotle could have argued that because a person's own things are related to him (naturally or properly), he therefore derives pleasure from them. But he says more than this: a man gets pleasure from things that are his own because he has affection for himself. This requires that Aristotle hold something like premises (4) through (6).

The important move--from the point of view of the critique of Plato's Republic--is Aristotle's argument that because there are pleasures in things being one's own, and since nothing is one's own in a communistic system, where property is common the pleasures connected with things being one's own are destroyed or diminshed. Aristotle's point may be deeper, however; if it is true, it reveals a greater problem with Plato's best city (or communism generally). For if it is true that having things that are our own is a condition of acting according to our own judgment, then communism not only destroys the pleasures associated with things being our own and the affection we feel for ourselves, but also seems to undercut our autonomy, that is, our ability to act according to our own judgment.

Still on the subject of pleasures, Aristotle writes that "doing favors for and helping friends, guests, or mates is most pleasant, and this happens [only] when property is private. These things do not occur for those who make the city too much of a unity" (Politics 1263b5-8). This argument is similar to the last one: (1) Generosity, like all virtues, is pleasant.(29) (2) Generosity requires private property.(30) (3) Private property does not exist where property is common. (4) Therefore, generosity cannot exist where property is common. (5) Therefore, where property is common, men will be deprived of the pleasures connected with generosity.

As is clear from this argument (it is actually stated in premise [4]), not only is the pleasure connected with generosity destroyed, so must the virtue itself be destroyed.(31) The communism of property will destroy the work or function of "generosity concerning possessions, for no one will be known to be generous or do generous actions, since the work of generosity is in the use of possessions" (Politics 1263b11-14). Again, Aristotle's argument has something like the following form: (1) Generosity or the activity of generosity requires private possessions. (2) Where property is common there are no private possessions. (3) Therefore, where property is common there is no generosity, or no generous activity involving possessions. If generosity is destroyed, then the function or work of generosity, that is, the result of people acting generosly, is destroyed.

The soundness of this argument, however, depends on the truth of premise (1) (as the soundness of the previous argument depends on the truth of premise [2]). But can this premise be defended? Terence Irwin claims that it cannot:

My own generosity may be properly expressed through my role in collective actions; it does not seem to need resources under my exclusive control. Even if we think the practice of generosity requires me to be free to dispose of some resources on my own initiative, it does not follow that the resources must be under my exclusive control. The state might loan them to me, and allow me to dispose of them as I please within certain limits and in certain circumstances; such an arrangement would leave ample room for the exercise of generosity.

We might argue that this is not real generosity, if the virtuous person's action does not cost him anything, and that it does not cost him anything unless he gives from his exclusive possessions. But this objection seems to overlook the virtuous person's attachment to the common good. He will regard the distribution of his friend's resources as a cost to himself, because he regards his friend's resources as his own; and he will take the same view of the community's resources. We might object that such identification of one's own interest with the interests of others is impossible or undesirable; but Aristotle should not be easily persuaded by any such objection, since it would undermine his whole account of friendship. Perfectly genuine generosity seems to be quite possible without private property; and to this extent private property seems unnecessary for anything of distinctive value.(32)

There are two major problems with Irwin's argument: First, as we have seen, according to Aristotle we will not and indeed cannot attend to common things very well--in fact we tend to neglect them. For this and other reasons I cannot feel for the community's resources what I feel for myself and my own things; I cannot really regard the former as my own.(33) Second, I might regard the distribution of a close friend's (or family member's) resources as a cost to me, since, in a sense, the goods of such friends are common. But I do not have the same relationship with the community, and thus neither do I view the community's resources in this way.(34) Therefore, I shall indeed need my own resources if I am to act generously.(35)

It is true, Aristotle would say, that the communism of property could eliminate some problems; for example, if all property were common, it would be impossible to be brought to court because of debts owed. This would amount to a handful of small advantages, however, compared to a host of problems--all the problems we have seen so far. "But it is just to speak not only of how many evils they will be deprived of when they have [property] in common, but also how many goods. This life appears to be wholly impossible" (Politics 1263b27-29). The communism of property makes life impossible, whatever problems it might eliminate. But a system of private property, however, if arranged correctly, is wholly desirable, whatever problems might remain.


What is a properly arranged system of private property? What system of property does Aristotle advocate?

But the way that exists now [concerning property], if adorned with character [unkeyable] and an order of correct laws, would differ not a little [from the communism of property]. For it would have what is good from both. By "from both" I mean from possessions being common in some way, but private generally. (Politics 1263a22-27) Property is to remain private, but with some adornments that give it the advantages of common, as well as of private, property. What these adornments are will be seen later.

Although private property is clearly better than the communism of property, property should still be common in some sense: its use should be common. "It will be through virtue that, will regard to use, 'the things of friends are common' (as the proverb says)" (Politics 1263a29-30). It turns out that this is not necessarily a radical suggestion: "Even now this is the way it is in some cities in outline, so it is not impossible, and in finely managed [cities] most of all some of these things exist, while some of them could come to be" (Politics 1263a30-33).

Property will be common in use through virtue (whatever that means), but Aristotle also says, "It is ... evident that it is better for possessions to be private, but to make them common in use. That they [the citizens] become such [as to use possessions in common], this is a special function of the legistor" (Politics 1263a37-40).

There are several questions that must be answered if we are fully to understand Aristotle's views on property. First, what exactly does he mean when he says property should be used in common? Next, how private is private property? That is to say, surely there will be some common or public property--but how much? To what extent, if any, will private property be limited and regulated? Finally, how does the legislator make citizens become such as to use their property in common and properly? Does he simply pass laws to that effect? We shall proceed to answer these questions, beginning with Politics 2.5, but going beyond it.

Let us start by looking at the common use of private property. The first thing to be said is that there seem to be degrees of common use. "For each owning possessions privately, some things are made useful to his friends, while some are used in common" (Politics 1263a33-35). Aristotle is talking here about two different kinds of sharing, both of which constitute making what I own common in use: some things I share in common with certain people (for instance, close friends), but not with others; and some things I make available to everybody, or all citizens. Each citizen will share some (but not all?) of his possessions with his close friends, but not with everyone, whereas some other possessions he will make available to all his fellow citizens. The level of friendship will determine just how common one makes his possessions. Aristotle gives an example: "In Lakedaimon, they use each other's slaves as their own, so to speak, as well as horses and dogs, and provisions for travel, if they need any, from the farms throughout the territory" (Politics 1263a35-37).(36) This passage becomes a bit clearer if read in conjunction with Xenophon's discussion of these arrangements in the Lakedaimonian Constitution:

And [Lycurgus] made it such that, if someone needed to, he could also use someone else's servants. And he joined together a community of hunting dogs, so that those needing them invite [the owner] to go to the hunt, but if he does not himself have the time to go, he sends [the dogs] with pleasure. And they use horses in the same manner. For one who is sick or is in need of a carriage or wishes to go somewhere quickly, if he sees there is a horse somewhere, after taking it and using it properly, he restores it.... Wherever people coming late from the hunt are in need of provisions, if they did not happen to have packed anything, he also set it down that in that case those who possess something should leave behind the [leftover] prepared food, while those in need break the seals, take however much they need, return [what is left over], sealing [the container]. Accordingly, in this way, giving shares to each other, those who have little partake in all of the things in the region, whenever they need something.(37)

In Xenophon's account, property is private, and there is a concern (and respect) for private property. If someone owns something, however, and is not using it--or will not be using it, in the case of leftovers--he should make these things available to his fellow citizens. As a consequence, those who otherwise would not be able to have the advantages of a horse, or take part in a hunt, or the like, are able to. Aristotle would seem to agree with this much, given that he chose these practices to illustrate a system he praises.

So far we know that common use involves sharing servants, horses, hunting dogs, and food for the hunt. What else is shared? In his summary of the practices of the Lakedaimonians, Aristotle mentions provisions for travel from the farms throughout the territory. Although this may simply be a generalization from the principle whereby leftovers should be placed in containers, Aristotle most likely found this general principle an important part of what it is to share one's property in common. For example, writing in the Athenian Constitution, he(38) says that Cimon "maintained many of his fellow-demesmen, for any man of Laciadae who wished could go to him each day and obtain his basic needs, and all his land was unfenced, so that anyone that wished could enjoy the fruit."(39) One way a citizen, especially a wealthy citizen, can make the use of his private property common is to give needy citizens access to his lands. This is one important reason (others being the financing of the military and the arts) that Aristotle regards wealthy citizens as a crucial part of the city.(40)

Not only does generosity give the needy access to things from which they would otherwise be excluded, it also helps the city together. In Politics 6.5, Aristotle says, "It is also fine to imitate the practices of the Tarentines. For these people, making their possessions common in use for the poor, maintain the goodwill [[unkeyable]] of the multitude" (Politics 1320b9-11).(41) As was mentioned before, Aristotle thinks there should be different degrees of what one is willing to make useful to others. Perhaps he believes the common use of servants and hunting dogs will be more limited--that is, I might share them, but not with just anyone--whereas the practices, mentioned earlier, with horses or with food in the fields will be more communal.

One important question concerning common use remains: Is such use voluntary, or is it to be enforced by law?(42) Martha Nussbaum claims the latter is the case. She says, "Aristotle's insistence on common use--that it ought to be possible for a needy person to help herself to your crops, without penalty and with good will--shows that in any case he did not defend private ownership in the form in which most contemporary thought defends it."(43) In a note to this passage, she continues: "One might fruitfully compare to this housing policies that have been adopted in some socialist and social-democratic countries, giving the homeless certain rights toward unoccupied or luxury housing."(44) I believe Nussbaum has failed to grasp the essential nature of Aristotle's view that property should be private generally, but common in use. First, according to Aristotle, when I make my property (which is private) common in use, I do so from virtue and in the manner of friends. This certainly sounds voluntary.(45) Second, Nussbaum's conception of common use seems to conflict with Aristotle's conception of what it is for property to be private. In the Rhetoric, he writes that something is one's own [unkeyable]

whenever the [ability] to dispose [unkeyable] is with oneself. And I mean by "dispose" "giving" and "selling." Generally, being wealthy is in the using more than in the possessing. (Rhetoric 1361a21-24)(46)

If property is really to be private (which I take to be close to the above sense of "one's own"), then the power to dispose of property--even to allow others to use it in common--must reside with the owner. If I posses something but do not control its use, then it is not really mine. So Aristotle is not advocating (at least not for the best city) the transferring of certain of my property "rights" to those of my more needy fellow citizens.

Then what exactly will "private property, common use" be like in practice? To give an example, a needy person will be able to help himself to my lands if I--not because compelled to do so by law, but voluntarily--unfence my lands (a la Cimon) so that needy people can enjoy the fruit. In addition, however, the lawmakers may (or must) do something to encourage owners to make their property common in use in certain ways. For instance, perhaps they could see to it that containers are set up to hold leftovers in the field; and they could establish laws that make it impossible for the owner of a horse, say, to bring to court someone who uses his horse in the way described by Xenophon. As we shall see later, there is much more that the legislator must do to make citizens have generous characters.

I have argued that Aristotle's conception of making one's property common in use is not meant as a legal restriction or limitation on the use of one's property. Such use is voluntary. Still, does Aristotle allow for no limitations on private property? How much of the property in a city should be privately owned? Let us look at the latter question first.

While describing the best city(47) in Politics 7.10, Aristotle says it is necessary to discuss the distribution of land. As a prelude to such a discussion, he mentions the following four points: (1) Possessions should not be common, but should "become common in use, in a friendly way [[unkeyable]]" (Politics 1329b41-1330a2).(48) (2) No citizen should lack sustenance (Politics 1330a2). (3) "Concerning common messes [[unkeyable]] all agree it is useful for them to belong to well-equipped cities. (The reason for which we agree will be stated later.) All citizens should share in these, but it is not easy for the poor to contribute the set [or required] amount from their private funds and manage the rest of their household" (Politics 1330a3-8).(49) (4) Expenses relating to the gods are, or should be, common to the whole city (Politics 1330a8-9). Given these four points, how should property be arranged for those who wish to live in the best regime?(50)

Aristotle believes that in order for a city to count as the best one could hope for, it would have to have, among other things, the division of territory described in Politics 1330a9-15. Taking it for granted that the city will also have territory on which government buildings (for example, the Assembly) will stand, and putting that land aside, the following describes how the rest of the land would be distributed: part of the land should be common, and part should be private. These two parts should further be divided such that part of the public land houses common messes and produces crops (and funds?) that enable all to participate in them, while another part supports public service to the gods; the private land will be divided such that every citizen will posses land near the city as well as land near the frontier.(51) There is, however, no indication of how exactly the city's land is to be divided. So we cannot assume, as Nussbaum does, that "fully half the city's land will be held in common."(52)

Let us focus now on public or common land. There should be land to house government buildings, temples, and common mess halls, as well as land that produces enough income to support their maintenance (or part of that maintenance), including perhaps pay for those involved in their upkeep.(53) City-owned land would produce crops and livestock (and perhaps precious metals)(54) to support these institutions. The city might also rely on other surplus revenues. (Although they are sometimes warranted, Aristotle does not emphasize taxes, especially not in his discussion of the best city. We shall speak more of this later.)

In Politics 2.9, Aristotle criticizes the Spartan system of common messes, and praises the Cretan system:

The law concerning common messes . . . has not been framed finely by the one first establishing it. For the gathering should rather exist from common funds, as in Create. But among the Spartans everyone must pay, even some who are exceedingly poor and not able to afford this expense. . . . I is not easy for the very poor to participate in [the common mess], but this is the definition of the regime among them, passed down from their fathers: the one who is not able to pay this fee is not to participate in it [that is, in the regime]. (Politics 1271a26-37)

In Politics 2.10, he again comments on the superiority of the Cretan system of common messes.

In Crete [the common mess is set up] in a more common manner, for from all the crops and livestock that come from the public lands and from tribute [[unkeyable]] (which the subjects pay), one part is set aside for the gods and for common liturgies, and another for the common messes, so that everyone (women, children, and men) is maintained from the common funds. (Politics 1272a16-21)(55)

The land on which the common messes stand is common land, and the common crops and funds, which come from the common lands, should ideally pay for the common meals of everyone.(56) But how extensive are common meals? It seems quite clear, unless Aristotle was intending something entirely radical, that they took place every day and once a day. It was the main meal of the day ([unkeyable]), which took place at sunset.(57) But who was allowed to attend? Despite what Aristotle says, it seems the Cretan common messes were attended by adult male citizens (including the poor), and boys. Women, Dosiadas tells us, were in charge of the meals, but they did not seem to partake of them.(58) There is no mention of daughters anywhere.(59) It is of course possible that Aristotle read into, or embellished, earlier accounts of the Cretan common messes a bit (much like Plato in the Laws may have), so that men, women, and children all receive meals there. In any case, it is fairly clear that Aristotle himself supports the inclusion of women in common meals. So, Aristotle wants the city to see to it that each citizen (and his family) receives at least the main meal of the day. In this way the basic sustenance of every citizen is guaranteed.(60)

Generally, the possessions of citizens are private, and citizens possess land privately, though they can (and should) make some of their land and possessions common in use in the ways indicated. But what limitations with respect to amount or use should there be on private property? Aristotle obviously advocates limits on the criminal use of property.(61) But what else? A good place to begin is with the first two "necessary" offices.(62) Aristotle says, "First . . . is the superintendence concerning the market [[unkeyable]], for which there should be some office overseeing agreements and orderliness" (Politics 1321b12-14).(63) It is clear that their main functions are to see that everyone involved is honest and holds to their agreements and contracts, and that orderliness ([unkeyable]) is maintained.(64) But Harrison writes that in Athens market supervisors also fixed certain prices.(65) In Athenian Constitution 51, which describes this office, although the emphasis is on preventing fraud and dishonesty, there is some mention of price fixing, especially regarding the price of wheat. Rhodes, commenting on this section, writes that

Athens had relied on imported corn [that is, wheat] to supplement the local crop, . . . and to ensure that the citizens should be fed the state was led to take a special interest in the corn trade. . . [T]he importers were not free to sell their corn wherever they could get the highest price for it.(66)

It is unclear whether Aristole advocates any of this, but he may. In general, though, the "limits" on private property implied by this necessary office are not that intrusive.(67) In fact, one main concern is the protection of private property against fraudulent activity in the marketplace.(68)

The second necessary office is town management ([unkeyable]). This office seems to have three functions (Politics 1321b18-27): (i) superintendence of private and public property in town, with a view to ensuring orderliness; (ii) superintendence of the preservation and repair of decaying buildings and roads; (iii) the prevention of boundary disputes.(69) Barnes complains:

What exactly is the function of these officials with regard to private houses? May they do more than (1) order the repair of dilapidated property when it endangers neighbors or passers-by? (E.g. may they instruct me to mend my tottering chimneys? . . .) Or may they also (2) regulate any alterations or repairs I make to my house which could in any way affect third parties? (E.g. may they require me to paint the external woodwork in a seemly colour? . . .) Or may they further (3) determine how I deal with the internal affairs of my house, affairs which affect only its occupants? (E.g. may they prohibit me from installing an electric socket in my bathroom?. . .) These three possibilities mark out, for the modern thinker, three different attitudes to political liberty. Possibility (1) illustrates an old fashioned liberalism. Possibility (3) illustrates a new fashioned paternalism. Any theorist who interests himself in political liberty must take a stand on these questions. Aristotle takes no stand.(70)

Is this fair? True, there is much that is unclear. But can we say nothing? Must we conclude that Aristole takes no stand? I am not so sure. Function (iii) above clearly applies only to what is happening outside of the house. As for functions (i) and (ii), the Athenian Constitution might shed some light: "They prevent buildings which encroach on the streets, balconies which extend over the streets, overhead drainpipes which discharge into the street, and window-shutters which open into the street."(71) Much of this no doubt describes function (ii). As for function (i), Aristotle may have seen it implied in the other two functions: seeing to it that my drainpipes do not throw water on the passers-by, and preventing boundary disputes, do promote public orderliness.(72)

In an event, of the three possibilities mentioned by Barnes above, although it is unclear whether Aristole would have embraced (1) or (2), we have no reason to believe he would have accepted (3). Given the nature of the first necessary office, the description of the second necessary office in the Athenian Constitution, and even the discussions of this second office in Plato's Laws,(73) there is no indication of any of the sort of paternalism described by Barnes. Again, the limits on property are not so intrusive.(74) So, to this extent at least, Aristotle does takes a stand.

Thus, the superintendence of market and property does not imply any great restrictions or limitations on private property. We cannot conclude, however, that Aristotle had anything like a laissez faire view, for he seems to have advocated a ceiling on how much one may own, primarily in order to avoid what he thought were harmful disparities of wealth and poverty--especially, it should be added, in nonideal situations.(75) In fact, given his distinction between natural and unnatural acquisition of wealth (Politics 1.8-1.11), even in the best city he would have put a limit on the acquisiton of wealth.(76) It is unclear, however, what kind of restriction this implies: would wealthy citizens be taxed? Would any money they made (over the ceiling) be handed over to the city?(77) In the best city, some citizens would be wealthy, but they would most likely not be able to acquire an "unnatural" amount of wealth because citizens are forbidden the merchant's or businessman's life. Of course, this is itself a restriction on property.(78)

Although there may be limits to wealth, Aristotle is obviously not eliminating the wealthy altogether. In fact they are a crucial part of the city.(79) Moreover, he opposes and deems unjust the confiscation of the property of the wealthy--at least the confiscation of anything below the limit on the acquisition of wealth.(80) Sustenance for the needy, as we have seen, should ideally come from generosity and the common lands, not, in the best circumstances at least, from the redistribution of wealth.(81)

Is this to say Aristotle is against taxes? Some passages certainly imply that the wealthy will be taxed, for political, and especially military, functions.(82) But at other places he writes as if taxes are certainly not ideal.(83) This apparent discrepancy can be resolved in the following way: Aristotle believes that in the very best situation, funds from common lands, the generosity of citizens, and so forth will cover all the city's expenses. But this is not very usual or likely. Normally, even in the best of cities, funds from common lands will cover much of the city's expenses, but some wealth from the richest citizens will be needed to cover what is left (especially if a lot of money is required for the military). To acquire such funds, taxes would be employed.

It seems that in most cases Aristotle believes that a citizen's property (any that does not go above a certain ceiling on wealth) is that citizen's to use, so long as he does not use it fraudulently, and as long as there are enough funds for the city to function properly. If there are not, the wealthy citizens would have to give some of their wealth to the state to meet these needs.(84)


What, then, did Aristotle mean when he said, "That they [the citizens] become such [as to use possessions in common], this is a special function of the legislator"? (Politics 1263a39-40). The only cogent answer is public education. The legislator must make laws controlling the upbringing of children,(85) both by making laws that will properly influence them, and through the establishment of a system of public education. As a result, when they become adult citizens, they will (generally) be of such character that they will freely share their property with friends and fellow citizens in the ways described in section IV.(86)

As we have seen, at least with respect to property, Aristotle is critical of any substantial deprivation of freedom. Because of the fundamental importance of education in the life of the city, however, he advocates a coercive education of the young. In the Politics he claims that the legislator must make the education of the young his object above all (Politics 1337a11-14). He goes on to say that

since there is one end [[unkeyable]] for the whole city [or the city as a whole], it is clear that education must necessarily be one and the same for all, and that the superintendence of it should be common and not private (this latter being the manner in which each individual at present superintends his own offspring privately and teaches them whatever private learning he thinks best). For common things the training too should be made common. At the same time, one ought not even consider [[unkeyable]] that some citizen is of himself [or belongs to himself; [[unkeyable]], but that all [citizens] are of the city [or belong to the city; [[unkeyable]] for each is a part of the city. (Politics 1337a21-32)(87)

It is better to have a lack of freedom in one important area--in the education of one's children--than in the whole of one's life. This education may be coercive, Aristole would argue, but it makes possible independent and responsible citizens who do not have to be coerced in every aspect of their lives. Moreover, it is better to have a city made up of good citizens, each of whom is free to use his property as he sees fit, but who will most likely use it properly (because of his character, feelings of friendship, and so on), than laws strictly regualting the use of private property, or abolishing it altogether.(88) This is what Aristotle has in mind when he says, contra Plato, "It is strange for one who intends to introduce education and who thinks that through this the city will be excellent, to suppose that it can be set right by these sorts of things, but not by habits [or character; [unkeyable], philosophy, and laws" (Politics 1263b36-40). Platonic civic unity is achieved through "these sorts of things," namely, laws forcing humans to share property in common, to treat each other as "brothers," and the like. Aristotelian unity, however, is achieved through character, philosophy, and laws--that is, through laws and public education that properly shape the character of the citizens, but then allow these citizens to act independently, control their own property, and so on.


While much remains unclear, we can understand alot more about Aristotle's remarks on property than Barnes thinks possible. We know that Aristotle believes private property must exist and it must be respected. Although Aristotle does not defend absolute property rights, the limits to the use of property are few, especially when considered in their historical context. So Aristotle is no classical liberal--he is no Lockean--but he is much closer to this than many believe.

This having been said, it is nevertheless difficult to paint Aristotle with any kind of modern brush. First, Aristotle wants to accept some key aims of modern liberalism (for example, seeing to it that every citizen receives at least basic sustenance), but he would like to avoid what are usually regarded as necessary means to such aims: strong limitations on property, and the redistribution of wealth. In addition, the way he defends private property seems different from modern liberalism and socialism, and yet his defense of a citizen's freedom to use his property as he wants depends on a rather nonclassical-liberal institution: a coercive system of public education. Thus, we cannot subsume Aristotle's conception of property under any one modern theory. In the end, perhaps the best label for his theory of property is "Aristotelian."(89)

(1) Jonathan Barnes, "Aristotle and Political Liberty," in Aristoteles' "Politik": Akten des XI Symposium Aristotelicum Friedrichshafen/Bodensee 25.8-3.9.1987, ed. Gunther Patzig (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1990), 252. Barnes actually says that about Aristotle's view that property should be private generally, but common in use. As we shall see, this view is central to Aristotle's conception of property, and thus Barnes's remark in the end applies to Aristotle's account of property in general.

(2) Perhaps the most extensive treatment of Aristotle's views on property to appear recently is Fred Miller, "Aristotle on Property Rights," in Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy IV: Aristotle's Ethics, ed. John P. Anton and Anthony Preus (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 227-47.

(3) In the end, my view of Aristotle is somewhat like that found in Miller, "Aristotle on Property Rights," and I owe a great deal to his superb article. Still, there are differences. For example, I engage in a more extended discussion of Aristotle's critique of Plato, and I do not speak in terms of a theory of rights.

(4) On the different types of goods, see Rhetoric 1.5; Nicomachean Ethics 1.8; and Politics 7.1. In Miller, "Aristotle on Property Rights," the section entitled "The Eudaimonistic Justification of Property" (pp. 230-2) is an excellent discussion of why humans need property. I believe, however, that this section does not show that Aristotle defended private property rights.

(5) According to A Greek-English Lexicon ("LSJ" hereafter), ed. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, revised by Henry Stuart Jones, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), [unkeyable] can mean "acquisition," or "possession"; in the plural it can also mean "property." In Aristotle, however, it is sometimes best to translate even the singular as "property." [unkeyable] is also used as "property." On the ambiguity in property terminology at this time, see A. R. W. Harrison, The Law of Athens, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968 and 1971), vol. 1, pp. 200-1.

(6) Miller, "Aristotle on Property Rights," 237.

(7) This is not to say that Aristotle does defend a system of unqualified privatization, but only that such a system would fall under option (1). As we shall see shortly, there are many particular property arrangements that fall under each of these three broad arrangements.

(8) Unless otherwise indicated, translations from the Greek are my own. For the Politics, I have used Aristoteles' Politica, ed. Alois Dreizehnter (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1970).

(9) In addition, the examples are narrow, dealing with crops and land alone. Other kinds of arrangements might be broader, or narrow in a different way.

(10) The Politics of Aristotle, Books I-V, ed. Franz Susemihl and R. D. Hicks (London: Macmillan and Co., 1884), 233.

(11) Aristotle says "farmers," but he probably means "farmers, and any others who do hard work." On the dispute over whom is meant by the "they" that I say refers to citizens who are farmers, see The Politics of Aristotle, Books I-IV, 233; and The Politics of Aristotle, ed. W. L. Newman, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1887-1902), vol. 2, pp. 246-7.

(12) There is an important interpretive question as well: By whom, exactly, and toward whom, is this discontent felt? I argue elsewhere (in my "Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic: A Philosophical Commentary on Politics II 1-5" [Ph.D. diss., Georgetown University, 1991], 230-1) that the discontent is not felt by the iron and bronze citizens of the Republic and toward the gold and silver ones (as many seem to think), but that Aristotle has in mind the iron and bronze class alone. That is, he thinks those workers who do the hard work will resent those who do not.

(13) See Politics 1266b28-31, 1267a37-b9.

(14) Although Aristotle says the one who works hard deserves more rewards--and here he must mean material rewards--he does not make the Lockean connection between labor and the right to property--the right to that with which I have mixed my labor.

The connection between honor and material reward is central in Homer's Iliad. Achilles says to Agamemnon, "Always the greater part of the painful fighting is the work [[unkeyable]] of my hands; but when the time comes to distribute the booty yours is far the greater reward, and I with some small thing yet dear to me go back to my ships when I am weary with fighting. Now I am returning to Phthia, since it is much better to go home again with my curved ships, and I am minded no longer to stay here dishonored and pile up your wealth and luxury"; The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 1.165-171. See also the context of this passage, 1.118-1.187, as well as 9.104-9.113. Cf. Nicomachean Ethics 1163b5-14.

(15) Cf. David Charles, "Perfection in Aristotle's Political Theory: Reply to Martha Nussbaum," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, suppl. (1988): 200.

(16) See Politics 1261b23-1262a1.

(17) Although Aristotle does not mention jointly owned property, it may have been on his hearer's mind, for disputes were known to arise over such arrangements. See: Athenian Constitution 52.2, 56.6; P. J. Rhodes, A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 631; and, Harrison, The Law of Athens, vol. 1, pp. 239-43.

(18) For [unkeyable], LSJ gives as a general meaning "fair of face," and I have translated it accordingly. But LSJ also lists "fair in outward show," "specious." Newman says it means "wears a plausible look" (The Politics of Aristotle, vol. 2, p. 253), but T. A. Sinclair, in his translation of the Politics, is probably right in claiming that Aristotle here means that the communism of property sounds attractive when first hearing about it (Politics, trans. T. A. Sinclair [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962], 64).

The list at the end of the passage is not necessarily exhaustive. Although Aristotle does not mention theft here, it makes sense to think he had it in mind (see note 19 below).

(19) See Republic 425c-e, 464d-465c; and Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae 560-7, 605-7, 655-73. Both mention the elimination of theft.

(20) See also Politics 1263a15-21, 1263b25-27.

(21) Communism is a form of property leveling, and some claim that it cures crime. Thus Aristotle's discussion in Politics 2.7 seems applicable.

(22) Not all factional conflict is due to unequal property. See Politics 1266b38-1267a2.

(23) On painless pleasures, see Nicomachean Ethics 1152b36-1153a2, 1173b15-19, 1177a25-26; and Parts of Animals 645a7-19. It is unclear whether Aristotle has in mind the committing of crimes in order to study (which seems rather strange), or some other kind of crime, for example, tyranny. He may be thinking of the view some had that a tyrant could experience any pleasure with ease or without pain. See Xenophon, Hiero.

(24) The first remedy is ensured by common messes and every citizen's owning land and other property. The second is ensured by laws and moral education. More on these later.

(25) See Politics 1323a24-34.

(26) See Politics 1261b23.

(27) This passage continues as follows: "Being a lover of self [[unkeyable]] is justly blamed. But this is not having affection for oneself [[unkeyable]], but having more affection than one ought, just as in the case of the money-lover, since almost everyone has affection for each of these things" (Politics 1263b2-5). Here Aristotle distinguishes a lover of self from a person who loves or has affection for himself. In the Rhetoric, however, he treats the two interchangeably (as we shall see). This is not terribly important. We need only keep in mind his claim in Nicomachean Ethics 9.4 and 9.9 that the good person is truly a lover of self--despite what most people think--while the bad person is not really a lover of self--again, contrary to common opinion.

(28) Miller, "Aristotle on Property Rights," 239.

(29) See Nicomachean Ethics 1120a25-31.

(30) See Nicomachean Ethics 4.1, 1178a28-29; and Politics 1265a34-38. This point will be discussed more fully later.

(31) At this point, Aristotle actually discusses the destruction of two virtues: generosity and moderation (Politics 1263b8-11). But we shall be interested in the former alone. Aristotle's discussion of moderation is better suited to his treatment of the communism of women and children, not that of property, because the moderation he claims is destroyed under communism is moderation concerning women.

(32) Terence Irwin, "Generosity and Property in Aristotle's Politics," in Beneficence, Philanthropy and the Public Good, ed. Ellen Frankel Paul et al. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 51-2.

(33) See Politics 1261b23, 1261b32-40, 1263a27-29, 1263a40-b1.

(34) This is in part the point of Aristotle's criticism of the communism of women and children in Politics 2.3-2.4. For an account of the civic friendship implicit in this objection to Irwin, see Mayhew, "Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic," chap. 4; and John Cooper, "Political Animals and Civic Friendship," in Aristotles' "Politik," 220-41.

(35) Aristotle is using "generosity" narrowly here to mean the giving of possessions (see Politics 1263b11). In Nicomachean Ethics 4.1, generosity is described as the virtue concerning the giving and taking of wealth, where wealth is anything whose value or worth is measured in money (1119b22-27). This could arguably include generosity with one's time and labor, for instance. Such generosity, broadly understood, will not fall to Aristotle's criticism, although the narrow sense will. Of course, Plato could argue (in fact, he probably would argue) that the narrow sense of generosity is not a virtue in his best city, and thus the argument that generosity will not exist there proves nothing of importance.

(36) One must keep in mind that Aristotle's view of Sparta is in general quite negative; see especially Politics 2.9.

(37) Lakadaimonian Constitution 6.3-6.5.

(38) Aristotle or an anonymous student of Aristotle is writing. P. J. Rhodes supports the latter; see P.J. Rhodes, Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia, 9. John J. Keaney supports the former; see John J. Keaney, The Composition of Aristotle's Athenaion Politeia: Observation and Explanation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 5-14.

(39) Aristotle: The Athenian Constitution, trans. P. J. Rhodes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 27.3. All translations of the Athenian Constitution are taken from here. Compare the above passage to Athenian Constitution 16.2-4. See also Rhodes, Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia, 214-15.

Aristotle is very likely contrasting this private generosity with the public generosity (that is, the "generosity" with public funds; see Athenian Constitution 27.4) of Pericles; see Rhodes, Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia, 339; cf. Nicomachean Ethics 1120a34-b1. Aristotle would not have found Cimon's providing the poor with sustenance ideal, preferring instead a system of common messes. More will be said on this later.

The generosity of Cimon might bring to mind public service or liturgies ([unkeyable]; see Rhodes, Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia, 340-1). But did Aristotle approve of them or include them in his conception of common use? L.B. Carter writes that in Athens during the classical period, "the performance of civic duties had grown from something more casual, even amateur, to something highly professional and full-time"; L. B. Carter, The Quiet Athenian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 41. This may very well have been true of liturgies too, for they had become obligatory (though many were done voluntarily). Although Aristotle may not have minded voluntary liturgies, he did object to compulsory ones; see Nicomachean Ethics 4.2; Politics 1309a14. Cf. Cicero, De officiis 2.16.56-57. For some interesting remarks on the ways in which a person can and cannot help himself to the fruit of another, see Plato, Laws 844d-845d.

(40) See Politics 1283a16-19, 1328b10, 1328b22-23, 1329a19, 1341a28. In the example from Lakedaimon at Politics 1263a35-37, Aristotle mentions provisions for travel from the farms. This may suggest that putting one's land to common use was something he regarded as ad hoc rather than something relied upon for the general maintenance of the needy.

(41) Tarentum was a colony of Sparta and thus it is very likely that it had many of the institutions Aristotle gives as examples at Politics 1263a35-37. See Newman, Politics of Aristotle, vol. 4, pp. 536-7.

(42) These are not mutually exclusive categories. There could be laws against theft--laws compelling me not to steal--and yet I choose not to steal voluntarily. What I am asking here is this: Is my giving of property to others simply voluntary, or must I give certain things to others according to the law? and is this what Aristotle means by common use?

(43) Martha Nussbaum, "Aristotelian Social Democracy," in Liberalism and the Good, ed. Bruce Douglass, Gerald Mara, and Henry Richardson (New York: Routledge, 1990), 232. See also p. 205, where she claims Aristotle's notion of common use puts limitations on private property.

(44) Ibid., 249, n. 86.

(45) See Politics 1263a22-40, 1329b41-1330a2. Virtuous actions are voluntary, not forced; Nicomachean Ethics 1109b30-1110a1.

(46) Cf. Miller, "Aristotle on Property Rights," 229-30.

(47) The citizens of the best city will be good men, or at least good citizens, and none of them will do manual labor. I argue in my "Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic" that Aristotle does value a relatively high degree of freedom and independence for these citizens. But we need to keep in mind that such freedom, on his view, depends on slave and barbarian labor that provides these best of men with the leisure in which to use this freedom properly.

(48) I see no reason for accepting Nussbaum's translation "common by way of a use that is agreed upon in mutuality"; Nussbaum "Aristotelian Social Democracy," 203. LSJ gives "friendly" for [unkeyable] and says [unkeyable] is the opposite of [unkeyable].

(49) In the Politics that has come down to us, Aristotle does not fulfill his promise to explain his agreement with others concerning common messes.

(50) Aristotle is asking, If we could set up a city in the best way possible, how should we do it? All he is talking about is the original distribution of land in the city. (He may have in mind the rather common phenomenon of colonization. Cf. Laws, 737b-c; and see Richard E. Wycherley, How the Greeks Built Their Cities, 2d ed. [New York: Norton, 1976], 4-5; 210-11, n. 3.) We must be very cautious about trying to derive strong principles of redistribution from what Aristotle says here, as Nussbaum does. See Martha Nussbaum, "Nature, Function, and Capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, suppl. (1988); 147-84, esp. 172 (with "Reply to David Charles," 207-14); and Nussbaum, "Aristotelian Social Democracy," esp. 210. But this having been said, I think Charles, in his "Perfectionism in Aristotle's Political Theory: Reply to Nussbaum," in the same volume, goes a bit too far in stating that "we have no idea as to what specific policies of distribution Aristotle would favour. That is, for all he says, he might have preferred either a minimal or maximal state, Rawlsian or Nozickian or Marxist principles of distribution" (pp. 203-4). I believe that in the end, as unclear as Aristotle's own position is, we can rule out its being either Nozickian or Marxist. That is, Aristotle defends neither the absolutism of property rights, which entails no or almost no limitations on the ownership of property, nor the extremely limited ownership of property, which includes a great deal of redistribution.

(51) Cf. Politics 1265b24-27; and see Laws 745e. I shall not be concerned with the city-frontier distinction. It is this private land, of course, along with the citizens' private possessions, that will, one would hope, be used in common in the way Aristotle describes. How the public lands are used, however, falls outside of Aristotle's conception of private property, common use.

(52) Nussbaum, "Aristotelian Social Democracy," 204. The relevant Greek lines, describing the two divisions of the territory, are (1330a9-11): [unkeyable] ... [unkeyable] and [unkeyable] [unkeyable]. Nussbaum translates them as follows: "We must divide the land into two portions" and "We must divide each of these two portions in half [[unkeyable]] again." I would translate them as follows: "It is necessary to divide the territory into two parts" and "[It is necessary] to divide each of these [two parts] in two [[unkeyable]] again." There is no mention of equal parts. [unkeyable] does not necessarily mean "two equal parts" (see LSJ; Topics 142b12-19; History of Animals 503a28; Parts of Animals 644a11), though it sometimes can (see Politics 1318a40). Concerning Nicomachean Ethics 1132a28, Hermann Bonitz (Index Aristotelicus [Berlin: de Gruyter, 1870]) writes, "in duas partes pares," but that is by no means necessary. Cf. Physics 239b19. So we have no way of telling what Aristotle intended, or even whether his intentions were ever so specific. We know the territory in a city that aims at being best must be divided into four parts, but we cannot know--at least not from this passage--the relative size of these parts. Actually, it is very unlikely the parts are equal. Will one fourth of all the land be for service to the gods?

(53) See Harrison, The Law of Athens, vol. 1, pp. 234-5; and Politics 7.12.

(54) On funds from mines, see Athenian Constitution 22.7; Rhodes, Aristotelian Athenaion Politeria, 277-9; and Harrison, The Law of Athens, vol. 1, p. 234.

(55) Newman writes, "The term [unkeyable] applied to the contributions of the serfs indicates subjection, and probably conquest"; Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, vol. 2, p. 354. We need not assume that Aristotle is advocating or counting on the collection of tribute from such subjects, although we cannot rule it out. Athens had as many as three hundred fifty or so tribute-paying allies (not necessarily subjects), including most member states of the Delian League; see Athenian Constitution 24.3; and Rhodes, Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia, 300-2. This may have been another legitimate means of income for the city, in Aristotle's view, but once again we cannot say for sure.

(56) Clearly, Aristotle wants the common funds to ensure the participation of poor citizens in the common meals; see Nussbaum, "Aristotelian Social Democracy," 204, 228; and Irwin, "Generosity and Property," 46. Here Aristotle's ideal parts company with common practice. Ephoros (quoted in Strabo 10.4.16) states that in Crete the common funds paid for boys and the poor. Pyrgion, also discussing Crete, says orphans are taken care of by the common funds (Atheneus 143e). It is never claimed that the common funds support all citizens, unless the contributions of those who can afford it are considered part of the common funds. According to Dosiadas, every citizen contributes one tenth of his income to help support the common messes (Atheneus 143a-d). Aristotle, however, is hoping the common lands will produce enough so that no one will have to contribute anything for the maintenance of the common meals.

(57) See Atheneus 143a; Plutarch, Lycurgus 12.7; and Xenophon, Lakedaimonian Constitution 5.7.

(58) See Atheneus 143a-d; and Republic 458c-d. Although there are common meals for women in neither Sparta nor Crete, it seems Plato and Aristotle think there should be separate ones for them. See Laws 780d-781d, 806d-807b; and Politics 1265a8-9.

(59) For the presence of boys at common meals, see Strabo 10.4.20; Atheneus 143a-e; Plutarch, Lycurgus 12.4; and Xenophon, Lakedaimonian Constitution 5.5-6. (On some possible doubts about common meals for the young, see Laws 636b-e, 666b.)

(60) One last point: Is attendance at the common meals voluntary or compulsory? In Sparta it was, with minor exceptions, compulsory (see Plutarch, Lycurgus 12.2-3. Cf. Plato, Laws 762b-c). Aristotle's view is unclear, however, for his position is never fully stated. If the meals' sole purpose is to ensure that the poor have enough to eat, then all that is necessary is that they be available, not mandatory. If they have some other purpose(s), then he may have thought they should be compulsory. It is unlikely that the sole purpose of the common messes was the care of the poor. There was probably something about participation in the common meals--besides getting a decent meal--that Aristotle found important for all citizens. One possibility is education: the common messes may have had some role in the formation of the character of citizens, for instance, letting the young observe the proper way of conducting oneself in a social context. (As we have seen, Aristotle never fulfilled his promise to say more about common messes. Politics 8, which is about education, is generally considered incomplete. Perhaps the rest of Aristotle's discussion of common messes was [or was intended to be] in this book on education. If this is the case, then common messes obviously have an educational function.) If this were the case, then they may have been compulsory. A related purpose is the nurturing of civic friendship. The unity of the city depends on civic friendship, which in turn requires that citizens spend time together and gain knowledge of each other. Common messes would provide an excellent opportunity for this. (See, for instance, Politics 1313a41-b6; Nicomachean Ethics 1155a23-26, 1167a22-28. The Laws mentions education in courage and moderation; Laws 625c-626a, 635e-636a.) In the end, however, it is quite unclear whether common meals in Aristotle's view were meant to be compulsory, though most likely he would have hoped that people in the best city would be of such a character as to voluntarily participate in them.

(61) For example, if I claimed to be selling pure wine; it would be illegal for me to water it down.

(62) Those offices without which the city cannot exist; Politics 1321b6-7.

(63) Compare this to Theophrastus's Nomoi, which states that "the market-inspectors ([unkeyable]) must look after two things: good order in the market place, and honest dealing not only by the sellers but also by the buyers"; Theophrastus frag. 20 Szegedy-Maszak. For an earlier and not dissimilar view of [unkeyable], see Laws 759a, 764b, 849a-e, 881b-c, 913d, 917b-e, 920c, 936c, 953b.

(64) See Politics 1321b34-40; and Theophrastus frag. 21 S.-M. For what is probably a very accurate description of the functions of the market supervisors, see Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, vol. 4, p. 549. For [unkeyable], LSJ gives "orderly behavior," "good conduct," and "decency."

(65) Harrison, The Law of Athens, vol. 2, p. 25.

(66) Rhodes, Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia, 575-9.

(67) That is, putting aside fraud and such, a citizen is left at liberty to use his property as he will.

(68) Cf. Barnes, "Aristotle and Political Liberty," 258.

(69) On the functions of this office, cf. Laws 759a, 763c, 779c, 884b-c, 845e, 847a-b, 849a-b, 849e, 879d-e, 881c, 913d-914c, 936c, 954b-c.

(70) Barnes, "Aristotle and Political Liberty," 258-9.

(71) Athenian Constitution 50.2.

(72) See Harrison, The Law of Athens, vol. 2, p. 25.

(73) See note 69 above.

(74) See Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, vol. 4, pp. 550-1.

(75) Politics 1266b8-16, 1270a15-22, 1295b1-1296a18, 1309a14-26, 1319a8-10; Athenian Constitution 11.2-12.3. He also believes some restrictions on the alienation of property are justified; Politics 1270a18-21.

(76) See Miller, "Aristotle on Property Rights," 235-7.

(77) In Plato's Laws, any surplus above the limit goes to "the city and the gods who possess the city"; 744e-745a.

(78) See Politics 1258b35-39, 1328b39-41, 1337b8-15. Aristotle may have, in some circumstances, condoned the ostracizing of the wealthy. See Politics 1284a17-22, 1284b15-34, 1308b19; but cf. 1302b15-20. On the Peripatetic view of ostracism, see Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, The Nomoi of Theophrastus (Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1987), 52-4.

(79) See note 40 above.

(80) See Politics 1281a15-21, 1309a14-19, 1318a25-26, 1320a5-10.

(81) See, however, Ibid., 1320b2-4.

(82) Ibid., 1283a16-19, 1328b10-23. Cf. Athenian Constitution 24.3; and Rhodes, Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia, 301-2.

(83) See Politics 1309a14-26 and 6.5; and Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, vol. 4, pp. 399-400, 532.

(84) See Miller, "Aristotle on Property Rights," 240-5.

(85) He must also, to some degree, make laws controlling the habits of adults--for example, laws making them act moderately; see Nicomachean Ethics 1180a1-18.

(86) For texts showing that education is the responsibility of the legislator, see Politics 8.1; Nicomachean Ethics 1102a7-10, 1130b25-29, and 10.9.

(87) Cf., however, Nicomachean Ethics 1180a32-b31. This passage seems to conflict with what I have said in this essay and in "Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic" about Aristotle's views on individual independence. I believe there are three ways of interpreting the passage in light of this apparent contradiction: First, Aristotle is contradicting himself. In some places he says a free man is of himself and not of another (see Politics 1254a10-15; Metaphysics 982b25-26), whereas here he is saying a free man is not of himself but of another (of the city), which counts as despotic rule (see Irwin, "Property and Generosity," 44, n. 2). Second, however contradictory Aristotle may appear, this passage is strong evidence for the view that he really saw humans as mere parts of the city. This is the view of Barnes, who uses this passage as part of an argument for the view that Aristotle is an implicit totalitarian; Barnes, "Aristotle and Political Liberty," 262-3. Third, Aristotle is here presenting the relationship between the individual and the city in one special context: the education of the young. In this context alone one should consider ([unkeyable]) himself a mere part of the city. Although I cannot argue for it here, this is the view I accept.

(88) See Politics 1266b24-31. Cf. Laws 740a.

(89) I would like to thank Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, Henry Richardson, Gerald Mara, Nicholas Smith, John Christman, and Allan Gotthelf for their many helpful comments and criticisms. Any remaining errors are my own.
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Author:Mayhew, Robert
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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