07 January 2017

The Household Economy

As a new year begins, a resumption of Saturday reflections on conservatism.

Back in November, a post entitled Family, Community, and State noted noted Aristotle's view that the state is not made up of individuals who form a state based on some kind of social contract, but rather that the state is made up of households. Proliferating households eventually become a village. (Aristotle likens the growth of a village to colonization from families.) And a conglomeration of villages becomes a state.  Aristotle's view is not only more historically accurate, but also instantiates the conservative view of an ascending hierarchy of institutions. By state, of course, Aristotle means the ancient Greek city-state.

Several posts in December examined marriage from various perspectives and offered a defense of traditional, i.e., biologically based marriage as an inheritance from Roman--not biblical--law.

Marriage is the beginning of the formation of the household.

So what does Aristotle say about the household?

He recognizes what he calls the "marriage relation" and the "procreative relation" between husband and wife. He notes that these have no commonly accepted name.

Aristotle moves on unromantically or sentimentally to the household as an economic institution. Indeed, the internet tells me that the Greek equivalent for the work economy essentially mean household.

"Property is part of the household, and the art of acquiring property is a part of the art of managing the household: for no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he be provided with necessaries."

Aristotle surveys the various means of acquiring necessaries, especially that most crucial of necessaries--food. These include farmers, hunters, fishers, and herdsman. He calls these modes of acquiring property natural because these modes secure wealth from nature and they serve to meet the natural needs of humans. Indeed, in his teleological world view, the very purposes of nature is for the use of man. In that Aristotle differs little from more religiously based understandings of man and his relationship to nature. (Those more religious minded people introduce God as the creator of nature for man's use.)  Anyway, those who engage in these traditional means of acquiring wealth aim at securing the necessities of life. And necessities have limits.

Aristotle contrasts this means of getting wealth with another, which he describes as  unnatural. He calls it retail trade.  According to Aristotle, this began with bartering--the exchange of goods to meet one's needs. The invention of coins facilitated the expansion of all kinds of trade. But it also permitted a change in the purposes or ends of property. Coins allow the acquisition of property without limit. Those who engage in trade seem to aim at acquiring wealth without limits. Aristotle seems to see this as a indication of a moral vice. People who seek wealth without limits appear to lack a desire for cultivating virtue in themselves or their families. It reveals that pleasure motivates them. And because there are no limits to pleasure, this requires the acquisition of wealth without limits. In his words,

"The origin of this disposition in means that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living ell; and, as their desire are unlimited, they also desire that the means of gratifying then should be without limit. Those who do aim at this good life seek the means of obtaining bodily pleasures; and, since the enjoyment of these appears to depend on property, they are absorbed in getting wealthy."

This observation by Aristotle begins a centuries long debate in republican theorizing about virtue, commerce, and the right political economy.

And that is why Aristotle concludes that household management is more than attending to  "inanimate things," but rather attending to people.

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