For Aristotle private property was about more than economic gains.

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Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Editor for Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Most of his work focuses on examining thinkers who predate classical liberalism but still articulate broadly liberal attitudes and principles. He is the host of Portraits of Liberty, a podcast about uncovering and exploring underrated figures throughout history who have argued for a freer world. His writing covers a broad range of topics, including proto‐​feminist writers, Classical Greece and Rome’s influence on the American Founding, ancient Chinese Philosophy, tyrannicide, and the first argument for basic income.

Budding students of philosophy are usually advised to start with the Greeks. When people say the Greeks, they usually mean Plato and Aristotle, two philosophers whose importance cannot be denied. Alfred North Whitehead once stated that all of philosophy is but footnotes to Plato. Unlike his predecessors, Plato focused his attention on human affairs rather than either physics or metaphysics. In a way, he drew philosophy away from the purely divine into the realm of human endeavor.

And whenever Plato is mentioned in conversation, Aristotle usually follows shortly thereafter ( although this does not imply any degree of primacy on the part of Plato). Bryan Magee wrote of Aristotle, “It is doubtful whether any human being has ever known as much as he did.” This is no idle boast. Throughout his writings, Aristotle discusses poetry, rhetoric, politics, ethics, logic, biology, and zoology.

The two philosophers are considered geniuses in their own right, but they disagreed on the particulars of how best to live a virtuous life. One of their most fundamental disagreements–and one that is particularly pertinent for libertarians and classical liberals–is the disparity between how each appraised private property. Plato’s ideal republic is marked by communal ownership, at least for a sect of society. On the other hand, Aristotle denigrates communally owned property.

Most modern defenses of private property are utilitarian, using efficiency and economic growth as the key measures of private property’s worth as an institution. I believe instead that libertarians and classical liberals should absorb Aristotle’s arguments in favor of private property because that is where he locates a key source not just of prosperity but of civic harmony and virtue as well.

Plato’s Ideal Republic

In Plato’s most famous work, Republic, he describes the ideal city and how its various institutions ensure social harmony. For Plato, a principal obstacle to harmony is the disunity and discord caused by privatization and particularity, vices that he believed to be promoted by private property ownership. To guarantee harmony, Plato explains the necessity of a noble lie, a fictional story that justified society’s stratification. According to Plato’s noble lie, there are metals within one’s soul that correspond to their role in greater society. Many scholars since Plato’s time have interpreted the noble lie as a form of political propaganda used to justify a strict hierarchy. A more sympathetic interpretation would be that regardless of whether one possesses a soul of gold, bronze, or silver, they all came from the same mother and are, therefore, all brothers and sisters. Although extreme social stratification is the result, Plato’s intent is for the citizens of his ideal republic to “regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self‐​same earth.”

Plato divides the people into three categories corresponding to their given role, that of producer, auxiliary, or guardian. The majority of people are producers and thus charged with making and maintaining the necessary goods for a well‐​functioning state. The auxiliaries act as the military and police force of the state, defending it from external threats and enforcing the law at home. Lastly, and most importantly, the guardians are the most rational class, those who are in charge of maintaining and guiding the state.

The Guardians and Platonic Communism

The Guardians are supposed to adopt a strict lifestyle that disavows particularity in all aspects of life. They are not to hold any private possessions and are only to procreate at state‐​appointed times with state‐​appointed partners. The state‐​sanctioned offspring of these liaisons will have their identities hidden so that no guardian can show favoritism to any of their possible children. Guardians are strictly prohibited from using gold or silver of any kind and cannot engage in any sort of money‐​making activity. They are strictly limited to the duties of guiding the republic. Plato believed the guardians would be successful when they said, “It is mine,” about the same things as every other guardian; in other words, an extreme form of communal ownership. By associating their own wellbeing as synonymous with the wealth of the city as a whole, Guardians avoided disunity. Plato sums up the guardian’s duties with a proverb attributed to Pythagoras, who stated: “Friends share everything they can.”

Plato reasons that any boon to the common good would also be a gain to guardians, preventing them from becoming an exploitative elite. Deprived of wealth, the guardians would now depend upon the people they rule over for sustenance. Ideally, this separation of wealth and power would create a healthy interdependence between classes and solidify unity.

Communism for the Guardians, Capitalism for the Rest of Us?

Most scholars believe that this Platonic proto‐​communism only applies to the guardians, while the rest of society may hold private property and deal with money, and precious metals. But Plato is by no means giving the other classes a blank check to pursue individual wealth at any cost. An example of one of Plato’s stringent regulations is that all foreign currency is to be held by the state, and lending of money is strictly prohibited. Economic activity is to be strictly regulated for the common good. Excessive wealth in either the hands of the state or the individual is a danger. According to Plato, “to be extremely virtuous and exceptionally rich at the same time is absolutely out of the question.” Plato regarded both poverty and affluence as damaging vices. Thus even when private property is permitted, it is to be carefully managed.

The Happy Life & External Goods

Within his seminal work that is simply entitled Politics, Aristotle articulates a rather different position on systems of property. Unlike Plato, Aristotle did not view private property with such ire. Additionally, he appreciated that a certain degree of affluence is required for a good life. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines a happy person as “the one whose activities accord with complete virtue, with an adequate supply of external goods, in a complete life.” Philosophical virtue is essential, but Aristotle does not believe we can ignore lacking a certain degree of wealth for a happy life. Virtue is its own reward, but could a person living righteously yet in destitution consider themselves happy? But Aristotle’s appreciation of affluence has its limits. He detests those who work to gain more money given that they chase an ever‐​moving target that will always be beyond their reach. According to Aristotle, chasing wealth for its own sake is detestable, but working towards sufficiency, comfort, and independence is commendable.

Against today’s scholarly consensus, Aristotle saw Plato as advocating for full communal ownership for all ranks of society, not just for the guardians. Some such as Robert Mayhew have defended Aristotle in arguing that Plato’s position on private property and the lower classes are ambiguous. Regardless of whether Plato mandated communal property for all classes, that is how Aristotle interpreted his writings. What matters is that Aristotle provided a critique against collectively owned property amongst the masses, one of the keystones of later communist and socialist thought. Aristotle rejected Plato’s arguments for communal ownership on the grounds that this arrangement is both impractical in its implementation, and, even if it was successful, its outcome would not be desirable.

Vice, Not Property is the Issue

Plato argued that private property was a catalyst for the disunity and vice which marred political communities. Aristotle explains that while ideas of communally owned property “may seem attractive, and might seem to display a love of humanity,” he thought Plato was making a mistake by attributing the natural vices of humans to a system of private property. Aristotle presses further by asserting that communal property will cause more disunity than private property because “we see that those who own and share communal property have far more disagreements than those whose property is separate.” Similarly, when responding to Phaleas of Chalcedon, who was an advocate of equalizing property in an attempt to greatly reduce crime, Aristotle explains that the worst of crimes are not committed for necessities but instead for superfluities. As Aristotle explains, “Men do not become tyrants to avoid the exposure of cold.” In short, the most egregious crimes people commit are not due to necessity but usually out of a desire for vice, a universal quality caused by deficient habituation and education, and which is at least partially independent from whatever system of property is implemented in a given state.

Would Sharing Bring More Unity?

Plato believed his system of collective property would promote unity, the key value of the ideal state. However, if property is owned collectively, Aristotle fears that without clear rules, ambiguity would lead to conflict. If several people put a varying amount of effort into a collective project, are they all entitled to an equal share of the output despite differences in their level of input? Aristotle states that “it is a fact of common observation that those who own common property, and share in its management, are far more at variance with one another than those who have property separately.” Private property unambiguously allocates resources, while collective ownership can lead to disputes over what each person deserves.

Aristotle anticipates the later 19th‐​century British economist William Forster Lloyd’s tragedy of the commons by arguing that what is owned communally is likely to be neglected. Simply put, Aristotle mimicking the future writings of Lloyd writes that “People pay most attention to what is their own; they care less for what is common.” Aristotle aptly notes that “people give most attention to their own property, less to what is communal, or only as much as it falls to them to give.” In addition to this, “the thought that someone else is attending to it makes them neglect it more.” Communally owned property does not rid humans of conflict, and, in fact, it can introduce novel issues that would have been absent in a system of private ownership. But Aristotle goes a step further. He argues that even if Plato’s system of communal ownership did not suffer from these practical considerations, it would still not be desirable.

Private Property & Generosity

Private or communal ownership in both Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy is not merely a system that is chosen based on its ability to distribute and produce goods. It must also promote virtue. Advocates of private property are often decried by their detractors as greedy and miserly. But for Aristotle, private property was a tool for developing one’s sense of generosity. When balanced by “good habits and good laws,” private property is a force for charity, generosity, and liberality. If we all own things communally, I am not generous when I part with something because I am giving away what already belongs to another. You cannot be generous with another person’s possessions.

Imagine you were on a business trip with the company credit card. You leave a hefty tip for a struggling waitress using your company card. This was not your money to give but also you feel none of the consequences, so can you truly be called generous? Virtuous people will help their friends, family, and even strangers when they have resources that are distinctly their own. Aristotle writes that “such kindness and help become possible only when property is privately owned.” Therefore, possessing property independent from the claims of the state or other individuals is necessary to promote the humane virtues of charity and generosity.

Aristotle’s ideal system of property is one in which “we own possessions privately, but make them common by our use of them.” At first blush, Aristotle’s meaning is unclear. Is he arguing for some sort of proto‐​social democracy as later authors such as Martha Nussbaum have argued? No, because Aristotle’s use of the phrase “common use” does not extend to others a right to take or make use of one’s property without the original owner’s permission. Instead, Aristotle is arguing that virtuous people will share amongst friends and fellow citizens of their own accord. He emphasizes property will be private, but citing Pythagoras, he assures us that when virtue is concerned, “friends will share everything in common.” Unlike Plato, who says friends possess everything in common, Aristotle stresses that only virtue will make this a reality. What Aristotle meant by private ownership and common use is that people will hold onto their properties, but, through voluntary acts of generosity and promoted by good education, citizens will avoid being greedy or miserly and instead will share their resources amongst friends, family, fellow citizens, and the needy when required.

Beyond Efficiency

Though what Plato proposed was a far cry from communism as we know it today, Plato’s ideal class of guardians did embody a kind of proto‐​communist belief in the abolition of private property. As Marx would later write in the Communist Manifesto, “The theory of Communism may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Though Aristotle lived two millennia before Marx ever penned these words, he understood that abolishing private property would have far‐​reaching consequences for any society that chose this radical path.

Aristotle explained how communally owned property caused a great deal more antagonism than its private counterparts. As well as causing conflict, communally owned property tended to reduce economic output due to increased neglect due to the lack of an incentive to invest more labor into a given project. What I believe is more impressive and fundamental to Aristotle’s critique of Plato–and ought to be applied to later critics of private property–is that Aristotle’s fundamental case for private property, while enhanced by considerations of efficiency, does not rest solely on a utilitarian calculation of benefits. Instead, property is elevated beyond a mere matter of economic efficiency into an institution that promotes the virtuous cultivation of the other‐​regarding behavior that is vital for a compassionate civil society’s social cohesion.

Aristotle’s philosophical views were absorbed and synthesized by a variety of thinkers and traditions throughout the western world. In many ways, Aristotle oriented future discussions of the desirability of private property. It is possible to overstate Aristotle’s defense of private property; he believed the arguments for private property were contingent, that just because private property can be efficient and promote virtue, that does not mean it is guaranteed to do so. He was by no means a natural rights theorist on this topic;nonetheless, to ignore Aristotle is to ignore the beginnings of the longstanding debate over systems of private and communal property ownership. His arguments offer a perspective outside of economic gains, focusing on forging harmony in society and promoting generosity, a virtue we can hardly underrate and one that is rarely considered in the context of the argument for private property.