Aristotle’s Politics


I’ll put my cards on the table.  I actively dislike Greek philosophy.  I will be fair and admit that Aristotle is a fairly good communicator, and despite his worldview, he stumbles across the truth every now and then.  And while he never really gets to a coherent statement on justice, he’s important to read on that point.  Given that many “woke” evangelicals are talking about social justice (but never defining it), Aristotle is at least a starting point.

(1) Every community is established with an aim to some good.

Aristotle begins with the most basic social unit and moves outward (family, village, city).

1.1 If the family is natural, and the movements outward are natural, then the state is a natural unity.

The Art of Getting Wealth

Legitimate economics: managing a household

“Retail trade is not a natural part of the art of getting wealth” (1.9.17).  This is important and will doom his entire project.

Usury: makes a gain out of money itself.  The proper use of money is exchange, not to grow money from money.

I used to hold to that argument. I’m not so sure anymore. It only works if we view value as something objective.  But value is anything but objective.  The whole point of an exchange is that we don’t place equal value on the object.

What is a state? Who is the citizen?  He notes that a citizen under one government might not be one under another. For the sake of argument he will assume democracy.  A citizen is the holder of a definite office, who legislates and judges, etc. (Book 3 ch. 1). A citizen shares in rulership. This is actually a pretty good definition, though it works better on smaller levels.

The chief end of a state is the well-being of the citizens

Justice: implies a relation to persons as well as things; a just distribution (Book 3; chapter 9).  He realizes this discussion is inadequate 9 pages later: “equality or inequality of what?” He hints that what is “just” or equal will be to the advantage of the common good.

Book 4

His famous discussion of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy.  And their perversions. He defines democracy as the form of govt where the free are rulers (IV.4).  He comes to a surprising and welcome conclusion: the best society is the one with a large middle class.  This comes very close to a biblical worldview. It is not a biblical worldview, however, for Aristotle despises things like retail trade.  But a society with a large middle class is one that understands the value of time, risk, and planning. In other words, it presupposes the doctrine of providence.  Aristotle, however, doesn’t really get this, nor could he.

This is why we should not go to Aristotle for economic wisdom.  For the godly man, time is not evil.  It is limited and under the curse, but it also provides the conditions for planning for the future and building wealth.

Book VII

This book begins on a chilling note: what are the most eligible forms of life?  This sounds a lot like the death camps we would have seen under the worst acts of the Affordable Care Act.  This is also good Greek philosophy.

Before we examine why Aristotle thought it was good to kill some of the babies, we need to see why he said it.  He didn’t believe an overly-populated city was a good thing. That’s a half-truth. Many large cities today aren’t very nice places.  He probably couldn’t see past the city-state idea. You can have many people in a country if you have lots of smaller cities. That’s one example.

With this background, his following comments, while evil, cohere with his system.  This is his argument:

(1) To the size of states there is a limit (1326a 35).

(2) The legislator must mold to his will the frames of newly-born children (1335a 5)

(3) As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live, but that on the ground of an excess in the number of children, if the established customs of this state forbid this (for in our state population has a limit), no child is to be exposed, but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun (1335b 20-25).

Is it really necessary to refute this?  Where to start? I’ll leave with an observation: given Aristotle’s anti-market views, his state population would always be extremely limited. That made abortion a pressing reality.  Therefore, his bad economics upheld his pro-choice mentality.




Basil, On Christian Doctrine and Practice

Basil, On Christian Doctrine and Practice.  Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Image result for basil on christian doctrine and practice

Despite the title, this really isn’t a systematic treatise on ethics and theology. It is a collection of Basil’s sermons.  But even then, there are numerous insights that are worth considering.


Homily on the Beginning of Proverbs


Wisdom:  “systematic knowledge of divine and human things and their causes” (Basil 55).


Justice: “the state of mind that distributes according to merit” (63).  Yet Basil takes it even deeper: “true justice is Christ” (65).


Wisdom must proceed from a just soul.


First Homily on Psalm 14 (MT: 15)


Tent: our body, this earthly life.  Basil sees a movement from “tent” to mountain.


Df. human being = “a mind united to a suitable and fitting body” (170).


Two Homilies on the Trinity


Both Father and Son share same Lordship.  Basil sees a movement in the Ephesian formula “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.”   Yet, he argues, these aren’t three “ones.”

Review: Social Justice and the Christian Church (Nash)

This book isn’t quite the violent beat-down of the Sojourners guys that David Chilton’s was, but it’s close. It was a pointed response back then; it is a desperate cry today. As church groups are falling, or about to fall, to Social Justice, Nash’s words are worth hearing.

Ask a social Justice Warrior what Justice is. Do it. It’s quite funny. Nash begins with Aristotle. Not that Aristotle is great, but his discussions are as good as any.

The ancient (and most simple) definition of justice is “giving each one what she is due” (Nash 29). The problem is obvious: there is no way you can take this correct definition and deduce an entire economics program from it.

Universal justice: a person is just in the universal sense if he possesses all of the virtues. The Bible echoes this in Gen. 6:9 and Ezek. 18:5.

Particular justice: a man is just in this sense if he does not grasp for more than what he is due. Nash, following Aristotle, sees three subsets of this justice:

(1) commercial justice: just weights and balances.

(2) remedial justice: some wrong must be made right.

(3) distributive justice: a good or burden is apportioned among human beings (Nash 31).

Formal Principle of Justice: We can summarize Aristotle: equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally. Unfortunately, there is no criterion to help us.

Material Principle of Justice: this is usually seen in needs, deserts, achievement, etc.

Two Contemporary Theories of Justice

Rawls: (a) each person has a right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with others’ basic liberties; (b) justice as fairness

To make his project work Rawls says everyone must assume a “veil of ignorance.” In other words, you have to imagine a society where any rights you give yourself wouldn’t conflict with others’ rights. The problem with this, as Nash notes, is we have no reason to think that anyone would come up with this veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance idea isn’t bad, per se; we just have no reason for believing it. Anyway, there is no reason to think it is just (42ff).

As other critics have pointed out, any invention in society (like the automobile) has the potential to make 95% of society more affluent, yet it would marginalize a few. Therefore, cars are unjust. But no one will seriously live this way. The automobile would impoverish the horse-and-buggy industry. Should we get rid of automobiles?

The liberal confuses economic merit with moral merit

Justice and the Welfare State

Problem with interventionism: “The liberal’s obsession with the proper distribution of society’s goods blinds him to a crucial truth: that before society can have enough gooods to distribute among the needy, a sufficient quantity of goods must be produced. By focusing all their attention on who gets what, defenders of the welfare state promote policies that severely restrict production” (64).

Justice and the Bible

We can’t confuse Love and Justice. The state is an agent of justice, and states by definition are coercive.

Problems with enacting the Year of Jubilee today:

a) Not all poor would be helped. If you didn’t own land prior, then you aren’t getting any today.

b) Only Israelite slaves are freed. Tough luck to anyone else.

c) Only property outside the city would be affected. Sold property within the walled city would become permanent exchange after a year.

d) Immigrants did not have permanent land rights, so they wouldn’t be helped.

e) Those who were born after the Jubilee but died before it wouldn’t be helped.

Quotes of Liberty

“Social justice, as viewed by statist proponents…is possible only in a society controlled from the top down” (50).

In terms of content and prophetic witness, the book is magnificent. However, much of it is a summary of Rothbard and there really isn’t new content.

Notes on Wyclif from O’Donovan.

A running series of notes I’ve made on John Wyclif over the past decade, with help from Oliver O’Donovan.

From his talk “The Human Person, Economics, and Catholic Social Thought”

On the term “communication.”

His view of lordship does not depend on property.  Wyclif sees property as “lordship on unequal terms.”  

God exercises his Lordship by “communication,” lending (not giving away, since God cannot alienate himself), by giving fellowship (communication) to human beings. God shares creation as a whole with mankind as a whole.

What is man’s response to this communication?  For Wyclif, every righteous man is lord of the whole world, and in receiving anything we receive the whole world with it.  Communicating the good of creation with each other, we discover a radical equality in our creaturely relation to God’s communication.

Summed up in this formula:  This mine is ours.

From Irenaeus to Grotius (with Joan Lockwood O’Donovan)

Evangelical lordship is the “natural, nonproprietary use of necessary things universally open to human beings” (484).  Following Augustine, Wyclif will argue that a just lordship of earthly goods involves a rightly-ordered love towards them, which depends on a true knowledge of them available only in Christ (485; cf. Augustine City of God, BK 19).  

Does this mean that we can overthrow tyrants since they don’t have a Christological understanding of rightly ordered loves, and hence no just lordship?  Not so fast, Wyclif would say, it is true they do not have just lordship, but we as those having true dominion in Christ bear witness that they have a “defective use of these goods” (Wyclif, 494). Tyrants posses “an unformed power” (Wyclif 510) but not true lordship.  Rather, it is the believer who has the epistemological authority to judge the failures of church and state  (O’Donovan 483ff).  

Communication and Sharing

“God communicates them (spiritual gifts) to mankind with no alienation or impoverishment to himself the giver” (Divine Lordship, bk. 3 ch. 1. 70c).  

Outline from Bonds of Imperfection eds O’Donovan and O’Donovan (Eerdmans).

The Proprietary Subject and the Crisis of Liberal Rights

Key point:  The possession of rights is always proprietorship; all natural rights (for the West) originate in property rights (Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, 75).   This originated with Pope John XXIII (1329 AD).  He saw man as created with full lordship and ownership as possession (dominum).  His point was to discredit Fransiscan theologians who insisted on radical poverty.

This is the rights culture that would spring full-bloom in the modern world.  The problem it created was how to have community if the above take on rights is true.

Patristic Foundations of Non-Proprietary Community

The fathers thought men should share as an imitation of God’s sharing his goodness with us.

Augustine’s Achievement
Augustine distinguished between two objective rights:  (a) divine right, by which all things belong to the righteous, and (b) human right, in which is the jurisdiction of earthly kings (79, quoting Epistle 93).


  • Justice for Augustine is a rightly-ordered love seen in the body politic, which would mean men loving the highest and truest good, God, for God’s sake.
  • Therefore, the bonum commune is a sharing in a rightly-ordered love (City of God, BK 19.21).
  • Because this sharing is spiritual, it is common and inclusive.  Thus we have a republic in the truest sense of the word:  res publica, public things.
  • Conversely, a disordered love in the soul is the privatization of the good.
  • Therefore, a disordered love will see the destruction of community.
O’Donovan comments,
It is the regulated interaction of private spheres of degenerate freedom, secured by the protection of property and enhanced by the provision of material benefits at the hands of unscrupulous tyrants (80).
Fransiscan Poverty: The Evangelical Theology of Non-Possession
  • Renouncing property right means that the viator is not a self-possessor, but rather is possessed by Christ and receives his powers (85).
Wyclif’s Ecclesiological Revolution
Irony: Wyclif’s reform program actually owed a great deal to Pope John XXIII’s reflections.
  • Non-proprietary posession belonged not only to Adam’s original state, but all the way forward to the episcopolate today: this should be seen in the church militant (88).
  • Divine lordship (dominum):  per Wyclif’s predecessor, Fitzralph, God is the primary possessor and enjoyer of creation.  Therefore, his giving of creation to Adam is a communication and sharing of himself, rather than a transfer of Lordship (89).
  • For the church, for Wyclif, this is God’s gift of himself as the love of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13).
  • Therefore, all of the “justified,” who coexist with Christ’s love, share (communicant) in this lordship directly from Christ.
  • Therefore, just dominion involves rightly-ordered love towards these communicable goods, which in turn depends on true knowledge of them available in Christ.

Rights talk

From Wolterstorff’s Until Justice and Peace Embrace

Initial claim:

(P1) Justice is the enjoyment of one’s rights.

Calvin spoke of a “mutual communication” in society: “each is to contribute what he or she can to the enrichment of the common life” (Wolterstorff 78, quoting Calvin, Comm. Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:103).

Discussion of Rights

  1. Right to protection
  2. Right to freedom
  3. Right to participate in government
  4. Right to sustenance

Classic Liberalism: do your own thing but do not interfere, positively or negatively, with your neighbor.

Sustenance Rights are basic rights–they are necessary for life (82).

Wolterstorff defines “right” as a “morally legitimate claim [to]…the actual enjoyment of a good that is socially guaranteed against ordinary, serious, and remedial threats (82).

  1. A right places an obligation on others, a responsibility–and that is necessary to what it means to be human.
  2. A right is the claim to the actual enjoyment of the good in question.
  3. It is socially guaranteed.
    1. This means that rights always involve social structures.