Abusing Aristotle

Okay, enough already.  You can go around carrying pictures of Chairman Mao; you can offer to help establish houses of underage prostitution; you can make up quotations and attribute them to Rush Limbaugh; but when you make up quotations and attribute them to Aristotle, I get mad.  Aristotle is supposed to have said,

If we believe men have any personal rights at all, then they must have an absolute moral right to such a measure of good health as society can provide.

Now it’s obvious that he said no such thing.  No one had any concept of rights until the seventeenth century, much less personal rights, which would have to contrast with collective rights, an incoherent invention of the nineteenth century.  There’s no word in ancient Greek that would be appropriately translated right.  And what’s this absolute?  That too is anachronistic.  Society providing health, or anything else, for that matter?  That too is completely foreign to Aristotle.

This is not to say, however, that Aristotle said nothing relevant to evaluating Obamacare.  He would plainly have been appalled at the idea:

Further, private education has an advantage over public, as private medical treatment has; for while in general rest and abstinence from food are good for a man in a fever, for a particular man they may not be; and a boxer does not prescribe the same style of fighting to all his pupils.  It would seem, then, that the detail is worked out with more precision if the control is private; for each person is more likely to get what suits his case. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X, 9)

Aristotle here gives voice to one of the classic objections to government regulation and provision of services of all kinds.  Government of necessity applies universal rules, which frequently produce the wrong results in individual cases—even if, as is all too often not the case, they are the best possible universal rules one could adopt.

6 thoughts on “Abusing Aristotle

  1. You know, I’m reading “Jesus of Nazareth” by B-16, a.k.a. “The Pope formerly known as Josef Cardinal Ratzinger.” At some point, he starts referring to “Philo of Alexandria.” And I’m, like, cool, I know him: this is like six degrees of separation, only it’s only, like, two degrees.

    You must be really old.

  2. Speaking of misquoting Aristotle, have you seen the UT athletics ad on TV. Apparently, Aristotle said, “Educating the head without educating the heart is no education at all.” A little surprising, since he thought that the brain was nothing but a cooling tower for the blood.

  3. I can’t find anything like that Aristotle quote either, Rob, though at least the thought isn’t completely foreign to Aristotle’s framework—even if that use of ‘head’ and ‘heart’ are.

    Barb, I look pretty good for my age, don’t I?

  4. I think saying he would have been plainly appalled at the idea of a public option is overshooting just a little bit.

    Your argument presupposes that people get personalized or at least individualized insurance care from private insurers, which simply isn’t true. So if it’s bad for a government to use universal rules it stands to reason that he would also be opposed to a private system which in practice does the same. Unless you want to claim that Aristotle was a capitalist, and a laizzes-faire one at that, another concept which would have been as foreign to Aristotle as rights would.

    However, your core purpose in this post is to rail against those who misquote Aristotle. In that one thing have you succeeded, but even then only partially. I agree with you that attributing that quote to Aristotle is egregious, but I think it’s equally problematic to attribute ideas to Aristotle that weren’t his, even if one is able to site the book directly. What I mean is, it only takes a few moments of reading the section to see that not only would Aristotle have supported a public option, he would have been more inclined to adopt a truly nationalized health care system.

    For example, just a few paragraphs above the section you’ve quoted, Aristotle says:

    “But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for virtue if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary. But it is surely not enough that when they are young they should get the right nurture and attention; since they must, even when they are grown up, practise and be habituated to them, we shall need laws for this as well, and generally speaking to cover the whole of life; for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than the sense of what is noble.”

    Not only does he advocate a public education, but he advocates an extreme form of it wherein the state chooses our occupation and how it is that we should be nurtured. Of particular note is the part where he says “and generally speaking to cover the whole of life”, mostly because he is, in no uncertain terms, stating that the continued happiness of the people is reliant on a complete and total immersion into a culture which is dependent solely on the state. Further, when considered in context, it’s clear from the paragraph above that his “classic objection” to government interference is part of his argument against the spartan state where people lived as “Cyclops-fashion, ‘to his own wife and children dealing law” which is immediately followed by another instance of Aristotle arguing against privatization.

    Abuse of Aristotle indeed.

  5. Kit,

    I agree with you that Aristotle is a paternalist who advocates a startlingly encompassing role for government. He’s no libertarian. But he does advocate private control in certain instances, and medical care is one of them. Education is another. In saying he there gives voice to a classic libertarian argument, I didn’t mean to suggest that he champions it across the board; as you point out, medical care is for him the exception rather than the rule.

    I think the larger point of the passage is revealed by what follows immediately after what I quoted. Aristotle is saying that private judgment is better than a universal rule “in medicine and all other matters which give scope for care and prudence.” But to be able to do better, you have to know the universals. Your doctor knows your particular case and can prescribe more effective treatment for you than some bureaucracy that by definition must prescribe rules across the board, but he still has to know medicine. Similarly, a politician, to make judgments in general or in particular cases, has to understand statesmanship. Hence the transition from the Ethics to the Politics.

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