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Plato and Aristotle on Private Property (Very Rough Draft)

While Plato is well-known for his theory of Forms (or Ideas or Eidae) and for being the biographer of Socrates, and many also are familiar with his Allegory of the Cave, one of his lesser known theories is actually far more radical: endorsement of the complete dissipation of private property, including family relations.

Robert Nisbet lays out the Platonic conception of asceticism: “there must be willingness to forgo money and property, except as these, or rather the material goods they command, are required for bodily health.” This is coupled with Plato’s vision of absolute communism: a “prescription of communal property, communal dwelling places, communal pursuits… communal sex and child rearing … permanent unions of the two sexes are banned.” [Nisbet: 14] While many since Plato have argued for dissolution of private property (as I’ll lay out in other chapters), he stands virtually alone in his radical call for communal family relations.

Some, including historian R. N. Carew Hunt, have identified Plato’s views with the theory of communism. Says Hunt, “Communism as an ideal reaches back to the very beginning of western political thought, when Plato conceived the most famous of all Utopias in his Republic. As soon as men are capable of serious reflection, the inequalities of human life become apparent and are seen largely to derive from private property.” [Hunt: 25] In fact, the ideal of communism predates even Plato. Phaleas of Chalcedon thought “it was economic troubles which led to civil dissention; and he accordingly proposed the equalisation of property in land.” This was to be done in new colonies, and established countries could do so by regulating dowries — requiring the rich to give them, but not the poor. Phaleas thought “there should also be equality of access to a uniform education for every citizen.” [Barker: 44]

But is it fair to paint Plato as a proto-communist (in the modern sense)? In Plato’s defense (although not rejecting the idea that Plato is anti-capitalist), Nisbet writes:

“[The spirit of revolutionary nihilism] extended to the kind of free, largely unregulated capitalism that existed in Athens in Plato’s time. There is no room for capitalism or for any other system of unchecked private property in his political community. This does not necessarily mean Plato was a socialist or a communist, much less a fascist. These words are modern coinages and cannot easily be applied to ideas and structures of Plato’s day. It is sufficient to observe that Plato opposed private property on precisely the same ground that he opposed all other manifestations of traditional society around him: he thought they would, one and all, militate against the king of spiritual unity necessary to the political community.” [Nisbet: 9]

The lack of such terms as “socialist”, “communist” and “capitalist” have not stopped modern man from injecting today’s beliefs into the previous era. Certainly, the argument can be made that Plato was, at least in some respects, a socialist. “It has indeed been suggested [by Pohlmann] that the mainspring of the Republic is Plato’s aversion to contemporary capitalism — that his aim is the reprobation of the economic man, and the substitution of a socialistic motive. This would make the Republic an economic treatise; and the author of the suggestion enforces his point by attempting to show that in contemporary Greece the struggle between Oligarchy and Democracy represented a struggle of capital and labour, and that in Plato we find a vivid sense of the evils of this struggle and an attempt to deal with those evils by means of socialistic remedies. Hence, he thinks, comes the attack on private property, and the abolition of the use of gold [by the guardians]. Aristotle, equally with Plato, is brought into line with this theory; for, though he does not commit himself to the socialistic attack upon property, yet he puts his faith in an agricultural regime; he attacks money in the very spirit of Plato; and he even goes beyond Plato, in attacking trade as a species of robbery.” [Barker: 84]

Furthermore, “it may be argued that fundamentally the same object characterises both Plato and the modern socialist. That object is, in a word, solidarity. The socialist aims at destroying the unchecked competition of individual with individual in the economic sphere, exactly as Plato sought to destroy, in the field of politics, the competition for power between one selfish unit and another; he aims at eliminating the gospel of the ‘economic man,’ as Plato sought to eliminate the preaching that might was right. Socialism attempts to realise the conception of a social whole, of which each man feels himself a member, and of a common interest, in securing which each man secures his own: Plato attempted to realise the same conception.” [Barker: 142]

But the methods differ. Modern socialism “demands an equal division of material goods, for the sake of an equal diffusion of material happiness. Plato demands an equal abnegation of material goods.” [Barker: 507] In other words, socialists strive for each man to acquire wealth, whereas Plato preached asceticism: the goal was not to gain more, but to live with less.

And Plato was fully aware of the difference between an ideal and reality, of course. Communism “is the ideal; and in sketching any new possibility one must keep as close to that ideal as possible. The second possibility, whatever it may be, is left to future consideration: the third is adopted in the Laws. Private possession of inalienable lots, with a limitation of the number of offspring as its safeguard, is this third possibility; but every owner of a lot must feel that it is common to the whole of the State, as well as his own property.” [Barker: 197] This final conception, the one Plato believed was realistic, is not far removed from Aristotle’s maxim that we should strive for “private possession, common use”.

Aristotle Responds

With regards to community and private property, Aristotle stands in direct opposition to his teacher, as he had on many topics.

Aristotle accepts the presupposition, at least for this argument, that “the highest achievement of the political community is its absolute unity”. [Nisbet: 20] But even accepting this hypothesis, Aristotle doesn’t agree that the best way to achieve such unity is through communal or collective ownership of property, spouses and children. Furthermore, he argues that private ownership would “be more easily and realistically manageable for the government”. [Nisbet: 20]

Aristotle writes, in Politics:

“For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.”

Many of us may have personal anecdotes that can illustrate Aristotle’s point. For example, I spent many years working in a warehouse that received, stored and sold tires. The receivers did their jobs, the inventory people did theirs and the sellers did theirs. Because the jobs did not directly overlap, regards for the next man in line were not a priority. Receivers would cram tires into locations that were not easily accessible for those who had to find the product. Sellers might tip over tires while looking for their order, but not clean them up as inventory was not their concern. With nobody having a private interest in the tires, any problems that resulted would often all upon the next person in line, despite the fact problems could be much more quickly solved (or often diverted) if the prior person took responsibility.

Aristotle is unsurprisingly even more concerned when the issue of community ownership falls to families. He writes that, “Anybody will be equally the son of anybody, and will therefore be neglected by all alike.” To explain this in a more extreme way, suppose a man were to father a thousand children: each would be the responsibility of the community, but none would be directly the responsibility of the man. This provides the community with an unfair burden: why should one man be allowed to act irresponsibly while all others are given the responsibility?

Aristotle also argues that this communal living would diminish the “kinship principle” and ultimately lead to the death of love. Aside from the intrinsic value of love, it has utility as well: love acts as a strong social constraint, keeping people more mindful of those around them. Children of the 1960s might argue that communal living only further spreads love, and they may be right, but this seems unlikely without a complete overhaul or revolution of the values of society.

Aristotle draws a parallel between the love in private relationships and the love of property. He argues we have a personal relationship with our property and a desire to be protective of it, something we feel much less in a communal setting. Nisbet sums up Aristotle’s view as: “Property that is the possession of all is nobody’s.”

Further Analysis

aristoltle didn’t see problems others did (rousseau, for example)

future thinkers would follow in the path of these two, making arguments more refined and often less extreme than all-community or all-private

Sources

Barker, Ernest. Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle. Dover Publications, 1959.

Hunt, R. N. Carew. The Theory and Practice of Communism. Pelican Books, 1950; reprinted 1966.

Nisbet, Robert. The Social Philosophers: Community & Conflict in Western Thought. Washington Square Press, 1982.

Also try another article under Philosophical, Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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