Aristotle and John Locke on Property

In his treatment “Of Property” in the fifth chapter of his Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, John Locke evinces the various ways in which he has been significant influenced by the thought of Aristotle on the subjects of wealth and property ownership. He also, however, departs from and makes meaningful additions to the theories of Aristotle on key points, thereby forging a theory of his own from the foundation provided by Aristotle.

Both Aristotle and Locke begin their exploration of the origins of property with the notion of an original human family which held all property in common. Aristotle asserts that “the first community . . . which is the family . . . originally had all things in common.” Locke, adding to this the biblical names of Adam and Noah as the forefathers of the collective human family, similarly states that God granted the entire world to “Adam, and to Noah, and his sons,” from which “it is very clear, that God . . . has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.”

From this original collective ownership of the earth, both Aristotle and Locke explain, there was a departure in favor of private ownership, from which, in turn, resulted the development of exchange and, later still, the use of money. It is in the reasons they provide for this departure from a primitive collectivism that Aristotle and Locke begin to depart from each other in their respective theories. Aristotle puts forward the notion that the development of private ownership out of the early collective economy of the primeval human family was the result of the growth of the population. “Later, when the family divided into parts,” says Aristotle, “the parts shared in many things, and different parts in different things.” The division of property among private owners, then, is the result of the limitation of one’s purview to those things that are of direct concern to one.

Locke, however, offers a theory that, while not in conflict with Aristotle’s ideas, provides an alternative explanation for the development of private property out of early common ownership. Locke sees this development as a natural extension of the private ownership each person naturally possesses over his or her own body. “Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men,” says Locke, “yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.” Because of this natural ownership over one’s own body, it is also the case that anything one uses one’s body to produce is also one’s own. “The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his,” according to Locke.

While Locke’s theory of the origin of private property does not stand in opposition to the theory of Aristotle on the same subject, and the two are even potentially complementary, there is a clear difference in their perspectives on this point. After this brief departure from another another, however, Locke returns again to an agreement with Aristotle in his theories of the origins of exchange and money, adding to Aristotle while relying upon Aristotle’s earlier assessments.

Commenting on the origins of an exchange economy, Aristotle states that “the art of exchange extends . . . arises at first from what is natural, from the circumstance that some have too little, others too much” of certain goods. As a result, an individual exchanges that which he has too much of for that which he has too little of with another individual who finds himself in the inverse situation. The use of money developed, continues Aristotle, because 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.”

While holding to a nearly identical theory regarding the development of an exchange economy and the use of money, Locke adds to Aristotle’s idea the observation that those goods which are necessary to life are generally perishable goods. “And thus came in the use of money,” writes Locke, “some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable supports of life.”

While departing slightly in some places and proposing slightly divergent alternative theories in others, Locke largely relies upon Aristotle’s account regarding the origins of private property, the exchange economy, and the use of money. Given the clear reliance of Locke upon Aristotle’s ideas, it is perhaps useful to view Locke’s writing on the subject as a commentary upon the earlier work of Aristotle upon the same.

“Productive and Unproductive Labour” in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations

In Book II, Chapter III of his The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith states and explains the distinction he makes between the categories of “productive and unproductive labour.” According to Smith, “there is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed,” namely productive labor, and “there is another which has no such effect,” namely unproductive labor. In addition, Smith holds that the productive laborer makes a greater contribution to a society than the unproductive laborer due to the former’s role in “the growth of public opulence.”

The former, productive, class of labor he identifies specifically with the manufacturing class which produces “some particular subject or vendible commodity.” These laborers, in other words, produce some tangible item which contributes to an indubitable increase in the total material wealth of a society. Smith envisions a society in which, through the profuse production of commodities by the manufacturing class and the consumption of these commodities “in adorning his house or his country villa, in useful or ornamental buildings, in useful or ornamental furniture, in collecting books, statues, pictures; or in things more frivolous, jewels, baubles, ingenious trinkets of different kinds; or, what is most trifling of all, in amassing a great wardrobe of fine clothes,” on the part of the wealthy, greater material wealth is made available to all. Because of the insatiable appetite of the wealthy for new commodities, they will eventually “grow weary” of the items they have purchased previously. As a result, “the houses, the furniture, the clothing of the rich, in a little time, become useful to the inferior and middling ranks of people.” The greater the number of commodities produced, the more available all commodities become to all people. The profusion of material wealth creates a trickle-down economy which increases the material wealth of all in a society. What is necessary to create such a system, Smith holds, is a great number of productive laborers of the manufacturing class working to produce said commodities.

Smith contrasts those whom he terms the “unproductive hands” with this productive group of laborers. Among the unproductive in a society Smith classes “the sovereign . . . with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him” as well as “the whole army and navy.” In addition, “in this same class,” says Smith, “must be ranked, some both of the gravest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc.” While these are certainly not without value to a society, Smith classes all of these together as “unproductive” because they do not produce any lasting tangible items, or commodities. “Like the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician,” says Smith, “the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production.”

The distinction that Smith draws between productive and unproductive laborers is quite compelling and insightful, yet fraught with danger for a society which takes it too seriously. On the one hand, Smith admirably rescues the manufacturer and the artisan from the belittlement of the nature of their vocations which had been a mainstay of Western thought since antiquity. Aristotle, who exerted a substantial influence on the Western mind during and following the High Middle Ages, for instance, claimed that “all paid employments . . . absorb and degrade the mind.” To this condemnation, Smith offers a corrective in the form of a reminder of the necessity of these “paid employments” to the material wealth of a society.

It is this material wealth, in turn, which creates the environment which allows the “unproductive hands” of artists, musicians, and men of letters to flourish. A society which continues to exist at a mere subsistence level cannot develop a distinguishable class of priests and storytellers because all hands must be employed in the cultivation and production necessary to the maintenance of biological life. Only with a class of productive laborers of some size and which is capable of meeting and even producing superfluity beyond the basic needs of a society, such as the slave class of Aristotle’s ancient Greece or the manufacturing class of Smith’s 18th century Scotland, does a class of the “unproductive” become possible.

It is not be overlooked, however, that it is this class of the “unproductive” which leads a society beyond mere animal existence. While Smith is right to place great value upon the manufacturing class, it would be a mistake for a society to lean too far in this direction and so devalue the creative and intellectual element. A poverty of thought is as detrimental to human existence as a poverty of the goods necessary to material well-being, a fact Smith would have done well to note.