How the choice between Aristotelians and Epicureans cuts through the origins of modernity and continues to define our times, from republican values to the conception of the Collaborative Economy.
Of the three elements of the revolutionary triad -Liberty, Equality, Fraternity- the third seems the most vague and difficult to define. Perhaps this is so because it is usually argued for in two opposite ways that are usually presented rhetorically as equivalent. But they are not.
The two major religions of the West, Christianity and Islam, speak of the “first Christians” and of the first three generations of Muslims, the “Salaf,” and try to extrapolate the fraternity that allegedly united the members of those small communities to define the ‘ought’ of their two major constructs: Christianity and the Umma. But equating the feelings in a small community whose members share a purpose and a way of living to an imagined community of millions of people unknown to each other is not straightforward. It is a problematic conceptual leap that was built during the Middle Ages, at the height of Aristotelianism.
Hitherto, the term “fraternity” had a much narrower sense. For the Epicureans, who valued it very highly, it was a form of friendship, the product of a shared experience, and therefore an interpersonal relationship that could only live in real communities.
But Aristotle took the opposite route. He based the concept of fraternity on his Metaphysics: following Plato, fraternity would be based on the equivalence relationships among the abstract ideas that inform things. That is, fraternity would be based on those characteristics we share with others, and thrive within imagined communities: those where the alleged members cannot all know each other, but they can recognize each other through the features they have in common. Thus, sharing a passport or a cultural background would make us co-nationals, being of the same sex would make us fellow men or women, sharing a certain age range would make us part of “youth,” “adults,” or “the elderly,” etc. And what is more important, the idea of the nation to which we would belong, that of masculinity or femininity, of youth or of old age, would define our interests, our way of being, and even our affections.
One might say, following Antisthenes the Cynic, that the concrete, real horse is one thing, and the abstract idea of ”horse-ness” is another; and that, similarly, fraternity within a real and concrete community of Christians, Muslims or retirees is one thing, and it’s quite another to think that Christianity (the imagined community formed by all Christians), the Umma, or the “senior citizenship” will or should produce fraternal relations between people that don’t know each other for the simple fact of sharing a particular characteristic.
This is the somersault between the fraternity of Stoics and Epicureans -the joy of living and learning together in community- and Aristotelian fraternity to which, we are told, we should aim for at the heart of large-scale political and social imaginary constructs, supposedly of a more elevated nature than the modest reality of our families, friends, and actually existing networks.
But is this not obviously the great Western myth? No. The origin of fraternity as political myth, the fraternity of the first medieval urban democracies, was based on the real community of life, work, and celebration that was Medieval Art. And nothing was further from its spirit than pretending to be or to represent an abstract and universal collective.
The Aristotelian concept of fraternity entered politics not through medieval communes and the first democracies, but through the development of absolute monarchies. Foucault tells us how the state then begins to experience a new form of power. Rather than limiting itself to establishing norms and punishments, it now pretends to condition and statistically guide the behavior of its subjects, conceptualized as the “body politic of the king” (later to become the nation). To do that, it first starts splitting that first imagined community into delegate subjects (social classes, races, etc.), linked together by alleged collective interests and fraternal ties which have, since then, allowed States to make constant calls for sacrifice for the common good.
But let’s not forget that, as Popper tells us, the monster that is the Platonic “common good” and its corresponding Aristotelian conception of fraternity necessarily lead us towards totalitarianism, national wars, and barbarism, just as in the Middle Ages the fraternity of Christianity and the Umma were rallying cries for the Crusades and Jihad.
The underlying definition of fraternity shapes the prevailing forms of social cooperation: it will determine whether we see it as the result of relationships among peers, or the product of mediation – and therefore centralization – through external institutions.
For the descendants of Aristotle, from the Sun King to Lenin, through Hegel and nationalism, the community will be a spirit that will not have a body without a king, a ruling party, a State, or more or less coercive and more or less “participatory” external superstructures.
For the descendants of Epicurean and Stoic communitarianism, the community is the natural space for direct cooperation between peers with no mediator needed.
This dichotomy has traveled through the history of Europe and is found at almost every historical crossroads. Even in the collaborative economy of recent years, in the dilemma between centralized services that purport to represent and group abstract communities of persons defined by their consumption habits, and the distributed logic of P2P.