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Aristotle's Legacy: The Reality and Ethics of Communal Property

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Tags BiographiesFree MarketsLegal SystemPhilosophy and MethodologyPrivate Property

09/17/2009Matt Summers
Aristotle closeup from Raphael's 'School of Athens'

In the opening lines of Book Two in Aristotle's Politics, Aristotle ponders, out of all of the political arrangements, "which is the best for all those able to lead an ideal life?" (1260 b 25).[1]

His inquiry leads him to a starting point, the realization that citizens of any city must share some things while keeping others private. His quest to find the best form of political arrangement thus begins with the contemplation of which items in a city should be shared and which should be kept private.

As an example of a city in which everything is shared, Aristotle refers to Plato's Republic, specifically to Plato's suggestion that wives, children, and possessions should be shared and kept in common care. Aristotle lays out his question:

So we are faced with the problem of whether it is better for children and wives and possessions to be kept as they are now [i.e., private] or to be [common] according to the law laid down in The Republic. (1261 a 8)

It is the purpose of this paper to analyze Aristotle's views on this issue and to consider it more thoroughly.

Aristotle presents three key items pertinent to the discussion of a city in which ownership is shared: women, children, and property. Each item must be considered separately in order to examine its unique characteristics. We must then examine the effects that the item's characteristics will have on public or private ownership. We will begin by reflecting on each item individually in the order they are presented.

The Sharing of Women

Aristotle begins his examination of common ownership with an assessment of the consequences of sharing women. Aristotle makes note of several potential problems.

Unmentioned by Aristotle, but obvious in its own right, is that the compulsory sharing of women undermines both men and women's ability to freely and naturally set the terms for their own relationships. Generally speaking, people pair with one another based on mutual attraction; and they create agreements for a continued partnership based on mutual consent. Both parties must consent to enter a relationship, but only one must oppose to opt out.

These agreements may include private bonding or exclude it, but the agreements should be voluntary. To say that women must be shared amongst men violates both the men and women's ability to freely choose the duration of their own relationships. One may immediately question the level of happiness maintained among those who cannot be with whom they choose for the length of time they choose.

In the context of Aristotle's Politics, women are not portrayed as having a choice in the matter. The context does in fact depict them as the possessions of the men. While this outlook is demeaning, we must discuss the subject within this context in order to see it as Aristotle did.

Examining the sharing of women within the context of Politics, we are led to the consequences this practice would have on the physical and mental health of the women. If one man is allowed to own a woman privately, she will be subject to the treatment and the desires of only one man. If all men share a woman, she will be subject to the treatment and desires of all men.

In public ownership, each man will be fully able to indulge his appetites on any women he chooses. In private ownership, the man in possession of a woman may or may not treat her well, which is a legitimate concern. But if ownership is common, women are guaranteed to be at the mercy of all ill-tempered men. One can see how private ownership of women would be vastly more humane than common ownership.

Not only is common ownership undesirable for females, but it also destroys the virtue of males. The sharing of women enables what is by common moral standards considered to be unrestrained concupiscence on behalf of the males. Aristotle states that the sharing of property and women destroys the function of two virtues, the first of which is "temperance towards women (for to refrain from having relations with another man's wife because of temperance is a fine attitude)" (1263 b 10). The second virtue is generosity, which will be discussed later.

Another problem with sharing women is the effect this practice has on the unity of the city. Not only does the sharing of women negatively affect the citizens as we have discussed, but it also negatively affects the city in which they live. Aristotle again refers to the ideas of Plato, saying that combining women in a common pool creates the "highest unity" a city can obtain. But according to Aristotle, this drive for total unity destroys the very nature of the city.

By definition, a city is not a total unity, but a group of unified pluralities. It is a group of small and different groups: different men, women, children, households, and friendships living together. To eliminate permanent couplings in an effort to strengthen the state is to eliminate the pluralities that create the city. The policy of sharing wives destroys what it is meant to strengthen.

It is indeed evident that as a state tends to become more of a unity, it eventually ceases to be a state; for a state is by its nature a plurality of a certain sort, and in proceeding to a greater unity, it will first become a household, which in turn will become one man. For we would regard a household as having more unity than a state, and a man as having more unity than a household. So even if one were able to bring about that unity, it should not be done, for it would be the ruin of the state. (1261 a 16–23)


As men and women couple for the purpose of procreating new members of a city, they create individual cells within the city. A polis, by Aristotle's definition, is a plurality of these cells living amongst one another in a common area. If these pluralities are absorbed into a single unit, the conditions change from the previously defined city to a different and undefined form of political arrangement.

Aristotle likens this singular and unified polis to a "military alliance" in which members are only useful because of their quantity. It is interesting to note that Aristotle uses the term "useful" to describe this quantity of citizens. This forces the question, to whom or for what are they useful?

Military alliances exist for the sake of something or someone else, such as the protection of the city. Ordinary freemen exist for their own sake. While this unified way of living may have its advantages for the protectors of the city, it inhibits the freedom of the ordinary citizen by forcing him to live for ends other than his own.

As we can see, the sharing of women is detrimental to the wellbeing of the city. First, it destroys the freedom of the people to choose the terms of their own personal relationships. Secondly, it ignores the virtue of temperance. Thirdly, sharing women leads to the destruction of the city by eliminating the pluralities that make a city. Fourthly, the unified polis that sharing women creates leads to the destruction of the freedom to choose one's own social ends. We must conclude from these facts that the common ownership of women is not beneficial to the polis.

The consequences of the manner in which women are held lead into our second concern: should children be communally or privately raised? Private couples may have their children taken away for the sake of common rearing, but they also may keep their children to raise them privately. However, without private couples, the children have little option but to be raised by the community. Let us examine the effects of public child rearing.

The Sharing of Children

The communal raising of children presents many problems. Unlike men and women, children do not opt into their familial relationships. They are brought into the world through no choice of their own.

Further, young children cannot provide for themselves. In the early portion of life, children are at the mercy of their birth parents. In order to keep the child alive, the parents are thus obligated to protect and maintain the child as if he were their property.

This places the children in an intermediate position, between women, who may opt in and out of relationships under their own power and thus are not property, and land, which may be owned indefinitely and indifferently by any owner. A child may be "owned" by a parent or parents until he is old enough to "own" himself. Ownership of a child is legitimate but temporary.

The very first problem to arise when considering whether children should be raised privately or publicly is the amount and quality of the attention they will be given during their rearing. In terms of quality, we must question the consistency of the education that a child will receive from a thousand random people, versus the education the same child would receive from two permanent counselors.

Without any appointed guardian to validate each opinion heard, the child will be left to sort through his education unaided. The good information that he receives will come relatively infrequently compared to the larger proportion of suggestions.

A thousand men will be unable to efficiently convene on the education of a child without delegating the task to a smaller group. The few men who teach well will be responsible to the mass of the children, with the result of each child getting little positive attention.

Thus a citizen will have [let us say] one thousand sons, not as being his very own, but each of them being equally the son of any chance father, with the result that each son will be equally given little attention. (1262 a 1)

What better people to assign to the care of a child than the two who created him? With two private teachers for, say, five children, each child is in a better position to receive the personal attention he needs.

While having a private pair of parents does not ensure that the child will be free of the influence of the opinions of all the other citizens, it does ensure a consistent standard against which the child may check the opinions that he hears. The absence of a trustworthy standard will be the greatest disadvantage of a city in which children are shared.

In a city in which children are shared, children will naturally gravitate toward those whom they trust. The most trustworthy citizens will find themselves swarmed with curious children. This will place an unfair burden on those trustworthy citizens, rather than distributing the responsibility equally amongst the rightful owners or creators of the children.

Education is only one aspect of the attention that children require. There are also emotional considerations. When a child who is shared by the city has emotional needs, who will fulfill them? In each child's instance of need, a different member of the polis will do what they think best with no intimate or prior knowledge of the child's requirements. The child's emotional wellbeing will be nurtured by a thousand strangers.

Another problem is the nature of the relationships that are formed in a city in which children are common. First, when each child is stripped from his or her birthparents, and raised in a common environment with no knowledge of his or her origins, there arises a danger of incest among the unknowing parents and children. How is one to know if he is related to a member of the city that he is attracted to? A city of anonymous common children paves the way for such unintentional debauchery.

Secondly, the kinds of relationships that people form when they are forbidden to form permanent, loving, exclusive relationships are not stronger, but weaker. Prohibiting private and exclusive bonding does not strengthen the citizens' familial love for each other, because people must prevent themselves from becoming too attached or intimate with anyone.

Being attached to no one in particular does not make one more attached to everyone in general. The fact that family names such as "father" or "son" would be used to describe complete strangers does not strengthen the meaning of these names, but dilutes them:

For just as a small quantity of sweet wine mingled with much water is hardly perceptible in the blend, so too the use of names based on [this] kind of kinship, whether made by a father toward his [countless] sons or by a son toward his [countless] fathers … [would hardly be perceptible and] must arouse the least family care in such a state. (1262 b 15)

Aristotle explains this attenuated intimacy:

For there are two things which, most of all, make a man show concern and affection: a) that the thing be his own, and b) that the thing be dear to him; but neither of these can belong to men who are governed in such a state. (1262 b 24)

A person must have attachment to another in order to cultivate true intimacy with them.

As we have seen, the communizing of children does not benefit a city. The children in a shared city are given little attention in terms of education and emotional support. Further, there is no way to prevent incestuous relationships. Worse yet, the relationships children and adults form are diluted in nature.

Finally, as was the case with the sharing of women, an intrinsic freedom is denied when people must be monitored and prevented from choosing the terms of their own relationships. We must agree that common ownership of children is detrimental to the city.

With women and children examined, we must look at the third topic: property.

The Sharing of Property

Unlike women or children, properties such as land, houses, or tools are indifferent to their owner. They do not have the needs that a human has. The primary concern with property is how it is used and maintained. It is necessary to discuss, then, whether it is better for citizens to own property privately or for property to be owned publicly.

The greatest question in regard to the sharing of property is what happens when all men own and maintain a common piece of property? The first thing to happen is a shift in the connotations of the word "all." As Aristotle points out, the term "all" has two distinct meanings. It may be used to indicate all as in the collective taken together, or to signify each as in a group of individuals.

But men who have wives and children in common would not speak of using these terms in this manner; they would say "all," but not in the sense [of] each man [and only he]. Similarly with possessions; they would belong to all but not to each man [and him alone]. It is evident, then, that there is a fallacy in the use of the term "all." (1261 b 25)

The fallacy Aristotle speaks of is that a person or unit of property may belong to everyone collectively but no one individually — that what is true of the whole is not true of the parts.

This fallacy does not lead to each individual feeling responsible for the property, but to the feeling that no individual is responsible for it. No one person is to blame. If the penalty falls on the entire group, each person can mentally count themselves out as the cause. The result is personal accountability being replaced with mob mentality.

Each individual subtracts his personal ownership from the collective ownership, leaving a group in which no individual member feels personally responsible for the conditions of the property. A group is created in which no single person feels obligated to act as the owner, yet the group as a whole is supposed to take on the responsibility.

In a city of ten thousand members, if the property is not maintained, each person sees himself as being only 1/10,000th responsible, but sees others as 9,999/10,000ths responsible. Such an overwhelming ratio does not encourage one to maintain the integrity of his 1/10,000th share. This result is quite a contrast from the purpose of shared property, which is for every one to take full responsibility for the property as if the entire thing were his own.

The idea of fractional responsibility is also contingent upon the people not losing their sense of personal responsibility entirely. If a person truly believes that he is not the owner, but that it is the collective they who are the owners, he may not even acknowledge his own personal share. Ultimately, no individual will hold himself accountable for more than his share, which he regards as zero or 1/10,000th of the total property.

Each man pays most attention to what is his own, but less attention to what is common, or else, as much as contributes to his own interest. For each man, besides other reasons, thinks that others will take care of the matter and so pays less attention to it, as in domestic duties where many servants sometimes do a job worse than a few servants. (1261 b 35)

The result of one person diminishing their share from one to zero is that some other member of the community must now pick up the slack and yet receive no greater reward. Some other citizen must now account for 2/10,000ths of the responsibility in order for the property to be maintained.

It is easy to see how this creates an incentive to be less responsible rather than more responsible: the work will get done by someone else if one does not do it, and one receives no extra reward if he goes the extra mile.

If rewards and labors are not proportional, those who labor more and receive less will necessarily raise complaints against those who labor less but are rewarded or receive more. (1263 a 13)

It can be acknowledged that there are those, probably few, who will take it upon themselves to maintain the entire property as if it were there own. This is fortunate for the city, but we must question the ethics of a situation in which the diligence and responsibility of the few enables the laziness of the many.

The effort may not go entirely unrewarded, as the work of the few may elicit praise from the rest of the citizens; but how long will praise alone be meaningful when it is offered by those who refuse to work? It is far easier to offer praise than it is to work. The few who work hard are rewarded with cheap praise, while the many offer easy praise and are rewarded with maintained property. One group sacrifices much and receives what is cheap; the other sacrifices nothing and receives sustained livelihood.

Those who sacrifice their time and effort to the polis would be better rewarded with a sacrifice from the polis. This can only be achieved when the other citizens give up something of themselves: time, labor, or property. They have already refused to sacrifice time and labor; all that remains to offer is property. But how can they sacrifice property when it is already shared?

According to Aristotle (and in continuation of a previous quote) common ownership destroys the functions of two virtues: temperance as pertaining to women and

generosity, which is concerned with how property should be used (for … no man will appear to be generous or ever perform a generous action, seeing that the function of generosity depends on the use of [one's own] property.) (1263b 12)

Only when property is private can one express the virtue of generosity. Common property robs people of the opportunity to give freely of themselves.

As we have seen, communal property contains many problems: First, the fallacy of the meaning of "all" negatively affects the attitudes of the people towards their responsibilities. Secondly, collective ownership destroys the incentive for effort. Thirdly, shared property prevents people from displaying the virtue of generosity.

For these reasons we must agree that common ownership of property is detrimental to the polis.

Strengthening the Case for Privatization

Although what has been shown strongly displays the failings of a city in which women, children, and property are common, it does not specifically address the question — is private property good for a city? We have seen the positive need for privatization of women and children, but does this need pertain to property? Aristotle speaks on this, discussing the strengths of owning property privately:

For, when each attends to his own property, men will not complain against one another [in matters of property] … and because of virtue, the use of property will be according to the proverb "common are the possessions of friends." (1263 a 27)

For [in these states], each has his own property, yet he makes available a part of it to his friends and another part for common use. (1263 a 34)

When a man has property to himself, he assumes full responsibility for it. His attention is fixed on his own responsibilities. Because the property is his, he has no one but himself to blame if it is unkempt. He must apply his efforts to his property, or he alone will suffer the consequences.

Further, because property is private, a man can display his generosity by sharing the fruits of his labors among those he calls friends. In this way, property may be shared in the true sense because it is first and foremost private.

It is true that the privatization of property does not necessarily lead to this kind of sharing. In a city in which property is owned privately, a person may be selfish with his property and the fruit of his labor. Some arguments justify communized property on the grounds that it will prevent selfishness. But Aristotle shows that this justification is false:

The evils in the existing forms of government, such as lawsuits about contracts and convictions for perjury and flatteries of the wealthy, are denounced as arising because property is not common. But these evils arise because of human wickedness and not because property is not common; for quarrels are observed to arise even among those who own common property and share it, and to a much greater degree. (1263 b 15)

The equalization of property will not create the ideal city. A city will only become ideal when wickedness is removed from human nature.

Two things must happen in order for men to be made virtuous. First, they must have their own property with which they may learn to be generous. Men will be greedy and selfish in both a shared and a private city, but, as Aristotle has shown, they can be truly generous only in a private city. Rather than help men grow in maturity, socialized property will stunt men's moral development by removing their options. Men must be given the chance to be generous by granting them private property.

Secondly, the laws must attempt to teach virtue to men. Men must be educated on generosity rather than prevented from expressing it:

The lawgiver … should moderate the citizens' desires more than their property, and this cannot be brought about if the citizens are not adequately educated by laws. (1266 b 27)

For there is no end to the nature of their desires, and most men live to satisfy their desires. Accordingly, the starting-point of [curing] such [evils] is not so much to equalize property as it is to train men of an equitable nature to have no wish to demand more and to prevent bad men from getting more, that is, to keep the latter less powerful without being unjust to them. (1267 b 4)

Because of human wickedness, a polis cannot be ideal. Further, the wickedness of men cannot be corrected from the outside in, i.e., by rearranging their property and hoping that it changes their character. It must be changed from the inside out: by teaching men selflessness in hopes that they will learn to be equitable with what they have.

As we can see, there are many benefits to private property. Private property receives more personal attention than communal property. There is an incentive to make efforts to maintain and improve private property. Most importantly, private property grants people the opportunity to learn how to truly share.

Although evils exist in both the shared and private forms of a city, it is only in the private form that the virtues of temperance, love, and generosity can be exercised. For these reasons, the laws of the city should aim at educating men on virtue rather than removing their ability to make choices. We can now see that private property is a benefit to the polis.

A city in which all things are shared presents physical and mental detriments to men, women, children, property, and the city itself. Worse yet, in every case of compulsory sharing there is a diminution in the freedom of the people. One wonders if a city devoid of temperance, love, generosity, and freedom is in any manner "the best for all those able to lead an ideal life." With the assistance of Aristotle, we can easily see the failings of a city in which people and property are kept in common. It is clear that private ownership is necessary for the wellbeing of a city.


[1] All citations use Bekker numbers, and are taken from the Apostle/Gerson translation.

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