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The communism of property; a note on Aristotle, Politics 1263a8–15

  • Robert Mayhew (a1)

Aristotle begins his criticism of the communism of property in Plato's Republic1 with the following (which I have divied into two sections for convenient reference):

(i) τπων μν οὖν ὂντων τν νεωπγοὑντων ἂλλς ἂν εἴη ςπóπος καì πᾀων, αὐτν δ’ αὑτοις διαπονοὑνων τ πεπì τς κτσεις πλεíονς ἃν παπχοι δνσκολíας. (ii) καì γπ ν ταις πολαεςι ν τοις ἒπγοις μἠ γινομνων ἴςων λλ’ νíσων ναγκααιον γκλματα γíνεσθαι ππòς πολαὑσντας μν ἢ λαμβνοντας πολλ, òλíγα δ πονσντας ταῖς λττω μν λαμβνσι, πλεíω δ πονοσιν.

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1 Aristotle criticizes Plato's Republic in Politics II 15, with the bulk of Politics II 5 being devoted to the communism of property. Although the critique in Politics II 5 is ostensively aimed at the communism of property of the Republic, the Republic is most likely just a springboard to a more general critique of any version of the communism of property. (See Politics 1263a3–8, where Aristotle lists different property arrangements.)

2 Aristotle says ‘farmers’ but he probably means ‘farmers, and any others who do hard work.’

Newman, in a note on тρων quite correctly points out: ‘'others than the citizens,’ not, I incline to think, ‘others than the owners,” though the two meanings do not lie far apart.’ Newman W., The Politics of Aristotle (Oxford, 1887), ii 246. Cf. Schϋtrumpf E., Aristoteles, Politik (Berlin, 1991), ii 17, 195.

3 ‘Aπγανσις means ‘act of enjoying,’ ‘fruition,’ ‘result of enjoying,’ ‘pleasure,’ (LSJ s.v. άπγανσις), and here most likely refers to the enjoyment of or benefit from some thing. See Schiitrumpf, op. cit., ii. 195.

4 Newman (op. cit. ii 246) writes:

If those who till the soil are not citizens but a separate and subordinate class…, disagreements

would be less likely to result from the citizens holding property in common, for, as the citizens

would not work themselves, individual citizens would not be in a position to compare their

own hard work and small recompense with the easy work and large recompense of others, and

thus one main source of disagreement among the citizens would be removed.

Newman is right. Slaves are under the control of others and thus have to do what they are told. Moreover, according to Aristotle, there is no genuine justice or injustice in one's relation to one's slaves. (See Politics 1254a8–15, Nicomachean Ethics 1134b9–ll.)

This arrangement is easier to manage, and Aristotle prefers it. Nevertheless, he does not hold that it is entirely unproblematic. At 1269a34–b12, he points out that slaves, serfs, and helots sometimes revolt, and that generally the supervision of them is troublesome. The solution seems to be to find the middle path between being too lax with them, which leads to arrogance and a belief among them that they merit an equal standing, and being too harsh, which leads them to hate, and revolt against, their masters.

5 There is an important question that cannot be answered within the limited scope of this brief note: is Aristotle criticizing the communism of property here simply because he thinks it is impractical (i.e. that it leads to greater discontent, which is inimical to the city's unity), or, beyond this, does he hold that such a system is unjust as well? I argue for the latter interpretation in ‘Aristotle on Property’, Review of Metaphysics 46 (06, 1993), 805–7.

6 For examples of those who accept this interpretation, see the following: Newman, op. cit. ii 246–7; Susemihl F. and Hicks R., The Politics of Aristotle, Books I–V (London, 1894), p. 233; Bornemann E., ‘Aristoteles’ Urteil fiber Platons politische Theorie’, Philologus 79 (1923), 141–2; Barker E., The Politics of Aristotle (Oxford, 1958), pp. 55–6; Aubonnet J., Aristote, Politique: Livre Iet II (Paris, 1960), p. 138. See also Schutrumpf, op. cit. ii 195.

note 7 A more common objection to this criticism of Plato—levelled against Aristotle by, for example, all those mentioned in the previous note—is that Aristotle assumes there will be a communism of property among the iron and bronze class when, it is claimed, this is obviously not the case. Aristotle, however, says that the Republic is unclear on this point (1264al 1–17), and he proceeds as if property was common among the lower class. (Perhaps doing so provides a better springboard into his own views.) I have recently argued (Aristotle on the Extent of the Communism in Plato's Republic’, Ancient Philosophy 13 [1993]) that Aristotle is right in finding Plato unclear.

8 Bornemann, op. cit., passim, seems to hold such a view of Aristotle.

9 This interpretation is also more consistent with the general aim of Aristotle's critique of the communism of property (see n. 1), for if it is correct, then the criticism at Politics 1263a8–15 would more plausibly apply to any version of the communism of property (which cannot be said for the traditional interpretation).

10 See, for example, Nussbaum M., ‘Aristotelian Social Democracy’, in Douglas B., Mara G. and Richardson H. (eds.), Liberalism and the Good (New York, 1990), 203–52; and, ‘Nature, Function, and Capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution’, in McCarthy G. (ed.), Marx and Aristotle: Nineteenth Century German Social Theory and Classical Antiquity (Lanham, MD, 1992).

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