Aristotle and Plato Communism

Aristotle and Plato Communism

Probably the most discussed phase of that part of Greek philosophy which has distinct economic bearing is communism. As this subject has a close relationship to the question of social solidarity and individualism, it is naturally mentioned in this connection.

Plato and Aristotle differed greatly in their ideas as to the scope to be given communism. Plato desired a complete com­munism, embracing not only property, but also wives and children. He did not give the details of his scheme for com­munism in property. He made it clear, however, that his object was to promote harmony by removing the ground for civil suits and uniting all citizens by common interests. His ideal state is characterized by a community of wives and children, partly with the aim of diminishing discord and jealousy, partly with the idea of eugenics and control of population. "The children of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be. . . . This must be done if the breed of guardians is to be kept pure." Thus Plato's communism did not stand for an absolute mechanical equality, but recognized authority and class distinctions.

Aristotle was entirely opposed to Plato's communism of wives, and did not go any great way with him as to property. His arguments against communism are classic.

"Next let us consider what should be our arrangements about property: should the citizens of the perfect state have their posses­sions in common or not? This question may be discussed separately from the enactments about women and children. Even supposing that the women and children belong to individuals, according to the custom which is at present universal, may there not be an advantage in having and using possessions in common? Three cases are pos­sible: (1) The soil may be appropriated, but the produce may be thrown for consumption into the common stock; and this is the practice of some nations. Or (2) the soil may be common, and may be cultivated in common, but the produce divided among individuals for their private use; this is a form of common property which is said to exist among certain barbarians. Or (3) the soil and the produce may be alike common.

"When the husbandmen are not the owners, the case will be dif­ferent and easier to deal with; but when they till the ground them­selves the question of ownership will give a world of trouble. If they do not share equally in enjoyments and toils, those who labour much and get little will necessarily complain of those who labour little and receive or consume much. There is always a difficulty in men living together and having things in common, but especially in their having common property. The partnerships of fellow-travellers are an example to the point; for they generally fall out by the way and quarrel about any trifle which turns up. So with servants: we are most liable to take offence at those with whom we most frequently come into contact in daily life.

"These are only some of the disadvantages which attend the com­munity of property; the present arrangement, if improved, as it might be by good customs and laws, would be far better, and would have the advantages of both systems. Property should be in a cer­tain sense common, but, as a general rule, private; for, when every one has a distinct interest, men will not complain of one another, and they will make more progress, because every one will be attend­ing to his own business; and yet among the good, and respect of use, 'Friends,' as the proverb says, 'will have all things common.' Even now there are traces of such a principle, showing that it is not impracticable, but, in well-ordered states, exists already to a certain extent and may be carried further. For, although every man has his own property, some things he will place at the disposal of his friends, while of others he shares the use with them. The Lacedaemonians, for example, use one another's slaves, and horses, and dogs, as if they were their own; and when they happen to be in the country, they appropriate in the fields whatever provisions they want. It is clearly better that property should be private, but the use of it com­mon; and the special business of the legislator is to create in men this benevolent disposition. Again, how immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own; for the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and not given in vain, although selfishness is rightly censured; this, however, is not the mere love of self, but the love of self in excess, like the miser's love of money; for all, or almost all, men love money, and other such objects in a measure. And further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or 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. Two virtues are annihilated in such a state; first, temperance towards women (for it is an honourable action to abstain from another's wife for temperance' sake); secondly, liberality in the matter of property."

Aristotle, it will be observed, although opposing Plato's ideas, did not rush to the opposite extremes. Some things should be private; some should be held in common. He desired that more things should be common than there then were, and protested against the excessive individualism of the Greeks. He advocated common meals, and especially noteworthy is his wish for a cer­tain community in the use of property along with its private ownership.

Aristotle did not confuse the end, happiness, with the means, as radical reformers are so apt to do. Thus he did not stand for an equality in goods, but for equality in want-satisfactions, a position which is in accord with idealism in that it recognizes the importance of differences in the wants of different individuals. It must not for a moment be fancied that these ancient philosophers thought of communism as implying any general democracy. Quite the reverse. There were three classes of men fashioned in the bowels of the earth, one of gold, another of silver, the third of iron or copper. These were, respectively, the philosophers or guardians, the warriors or auxiliaries, and the artisans and tradesmen. Such communism as they advocated was to be applied to the first two alone. It was an aristocratic communism. Slavery was considered to be " natural."