10 Jul 2011

Family Wealth: Aristotle on Chrematistics and Oikonomia in Politics, Book I, Sections 8 & 9

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. The text is reproduced at the end.]

Family Wealth:
Aristotle on Chrematistics and Oikonomia in
Politics, Book I, Sections 8 & 9

Book I
Sections 8 & 9

What does Wealth Acquisition and Household Management got to do with you?

As a matter of survival for ourselves and our families, we need to bring goods into our lives. This can be done in a self-sustaining way, as might be the case of people living completely off the land, and in larger groups like some self-sustaining communes. But are we satisfied with just having enough stuff to live on? Or does not living well sometimes mean having more than you need, so that you have some extra to enjoy? This too can be done in a self-sustaining way, as we might see with a harvest celebration where we indulge in surplus crops, or in a killing, when we eat more meat than our bodies need for one day. But then, many of us take this acquisition-mentality to yet another level. By mediating the value of goods through the symbolic function of currency, we can think of these life-sustaining and wellness-enhancing goods as adding up to a numerical quantity of money. Then we can drive ourselves to acquire the highest number possible, without caring so much for the life-sustaining usages of the goods we buy and sell. But does this not go against the basic intention of acquiring for the sake of life and well-being, by instead acquiring primarily just for acquisition's sake? Is having a higher number of coins a source of health and happiness, or can one be next to poor, and still be healthy and happy, enjoying the good and simple things in life?

Brief Summary

Wealth is involved both in the arts of household management (oikonomia) and of wealth-acquisition (chrematistics), because the acquisition of goods is necessary to manage a household. However, we can acquire wealth in a perverted way. 1) We regard the value of goods not as their use value (shoe protecting feet) but rather as their sale-value (shoe as worth x amount of coins). 2) The natural inclination to acquire wealth can be natural, like when properly managing a household, or it may become unnatural, as when we acquire wealth solely for the sake of increasing our store of coins or numbers in the bank.

Points Relative to Deleuze


Section 8

We first make the distinction between the art of acquiring wealth (chrematistics) and the art of managing a household (oikonomia). Aristotle begins by wondering whether these two arts are the same art-form, or if instead the art of wealth acquisition is instrumental to the art of household management.

Let's for a moment assume that in fact, the art of acquiring wealth is instrumental to the art of household management. We will now wonder about this concept of being instrumental. If we want to weave a fabric, we need the material (wool) and the tools (shuttles). Both are instrumental to weaving, but each on different accounts. So if
chrematistics is instrumental to oikonomia, is it instrumental like a tool or like a material (the 'substratum out of which any work is made')?
the art of household management is not identical with the art of getting wealth, for the one uses the material which the other provides. For the art which uses household stores can be no other than the art of household management. (Aristotle, Politics, 1256a)
Aristotle now wonders if breeding livestock and maintaining food stores is also wealth-acquisition, because it supplies material for household management. (Also herding, fishing, farming, and so on). This in fact is a form of acquisition, because it involves bringing sustenance back to the family. But there is a limit to how much food one can acquire, since the instruments and means that we use to make these acquisitions have their limitations.

Section 9

So one sort of acquisition are things necessary to sustain life. Another sort of acquirable is wealth. It is often assumed that there is no limit to how much wealth and property one may acquire. Wealth and life-necessities are in some senses similar, but in other senses not. They are related, because wealth can be obtained on the basis of the acquisition of life-necessities (like selling surplus crops). However, they are dissimilar, since life-necessities are gained from nature, but wealth through art and experience.

Aristotle will now have us consider the following distinctions.

Proper vs. Improper Thing-Usage

A shoe may be worn, or it may be sold for profit. Wearing the shoe is the primary or proper use of it. Selling it is the secondary or improper usage. But it is natural that some people will have too much of something, and others too little. But often people exchange surplus goods not merely to obtain just what they need. They rather continue exchanging to horde a surplus of wealth. So exchange is nature, but what is not natural is using the surplus goods for the secondary use of exchange-goods in the art of wealth acquisition. Among the members of a family, trade for profit is of little use. However, among the masses of society, it is far more useful. Money, then, is instrumental for countries that import what they need and export their excess. First they might have used quantities of valuable metals to serve as a medium for setting the exchange values for various goods, but later stamped a mark on the metals indicating their weight so to save time in calculating the values.

With the invention of coin, retail sale became a form of wealth-acquisition. The art of making money is a matter of knowing how to produce and accumulate wealth and riches.

Some think that being rich means having a large quantity of coins. Others think that coins are mere conventional symbols, and serve no direct purpose in sustaining life (think of King Midas who starved because all he touched turned gold).

Thus riches and the art of wealth-getting are not both merely a matter of coin-acquisition. One the one hand, there is the art of producing wealth by means of retail trade. It is based on the exchange of coins. And it is believed that there is no limit to the amount of coin that can be acquired. On the other hand, wealth-getting in household-management does have a limit, and in fact, it is not concerned with having unlimited money (but rather with sustaining the family, as coins cannot be eaten, no matter how many you have). These two modes get confused, because they both use the same instrument, wealth. This leads to people thinking that gaining wealth without limit is also a matter of household management. But this is because such people are not concerned with living well, but rather with just living. (Yet seeking a good life can also lead to wealth acquisition, but is not limited to it.) Those who want to live the good life seek bodily pleasure, and they know that wealth obtains this. But if they cannot acquire wealth (through trade), they use other means, which are contrary to nature, for example courage can be used to obtain military victories (which in the end could lead to wealth).

Aristotle concludes by summarizing:

Thus, then, we have considered the art of wealth-getting which is unnecessary, and why men want it; and also the necessary art of wealth-getting, which we have seen to be different from the other, and to be a natural part of the art of managing a household, concerned with the provision of food, not, however, like the former kind, unlimited, but having a limit. (1258a)

And here is a quotation from section 10 (we skip to the second paragraph). Here he explains that the worst sort of wealth-acquisition is loaning money on interest, because it tries to make a gain of money out of money.

There are two sorts of wealth-getting, as I have said; one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another. The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of an modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural. (1258a.b)

From Benjamin Jowett's English translation at Adelaide:


Let us now inquire into property generally, and into the art of getting wealth, in accordance with our usual method, for a slave has been shown to be a part of property. The first question is whether the art of getting wealth is the same with the art of managing a household or a part of it, or instrumental to it; and if the last, whether in the way that the art of making shuttles is instrumental to the art of weaving, or in the way that the casting of bronze is instrumental to the art of the statuary, for they are not instrumental in the same way, but the one provides tools and the other material; and by material I mean the substratum out of which any work is made; thus wool is the material of the weaver, bronze of the statuary. Now it is easy to see that the art of household management is not identical with the art of getting wealth, for the one uses the material which the other provides. For the art which uses household stores can be no other than the art of household management. There is, however, a doubt whether the art of getting wealth is a part of household management or a distinct art. If the getter of wealth has to consider whence wealth and property can be procured, but there are many sorts of property and riches, then are husbandry, and the care and provision of food in general, parts of the wealth-getting art or distinct arts? Again, there are many sorts of food, and therefore there are many kinds of lives both of animals and men; they must all have food, and the differences in their food have made differences in their ways of life. For of beasts, some are gregarious, others are solitary; they live in the way which is best adapted to sustain them, accordingly as they are carnivorous or herbivorous or omnivorous: and their habits are determined for them by nature in such a manner that they may obtain with greater facility the food of their choice. But, as different species have different tastes, the same things are not naturally pleasant to all of them; and therefore the lives of carnivorous or herbivorous animals further differ among themselves. In the lives of men too there is a great difference. The laziest are shepherds, who lead an idle life, and get their subsistence without trouble from tame animals; their flocks having to wander from place to place in search of pasture, they are compelled to follow them, cultivating a sort of living farm. Others support themselves by hunting, which is of different kinds. Some, for example, are brigands, others, who dwell near lakes or marshes or rivers or a sea in which there are fish, are fishermen, and others live by the pursuit of birds or wild beasts. The greater number obtain a living from the cultivated fruits of the soil. Such are the modes of subsistence which prevail among those whose industry springs up of itself, and whose food is not acquired by exchange and retail trade — there is the shepherd, the husbandman, the brigand, the fisherman, the hunter. Some gain a comfortable maintenance out of two employments, eking out the deficiencies of one of them by another: thus the life of a shepherd may be combined with that of a brigand, the life of a farmer with that of a hunter. Other modes of life are similarly combined in any way which the needs of men may require. Property, in the sense of a bare livelihood, seems to be given by nature herself to all, both when they are first born, and when they are grown up. For some animals bring forth, together with their offspring, so much food as will last until they are able to supply themselves; of this the vermiparous or oviparous animals are an instance; and the viviparous animals have up to a certain time a supply of food for their young in themselves, which is called milk. In like manner we may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man. And so, in one point of view, the art of war is a natural art of acquisition, for the art of acquisition includes hunting, an art which we ought to practice against wild beasts, and against men who, though intended by nature to be governed, will not submit; for war of such a kind is naturally just.

Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, in so far as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community of the family or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches; for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited, although Solon in one of his poems says that

No bound to riches has been fixed for man.

But there is a boundary fixed, just as there is in the other arts; for the instruments of any art are never unlimited, either in number or size, and riches may be defined as a number of instruments to be used in a household or in a state. And so we see that there is a natural art of acquisition which is practiced by managers of households and by statesmen, and what is the reason of this.


There is another variety of the art of acquisition which is commonly and rightly called an art of wealth-getting, and has in fact suggested the notion that riches and property have no limit. Being nearly connected with the preceding, it is often identified with it. But though they are not very different, neither are they the same. The kind already described is given by nature, the other is gained by experience and art.

Let us begin our discussion of the question with the following considerations:

Of everything which we possess there are two uses: both belong to the thing as such, but not in the same manner, for one is the proper, and the other the improper or secondary use of it. For example, a shoe is used for wear, and is used for exchange; both are uses of the shoe. He who gives a shoe in exchange for money or food to him who wants one, does indeed use the shoe as a shoe, but this is not its proper or primary purpose, for a shoe is not made to be an object of barter. The same may be said of all possessions, for the art of exchange extends to all of them, and it arises at first from what is natural, from the circumstance that some have too little, others too much. Hence we may infer that retail trade is not a natural part of the art of getting wealth; had it been so, men would have ceased to exchange when they had enough. In the first community, indeed, which is the family, this art is obviously of no use, but it begins to be useful when the society increases. For the members of the family originally had all things in common; later, when the family divided into parts, the parts shared in many things, and different parts in different things, which they had to give in exchange for what they wanted, a kind of barter which is still practiced among barbarous nations who exchange with one another the necessaries of life and nothing more; giving and receiving wine, for example, in exchange for coin, and the like. This sort of barter is not part of the wealth-getting art and is not contrary to nature, but is needed for the satisfaction of men’s natural wants. The other or more complex form of exchange grew, as might have been inferred, out of the simpler. When the inhabitants of one country became more dependent on those of another, and they imported what they needed, and exported what they had too much of, money necessarily came into use. For the various necessaries of life are not easily carried about, and hence men agreed to employ in their dealings with each other something which was intrinsically useful and easily applicable to the purposes of life, for example, iron, silver, and the like. Of this the value was at first measured simply by size and weight, but in process of time they put a stamp upon it, to save the trouble of weighing and to mark the value.

When the use of coin had once been discovered, out of the barter of necessary articles arose the other art of wealth getting, namely, retail trade; which was at first probably a simple matter, but became more complicated as soon as men learned by experience whence and by what exchanges the greatest profit might be made. Originating in the use of coin, the art of getting wealth is generally thought to be chiefly concerned with it, and to be the art which produces riches and wealth; having to consider how they may be accumulated. Indeed, riches is assumed by many to be only a quantity of coin, because the arts of getting wealth and retail trade are concerned with coin. Others maintain that coined money is a mere sham, a thing not natural, but conventional only, because, if the users substitute another commodity for it, it is worthless, and because it is not useful as a means to any of the necessities of life, and, indeed, he who is rich in coin may often be in want of necessary food. But how can that be wealth of which a man may have a great abundance and yet perish with hunger, like Midas in the fable, whose insatiable prayer turned everything that was set before him into gold?

Hence men seek after a better notion of riches and of the art of getting wealth than the mere acquisition of coin, and they are right. For natural riches and the natural art of wealth-getting are a different thing; in their true form they are part of the management of a household; whereas retail trade is the art of producing wealth, not in every way, but by exchange. And it is thought to be concerned with coin; for coin is the unit of exchange and the measure or limit of it. And there is no bound to the riches which spring from this art of wealth getting. As in the art of medicine there is no limit to the pursuit of health, and as in the other arts there is no limit to the pursuit of their several ends, for they aim at accomplishing their ends to the uttermost (but of the means there is a limit, for the end is always the limit), so, too, in this art of wealth-getting there is no limit of the end, which is riches of the spurious kind, and the acquisition of wealth. But the art of wealth-getting which consists in household management, on the other hand, has a limit; the unlimited acquisition of wealth is not its business. And, therefore, in one point of view, all riches must have a limit; nevertheless, as a matter of fact, we find the opposite to be the case; for all getters of wealth increase their hoard of coin without limit. The source of the confusion is the near connection between the two kinds of wealth-getting; in either, the instrument is the same, although the use is different, and so they pass into one another; for each is a use of the same property, but with a difference: accumulation is the end in the one case, but there is a further end in the other. Hence some persons are led to believe that getting wealth is the object of household management, and the whole idea of their lives is that they ought either to increase their money without limit, or at any rate not to lose it. The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well; and, as their desires are unlimited they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit. Those who do aim at a good life seek the means of obtaining bodily pleasures; and, since the enjoyment of these appears to depend on property, they are absorbed in getting wealth: and so there arises the second species of wealth-getting. For, as their enjoyment is in excess, they seek an art which produces the excess of enjoyment; and, if they are not able to supply their pleasures by the art of getting wealth, they try other arts, using in turn every faculty in a manner contrary to nature. The quality of courage, for example, is not intended to make wealth, but to inspire confidence; neither is this the aim of the general’s or of the physician’s art; but the one aims at victory and the other at health. Nevertheless, some men turn every quality or art into a means of getting wealth; this they conceive to be the end, and to the promotion of the end they think all things must contribute.

Thus, then, we have considered the art of wealth-getting which is unnecessary, and why men want it; and also the necessary art of wealth-getting, which we have seen to be different from the other, and to be a natural part of the art of managing a household, concerned with the provision of food, not, however, like the former kind, unlimited, but having a limit.

Online Text:
Aristotle. Politics. Transl. Benjamin Jowett. ebooks@Adelaide. 2007

PDFs at Archive.org

Original Greek
Aristotelous ta Politika. The politics of Aristotle. With English notes by Richard Congreve (1855)

English Translation
Aristotle's Politics (1926)

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