March 12, 2011


me: Notes on Politics


   "If to do were as easy as to teach others what were good to be done, chapels had been churches, and poor men's cottages princes' palaces."
   -- Hazlitt quoting, while reviewing Owen's "A NEW View of Society" (aka Why socialism must fail)

I am still busy with Hazlitt's "Political Essays" - see the the TOC: The 12 mark has been passed - and suppose this may take a while. As it happens, I noted that, coincidentally or not, my own notes to Aristotle's Politics have been visited lately by quite a few, and as it also happens I got stuck with my notes in Book III of that classical text in June 2008 - or rather I made my notes to Book III, and then did no more, because of ME.

This is something else I should finish (and would have and could have if only I got some help), and as it is quite a few notes are instructive. I copy some, that may also serve to help show why I like Hazlitt and also how I differ some, namely in - probably - being of an even more theoretical bend of mind than he was.

I will select my quotations from my notes to Book III, and give them headings, and may extend them some. The blue text I quote is Aristotle's, in Jowett's translation, if preceded by a number, which is the number of the note, with the text quoted it annotates:

  1. That morals are not so relative as it seems
  2. How bad men may and do cooperate for the common good
  3. On the human desire for and corruption by power, also in (nominal) democracies
  4. The (Aristotelian) types of government and their corruptions
  5. That every government is an oligarchy
  6. The properties a government must have, in some fashion
  7. What human societies and governments are for
  8. On the main reasons why "laws, when good, should be supreme"
  9. That all human excellence is partial and limited
  10. Why most governments, states and constitutions fail

Also, the underlined numbers between square brackets if clicked lead to my Notes, of which there are 106 altogether to this Book III of Aristotle's Politics. The same applies to the underlined occurences of "Back" at the end of my notes, that are in black.

1. That morals are not so relative as it seems

[11] This community is the constitution; the virtue of the citizen must therefore be relative to the constitution of which he is a member. If, then, there are many forms of government, it is evident that there is not one single virtue of the good citizen which is perfect virtue.

Well, cynically but realistically one may insist that every community will insist that conformers to it and collaborators with it are - therefore - good, and therefore that even the most opposed constitutions share some values.

More importantly, in every community, whatever its ideals and values, there will be quite a few virtues, such as honesty, wit, kindness, probity, generosity, friendliness, courage, endurance and many more that will be admired and praised in the community, and indeed perhaps also, at least in individuals, by enemies of the community.

This can be illustrated by the following Humean table that is an outline of some of the qualities for a 'delineation or definition of Personal Merit' reduced to tabular form:

  Useful qualities Agreeable qualities
for others justice, fidelity, honour, veracity, allegiance, chastity, humanity, benevolence, lenity, generosity, gratitude, moderation, tenderness, friendship wit, affability, modesty

for self industry, discretion, frugality, secrecy, order, perseverance, forethought, judgement
serenity, cheerfulness, dignity, undaunted spirit, a tender affection, good-will


2. How bad men may and do cooperate for the common good

[13] If the state cannot be entirely composed of good men, and yet each citizen is expected to do his own business well, and must therefore have virtue, still inasmuch as all the citizens cannot be alike, the virtue of the citizen and of the good man cannot coincide. All must have the virtue of the good citizen -- thus, and thus only, can the state be perfect; but they will not have the virtue of a good man, unless we assume that in the good state all the citizens must be good.

This is perfectly good logic, which can be quite a lot extended along a line Aristotle did not think of, namely that of the Dutch Englishman, medical man and satirist Bernard Mandeville, whose thesis about the true causes of social welfare, social progress, riches and benefits is that these are all based on the human vices: People work out of greed, are polite out of self-interest and hypocrisy, keep the law from cowardice, try to make money from egoism, and so on - with the paradoxical consequence that they all profit from this, and contribute to each other's welfare.

Mandeville gave his basic argument in the form of a - didactic - poem in 1705. Here is one passage in which he outlines his general idea:

As Sharpers, Parasites, Pimps, Players,
Pick-Pockets, Coiners, Quacks, Sooth-Sayers,
And all those, that, in Enmity
With down-right Working, cunningly
Convert to their own Use the Labour
Of their good-natur'd heedless Neighbour:
These were called Knaves; but, bar the Name,
The grave Industrious were the Same.
All Trades and Places knew some Cheat,
No Calling was without Deceit.

One may be inclined to disagree with this, and many have done so, but it should be conceded that Mandeville has a point: Even if on average men are neither good nor noble, and - as the Heidelberger Protestant Cathechism has it - "they are prone to mischief, 'to every good work reprobate'", they may do good to one another, and contribute to each other's income and chances,  by cooperating to satisfy their own egoistic desires, and by checking and balancing the exercise of each other's evil tendencies by the very same.    Back.

3. On the human desire for and corruption by power, also in (nominal) democracies

[30] And so in politics: when the state is framed upon the principle of equality and likeness, the citizens think that they ought to hold office by turns. Formerly, as is natural, every one would take his turn of service; and then again, somebody else would look after his interest, just as he, while in office, had looked after theirs. But nowadays, for the sake of the advantage which is to be gained from the public revenues and from office, men want to be always in office.

Actually, why if "when the state is framed upon the principle of equality and likeness, the citizens think that they ought to hold office by turns" is not at all clear, except on a malapropriate notion of fairness:

Everyone who is not completely ignorant and dim knows that some men are better in doing this, and others in doing that, and that it will serve no one's interests if the weak try to or must do the work that need the strong, and the stupid try to or must do the thinking that requires the intelligent ones.

And note that this does not deny at all that in principle all (sane, healthy) adults should be qualified for all social functions, especially not with the additional conditions that, even so, usually some are more fit for the function than others, and that the best qualified should be chosen for the work that should benefit all or most.

Next, Aristotle is quite right that in general (with a few exceptions) "for the sake of the advantage which is to be gained from the public revenues and from office, men want to be always in office". For this, there are at least three reasons, all of which are quite important:

  • All men desire power - over others, over circumstances, and over themselves - generally because this gives them the best chances to serve their own interests, for socially power is the ability to make others do as one desires if and only if one desires that.
  • Most men desire prominence - honour, fame, status - and positions of power generally give men most social prominence.
  • "All power corrupts" (Lord Acton), in the sense Sancho Panza gave: "All men desire to command, if only a flock of sheep", and Daniel Defoe poetized:
         "Nature has left this tincture in the blood
         That all men would be tyrants if they could."        

4. The (Aristotelian) types of government and their corruptions

[35] Of the above-mentioned forms, the perversions are as follows: of royalty, tyranny; of aristocracy, oligarchy; of constitutional government, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all.

That is, we can set up the following table of kinds of governments:

                True form               Perversion
Royalty Tyranny
Aristocracy Oligarchy
Constitutional Democratic

It should be noted that Aristotle uses a double principle of classification, which is confusing: On the one hand, whether the one, the few or the many rule; on the other hand, whether the rulers act in the interest of the (many) poor or the (few) rich.

This requires several remarks.

First, there are human societies - e.g. theocracies and cloisters, or societies based on caste or nobility - where wealth is not the main ground to qualify for a position of power.

Second, Aristotle has argued, both implicitly and explicitly, that good government, whatever its type or form or membership, governs in the - legitimate - interests of all or most members of the society, and not in the interests of a relatively small subset of the society.

Third, and accordingly, the various types of government and governors may be deemed perverse in rough inverse proportion to the limited interests they serve: The smaller the group served, or the greater the power or income appropriated from the many for the few, the more perverse the government.

It is here notable, by the way, that in many ages and societies the majority of the population has mostly accepted for many generations that a small class or caste of aristocrats ("nobles") and priests or clergy ruled many, and received disproportionally much of the social product.

The reason for this acceptance of quite unfair systems of distributions of power and wealth are mostly ideological: The population often accepted and believed in large numbers that they were ruled by their betters, and that, therefore, the existing inequalities in wealth and power were somehow justified. (In English light literature for the masses, the trope of 'the natural characteristics of the born gentleman' is still common.)    Back.

5. That every government is an oligarchy

[38] For the real difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and wealth. Wherever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few or many, that is an oligarchy, and where the poor rule, that is a democracy. But as a fact the rich are few and the poor many; for few are well-to-do, whereas freedom is enjoyed by all, and wealth and freedom are the grounds on which the oligarchical and democratical parties respectively claim power in the state.

This involves two difficulties remarked upon before:

First, the double classification, namely by proportion of those in power (one, few, many) and by wealth.

Second, the fact that "the many" do not and never did rule, except by proxy, through representation, or at best by a majority of votes for deputies.

Also, there is another difficulty, that may be put as follows:

Third, in fact, with very few exceptions, and that only in exceptional circumstances, every government is an oligarchy, that is, a government of the few over the many, for kings need ministers and executives and advisors, that make any king effectively into the frontman of a group that exercises the power, and no majority can in practice govern, even if the few that govern do so in the name of, and with tje consent of, the democratic majority.

Consequently, it seems best to divide kinds of governments by some other principle, relating to how those in power constitutionally or legally come to power and are removed from power, and according to what freedoms, rights and duties people in the society have and can exercise.

Basic questions here are: Whether or not the leadership can be removed peacefully by the led; whether such removals happen periodically or conditionally; whether they happen by majority or by merits (some supposedly qualified gremium); and whether there are freedoms of opinion, publication, congregation, cooperation, habeas corpus and others.    Back.

6. The properties a government must have, in some fashion

[44] It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families and aggregations of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life. Such a community can only be established among those who live in the same place and intermarry. Hence arise in cities family connections, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together. But these are created by friendship, for the will to live together is friendship. The end of the state is the good life, and these are the means towards it. And the state is the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honorable life.

Note first Aristotle's definition of what

  • "a state" is: "a community of families and aggregations of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life"

from which he derives the additional properties that, in order to do this properly a state (or also: society, commonwealth, for the usage is somewhat varying) must have most or all of the following (sorts of) properties - and the "must have" in each case is a stipulated necessary condition to use the term properly:

A state or society of any considerable complexity and extensive membership:

  • must have a territory in which people intermarry with "family connections, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together";
  • must have (legal) rules for "the prevention of mutual crime ";
  • must have institutions that enable "exchange" of many kinds, and cooperations of many kinds, between groups and individuals;
  • must have some shared ends, values, ideals, assumptions and traditions, which
  • must have - for more complex societies - some articulated constitution, that says what the society is for, and some system of laws, that says what people in it may and may not do, in general, and in specific conditions, and that are in principle known to all (sane, adult) members, and that form part of an accepted social agreements or traditions;
  • must be geared to the end of enabling its members to lead "a perfect and self-sufficing life" since this, a "happy and honorable life" by means of human cooperation, agreement and "friendship", is the conscious end of human society, and of consciously chosen human desires to be social;
  • must have some small group of leaders that has the effective power in the society, through which its members can be coordinated, be led, and be kept acting within the bounds of the laws, by means of a somewhat larger group that executes the desires of the leaders, and that maintains the coordination, action and existence of the whole group.

Note that the prime perversions of a state (society, group) will be as regards the proportion or kinds of its members to lead "a perfect and self-sufficing life": All, some, a few, primarily the leaders and executives, restricted or not as regards race, religion, beliefs, sex, opportunities, chances, education etcetera - and note that these are fundamental questions, because they concern (distributive) justice, which is the foundation of ethics.    Back.

7. What human societies and governments are for

[45] Our conclusion, then, is that political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship. Hence they who contribute most to such a society have a greater share in it than those who have the same or a greater freedom or nobility of birth but are inferior to them in political virtue; or than those who exceed them in wealth but are surpassed by them in virtue.

Note first

  • Our conclusion, then, is that political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship.

which is to say that

  • a "political society exists" to do good in the sense of existing in order to improve the chances and the lives of its members

Consequently - it seems - those who are best in society are not necessarily those who are rich or prominent, but those who do most good, where it also should be noted that it follows from the above stipulations that, in principle, at least the majority of - the sane adult members of - a human society agree in principle on some ideals and some specification of the goods a society is supposed to do, further, or maintain, and on  their relative importance, and the means of bringing them about and protecting them, and on some of the natural reality this is supposed to happen in, and on some of the basic characteristics and capacities and needs of human beings, and perhaps also (and historically often, so far), on a supernatural reality that is appealed to as some ultimate justification or reason for what is and should be the case.

Note also that a more complex society is generally a society of societies - a group of groups of persons, such as: families, clubs, villages, congregations, neighbourhoods, firms, teams, cooperatives, institutions - generally consisting of many face-groups, many roles, many exchanges and kinds of interactions and cooperations, and many sorts of rewards and punishments for acts well or ill performed, while all such human groups will tend to have many of the properties listed above for states:

  • In human groups that are coordinated there will tend to be some territory, where members meet and interact, some rules of behaviour, some kinds of coordinated interactions, some shared ends, values, ideals, assumptions and traditions, and some leadership, some set of executives, and normally many more members of that group, institution, club, or society, who do most of the work of that group or who perform most of the acts of the group. 

And all or most of this is uniquely human, and requires natural language, and the abilities and willingness to interact peacefully, to cooperate, and to proceed by rational discussion, and to have some shared agreements and principles of behaviour, language and interaction, for mutual benefit or interest.

It is also this that enables human beings to become human persons, which tends to require some twenty years of learning and training, at least, normally, in complex societies, and which consists in the ability to play many roles in a society in a proper way, and thus to make more of one's talents and possibilities than one could do otherwise, and also to contribute to one's own and others well-being by cooperating for shared ends and agreed upon procedures and reasons.    Back.

8. On the main reasons why "laws, when good, should be supreme"

[60] The discussion of the first question shows nothing so clearly as that laws, when good, should be supreme; and that the magistrate or magistrates should regulate those matters only on which the laws are unable to speak with precision owing to the difficulty of any general principle embracing all particulars.

Note the main reasons why "laws, when good, should be supreme":

- because they have been deliberately reasoned out and adopted
- because they go beyond private or limited interests
- because they are supported by tradition and past social consent
- because they have not been compiled for the case in question
- because they have been publicly declared as standards


[100] Therefore he who bids the law rule may be deemed to bid God and Reason alone rule, but he who bids man rule adds an element of the beast; for desire is a wild beast, and passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men.

Quite so, and this is again a major argument for the thesis that no single men should rule, except in extra-ordinary circumstances, and that also no single institution or group should rule, but rather power must be divided in such a manner that different men and different institutions are capable of keeping each other in check and balance.

The answer to Juvenal's "Quis custodiet ipse custodes?" is in the end:

Other guards from other institutions, or members of the public. But the last option becomes impracticable if the public is unarmed and divided, and the government armed and organized, as is the case in modern Western democracies, except Switzerland and the US.     Back.

[101] The law is reason unaffected by desire. We are told that a patient should call in a physician; he will not get better if he is doctored out of a book. But the parallel of the arts is clearly not in point; for the physician does nothing contrary to rule from motives of friendship; he only cures a patient and takes a fee; whereas magistrates do many things from spite and partiality.

This is a good (partial) definition of the law: "The law is reason unaffected by desire", and it should be understood why this is or may be so. Namely, because (1) the laws have been articulated to judge fairly about individual interests, rights and duties, without having an specific personal interest as concern and because (2) the exercise of the law is by qualified persons without any special personal interests in the outcomes of the cases they judge, other than that the laws have been fairly, publicly and on the basis of relevant knowledge applied.

Also, it is good to see that Aristotle was not at all blind to the failings of leaders and bureaucrats: "magistrates do many things from spite and partiality". And indeed, the reason that magistrates may and can do so, and have considerable power, often ill-controlled, is one major reason why bad people are much interested in becoming a magistrate or leading bureaucrat.    Back.

9. That all human excellence is partial and limited

[72] In an aristocracy, or government of the best, a like difficulty occurs about virtue; for if one citizen be better than the other members of the government, however good they may be, he too, upon the same principle of justice, should rule over them. And if the people are to be supreme because they are stronger than the few, then if one man, or more than one, but not a majority, is stronger than the many, they ought to rule, and not the many.

These are not Aristotle's convictions, but problems he raises.

In any case, the brief answer to this manner of difficulty - say "so and so is a grandmaster of chess, and therefore eminently fit to be prime minister" - is answered by the factual consideration that, as men are, absolutely no one excells all or most in most or a majority of his qualities. All human excellence is partial and limited.

"Particular talent or genius does not imply general capacity. Those who are most versatile are seldom great in any one department; and the stupidest people can generally do something. The highest pre-eminence in any one study commonly arises from the concentration of the attention and faculties on that one study. He who expects from a great name in politics, in philosophy, in art, equal greatness in other things, is little versed in human nature." (Hazlitt, Characteristics)

Besides, those who belief in the best government by the best in the interest of all, should also realize that

"The greatest talents do not generally attain to the highest stations. For though high, the ascent to them is narrow, beaten, and crooked. The path of genius is free and his own. Whatever requires the concurrence and cooperation of others, must depend chiefly on routine and an attention to rules and minutiae. Success in business is therefore seldom owing to uncommon talents or original power, which is untractable and self-willed, but to the greatest degree of the common-place capacity." (Hazlitt, Characteristics)

and that (from the same source):

"The difficulty is for a man to rise to high station, not to fill it; as it is easier to stand on an eminence than to climb up to it."


10. Why most governments, states and constitutions fail

[84] There is another sort of monarchy not uncommon among the barbarians, which nearly resembles tyranny. But this is both legal and hereditary. For barbarians, being more servile in character than Hellenes, and Asiatics than Europeans, do not rebel against a despotic government. Such royalties have the nature of tyrannies because the people are by nature slaves; but there is no danger of their being overthrown, for they are hereditary and legal.

The reason why "barbarians, being more servile in character than Hellenes, and Asiatics than Europeans" is presumambly the one Chamfort borrowed from the Lacedemonians:

"Presque tous les hommes sont esclaves, par la raison que les Spartiates donnaient de la servitude des Perses, faute de savoir prononcer la syllabe non. Savoir prononcer ce mot et savoir vivre seul sont les deux seuls moyens de conserver sa liberté et son charactère."

See also under [82].    Back.

So as you may have gleaned, I did annotate Politics, but I should do more of it - and would if I could. As it is, most of the above you won't read from others who live now - or if there is something that seems like it, it tends to be diluted or superficial. For more related to politics on this site, see inter alia:

P.S. Any needed corrections must be made later.

As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):

1. Anthony Komaroff

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)

3. Hillary Johnson

The Why

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

6. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7. Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)

Short descriptions:

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:
   "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence".
7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.

    "Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!

No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.
I ask the Earth, have not the mountains felt?
I ask yon Heaven, the all-beholding Sun,
Has it not seen? The Sea, in storm or calm,
Heaven's ever-changing Shadow, spread below,
Have its deaf waves not heard my agony?
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!
     - (Shelley, "Prometheus Unbound") 

    "It was from this time that I developed my way of judging the Chinese by dividing them into two kinds: one humane and one not. "
     - (Jung Chang)


See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources

Maarten Maartensz (M.A. psy, B.A. phi)

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