Mar 4, 2016
Ayn Rand on Aristotle
Smith examines some of Rand’s claims about the beneficial influence of Aristotle’s ideas on the course of Western civilization.
According to Aristotle, “there are certain people who are free and certain who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves.” As David Brion Davis, a leading historian of slavery, noted in Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford, 2006, p. 54), this conclusion by Aristotle would have an “immeasurable influence in Western culture.” Even “in the 1200s, at the very time when chattel slavery was disappearing from northwestern Europe, Christian theologians revived and made extensive use of many of Aristotle’s propositions.”
It is significant that Aristotle’s theory of slavery formed the framework for the momentous debate in Spain, in 1550-51, between Juan Ginés Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas, on whether American Indians had been created to be natural slaves….And while it would be absurd to blame Aristotle for all the uses to which his writings have been put, he did eventually provide the conceptual basis for much nineteenth-century Southern proslavery ideology and scientific theories of racial inferiority (Davis, p. 57).
Aristotle’s defense of slavery was based on the theory that some peoples were “congenitally incapable of reasoning” and so were intended by nature to be slaves. These natural slaves (certain tribes of “barbarians”) were inferior both mentally and physically to Greeks. Inferior peoples are suited only for “the menial duties of life,” so they should be treated as “animate article[s] of property,” as we would treat domesticated animals. It is “nature’s intention” that those “who are superior in goodness” (owing to their superior mental abilities) “ought to rule over, and be the master of, his inferiors.” Moreover, slavery, in addition to being just, actually benefits the inferior classes, since it enables them to partake of the superior abilities of their natural masters.
Ayn Rand detested racism, which she denounced as “an evil, irrational and morally contemptible doctrine” (“Racism,” in The Virtue of Selfishness). And slavery, needless to say, was an “enormous evil.” Now, given that Aristotle was quite possibly the most influential defender of slavery and racism in the history of Western civilization, should we therefore conclude that Aristotle himself was evil, irrational, and morally contemptible? This conclusion might seem justified, given how Rand condemned Kant as “the most evil man in mankind’s history” (The Objectivist, Sept. 1971), but this is not how Rand assessed Aristotle. On the contrary, she described Aristotle as “a philosophical Atlas who carries the whole of Western civilization on his shoulders.” She continued: “Whatever intellectual progress men have achieved rests on his achievements…. Whenever his influence dominated the scene, it paved the way for one of history’s brilliant eras; whenever it fell, so did mankind.” (“Review of Randall’s Aristotle,” in The Voice of Reason.)
In Rand’s generally favorable review of the book Aristotle (1960), by the distinguished historian of philosophy John Herman Randall, Jr., she took issue with Randall’s “shocking….assertion that Aristotle is an advocate of the welfare state.” Rand curtly replied: “Whatever flaws there are in Aristotle’s political theory—and there are many—he does not deserve that kind of indignity.”
Professor Randall, who stresses that knowledge must rest on empirical evidence, should take cognizance of the empirical fact that throughout history the influence of Aristotle’s philosophy (particularly of his epistemology) has led in the direction of individual freedom, of man’s liberation from the power of the state—that Aristotle (via John Locke) was the philosophical father of the Constitution of the United States and thus of capitalism….
If anything, when Randall characterized Aristotle as “an advocate of the welfare state,” he was being unnecessarily modest. In maintaining that the state “is both natural and prior to the individual,” Aristotle sought to justify a kind of political organicism—an approach that Rand would have labeled “collectivism”—that would profoundly influence Hegel and other statist philosophers. In addition, Aristotle’s doctrine that the state grows naturally from the family became the major argument of later philosophers who rejected the liberal argument (as found in Locke and many other political individualists) that legitimate governments must be grounded in the consent of the governed. And although the particulars of Aristotle’s ideal state are somewhat less repulsive than the unvarnished totalitarianism defended by Plato, Aristotle set no theoretical limits on the power of the state to dictate the lives of individuals, down to the minutest details. As Ernest Barker, a distinguished historian of Greek political thought, put it in regard to Plato and Aristotle: “The ‘limit of state-interference’ never suggested itself…as a problem for their consideration….Plato’s austerities are famous; but even Aristotle can define the age for marriage and the number of permissible children. Whatever has a moral bearing may come under moral regulation” (The Politics of Aristotle, Oxford University Press, 1946, Introduction, p. li).
Aristotle’s political views were the reverse of the theory of limited government defended by liberal individualists. Rather than begin with the good of the individual and build his theory of the good society on that foundation (as we find in theories of natural rights and social contract), Aristotle employed the typical collectivist reasoning that the good of society is paramount; and from there he worked backwards by inferring that since what is good for a community is also good for its members, any laws that restrict individual freedom for the good of a society must also benefit its citizens. Hence when Aristotle proposed laws that should govern an ideal state, he didn’t view their effect on personal freedom as important enough even to consider. As a philosopher who had discovered the conditions of a good society, he merely needed to call for the codification and enforcement of those conditions in the form of coercive laws. As I wrote in a previous essay:
Aristotle explicitly repudiated the notion of limited government that was defended by some of his contemporaries. He quoted the sophist Lycophron as saying that a government exists “for the sake of alliance and security from injustice” and that laws should serve as “a surety to one another of justice.” Aristotle disagreed. Rather than confine itself to this negative function — the enforcement of justice — the state should actively promote the good life.
In order to promote the good life and maintain social order, the state should inculcate civic virtue. Those “who care for good government take into consideration virtue and vice in states. Whence it may be further inferred that virtue must be the care of the state which is truly so called.” This concern with civic virtue was the basis for Aristotle’s plan of a comprehensive system of state education, one explicitly based on the Spartan model.
It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of Aristotle’s defense of racism, slavery, and political collectivism on Western philosophy, politics, and culture. For centuries his doctrines stood as major obstacles to the development of theories defending the equal rights and freedom of individuals. Yet, according to Rand, “Aristotle is the father of Individualism” (Letters of Ayn Rand, 17 April 1948). “It took centuries of intellectual, philosophical development to achieve political freedom. It was a long struggle, stretching from Aristotle to John Locke to the Founding Fathers. The system they established was not based on unlimited majority rule but on its opposite: on individual rights….” (“Theory and Practice,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 138). Moreover, “to this day everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value that we possess…is the result of Aristotle’s influence (For the New Intellectual, p. 23).
It is quite astonishing that Rand could make claims like this, while blanking out the deleterious influence of Aristotle’s political ideas. To credit Aristotle as a father of individual rights and political freedom is absurd, as are some of her other claims, such as her simplistic assertion that the Renaissance was a rejection of Plato in favor of Aristotle. How can we account for these serious, indeed perverse, lapses in historical judgment?
The major culprit here was Rand’s belief that a philosopher’s metaphysics and especially his epistemology trump everything else, that his fundamental view of reality and his theory of knowledge will ultimately determine his influence on later thinkers. Aristotle’s “moderate realism” (to use the conventional label) was essentially correct, according to Rand, so it follows that Aristotle’s influence must have been good, whereas the irrational epistemology of Plato (and, later, Kant) must have been bad. As Rand wrote in a letter (17 April, 1948), “the crucial difference between Plato and Aristotle lies in their respective Theories of Knowledge and in their views on the nature of reality. That is the root. Their ethics, politics, etc., are the consequences.” Or as Rand put it in For the New Intellectual (p. 23): “No matter what remnants of Platonism did exist in Aristotle’s system, his incomparable achievement lay in the fact that he defined the basic principles of a rational view of existence and of man’s consciousness.”
Strangely perhaps, Rand’s view of the history of philosophy resembles in some respects the approach of Hegel, who viewed the history of philosophy as the inevitable development of the inner logic of ideas, especially in the field of metaphysics. For Hegel the intentions and purposes of individual philosophers were largely irrelevant to how philosophical theories emerged from their metaphysical premises; it was almost as if the history of philosophy could be written with only incidental references to specific philosophers, who were but way stations on the inevitable journey of ideas to their logical destinations. According to Hegel, as philosophical ideas become objectified in the traditions, culture, and institutions of a given society, those ideas will profoundly influence the intellectual perspective of the members of that society.
Of course, the similarities between Hegel and Rand should not be pressed too far; for one thing (among many), Hegel believed in the deterministic progress of philosophy, a notion that was absolutely foreign to Rand’s way of thinking. But both thinkers were fond of what I can only describe as a priori history. Instead of looking, as impartially as possible, at how the ideas of one philosopher actually influenced other philosophers, both Hegel and Rand began with the a priori premise that certain types of ideas—Hegel focused on metaphysics ideas here, whereas Rand put more stress on epistemology—must, as a matter of logic, surpass the influence of all other ideas, such as those found in political theory. Thus, if Aristotle’s rational epistemology did not prevent him from defending racism, slavery, and statism, this could only be because Aristotle himself did not understand the logical implications of his own epistemology. And if later defenders of racism, slavery, and statism were profoundly influenced by Aristotle’s theories, this was only because they, too, did not appreciate that such theories were inconsistent with Aristotle’s theory of knowledge. Aristotle’s rational epistemology must have had a benevolent effect on Western civilization, whereas his political ideas were, in effect, nonessential errors.
It should be said that Hegel, who was one of the most knowledgeable historians of his era, executed his a priori history of philosophy more successfully than Rand managed to do. Although Hegel sometimes tailored his history of philosophy to meet the demands of his a priori premises, he never falsified the historical record. I wish I could say the same about Rand, but I cannot. Her admiration for Aristotle, which was justified in many respects, got the better of her, sometimes causing her to distort the facts of history with gay abandon. So far as I know, she never once mentioned Aristotle’s defense of racism and slavery, much less the tremendous influence of that defense on later thinkers. Instead (as quoted above) she claimed as an “empirical fact that throughout history the influence of Aristotle’s philosophy (particularly of his epistemology) has led in the direction of individual freedom, of man’s liberation from the power of the state.” Although this may have been true of Aristotle’s influence in some instances, as a generalization it is a flagrant distortion of the historical record.
Is there a logical relationship between the epistemological theories of a philosopher and his political theories? Although this connection may be plausible in some cases, as when historians link William of Ockham’s (1287-1347) pioneering theory of individual rights to his nominalism (according to which only individuals exist), any such relationship must be decided on a case-by-case basis. Such matters are far too complex to admit of sweeping generalizations based on a priori assumptions. I shall explore this and related problems in my next essay.