From the Archive: Self-Sufficiency

I’m re-reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, this week, while my engineering ethics students work their way through parts of it and into some kind of understanding of virtue ethics.

I was struck again by the contrast between Aristotle’s thinking the thinking of most of my students – and most Americans – on the question of what makes a full and satisfying human life possible.

This reminded me of a post from my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, that first appeared on February 7, 2012.

In answer to one particular question about the best kind of life, at least, Plato and Aristotle seem to be in accord.

* * *


. . . I’d like to consider an essential question of ethics and political philosophy: What is the smallest self-sufficient unit of human life?

For myself, I lean to the ancient account, from Plato and Aristotle: the smallest self-sufficient unit of human life is the city, that is, the polis, which entails community and political order as well as geographic proximity and economic interdependence.

An adult human being may indeed be able to eke out a bare subsistence, alone in the wide world, but to thrive, to have any hope of developing our capacities and leading fully human lives worthy of the name and, indeed, to have help in getting through hard times, we need community and some kind of political order.

It is a peculiarly modern folly to think not only that the individual can be self-sufficient, but that we somehow start out as self-sufficient, and only come into civil society by choice or by contract.

What the ancients realized, what the moderns seem to have forgotten, is that we are always already in some kind of community. We cannot come into the world and reach adulthood without communal cooperation involving at least two other people.

We members of H. sapiens sapiens aren’t exactly precocial, able to leap from the womb and start fending for ourselves.

(I sometimes comment to my students that the “state of nature” thought experiment, introduced by Hobbes, could only have been written by a man, and probably one who had never raised children. That Rousseau never raised children is entirely too well known, and a blot on his character: he sent off to the orphanage the children he fathered with his companion, Thérèse.)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been reading Plato’s The Republic with my students in a political philosophy class. In order to figure out what justice is, Plato has Socrates build a hypothetical city. In the following, Socrates is using the first person; he is speaking to Adeimantus who, as it happens, is Plato’s brother:

‘Very well,’ I said. ‘The origin of a city lies, I think, in the fact that we are not, any of us, self-sufficient; we have all sorts of needs. Can you think of any other reason for the foundation of a city?’

‘No, I can’t.’

‘Different individuals, then, form associations with one person to meet one need, and with another person to meet a different need. With this variety of wants they may collect a number of partners and allies into one place of habitation, and to this joint habitation we give the name “city,” don’t we?’ (369b-c)

The building of the hypothetical city goes like this, continuing with the same conversation:

‘Right then,’ I said. ‘Let’s construct a hypothetical city, from the beginning. It is the product, apparently, of our needs.’

‘Of course.’

‘And the first and most important of those needs, if we are to exist and stay alive, is the provision of food.’


‘Second comes the need for housing, and third the need for clothing and things like that.’

‘That is right.’

‘Well then,’ I said, ‘how will our city be equal to meeting these requirements? Won’t it just be one farmer, plus a builder, plus a weaver? Or should we add a shoemaker as well, and anyone else who provides for physical needs?’

‘Yes, we should.’

‘So the most basic city would have to consist of for or five men.’

‘It looks like it.’ (369d-e)

Socrates goes on to suggest a division of labor:

‘Next question. Should each one of them make what he produces available to all alike? Should the one farmer, for example, provide food for four? Should he put four times the hours, and four times the effort, into the production of food, and then share it with the others? Or should he forget about them and provide for himself alone, producing only a quarter of the amount of food in a quarter of the time – and of the remaining three-quarters, devote a quarter each to the provision of housing, of clothing, of footwear? That way he would save himself the trouble of sharing with others, and provide for his own needs by his own individual efforts.

‘No, Socrates,’ Adeimantus replied, ‘the other way is probably easier.’

‘That’s certainly what you’d expect,’ I said. ‘And one thing immediately struck me when you said that, which is that one individual is by nature quite unlike another individual, that they differ in their natural aptitudes, and that different people are equipped to perform different tasks. Don’t you think so?’

‘I do.’

‘Well, then. Will a single individual do better exercising a number of skills,or will each do best concentrating on one?’

‘Concentrating on one,’ he replied. (369e-370b)

Not to give away the punch line, but the notion that each individual is suited by nature to a particular kind of task ends up being central to Plato’s conception of justice: those fit to rule should rule, those fit to make shoes should make shoes, and everyone should mind their own business . . . as it were.

Notice, though, that the division of labor is simply more efficient:

‘It follows from this that in any enterprise more is produced – and that it is better and more easily produced – when one person does a single task which is suited to his nature, and does it at the right time, keeping himself free from other tasks.’ (370c)

Immediately, Socrates begins adding more tasks and more citizens to the nascent city, starting with craftspeople, then adding traders and merchants, sailors . . . and ever more farmers.

Socrates’ first impulse is to sketch out a lean and disciplined city. The inhabitants of the city will, for example, “have no more children than they can afford, and they will avoid poverty and war” (372c). Consider the diet Socrates proposes:

‘I forgot that they will have the art of cookery. Obviously they will use salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil the usual country dishes of wild roots and vegetables. And for desert we can offer them figs and chickpeas and beans; they will roast myrtle berries and acorns in front of the fire, with a modest amount to drink. In this way, living lives which are peaceful and in all probability healthy, they will die in old age, handing down the same way of life to their descendants.’ (372c-d)

Glaucon immediately objects that this would be a “city of pigs”, and insists the people would want more comfort, convenience, and refinement in their lives.

‘I see,’ I replied. ‘So we are not just looking at the origin of a city, apparently. We are looking at the origin of a luxurious city. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea. If we look at that sort of city too, we may perhaps see the point where justice and injustice come into existence in cities. I think the true city – the healthy version – is the one we have just described. But let’s look also at the swollen and inflamed city, if that is what you prefer. We can do that. What’s to stop us?’ (372e)

So, he goes on adding citizens and occupations to the city, which eventually outgrows its resource base and needs to expand. Hence the origin of a standing army (an innovation, at the time), and the emergence of a ruling class from the elite members of the army who are, of course, trained to be philosophers.

(The political system Plato goes on to sketch is, in effect, a benevolent military dictatorship where qualification for membership in the ruling class is physical, intellectual, and moral merit. That’s a discussion for another time, though.)

There it is, then. The city, with its division of labor, is the proper setting for the best kind of human life, based on our needs and our nature. Plato even throws in a critique of consumerism, just for good measure.

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