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Scruton on Duties of Justice and Duties of Charity

In How to be a Conservative, the British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton briefly describes the important conservative distinction between duties of justice and duties of charity. He writes (pg. 49),

“Duties of charity are not duties of justice; if we fail to perform a duty of justice we commit an injustice — in other words, we wrong someone. The concept of justice is mediated by those of right and desert: the duty of justice is explicitly targeted at the other person, and takes account of his rights, his deserts and his valid claims. The concept of charity is not so explicitly targeted, and duties of charity have an open-ended character. If you extend charitable help to one person, and thereby exhaust your resources so that you cannot help another who is just as much in need of them, you do not wrong that second person. You have fulfilled your duty by offering help to the one who received it. To a certain extent the egalitarian outlook in politics stems from a suspicion of charity and a desire to construe all duties as duties of justice, which cannot make arbitrary distinctions between those with an equal claim, when the only basis for that claim is need. As subsequent arguments will imply, that narrow conception of the realm of duty has proved to be fundamentally subversive of civic institutions.”

It should not surprise us, then, that left-liberals and socialists, whose governing principle and pursuit is political, social, and economic egalitarianism, will see an extensive role of the state in justice. All or most goods, for these people, are matters of justice, not charity. Charity, then, is held in suspicion, since it is not coordinated and is exhausted on a few, not on all.

Conservatives, while preferring a limited and non-goal-oriented government (i.e., it is not the principal instrument in social progress), still want a robust and powerful civil society, apart from state action, that has extensive room for the fulfillment of the duties of charity. It is one aspect of Disraeli’s “feudal principle”: the right of property is also a duty. The state, of course, could enforce this principle with taxes and redistribution, but that would produce an impersonal, bureaucratic, technocratic, and managerial society (as we have today). The feudal principle as feudal recognizes something essential to civil society: that it is best when it is personal. An impersonal society, one in which egalitarianism is the goal of the state and accomplished through taxes and bureaucratic action, breeds nothing but resentment, since extractions and redistribution is masked. The beneficiaries do not meet the taxed. And when the first principle of the state is equality, the ‘have-nots’ see the ‘haves’ as enemies, as those standing in the way of progress.

It is better, I think, to leave much to charity, as Burke wrote, “It is better to cherish virtue and humanity by leaving much [charity] to free will, even with some loss to the object, than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of a political benevolence. The world on the whole will gain by a liberty without which virtue cannot exist.” (from Reflections)

how to be conserv

Locke, Labor, and Personality: A Phenomenological Modification

There is something intuitive about Locke’s account of property in his Second Treatice of Government. Man after “he hath mixed his labour with” the land and “joined it to something that is his own,…[he] thereby makes it his property.” The product is the laborer’s product, because “the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.” In other words, since you own your own labor, then by “mixing” this labor with raw material, you own the product of the labor. Your ownership of your labor-power, transfers in some way to the product of labor.landscapes2

This explains the tendency among even those philosophers who attack private property to stamp their name on their product, namely, their books and articles. There is some connection between one’s labor and one’s product. Or, to put it differently, there is some connection between you and the product. Locke, however, while providing insight that there is a connection, does not adequately explain it. Some element is missing from his theory. What is it about labor and the labor’s product that forges a connection? What is it about the relationship that naturally brings about calls for legal protections and even the risking of bodily harm to defend one’s property? Something about the relationship takes the land in “common” and makes it personal.

I want to briefly argue here that what is missing is a phenomenological description of labor. It is better to view labor not as mixing ownership into material but the embodying personality. Hegel wrote, “A person’s putting his will into an object is the conception of property, and the next step is the realizing of it. The inner act of my will, which says that something is mine, must be made recognizable for others” (Phil of Right 51 add). He calls property an “embodiment of my will.” I won’t attempt to explain Hegel’s point in detail, but I will work with his statement on property as being the embodiment one’s will or personality. For Hegel, this embodiment can be any type of acquisition, including those not acquired directly by mixing with the earth or raw material. But for our purposes we will stick with labor as productive activity.

The stamp of personality is most evident, as mentioned above, on the placing of one’s name on an essay, blog post, article or book. It is declaration that thiproduct of labor is my product of labor. And when one publishes a book, they place the book on their shelf. They keep it close. They identify with its contents. A book contains its author in a strange, phenomenological way. It is not merely a book among books, but my book among other books. It is my presence among the literary world. Similarly your chapter among a compilation is not just a chapter among chapters.

There is a type self-referential relationship here. The product of labor, having embodied one’s will/personality/life becomes an extension of self — it represents, though vaguely, the self-hood of the producer. One’s interest in the product is at some important level an interest in oneself — one’s public self.

There is labor, of course, that does not result in one’s name on the product. Here there is a distinction between embodying personality and merely the expenditure of energy. Some work is mindless and lacking in creativity, making some quasi self-referential relationship with a product difficult. But if we stick with small-scale and creative production, this ‘stamp’ of personality is possible. Examples range from welding to artisanal sandwich-makers and from furniture makers to electricians. The resulting product is yours and you can identify with it.

We should notice that this phenomenological connection as extending self-hood to the product of labor does imply that if we have ownership of our-selves, then we have some ownership of the products of our labor. To abuse embodied personality, is to abuse the person.  But the nature of this ownership of products depends on the nature of the ownership of ourselves. So if we see ourselves as having obligations to others, then it seems that our products do not escape these obligations as well. But the crucial distinction here is between duties of justice and duties of charity, and fulfilling the latter is more conducive to the giving of self, friendship and brotherly affection. But I’ll leave this for another time. My point is that property rights extend absolutely only within the limits of obligations, whatever those might be.

Since this type of productive labor embodies your personality — it is an extension of your self — you have a stake in others’ judgment of it. What I mean is that products of our labor, including both objects we plan to bring to exchange or property for our own use, are public property not in the sense that they are legally owned by the public, but that they are available for public view and judgment. Our items at exchange and the yards of our homes are both products of judgment. It is my view, as I argued here, that much of our economic production today alienates producers from the possibility of their work being an end in itself through some type of feedback loop informing the producer that his work was good work — work worth doing in itself.

And, to my mind, this makes legal ownership second to the affirmation of labor as an end in itself. Locke is correct in connecting the mixing of labor and acquiring ownership, but what makes productive labor worth doing for its own sake is another’s affirmation that the labor was good labor The primary interest one ought to have is not a pay check (which makes labor a mere means) or legal ownership, but in making labor an end in itself. So while I do not deny that ownership is created through labor, what matters most is public recognition of the labor. It takes a community to make labor fully worth doing.

There is much more I could say, but I’ll leave it here. What Locke was missing is a certain phenomenological description of man and his products of labor. These objects disclose themselves to us not merely in matter and form, but also, and most importantly, as our personality. They disclose a sort of yearning we have for public recognition, not merely in the fact that we produced, but that we produced something good.

The Place(s) of Power in Aristotelian City Planning (Part 2)

Part 1 and Part 3

The Rule by the Few

The similarities and differences between oligarchy and aristocracy (the latter being best regime for Aristotle) are similar to those between kingdom and tyranny. In both regimes, the rulers have wealth. The oligarchs are powerful on the basis of their wealth and the aristocracy, though in power on the basis Picture2of virtue, have the degree of wealth necessary for the formation of virtue. Wealth is a necessary as ancillary to virtue. Both oligarchs and aristocrats would also make a show of their wealth, following the second of our key texts described in Part 1, namely, that the wealthy should serve the common good by furnishing and adorning their home. In many ways, their places of power would look the same. That is, their home’s physical appearance, apart from the message communicated to the ruled, is basically the same.

Aristotle does, however, state that oligarchs would, with the monarchs, position their places of power on elevated terrain. The reason for the difference is likely due to a heightened threat of insurrection for reasons unique to oligarchs compared with aristocrats. Oligarchies create factions in the city “on the grounds that [the people] are done an injustice because they do not partake of equal things in spite of being equal” (Politics 1303b5,6). As with tyrants, the show of wealth does not communicate legitimate power, but arbitrary power. Their raised dwellings are proposed symbols of a superiority, but the people see through them. To the people, they are ostentatious displays of wealth and only show forth their vanity.

The primary difference between oligarchy and aristocracy is less the look of things, but the underlying or perceived virtue of the rulers. Are the rulers virtuous enough to deserve their status over the people? The ultimate difference between the two, then, is over equality and inequality. The people do not want equals rising above them and telling them what to do. They want either a superior to instruct them or they want to decide for themselves. An oligarchy is a regime of equals with the arbitrary exaltation of some over others. Such a social arrangement is contrary to nature, as Aristotle writes, “to assign what is not equal to equal persons and what is not similar to similar persons is contrary to nature” (1325b8,9). And for this reason, it is one of the “most short-lived regimes.”

The best regime, the regime that one prays for, is the rightful exaltation of the virtuous few over the people—the aristocracy. Aristotle writes, “Only the regime that is made up of those who are best simply on the basis of virtue, and not of men who are good in relation to some presupposition, is justly referred to as an aristocracy” (Politics 1293b3-5). Though unlikely to arise (hence, the one we pray for), it still is possible. The people, despite being inferior, have the ability to recognize superiority, not merely in the show of superiority, but also in the person. This assumes that the people have a degree of nobility, for “when another person is superior on the basis of virtue and of the capacity that acts to achieve the best things, it is noble to follow this person and just to obey him” (1325b10-12). Hence, one of the essential requirements for a long-lasting aristocracy is the ability of the people to recognize, assent to, and cherish superiors. And even with such people, the adornment of one’s place of power serves a proper function in the securing of power. The instinct for self-preservation, security, and the reasonable prospects for comfort are provided by the aristocrat’s public face, viz., his home. Most people would likely have little direct contact with these men. The home is the symbol of superior presence, and it provides confidence in the determinations of the virtuous. Perhaps this sense of presence is what Aristotle was getting at when he distinguished the oligarchic manner of having elevated places of power and the aristocracy having them on “strong places.” Both are secured by fortification, but the latter’s are not elevated. It seems that these places of power and dwelling are meant to be closer to the people. They need security from external threats, but much less security against the people. Furthermore, as virtuous servant-leaders of the people, it makes sense that the aristocracy would be close rather than far. Their status as superior world, however, justify an elevated dwelling, though this would be only a matter of prudence.

The Rule by Many

The democracy and polity regimes offer an interesting contrast, both with the others and between themselves. I begin with democracy. In a democracy there are no places of power distinct from the people as there are in the rule by one and the few. The place of real power is diffused throughout the city, not located in any particular place. There will be sites of power at which there is deliberation and decisions concerning political matters, but they are not sites of power as in monarchical, oligarchic, and aristocratic dwelling. No one lives in these places. They do not take on any symbolism of kingly generational transference of power. Nor do they stand for a social arrangement of superiors and inferiors. When the people of a democracy look at this homeless places of political decision they see themselves. The public face of power is the face of the people reflected on the walls of public political buildings. For some democracies, such as Athens, there is an elevated place—an acropolis. The Acropolis of Athens is the place to which Pericles likely commanded his people to “fix [their] eyes everyday”[1] to rise them out of their individual concerns up towards the concerns of the city and the principles on which it stands. It was not a place of a person or persons, but of a set of ideas and ideals. Of course, not all democracies have an acropolis, but they often have some rallying point for social solidarity—some site that symbolizes a collective, intergenerational and transcendent commitment beyond the individual everyday concerns of existence.

But no one lives in these places, and this is by design. For someone of natural or acquired power to live in the acropolis would be to place a relation between him and his fellows that would violate the principles of democracy. The elevation serves as a message of superiority, something that a democracy cannot have. This is why Aristotle states in one of the key texts above that democratic defense is having all people on level ground. Everyone lives together, and no one rises above. The purpose of this is that that people have their hands on everyone so that no one rises above anyone else. Everyone is grab-able. When on level ground and together, the people have control over individuals. The regime can prevent the following:

There is factional conflict through preeminence when a certain person or persons are greater in power than accords with the city and the power of the governing body; from such persons there customarily arises a monarchy or rule of the powerful. Hence in some places they have the custom of ostracism—at Argos and Athens, for example. It is better to see to it from the beginning that no one is preeminent to such an extent, however, than to let them arise and to heal the ill afterwards. (Politics 1302b15-21)

Keeping everyone together on level ground is effective to prevent the preeminence of some over others, and when one does become preeminent some democracies use the practice of ostracism.

The level ground comment in the key text certainly refers to dwellings, especially in the context of fortifications. Since homes are the public face of its owner and occupant, there should not be any exalted dwellings in a democracy. It sends a message of preeminence that undermines the regime. These would be banned by law and all would be forced to live near one another. Houses on hilltops are strictly prohibited. Furthermore, it seems that the type of adornment Aristotle mentions in one of the keys texts would not be allowed, for it serves, as one translation (Loeb) has it, as a “distinction” of wealth from the others, and therefore it serves as a distinction in power.[2] This would not be allowed in a democracy. Nor would democracies allow what one would typically see in a polity, namely, main-streets in the heart of a city with large, stately homes serving as community-affirming and city adornment functions. It seems that in a true and pure democracy, the people would all live generally in the same type and size of home, and nothing in communicating distinction, especially of power, would be allowed. Aristotle even suggests that an office should be created to detect those “who live in a manner that is disadvantageous relative to the regime” (Politics 1308b20-21). The adornment of one’s home would be one indication of subversion by the potentially preeminent.

It is not only subversion that a democratic regime must fear; it is also a fear of the superiority of another, by the sheer gravity of their presence, which can be forceful in shaping others on how they ought to live. The home of a superior acts as a public face of the person, and as such can communicate a power similar to the presence of the actual person. And since inferiors are, by nature, drawn to obey their recognized superiors (though they can rebel against this call of nature), the presence of superiors works to undermine one of the “defining principles” of democracy, namely, the “living as one wants” (Politics 1317b12). The sheer presence of the superior undermines one’s perceived power to do as he wants, and therefore democracies, in which the “majority is authoritative” (1317b10), will ban expressions of superiority of any kind, including the adornment of homes, to preserve this conception of freedom.

The regime that Aristotle calls “polity” is rule by the “middling” element of society or, what today we would call the middle class. Though such regimes are a “mixture of oligarchy and democracy,” they “tend toward democracy” (Politics 1293b33-36). But polity avoids the common trap of democracy and oligarchy, namely, their tendency to create an “arrogant and base” people incapable of following reason. The middle class is the “readiest to obey reason” for they are moderates in wealth. A community with a dominant or majority middle class is “capable of being well governed.”

Just as this regime-type is the mean between the two extremes of oligarchy and democracy, the nature of its places of power and their functions and degree of adornment are means between that of the two as well. The community that the middle class governs is not made up solely of the middle class. There are rich and poor as well. So the expressions of power in the places of power are not meant to satisfy only similar persons, but different ones as well; and it is likely that the presentation of their worthiness of rule is toward the poor, not the rich. The rulers of polities, then, have a significant ruling base (i.e., many similar persons as in a democracy), yet they rule over others on the basis of superior wealth (i.e., as in an oligarchy).

This translates into what we would think of today as traditional main-street houses in the heart of the town or city. The owners of the homes are likely middle to upper middle class and they own and occupy a home that expresses a certain degree of wealth and dignity. It is common today for these homeowners to organize community events allowing others to walk through the old home for appreciation. Though some might call this a new degree of conspicuous consumption, it is better to look upon it as an affirmation of community. For the homes are typically of a traditional style and remind those of walking through a past age. It is to a limited degree a recognition of Burke’s eternal society. Furthermore, the owners are taking a risk: they are opening their homes up for possible scouting for burglary and other types of criminal activity. It is about an appreciation, concern and care for the solidarity of a townspeople, not showing off consumption.

It is unclear that there were such community events in Aristotle’s day, but the same type of community-affirmation would still find expression. The middle class, desperate to show forth a legitimacy to the poorer classes, would want to adorn their homes with something conducive for pleasant public consumption. Their homes would show symbols of patriotism, solidarity, and affection. And the style of the home would, in part, follow the vernacular-like style.[3] A middle-class home could stand side-by-side with a lower class home in complete harmony, because care has been taken not to flout the superior position of the middle class, but to affirm solidarity in the aspects of their similarities. A sure sign of an oligarchic spirit is the erection of a home in a style wildly incongruent with the local style.

As is clear, the primary purpose of the middling element’s expressions of legitimate power is the message of solidarity—a message of “we’re in this together.” It is not about great superior virtue as in a kingdom and aristocracy (and attempted in an oligarchy). The rulers in the polity would set aside areas for recreation, such as publicly-funded gardens and parks. And consistent with polity being a mean between democracy and oligarchy, the rulers of the polity would set aside government buildings for the purpose of the affairs of the state and no one would live there, yet their homes would still have a certain political gravity to them. They would serve to distinguish, though not to the extent of other regimes. The whole purpose, as I said, would be to secure a sense among the poor of belonging to a free society while also engendering pleasant consent to the dictates of the ruling class.

Mixed Regime

As for a mixed regime, it would contain the elements described above depending on the regimes mixed. The United States is a useful example. The President of the US, having executive authority analogous to that of a monarch, lives in the place he works and conduct official business (the White House). US Representatives, being analogous to a democracy (though not perfectly), meets in a building (The Capital Building) in which no one lives. What we find then is that in a mixed regime the various regime-types embedded find their expression in ways similar to non-mixed regimes. This suggests that there is something natural to the ways that types of power come to be expressed. A monarchical authority wants to express his power from a grand house, because a house, especially for an elected executive, allows one to step in a tradition of that executive position. If every elected executive simply stayed in his own private house, there would not be a ‘stepping into’ a certain legacy and tradition built into a permanent house of the executive. Again, the White House is good example of this.


[1] Thucydides The History of the Peloponnesian War Translated by Rex Warner (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), 149 (2.43).

[2] Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics Translated by H. Rackham (London: Harvard University Press, 1926).

[3] They would not follow vernacular architecture completely. Such architecture is, by definition, a type of forced architecture due to local conditions, materials, and poverty. But they could incorporate aspects of the vernacular, as churches have done.

The Place(s) of Power in Aristotelian City Planning (Part 1)


In a variety of outlets there has been much discussion on city planning, especially on the so-called “new urbanism,”and on Aristotle’s distinctions in qualified ethics in the various regime-types, but there has not been much work on an Aristotelian framework for understanding how regime-types shape city planning.[1] Few have asked whether Aristotle’s understanding of political regimes would shape the physical plan of the city in ways dependent on the regime-type. It is clear from a few key texts in Aristotle’s work that the specific regime does indeed shape the physical design of the city in certain ways, but he does not address the question directly. The purpose of this essay is to develop an Aristotelian perspective of city planning using a few Aristotelian concepts. I am not expositing any view that Aristotle explicitly stated. This paper is, rather, a development of his thought. I focus specifically on questions related to the location, function, and adornment of the places or sites of power.

I argue that in Aristotelian city planning, the location, adornment, multi-functionality, and symbolism (or message) from places of political power to the ruled will differ widely depending on the regime-type. This is mainly due to the political need to visually express perceived or actual differences or sameness between the ruler(s) and the ruled in support of regime legitimacy and stability. I will start with an exposition of keys texts in Aristotle, determining the principles used for the rest of the discussion. I apply these principles to city planning, leading to widely different expressions of power. The framework that I develop has the potential to be an additional or competing means of determining the true regime-type of a political community.

Key Texts and Principles

Every discussion of city planning in Aristotle’s work is in the context and in terms of military defense. For example, he rejects the straight-row design of Hippodamus’s city planning because it is too intuitive and therefore too easy for foreign armies to find their way around. It is better, he argues, for there to be some irregularity with a “view to safety as well as ordered beauty” (1330b32). This has little to do with regime-types and sites of power, however.

In another text, though still on the subject of military defense, Aristotle argues that different forms of city planning are more or less “advantageous” to different regimes. He writes,

With regard to fortified places, what is advantageous is not the same for all regimes. For example, a fortified height [acropolis] is characteristic of oligarchy and monarchy; levelness is characteristic of democracy; neither of these is characteristic of aristocracy, but rather a number of strong places.[2] (1330b18-21)

Aristotle does not tell us how some regimes are more advantageous than others, but one can make confident inferences. It is important to recognize from the outset that the differences are based on the places of power. The span of the fortifications for the rule by one (i.e., kingdom and tyranny) and rule by few (i.e., aristocracy and oligarchy) would be small and not extend through the whole city as in democracy. The fortification would be around the rulers’ homes. Sites of aristocratic power are not necessarily fortified on an elevated height, but they are fortified distinct from the people. Since democracy is the rule of the many, the defenses seem to be around all, not just the few. Already we see that for Aristotle the regime-type shapes the landscape.

There are at least two motivations behind these fortification—the defense of power (what I call the “cold” motive) and the defense of legitimacy (what I call the “warm” motive).  I first discuss the defense of power. This motivation has in view a defense against both external threats (e.g., foreign armies) and internal threats (e.g., insurrection). The way in which the rulers of each regime seek to defend themselves depends on the nature of the regime. The guiding principle behind all fortification is the basic military reality that the seizing of power, whether from without or within, occurs typically by seizing the site of power. A monarch, then, as being the principal power of the realm, will protect his power by protecting his site of power, viz., his person with the fortifications of his residence. Similarly, the oligarchs and aristocrats will fortify their residence for protection. Both fortify their homes exclusively, leaving the people without fortifications. The reason for this is obvious. In these regimes, fortifications for the people make insurrection and disobedience more probable. For democracies, in which there is no particular person in power, the fortifications are for the direct protection of the people. In the ideal democracy, says Aristotle, all people are on level ground and live close together.

Aristotle is clear that the regime-type determines the place(s) of fortifications: around the site(s) of power. As a defense of power, it is a ‘negative’ motivation, not because the motivation is bad in itself, but because it seeks to negate the opposing force, external or internal. There is no attempt in this motivation to build solidarity; it is there to deter and destroy only.

The second motivation, the defense of legitimacy (the ‘warm’ motivation) is harder to discern in Aristotle’s writings, but there is some indication of it. This is the motivation to ensure the legitimacy of rule through presenting the sites of power as ornaments, indicating to the public the worthiness of rule. Aristotle hints at this in his Nicomachean Ethics (4.2; 1123a5-9).[3]

For the magnificent person is lavish not on himself but on the common affairs, and his gifts have a certain resemblance to votive offerings. Yet it also belongs to the magnificent person to furnish his home in a way fitting to his wealth (since this, too, is a certain ornament [kosmos]); and with respect to these furnishings, he will spend more on those works that endure over time.

The context concerns the virtue of magnificence, a virtue one can have only when in possession of great wealth. The magnificent person is not to be lavish in spending only for himself. The spending must be in part for the common good. Aristotle directly connects furnishing one’s house with this spending for the common good. These furnishings are “ornaments” to and of the city. The word ‘ornament’ is a common translation of the Greek word, kosmos. Aristotle uses the word again to describe the great-souled man. He writes, “Greatness of soul, then, seems to be like a kind of ornament of the virtues, for it makes them greater and does not arise without them” (1124a1). The word seems to refer to something added on to an already existing and foundational structure and yet it supports this structure. It serves as a public symbol of what underlies it. The greatness of soul, being possible only after achieving great virtue, is the public ornament of surpassing virtue. One becomes, due to exceeding virtue, a public ornament.

How, then, can the home be an ornament in a similar way? Though Aristotle does not answer this question directly, the answer seems to be that it is (ideally) an ornament of the underlying power of its resident. It is the public show of political power, and it reinforces this underlying power. But it is more than about power. It is about the legitimacy of power—the virtue of the resident. The ornament, the external display, is meant to be a public display of the great virtue and therefore right to rule.

This show of virtue is ‘warm’ and positive because it seeks to solidify power not through negating opposing forces, but by engendering mutual trust and solidarity between the ruler(s) and the ruled. It is an attempt to communicate to the ruled that the ruler is a legitimate power. Aristotle has recognized, it seems, the commonsense notion that visual representations of power have an effect on the perceived legitimacy of political power. One must look the part, not only be the part. Indeed, one can distinguish the ‘be’ and the ‘look’ but not easily separate them. Even legitimate political power needs to put on a show.

Regime-types and Symbols of Power

The negative defense of power is fairly clear and does not need further elaboration. The defense of legitimacy, however, requires more discussion. I will apply the principle of the defense of legitimacy to the six regime-types presented by Aristotle.

Rule by One

 The first set of regime-types I discuss is the rule by one: the monarchy. Monarchical rule can be either a kingdom or a tyranny. Both seek to fortify elevated terrain (e.g., a hilltop castle) and both will ornament their site of power to communicate a message of legitimacy. Both sites of power are, in a sense, a show of power, an ornament of an alleged underlying greatness. As elevated, the distinction of superior and inferior is given added emphasis. The monarch, as the one who looks down, communicates superiority and the up-looker, by the very act of looking up, has become a symbol of inferiority. The arrangement communicates the principles of inequality inherent in these regime-types.

The message of the kingdom is much different than the message of the tyranny. When a monarch holds legitimate (not arbitrary) power, he both appears before the people as superior in virtue and he is superior in virtue. He is therefore a king. The apparent or symbolized inequality in social relations is based on an actual inequality in virtue. When the king looks down upon the people, his elevated status presents an appearance of superiority, and the people accept him as such, because he is superior. But this superiority comes with additional and exclusive (and perhaps terrifying) responsibility. He must lead his people justly and fairly. He must look down with affection, as a father. He must love and care for his people. The people—those who look up—are compelled, by the display of legitimate might and power, to submit themselves to the king and look to him for protection and just laws. The grandness of the structure presented before them is a symbol of the virtue and greatness of its resident, and the site of power becomes a type of rallying point for societal unity and solidarity. There forms a mutual respect between ruler and ruled. The former has responsibility and authority and the latter have reverence and submission.

Thomas Aquinas speaks of this type superior/inferior relationship as having the potential for greater love than between equals. He writes, “between those who are unequal there can be a greater love than between equals.”[4] This social inequality even has beauty to it. He writes, “The cause of inequality could be on the part of God; not indeed that He would punish some and reward others, but that He would exalt some above others; so that the beauty of order would the more shine forth among men.”[5] The hierarchical social structure, when observed, shows a certain beauty of order. The relationship of the king to his subjects, symbolized in the elevated and exalted place of royal dwelling, shows forth a beauty of order consistent with Aristotle’s description.

Furthermore, since the place of power serves as a dwelling, the place of power becomes a symbol of continuity. It is a place in which the kings of the past and the kings of the future will live and reign. The continuity of the dead, living and yet to be born are presented for public viewing, sending a message of stability, security, and durability. Every generation, then, is part of what Edmund Burke calls the “the great primeval contract of eternal society,”[6] in which a set of sanctioned acts, rights, duties, manners, and other social expectations have developed and passed along through generations. The dwelling place of the king is the symbol of that eternal society. It is the visual contract linking the “visible and invisible world.” The people can expect the king to act as his fathers did and the king can expect the people to act as their fathers did. The regime and its symbols of power and solidarity bring society into a common intergenerational bond. It is the legitimacy of the hierarchy that engenders cross-generational sentiment, and the dwelling place of the sovereign is the prized symbol communicating the eternality of the society.

The tyrant, however, is not so lucky. He presents himself in much the same way, but he has a very different yet unintentional message. The tyrant communicates little but arbitrary power, and the symbols of legitimacy he puts forward to the people cause resentment, not trust and affection. The display is quickly declared superficial and inauthentic. His power, when exercised is not felt like that of a loving father, but of a thief or uninvited stranger. The tyrant, however, has no choice but to present himself as if he were a legitimate ruler—as a king. He must, first of all, protect his seat of power from external forces and from insurrection (the ‘cold’ defense) and he must also present himself as worthy of the title. Of course, a tyrant could imprudently care little for his public display of worthiness and rely only on brute force and coercion. But his rule would be much more effective, if he were to act and present himself as a king. This is the advice of Aristotle to the tyrant: “it is a source of preservation for tyranny to make it more kingly” and “he should give a fine performance of the part of the kingly rule” (1214a35-6, 39-40). And preservation of power comes not only through kingly acts, but also through a kingly appearance: The tyrant “should appear not harsh but dignified [σεμνός], and further, of such a sort that those encountering him feel awe rather than fear” (1314b19-20). This “dignity” is the presentation of a certain gravity—a majestic presence. To maintain power, then, the tyrant ought to take on the appearance of a king. Ultimately, behind the drapery of pseudo-inequality is nothing but equality between the ruler and ruled.

The tyrant’s home then will ideally look much like the kings—elevated, grand, and powerful. It will be an attempt to communicate superiority and legitimate power. The hope is that the tyrant’s show communicates sufficient affection for those below to inspire the people to look up with admiration and obedience. Though this might work for a time, a pseudo-kingly tyrant cannot stay in power long. For if a tyrant could successfully look and act like a king, and thereby be thought of as a legitimate power, then he is no longer a tyrant but a king. There has been a regime change. But a kingly tyrant is an oxymoron that only exacerbates his illegitimate claim to power.  This is one of the reasons why the tyranny, with oligarchy, is one of the “most short-lived regimes” (1315b13), according to Aristotle.

Furthermore, a tyrant does not have the benefit of the succession of legitimate power to his sons. As I mentioned above, the dwelling of kings has a message of continuity as a symbol of an “eternal society.” The tyrant, of course, could attempt this show, but if he remains a tyrant (that is, if he does not become a king), his children have no more legitimacy than he does. Therefore, his home could look the same as a king, yet have an opposite message: discontinuity and arbitrary power.

But what is fascinating is that, per Aristotle’s advice, the tyrant must present himself regally in order to maintain power. It is only rational to do so. The tyrant is in a difficult position. He can either make a regal show of virtue, an attempt at a ‘warm’ display of power, or he can rely on nothing but the cold power of walls and shields. The most rational seems to be for a tyrant to pursue legitimacy through becoming a king.

Part 2 and Part 3


[1] Philip Bess makes extensive use of Aristotle in Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), but he does not discuss city planning in terms of Aristotle’s various regimes. See, also, for example, Steve Hartlaub and Richard Jelier “Ancient Political Philosophy and New Urbanism: Creating Community,” conference presentation at Western Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting.

[2] All quotations of Politics is from the Carnes Lord translation. See Aristotle’s Politics Trans. by Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[3] All quotations, unless noted, for Nicomachean Ethics come from the Bartlett and Collins translation. See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics Translated by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[4] Summa Theologica I.96.3. Accessed here:

[5] Ibid

[6] See Reflections on the Revolution in France. Accessed here:

How Small-Scale Producers become Virtuous (Part 3)

Part 1 and Part 2

Small-Scale production

The difficulty in establishing the conditions for creative labor to be an end in itself in a capitalist system lies in the ideal scale of production in such a system. Only in large-scale production can a firm maximize efficiency and thereby drive down production cost. As mentioned in a previous post, this requires large amounts of simple and repetitive labor. It also leaves a vast gulf between producer and consumer such that any affirmation of labor from the consumer is impossible. Production and consumption become impersonal and both become merely means to an end. At the same time, this increased focus on competition and efficiency drives down prices, sending many small-scale

businesses, which operate less efficiently, out of business. The larger businesses begin to take more and more of the market share, ensuring that production to consumption is almost universally impersonal. Large and highly efficient stores, such as Walmart offer goods and services that were once offered by multiple different types of stores, often owned by families. With sophisticated production and transportation processes (which do make their prices remarkably low), these mega-stores have systematically made the traditional “mom and pop” stores obsolete. And as forces for the impersonalization of the producer/consumer relationship, they do not permit the type of relationship in which the consumer affirms the producer’s meaningful work.

The best setting for such affirmation is in small-scale production. In pre-modern times, these private operations would include the grocer, blacksmith, farmer, locksmith, etc. Due to the limited transportation technology, these specialists primarily served their community in their work, and their invitation to share in the satisfaction of creative production was personal and direct. They knew their customers and could receive feedback and direct appreciation; and because the laborer was part of the community, he could view his work as service to the community, as being an integral part of the social organism. Production would continue to be a means of making a profit, yet its end is creative labor affirmed by the consumer. In this highly personalized setting, the producer can put a “face,” of sorts, to the product; it is made public and subjected to scrutiny. From this scrutiny, the brave producers hope to achieve realization through the affirmation of the meaningfulness of his or her labor.

But today being a small-scale producer has a difficulty that pre-modern producers never experienced. Consumers search out the best prices, and the internet has provided instant price comparisons and purchasing with a click of computer mouse. Local small-scale producers typically do not have the sophisticated methods of marketing, branding, and distribution as do the megastores. Many of these small-scale stores try to grab hold of a niche market, yet when a niche turns popular the market is quickly taken over by the capital-rich and flexible megastores. The megastores are so impressive that they are able even to have higher quality and more available customer service than many small-scale stores.

The state contributes to the competiveness of large companies, particularly the large retail stores, such as Walmart, Target, and The Home Depot. Government road and highway networks permit not only speedy transportation for bulk order (reducing cost), but also ensures easy access to these stores. No longer must (or can) one walk to the local strip of stores to buy what they need. Not only can one comfortably drive to these locations, almost everything one needs is conveniently located in one or two stores.[1] Small-scale operations face almost insurmountable odds.

At this point, the only angle small-scale operations (which includes both producers and retails stores) have is to present themselves as local establishments or they must have a strong internet presence. The former angle (and partly the latter) hopes that a certain ideological commitment to localism will spur on local patronage and investment. The most obvious successes in this regard is found in the farmer’s markets in which local farmers and ranchers sell their products for cash. Other examples include the brewpub, offering craft beer. Indeed, the craft beer movement has done quite well, forcing the larger companies to sell their own unique beer. In general, though, the time of various separately owned and operated shops supplying the needs of a community has succumbed to large conglomerates. Still, these small-scale producers are the closest things in the United States economy to having the conditions necessary to bring about the affirmation of meaningful work.

Some may object that since many of the small-scale producers use wage-labor, the owners are denying the workers meaningful work in I’ve described. This is false. It is not the presence of a wage that denies an affirmation of meaningful work; it is the lack of personalized exchange. One can receive a wage, not own the means of production and still have his or her work as an end, not the means to earn a wage, affirmed. In this sense, even a slave could have his or her work affirmed as meaningful, despite the injustice of slavery (of course, this doesn’t justify slavery). In a company with a few workers, the affirmation would depend on a certain unity as to the nature of the invitation to exchange. The owner of the means of production would ultimately have the final say on the matter, but in the interest of justice the owner ought to ensure a certain unity of purpose in their production and exchange. This ensures the greatest realization of the workers’ creative potential in the affirmation coming from the exchange.

Upshot of everyday life

Those of us who are uncomfortable or horrified by the state of our consumeristic and industrial society too often propose solutions that call for an addition to life: activism, protesting, marching, charity, etc. These are what we can call “additional duties,” activities separated and added onto everyday life. Some proposed solutions are so radical that they cannot sufficiently be practiced at all or at least only in limited and special occasions (e.g., some of the Occupy activities). Everyday life is separated from the ideal.

But if my argument is sound, then those who care for a more just economic order can actually participate in it now. This is because small-scale producers continue to exist, and they exist only because people buy their products. Too often activism is denouncing someone or some institution and calling for them or it to change. But what I’ve presented here is not so much a call for the producers of capitalism to change, but for the consumers to change. Affirming the meaningfulness of another’s labor can happen now through local purchasing. Any increase in the demand for locally produced products will increase the availability of locally produced products. This requires the type of massive individual change that so often activists demand on others.

The individual change required is complex and deeply personal. But what I want to emphasize is that my presentation, though it makes demands upon small-scale owners and calls for workers of all modes of production to seek the type of affirmation I have described, primarily calls on people to realize that the everyday, the ordinary demands of life, is a sphere of possible impact in one’s community, particularly in our purchasing. The problem, as most people quickly discover, is the price. Small-scale producers rarely can compete with the prices of the high efficiency stores. Shopping local means being able to purchase less. Each person must decide what they are willing to sacrifice. I do not presume to answer such a question.

Small-scale producers also sell online. Though it is not local, the exchange still affirms the creativity of the seller and most sites offer some type of feedback mechanism. It would be better for various reasons to buy local, but the internet has broadened the market of small-scale producer in such a way to make their production possible. Local markets rarely can support businesses selling highly specialized items with low demand. The internet has opened up the possibility of creative productive labor for products that cannot be distributed locally.


These post have been an attempt to describe an important feature of human potential and its realization. Those who conduct creative productive labor want an affirmation of its meaning through the consumer’s satisfaction of the product. This prevents a certain alienation. Alienated labor in my presentation is labor separated from the consumer satisfaction of the product of labor. Many, if not most, jobs in modern capitalist economies cannot ensure this. They do not have the conditions necessary to alleviate the alienation by consumer affirming the meaningfulness of the labor, though a worker could view his work as affirmed to a certain degree. My argument calls not for the world to change, but for individuals to change; and changing their buying habits would be a good start. It is a process of making deliberate one’s daily actions, being conscious of what one is doing and contributing to. Deliberately purchasing products from local producers and stores creates the demand for such producers. It can revitalize a local economy and community. It re-personalizes a major part of one’s everyday life and an essential part of any robust community.

Part 1 and Part 2

[1] Walmart is the best example of this.