The above Fresco by Raphael shows Plato (left) and Aristotle (right). Aristotle gestures to the earth, signifying his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience. Plato gestures to the heavens, to communicate his belief in The Forms.
For a long time, it’s intrigued me that Aristotle’s observations convinced him of the follies of the commons.
“That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.”
Aristotle, The Politics, Book II, Chapter III
Like many things in life, there is a truth to what Aristotle says. But is it Truth in the absolute and universal sense? For many centuries, people affirmed, “Yes.” Enclosure proponents waved this quotation as support against shared value and the commons. While history has elevated Aristotle’s idea to Truth, the philosophers observations of life had led him to offer a caveat to the private ownership of all wealth, natural and man made:
“It is evident then that it is best to have property private, but to make the use of it common… And also with respect to pleasure, it is unspeakable how advantageous it is, that a man should think he has something which he may call his own; for it is by no means to no purpose, that each person should have an affection for himself, for that is natural, and yet to be a self-lover is justly censured; for we mean by that, not one that simply loves himself, but one that loves himself more than he ought; in like manner we blame a money-lover, and yet both money and self is what all men love. Besides, it is very pleasing to us to oblige and assist our friends and companions, as well as those whom we are connected with by the rights of hospitality; and this cannot be done without the establishment of private property, which cannot take place with those who make a city too much one [referring to Plato’s idea of the ideal Republic (city) holding all property in common]; besides, they prevent every opportunity of exercising two principal virtues, modesty and liberality. Modesty with respect to the female sex, for this virtue requires you to abstain from her who is another’s [referring to Plato’s idea for the Republic’s ruling class to hold all their wives and children in common]; liberality, which depends upon private property, for without that no one can appear liberal, or do any generous action; for liberality consists in imparting to others what is our own.”
Aristotle, The Politics, II.v.
It is very important that Aristotle says “it is best to have property private, but to make the use of it common.” He goes on to extol the virtues of sharing and hospitality, and to propose that they are virtues only thanks to private property. What I find interesting about this extended look at Aristotle’s perspective is the opportunity for generosity he recognizes in the act of ownership. His argument is that we own to share. He sees this as the purpose of ownership because sharing—not collective ownership—teaches the individual morality, generosity, and instills in him the will to care. More fundamentally, to me, it seems that Aristotle felt that the act of sharing taught people to see themselves as there for others and, in the broadest sense, the world. Not only must we be caretakers of that which we own, but of each other as well. Only then could the individual understand the concept of and importance of “reciprocity”: the vitality in you inspires the vitality in me. And vice versa. Only when a citizenry lives in mutual contribution to each other, could it experience freedoms and happiness. All otherness and me converged into an inclusive consciousness. In the end, private property whose use is made common is a necessary ingredient in unlocking the power of commoning.