Is Aristotle’s ‘Polis’ Obsolete?

I’ve been assigned Aristotle’s Politics as reading for a Political Science seminar I’ve registered in and did a first reading of Book 1 last night. In it he asserts a number of interesting ‘truths’; the inferiority of women, the naturalness of slavery, the capitalist tendency to hoard, and the moral repugnance of usury. The first two points especially led Jacqueline this morning to question the validity of Aristotle’s whole enterprise within our modern worldview. If he was wrong about those first two points (and I do hope we’re all on the same page there) then how do we know he’s not completely off base with all his other statements?

Since I have to read and analyze the work, I have a vested interest in defending its relevance whether I like it or not. First off I do take his assertion of male superiority as evidence of ancient patriarchy. Is this patriarchy inevitable in the progress of human civilizations? If so, doesn’t that make male dominance at some points inevitable, thus asserting at least a certain superiority?
I’m going to go with no on that last one, by way of a negative on the first question as well. Patriarchy as a developmental stage for human civilization is, in my mind, highly probably because of the physical attributes and perhaps psychological tendencies inferred by masculine hormones and genetics. Aside from mythical accounts such as the fearless Amazons, there is evidence of ancient matriarchal cultures. Eventually, I hope to philosophically put the whole issue of gender equality be developing a defensible philosophical position on human (and even non-human) access to rights and freedoms.
Slavery is the second issue raised by Aristotle that one could easily take issue with. He even goes so far as to classify some people as ‘natural slaves’ and ‘natural masters’; when these two interact the air, he suggests, is often friendly and understanding, though we all know who gets shat upon when it comes to the shitting.

Aristotle is expressing the popular convention of hierarchy. Hierarchy is an idea common to any philosophical standpoint that recognizes an immutable ‘higher power’, such as that of Thomas Aquinas . Thomas Hobbes, conversely, espoused a viewpoint by which the only way to peaceful, civil existence for human beings was under the subjugation of an absolute ruler.

Either way, the philosophical approach to statehood is very new to me. The arguments are complex and diverse. So far, what I find most interesting is that while my education in sociology relentlessly refers to social institutions and human power relations, it rarely acknowledges the age or origin of these ideas.

So is Aristotle obscure and dated? Most certainly. Is he of any use to a 21st century education? Absolutely, since reading but a brief section has already made me realize how many of the philosophical ideas I’ve read with awe were not original in the least, but simply a rehashing of writings over two millennia old.


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