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Enlightenment – Binary Collision Courses of Cultural and Natural Leadership

Competing Realities 

Thus far with Aristotle we have identified, through a logical scientific method, a certain perception of the world, a certain version of reality. We can see what looks like Aristotle trying to express this version of reality to Plato as they are depicted walking together in the very center of Raphael’s famous painting, “The School of Athens.” In this painting, Aristotle is seen in the right center wearing a light blue robe/sash wrapped around his body and has a full head of auburn hair along with a full matching beard. Plato is seen on the left center wearing a light red robe/sash and looks to be the elder of the two with balding white hair and a long white beard. 

Additionally, we can see Aristotle holding his right hand straight out in front of his body just below his shoulder with his palm flat and facing the ground as if to say, “what really matters, where we can find real understanding and truth in this world is right here, on this earth, through science.” Plato is also motioning with his hand, except his hand is pointing up to the sky as if to say, “truth lies beyond our human capabilities and senses, instead it can be found through our soul and through love, up in the heavens, not here on earth.” One thing that has also always struck me as interesting within this painting is how their eyes are literally fixed upon one another’s, even amidst all the other activity and people. Also, Aristotle is not looking down to the earth and Plato is not looking up to the heavens, they are just staring at one another. It’s as if to say, “even if we disagree about our beliefs or our philosophical truths, we still respect each other and acknowledge that we are both only human… thus either of our realities could be true.”

Above and Beyond Magnanimity

Yet, for Aristotle, his picture of ethical reality wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t consider one more quintessential virtue. One that, for Aristotle, lies above and beyond magnanimous virtue (“great souledness”). The virtue of honor. But why is honor considered to be even greater than magnanimity? With magnanimity humans had mastered all the virtues, they knew the golden means, and their actions were then able to flow effortlessly, just like that of the prime mover. What then could be greater? 

Let’s consider how humans master these virtues. They need practice, habituation, yes, but what does this practice consist of? In other words, how do humans practice the virtues? And, even further, what can humans absolutely not do without when it comes to practicing the virtues? Aside from just being alive… Other humans. For, in order to achieve arete, or character mastery of any of the individual virtues, humans have to practice them with one another. And, in order to achieve magnanimity, or mastery of all the virtues, humans also need to be able to practice them with other humans. 

It is with this in mind that Aristotle seems to make the connection that humans are, by nature, social animals. For without other humans, we lack the ability to flourish to our fullest extent and our highest form… we lack the ability to obtain knowledge of the golden means of the virtues as well as wisdom and eudaimonia.. But with other humans, we have the capability to thrive, above and beyond even these individual aspects of virtue… we have the ability to achieve honor. Wherein honor is the acknowledgement of one human having achieved all of the virtues, or being magnanimous, by other humans. It is the highest reputation that an individual human can earn… the recognition of their magnanimity by other humans. 

Nature vs. Culture 

Returning to the ancient Greek sophists, there was a surprisingly strong push during the golden age of Greece towards a belief that the best life for humans would be that of leaving the artificial restraints or “chains” of the polis city-state, including its many rules and laws, and returning to the literal state where humans began and where they supposedly belong… returning to nature. Prior to Plato describing his utopian leadership training, he begins with a type of concession to the sophists, that what would be most ideal is the simple life, away from all the pain and strife, being one with nature, in a tranquil setting with the ones you love, away from civilization and the excesses of its human culture. One would think that Aristotle would at least partially be in agreement here, especially considering that he was a natural philosopher and believed that nature was so fundamental to all life. However he surprisingly leans in favor of culture. Why?

Let us recall what Aristotle precisely meant by the distinct characteristic of humans in comparison with all other living organisms, our active rationality. This active rationality implies that the capability to create and generalize is the highest possible form for humans. So, in order for humans to be operating at their highest form, they need to be utilizing reason, and even more so, they need to be actively creating. Additionally, in order for humans to be able to achieve wisdom, eudaimonia, arete, and magnanimity there is another fundamental requirement in terms of needing other humans to practice living a virtuous life with. Given this, and if we say that culture is essentially the place where active rationality via collaborative human creation takes place, we can understand why Aristotle would lean in this way. 

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

As we venture into the depths of Aristotle and Plato’s philosophical ideas beyond the individual self, involving other humans and our social constructs, we begin to see reflections of what look like their own unique self-fulfilling prophecies. Wherein these reflections are representative of the pains they’ve experienced throughout their lives. And in spite of their best intentions to develop a philosophical system that will help each individual live “the good life” within an organized social context, the projections of their deepest fears seem to penetrate through.

Sometimes our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses… sometimes even simultaneously. And, with Plato and Aristotle the greatness of their philosophical systems seems to relentlessly teeter between desiring the best for all people while concurrently fearing the worst. Essentially, the ultimate derivative seems to be trust. Trust that humans “still” have the capability to make good decisions. Trust that humans will “still” act in a manner that is consistent with the general well-being of other humans. Within their innermost essence. “Still” because it seems that, at times, their trust in humans to do these things has been fractured. 

So what fractured their trust? What caused their pain and hence, altered their realities? Who or what do they hold accountable? And how do they plan to overcome it? Before we begin to dig deeper, let us first briefly recap the extent to which we have examined Plato and Aristotle’s realities as it is imperative that we bear them in mind moving forward:

  • Plato’s reality seems to manifest out of the pain and grief of losing Socrates, resulting in a disappointment in his native Athens and its democracy. This would include its leaders failing to uphold his prized virtue of justice as well as a fear of the people within the system having excessive freedom, thus enabling them to make these perceived mistakes. 
  • Plato transcends his reality through the development of a majestic philosophical system of truth rooted in equality, geometry, metaphysics, love, and beauty. Within a truth that lies beyond this earthly realm, in a divine world that can only be revealed to those that have passed the most rigorous tests and, even if they pass, there are no guarantees as they still need to have the capability to perceive this divine world through their soul. 
  • Aristotle’s reality seems to emerge from his experiences of exclusion and rejection, related to his status as a 2nd rate citizen of Athens. If we recall, Aristotle was born outside of Athens and as a result was only eligible for the class status of a metic, or a resident alien living in Athens, ineligible for the full benefits of a native born Athenian. Additionally, it is believed that his status as a metic played a pivotal role in preventing him from being named the successor to Plato at The Academy. 
  • Given this, Aristotle transcends his reality through science and a seemingly undeniable truth that he believes lies within the forces of nature, which take place where we as humans currently reside, on earth. He then extends this truth into his version of the soul, which he believes connects all living organisms together within the great chain of natural causes by acting as an unseen force that provides the vital spark of life for each living organism. He then proceeds to organize the great chain within a hierarchy in which all living organisms were ordered according to the capacity of their soul, whereby humans were at the top, and the prime mover unmoved was the first cause via its pure energy and rationality.

Yet Aristotle’s organization within his great chain of natural order is incomplete… for it lacks a defined hierarchy within the specific class of humans. A hierarchy that Aristotle believes will be the answer to the key questions of how humans should be ordered on this earth and who amongst them should rule, or lead. In addition to delving into these particular aspects of Aristotle’s grand philosophy, we also need to simultaneously peel back the layers of Plato’s philosophy, especially related to his utopian leadership training system from The Republic. Finally, we also need to supplement these philosophies with context. Cultural context of the Athenian people. 

In combining all of these elements we will be creating a potent cocktail. One which enables us to identify the points where Aristotle and Plato seem to reach their self-fulfilling prophecies. Where their greatest strengths become their greatest weaknesses. And where their pains and fears in life seem to subconsciously emerge within their grand philosophical systems. 

Then again, perhaps the following represents two philosophers learning from their ultimate master, Socrates, in terms of how to more effectively walk along the invisible break even point threshold without crossing it. Essentially, conceding to the cultural context of their times in various ways so that they still have the ability to get at least the majority of their philosophical ideas and points across. And so that they can challenge the current system in the ways that they deem to be of the utmost importance. To hopefully trigger a new desired synthesis within the dialectical process of change. 

Natural Rulers

Regardless, we must move forward. And even though we are progressing, our path remains familiar. One that entails Aristotle as the natural philosopher, conducting biological dissections and processes of categorization and organization via taxonomic classification. And in breaking apart the whole of the matter into its parts, to identify what is unique… to determine what the ultimate aim or final form is. 

At this juncture we are seeking answers to how humans should be ordered on this earth and who amongst them should rule, or lead. Aristotle wants to start by understanding what is fundamental to human life. What enables it to take place, what sustains it or preserves it, and also what enables it to flourish. His initial starting point is to examine two key relationships that he believes are naturally symbiotic.

Male – Female

As we previously examined via Aristotle’s four causes, the final cause of humans is procreation which takes place between a male and a female. He also believes that this relationship naturally leads to the evolution of the first vital political grouping of people, via the household or family. Thus the foundation of this particular relationship does seem to be mutually beneficial to human life as a whole. However, in determining who, between males and females, should rule his fears of exclusion and desires of acceptance seem to take precedence over the possibility of advocating for a more mutually beneficial status quo.  

Within the political group of the family, he sees males as having a superior active rationality to females (as well as children, so they are also excluded). This is because he believes that fundamentally and by nature, women are more passive than males. The sperm of the male is active and the ovum of the female is passive. Further, it is better to be active than passive because it more closely aligns with the perception that a certain relentless and persevering strength is needed to master all of the virtues. 

In particular, women lack both self-governance and sovereignty with respect to their emotions in comparison with men, which he believes are paramount in terms of being able to trust that they will consistently operate virtuously, within the golden means of the vices of excess and deficiency. Given this, he then seems to extend his belief that women lack the capability to master their emotions into their inability to achieve both magnanimity and honor, or mastery of all the virtues and the recognition of this mastery by other humans. This logic then results in his final assessment of women as ultimately being unfit to rule amongst humans. 

Master – Slave

In terms of sustaining human life and enabling it to continuously evolve, Aristotle perceives the relationship of the master and the slave to be of vital importance. For it is the manual labor of the slave and the abundance of valuable time that it affords the master which enable the master to flourish in a multitude of ways. First, the master is able to flourish mentally through increased dedication to more rationally active engagements, most especially education. Socially, the master is further able to utilize the additional time afforded to them via increased habituation of the virtues amongst their fellow man. Finally, economically, the slave’s manual labor helps to drive the expansion of the household into villages, and eventually into the polis. And since, for Aristotle, humans are naturally political, social animals, this helps humans to reach their final form which he believes has its final aim within the active rationality and creativity of human culture, within the Greek city state or polis. 

That’s great for the master. But what about the slave? Where is the mutually beneficial aspect of this supposed natural symbiotic relationship for the slave? The slave has a place within human culture, a very important place to say the least. So they must have some individual aim, separate from just furthering the good life of the master. Right? Unfortunately not. For Aristotle, slaves do not possess the mental faculties to even be able to understand the higher form of the good life for humans that is practicing active rational activities and the virtues. Instead, he sees slaves as being born to serve and having no freedom or independence. Thus the extent of the slave’s supposed good life is limited to how successful they are in enabling the master to be able to flourish and achieve the higher final aim of the good life via wisdom, eudaimonia, arete, magnanimity, and honor within the created final form of the Greek city-state.

To a certain extent, this same thing can be said of Athenian women. Although they were typically treated better than a slave, their function was similar in that the good life for them was judged based more so on how much they helped the male, his offspring, and the Greek city-state achieve their final forms than to achieve their own individual final form. Hence, their freedom and independence were also restricted in that the male was a master to not only the slave, but also, to a certain extent, the woman as well. 

Citizenship, Spectrums of Freedom and Rights

Now that we’ve eliminated women, children, and slaves from being able to rule within Aristotle’s system, all that remains are free men. But how do we judge which particular men should rule? For Aristotle, is it simply another exercise within the great chain of natural causes? Is the most capable man judged to be so because they have achieved the highest level of active rational capacity? Perhaps also because they are perceived to be the most virtuous and hence most honorable man amongst their peers? One thing, however, seems quite certain. Aristotle did not believe in equality. Whether it was within the animal kingdom as a whole or within the particular class of humans. 

To further help answer these questions let’s shift gears and try to understand the lives of Athenians through the specific contextual lens of citizenship. For this, more definitively, let us look into the intertwined hierarchical spectrums of freedom and rights that exist culturally within Athens via its customs, rules, and laws. 

At the top of the societal hierarchy within Athens, we have its male citizens who were the only accepted members of its democracy. Born of pure Athenian blood, from a native Athenian father and mother, male citizens also had the most exclusive rights as well as the most freedom according to governmental laws in comparison with all other men. Of which, the most significant of all rights were the right to vote, the right to have a will, and also the right to own property. 

And, although a native woman of Athens may be deemed a citizen when it comes to determining which men are eligible for citizenship via the mother’s birth place and the birth place of her offspring, she could not vote or own property simply because she was a woman. A woman could not even inherit property. Instead, via Athenian custom, a woman’s place in Athens was inside the home, serving the male and rearing the children. A woman in ancient Athens was not even supposed to go shopping in public let alone take part in pursuing a life of the higher forms.

Below the Athenian citizen is the class of the metic. These were primarily men that were non-slave, non-citizen residents from outside of Athens. A lot of them came to Athens with ambitions of thriving financially, and a lot did as Athens was a land of economic opportunity during these times. Metics worked all types of jobs including professional trade jobs such as bankers, doctors, lawyers, carpenters, and contractors as well as more artistic jobs such as painters, sculptors, writers, and even philosophers (ahem, Aristotle himself). And the laws of Athens, as well as its customs, enabled the metics to take advantage of these economic opportunities as they were considered to be jobs worthy of the middle class by Athenian citizens. Some Athenian citizens even considered these jobs to be ignoble. 

At the bottom of Athenian societal hierarchy were the slaves. These slaves were mainly from the eastern Mediterranean as well as other parts of Greece, outside of Athens, and were one of the most typical boons of military victory during antiquity. Yet, what is most fascinating about Athenian slaves is that there was a glimmer of hope for them within this societal structure. A hope for a better life in the form of a shimmering light at the end of their tunnel of slavery… freedom. They could earn their way out of the slave class, primarily by buying their freedom but also, less commonly through other means, and become freed men. This process, called manumission, enabled slaves to become free from their master in that they could work for themselves. 

It is believed that, for the most part, the freed men of Athens, and even some of the slaves, led higher quality lives in terms of economic luxuries than some of the poorer citizens in other civilizations during antiquity. This is because freed men were not prevented by custom or law from ascending into (much like the metics) the highest positions within industry, trade, and finance. Additionally, both Athenian slaves and freed men were not taxed and did not have to serve in the military, whereas the metic class had to do both. Some Athenian slaves were apparently treated so well that they were even considered to be a part of the master’s family before they became freed men. Perhaps this goes hand in hand with some masters either preferring to, or having to work alongside their slaves in order to make ends meet, rather than simply ordering them around or forcing them to do all the work through violent means.

However it is extremely important to note that although a slave may earn their “freedom” and become a freed man, they were still not citizens. Given this, upon the freed man’s death, whatever assets they may have been able to accumulate during their lifetime, would still go back to their master as they did not have the right to create a will and bequeath assets to people of their choosing such as family or friends. In other words, the slave would have to buy their freedom from their master, and then, when they die, they would have to ultimately give everything they earned during their freedom back to the master anyway. Hence, the price of freedom for a slave, as well as the earnings of the master, were essentially doubled.

Thus, at the root of this system there seems to be a struggle within the spectrum of freedom and rights. A duality. On one end, there seems to be an inherent illusion of the slave being able to evolve by gaining their freedom through some combination of hard work, good behavior, loyalty, and money as their chances of prospering during their own lifetime were slim and, beyond their lifetime, extremely rare to none. Whereas, on the other end of this spectrum, the reality of the male citizen masters increasing their wealth via the rights given to them by Athenian law and custom was exponential. 

Wealth of Silver 

One extreme example of these polarities within the spectrum of freedom and rights can be found within the inner workings of Athens’ most valuable natural resource, silver. In particular, the most abundant silver mines that were owned by the Athenian government were located in a small town called Laurium along the southern peninsula of Greece. Fortunes were made in these mines by citizens as they were given the privilege of being the only class of people that were able to lease the land for usage. And, in addition to an upfront fee, the Athenian government also took in a portion of whatever profits were made by the citizens that leased the land. Thus, the mines became the lifeblood of the Athenian treasury and helped propel it to previously unknown heights during its Golden Age. 

However, the vast majority of these profits were made off of the backs of slaves, estimated to be over 20,000 in the Laurium mines alone, as only slaves worked these mines. And these slaves, unlike the ones mentioned above that were mostly individually owned by citizen masters, endured much harsher conditions as they were supposedly whipped, shackled, and even branded if they tried to evade their grueling long work hours in the mines in any way, for even a moment. Given this, the natural resource of silver for ancient Athens functioned as a key mechanism of extracting massive economic gains for the male citizen as well as the Athenian government out of cheap slave labor. 

Yet, even amidst all of this accumulation of wealth on behalf of the male Athenian citizen, there is still a rather large question that looms over this blatantly biased system. Essentially, “why were seemingly all different types of jobs from manual labor (slaves), to child rearing (women and slaves), to professional trade, industry, finance, and even skilled artistry jobs (freed men and metics) deemed to be ignoble by the male Athenian citizen?” 

Leisure Time 

The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, lies within the territory of freedom. However, this is a different kind of freedom than what the slaves had to fight for. This is a freedom that carries with it an air of privilege and expectation. 

For the male Athenian citizen, the privilege of leisure time was an additional right that was seemingly subliminally laced within their culturally biased system. Essentially, it only truly emerged after all of the previous doors within the system had been successfully unlocked. This means that the male Athenian citizen has been able to leverage the right combination, either directly or indirectly, of labor power from all of the other less privileged classes (women, slaves, metics, and freed men) in order to gain the financial affluence necessary to be able to access the benefits of leisure time. And the expectation of Athenian males was that they needed leisure time in order to become educated and wise for the benefit of not only themselves, but also the Greek city-state. Because, ultimately, their belief was that they needed it in order to make the best decisions possible for the people within their beloved city-state of Athens. They needed it in order to lead. 

Aristotle’s philosophy shares the same sentiment, and, more deeply, it holds that leisure time is at the root of being able to develop into not just any ruler or leader, but a good one. For a ruler needs ample time to be able to develop wisdom, through countless days and nights of devout study. As well as virtue, through years of years of interactions and interpersonal experiences. Practice and study… take time. And, without time, being able to evolve into either the natural or cultural final human forms is nearly impossible.

So we’ve finally arrived at a definition of what Aristotle believes are the natural and cultural traits of a leader. Male citizens with freedom, rights, wealth, and leisure time. Once again, if we examine this definition by today’s standards, it is riddled with issues, especially within what Aristotle considers natural. His desire for inclusion seems to overtake his willingness to challenge the status quo that had already been established within the Athenian cultural system via its customs and laws. With this, he not only accepts them, but claims that they occur naturally, within nature, and hence reinforces them at their deepest level. Unfortunately, this would have far reaching unforeseen consequences for the entire world throughout the course of history, up until today. 

Up Next

Nonetheless, our journey must continue onward. Although this is a difficult subject matter, it is of critical importance as we are close to developing an understanding of how Athenian society was organized, as well as how Aristotle and Plato believed societies should be organized, in order to ensure that the best possible form of government along with the best possible form of a leader could help sustain the Golden Ages of Athens, and the entire Greek world, for as long as possible. For Athens shimmers as an example of a civilization that we can refer back to as we continue to navigate the many paths that await us. Like a compass, or the night stars, helping us to find our bearings. And return we shall. 

But first, we must take good care to try to more fully complete our understanding of ancient Athens and the brilliance of its greatest minds. Let’s fucking do this!!!

Thank you for joining me on this philosophic journey!

Next blog post: Enlightenment – Competitive Intensity within Binary Cultures

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