Compatibility Check: Aristotle & Capitalism

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Elizabeth C. Derdeyn, Macro Economics – 5th Period

If you are familiar with the greatest hits of Aristotle, then you have probably read “The Nicomachean Ethics”.  In that particular discourse, Aristotle addresses a question humanity has been asking since arriving on this miserable plane of existence: why are we here?  Or more simply, what is our purpose?  According to Aristotle, “The good is the final end, and happiness is this” (Aristotle, 7.).  And what is the ultimate good? – Contemplation.  When it comes to Aristotle’s philosophy, the bottom line is that contemplation is the final end we should always and forever strive for.  But the question remains: does Capitalism help steer us toward such an end?

Before casting about judgments, it is imperative to have a good picture of both elements of the equation, starting with Aristotle’s end – contemplation being the final end and chief goal.  It should be noted, before going any further, that the absolute perfect life of contemplation is as of yet impossible within the confines of reality.  This is for one chief reason – Aristotle’s reasoning for contemplation as the supreme good and true happiness is that it is the one thing humans have discovered that “is something final and self-sufficing… the end of all that man does” (Aristotle, 7.). Contemplation is the ultimate form of happiness for Aristotle, because it cannot be improved upon by any outside forces.  To reach the final ‘final end’, the obvious council would be to contemplate as much as possible – to maximize your happiness so it is impossible for it to rise any higher.  The problem with such a supreme life of contemplation is that in theory one must never have to sacrifice the opportunity for contemplation for anything.  Unfortunately, the extensive time for contemplation is often, whether we realize it or not, the opportunity cost for other things deemed important here in this mortal coil, such as using that time for working, let alone eating and sleeping.

So it becomes apparent that reaching the ‘true’ final end is as of yet impossible for humanity, since our mortality makes it impossible to devote our entire existence to contemplation and nothing else.  But the question is not ‘can we achieve our final end?’  It is more along the lines of ‘Does Capitalism help us toward the final end?’  Based on our conclusions about that final end being contemplation, we can form a simplified question to start with as we look at Capitalism: ‘Does Capitalism help us achieve contemplation?’

Capitalism.  The American Dream.  For quite some time the two have gone hand and hand.  America, to some extent, is defined by its massive capitalist economy.  But what is capitalism?  Ever since the Red Scare Americans have mostly just known it to be ‘what is good’ over Communism, which ‘is bad’.  But to examine whether or not capitalism is good for those attempting to follow Aristotle’s teaching, propaganda will not be enough.  A more in depth examination of the inner workings of capitalism is necessary.  Very simply, Capitalism is a system based on “mass production to satisfy the needs of the masses” (Ludwig von Mises, II).  In a Capitalistic society, the economy and all its specifics are not dictated by any one individual – they are dictated by the masses, or more specifically, what the masses want.  Capitalism is set up on that principle of entrepreneurship – the economy is driven by those who see needs and work to fulfill them, looking for profit of their own.  All in all, it seems a very natural way to progress with supply and demand, but the problem that many people find with Capitalism is intrinsic to its nature: Capitalism works because it is a laissez faire system – the economy and the state are almost completely separate.  The government has no power to dictate anything in the market, no indeed; they are practically a consumer like everyone else, capable of putting money in, and taking it out.  With no government control or regulation – no system that provides for ‘unfair equality’ – Capitalism is basically, under the hood, a gruesome free for all in which whoever has the most money wins the game of life and whoever has nothing… has nothing.

But we are getting off track.  If there is one thing Aristotle is express about, it is that pleasure and material wealth are not the final end for anyone who calls himself a man – they are the just end only for one who cannot reason – a beast.  As any and every system of the economy deal with capital and material wealth, it seems ridiculous to attempt to synchronize them with Aristotle’s thinking.  But the focus that we must keep in mind is capability: Does Capitalism allow and promote a path to the final end?  Arguably, the closest to the final end attainable within the confines of reality is a life that allows for the most contemplation – a life where you are comfortably situated for survival and well-endowed for contemplation.  And while this is theoretically achievable without or with any economy, the question is does Capitalism promote it?

It’s probably safe to say that the best promotion of contemplation is education.  But on that requisite alone it is still hard to judge capitalism as effective or not.  It’s hard to find strict proof and nothing else, seeing as both capitalist and non-capitalist states implement education and both produce their fair share of philosophers.  But which enables more people to contemplate? 

From one side you could argue that capitalism promotes contemplation because it promotes being able to think for yourself.  Geniuses always do better in than others in the game of capitalism, because they know how to cut corners and play well with strategy.  So there is a very real drive to learn and equip yourself with knowledge in capitalist societies, as knowledge can very clearly equal power.

But on the other side of things, the way capitalism works it places a very real emphasis on survival like nothing else.  As mentioned before, it is a vicious game where everyone for himself.  It really is, in a big picture sort of way, a lot like pre-historic times – everything is about ensuring your own survival, the only difference is now the hunt for dinner is more sophisticated.  But the point that should be expressly considered is that capitalism reinforces the mindset of survival – which is ultimately a mindset of the material plane.  One cannot survive on contemplation alone – but one can survive without contemplation.  As such, when a person spends all of his or her life learning how to live and survive in a capitalism set-up, there is a very real chance he or her will not harbor a great amount of value for contemplation – as in earlier years it never proved itself to be as critically important as the material wealth which had to be fought for.  In this line of thought, only those who never had to fight for survival would not value material wealth above anything else – and who has not fought for survival?

Ultimately this is the answer to the question we’ve been asking.  Capitalism, as seems to be its nature, is best for those who are best off.  Those who start off well enough are able to endow themselves with a good education, and continue to do well for themselves – they are the people who succeed in Capitalism.  And theoretically they are the ones who will be the pillars of contemplation and true happiness.

But how many wealthy people not fighting for survival do we actually see resigning themselves to lives of contemplation?  Certainly not nearly as many as there are wealthy people.  The problem is that Capitalism enhances human greed in general; it is a system of economic living that brings out the materialistic aspects of people no matter what class they find themselves in.  If you were wealthy enough to be able to spend your entire life contemplating as much as possible and doing nothing else… would you?  Unless you have a borderline impossibly disposition, inevitably you will not be contemplating.  You will be enjoying your possessions, living the life.  In the modern capitalist world, there are too many good things – too many fine pleasantries to distract ourselves with.

And that is why, in the end, Capitalism will never be conducive to Aristotelian philosophy.  As a free-for-all economic system that promotes a sophisticated fight for survival, Capitalism focuses on living in the material plane more than the abstract.  While it may encourage the cultivation of intellect, the powers of the mind are only valued when they bring about tangible success; another tribute to the materialism of the entire system.  So, in regards to a philosophy that advocates rising above meager pleasure and pursuing the divinity of contemplation, Capitalism is simply too rooted in mortality to be compatible.

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