Aristotle’s Political Economy

Aristotle’s Contribution to Marxian Economics

Eddie J. Girdner

Aristotle’s writings on the art of acquisition in The Politics clearly helped lay the foundations for the economic writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke and Karl Marx. The major contributions are the concepts of use value, exchange value, commodities, money, trade, and usury. Aristotle’s basic distinction between natural and unnatural modes of acquisition which lead to happiness and injustice respectively, is analogous to the dichotomy in Marx between equal exchange, as a basis for the emergence of human society into the “realm of freedom,” and unequal exchange, which enslaves members of human society in the “realm of necessity” under capitalism.

Aristotle explores the natural art of acquisition, which is part of ”household management” or, in other words, what is today known as “economics.” He also explores the unnatural art of acquisition, which is different from household management and includes trade for profit and usury. In this way, Aristotle distinguishes between the art of merely acquiring property and the art of household management. They are not identical.

Household Management and The Art of Acquisition:

The art of acquisition provides the material or equipment for household management, whereby it is consumed. The question of whether the art of acquisition is part of household management or an altogether separate art, leads Aristotle to examine all activities which provide household needs. Aristotle’s measure is whether the mode of acquisition is natural.

First, Aristotle considers animals. It is clear that nature has provided food and provisions for them and it is logical that it is similar with human individuals. And since nothing is purposeless in nature, Aristotle believes that animals must have also been made for human use. It follows that hunting, or appropriating that which nature has provided, is a part of household management.

The objects which one needs to obtain for household management are those which are necessary for the “good life.” They constitute true wealth as opposed to money wealth. But this household property has a limit. It is not an end in itself but necessary for the purpose which it serves. It is the purpose, the end or Telos, which imposes the limit.   

The second form of the art of acquisition, the unnatural form, is primarily directed toward selfish monetary gain. This second form leads to the opinion that there is no limit to wealth and property. Aristotle takes issue with those who believe that the art of acquiring wealth as an end in itself is part of household management. The first form is natural. The second form is unnatural and only depends upon experience and skill.

Acquisition of property for Locke and Marx:

Dichotomies similar to those in Aristotle’s thought are seen in the economic theories of John Locke and Karl Marx. Locke sees man as having a natural right to appropriate his needs from nature according to natural law. But Locke believes that there is a natural limit to the amount man may appropriate from nature. He should gather no more from nature than he can use before it spoils. Man could, however, barter perishable goods for non-perishable goods as long nothing perished in his hands.

For Locke, the notion of non-perishable commodities leads to the notion of money. Money is a lasting thing which does not spoil. The invention of money, for Locke, leads to the acquisition of property for the sake of acquisition itself, rather than for sustenance. Locke sees the invention of money as associated with the human individual’s emergence from the state of nature into civil society. Locke differs from Aristotle, however, in believing that man can hoard up gold and silver without limit with no injury to anyone. Locke is constructing an ideology for the emergence of the modern capitalist era based upon accumulation of capital.

Similar to Locke, in Capital, Marx wrote that primitive man “must wrestle with nature to satisfy his wants.” For Marx, the appropriation of needs from nature, while in the realm of necessity, is a means for man’s future emergence into the “realm of freedom.” It is not a means for the accumulation of wealth.

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx sees man appropriating his needs from nature, similar to animals. Animals, however, produce only under the compulsion of direct physical needs, while man “produces when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom from such need.” This distinction sets up, for Marx, the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom.

Aristotle saw natural acquisition as a necessity for attaining happiness, not unlimited wealth. The goal is the same for Marx, but Marx saw it dialectically as both alienating and a springboard into the realm of freedom for free creative activity. For Marx, man’s project is to overcome “the blind forces of nature.”

It is natural, Marx believed, that man should appropriate his needs from nature, as the animals do, but in the realm of necessity, nature controls man. This results in alienated labor under capitalism. And “just as alienated labor transforms free and self-directed activity into a means, so it transforms the species life of man into a means of physical existence.”

For Marx, it is also natural that man, as a species being, should transform his historical “human nature” and become a species being controlling the blind forces of nature. Animal potential ends in the realm of necessity. Human potential extends to the realm of freedom where man creates free from necessity.

As it is natural for Aristotle that household management should lead to happiness, it is natural for Marx that natural appropriation should lead man to the realm of freedom. Leisure time is important for both Aristotle and Marx. For Aristotle, leisure time for the good life depends upon the use of slaves. Aristotle, however, does suggest that automation might eliminate the need for slaves. For example, “if a shuttle could weave itself” there would be no need for such servitude. For Marx, similarly, the development of the forces of production or technology reduces alienated labor time.

For both Aristotle and Marx, human progress toward these respective goals depends upon whether the mode of acquisition is natural or unnatural. This leads us to an examination of exchange.

Use Value and Exchange Value in Aristotle and Marx:

Aristotle says that articles of property have two possible uses. One possibility is to use the article as it was intended to be used, which is “peculiar to the article concerned.” For example, a knife is intended to be used for cutting. The second possibility is to use the article in exchange or barter. This is clearly the basis for what Marx calls “use value” and “exchange value.” Marx says that it is “the utility of a thing which makes it a use value.” And this property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labor required for its acquisition. “Use value becomes a reality only by use or consumption.”

For Marx, use values are the substance of all wealth as they satisfy one’s natural needs. The usefulness of commodities determines the amount of leisure time one may enjoy for the development of his or her species being, that is of free creative activity. Similarly, for Aristotle, the use value is natural to a thing. And its consumption is necessary for the good life.

The second use of a commodity is for exchange.  For Aristotle, exchange is of two forms. The first form is barter. The second is in trade for money. He says that the first form serves no purpose in the household. It arose with the village. When one household possessed more of one item than it needed, the excess could be exchanged for other items.

This calls to mind the jajmini system of barter of goods and services in the traditional Indian village. It seems strange that Aristotle would say that barter has no purpose in the household. He says that barter is not contrary to nature, but “served to satisfy the natural requirements of sufficiency.” Aristotle’s objection to barter seems to lie in his assertion that it is the province of nature to provide the provisions for the art of housekeeping and they should be ready at hand.

Similarly, John Locke saw barter of a perishable commodity for a non-perishable one as not violating the spoilage limitation on appropriation from nature. Also, Karl Marx saw the simple exchange of commodities in the form C-C, as useful for the satisfaction of one’s need and non-exploitative. “Before money becomes capital the circulation of money and commodities is based upon freedom,” from The Grundrisse. But “… the power which each individual exercises over the activity of others or over social wealth exists in him as the owner of exchange values, of money. The individual carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket.”

Money exchange:

The circulation of commodities in the form C-M-C, where money only serves as a medium of exchange, and acquisition of use value is the object of the exchange, is also not condemned by Marx. For Aristotle, on the other hand, the use of money as a medium of exchange in the retail trade is unnatural when it is carried out solely for the gain of wealth.    

As society’s needs came to depend more upon foreign goods, the import and export of commodities began. The use of money increased as medium of exchange which could be easily transported. Marx accounts for the institution of money in a way similar to Aristotle.

In a primitive communal society, for example the jajmini village, items are bartered on the basis of equal exchange as use values. Later, items are exchanged through a universal equivalent, a medium of exchange, as money. Marx says that the money form becomes “crystalized” for the exchange of particular sorts of commodities. For Locke, the invention of money allowed individuals to overcome the spoilage limitation. Locke wrote “and thus (through exchange) came in the use of money, some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by natural consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable, supports of life.”     

For Aristotle, commodities were traded against each other on the bases of demand. “Consequently all goods must be measured by some single standard… and that standard is… need, which holds everything together.” On this basis, useful items were exchanged for other useful things.

For Aristotle, the common essence of the commodity was demand. For Marx, however, the common essence was human labor. A commodity is objectified (congealed) labor. Money, as a universal standard, embodies these two essences, respectively, for the two thinkers.

Marx pointed out that due to historical reasons, Aristotle could proceed no farther than this with his analysis. Marx notes that Aristotle discovered the equality of commodities, but since Greek society was a slave society, and had as its basis the inequality of men and their labor power, Aristotle could not generalize across class lines and discover that human labor was the basis of that inequality. Aristotle said that if citizens, considered as human beings, have a common denominator, it is “meagre.” Marx thought that the insight that labor is the essence of commodities presupposed a society in which the commodity form was dominant and where the prevailing social relation between classes was the ownership of commodities.

The Perversion of the Art of Acquisition:

Aristotle observes that money was initially used to facilitate exchange, serving as a “measure” (medium of exchange) rather than a source of profit. It was only later when traders had gained experience that they discovered how to make profit in exchange. In this way, arose the art of retail trade.

Similarly, Marx notes that initially money was used only symbolically in the circulation of commodities. This takes the form C-M-C.

The use of money as a source of more money (profit) led some to believe that “the art of acquisition is especially concerned with currency, and that its function consists in an ability to discover the sources from which a fund of money can be derived,” Aristotle wrote. It is because of this that some came to believe that a hoard of currency is wealth. But others said that since the worth of currency depends on its being accepted as legitimate exchange, money is merely a convention. Here again, we see the distinction Marx makes between use value and exchange value. Use value is the source of all wealth for Marx. Things change for Marx, of course, with the rise of the use of money as capital. “When money has been transformed into capital, the processes which go on beneath the surface are the very opposite of freedom.” “While the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser.”

Aristotle affirms that natural wealth is concerned with the acquisition of those items needed for the life of the householder. Retail trade, on the other hand, is different in that “currency is the starting point and the goal of exchange. Here we have Aristotle describing the process which Marx calls the circulation of money. This takes the form: M-C-M’.

For Marx, exchange in trade may result in profit, but the fundamental source of profit which allows the accumulation of capital is the unequal exchange between capital and labor in the purchase of labor power. This results in surplus value as labor is exploited and is the fundamental source of profit under capitalist production.

For Aristotle, wealth produced by retail trade is unlimited, in contrast to the acquisition of wealth by household management. Aristotle observes that those involved in trade pursue the increase of wealth with no limit. Similarly, Marx sees that “the desire after hoarding is in its very nature insatiable.” “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility.”

The Contradiction Between Household Management and Money Wealth  

A contradiction arises between the limited nature of true wealth and the drive for unlimited wealth in acquisition for the sake of money wealth. Things are somewhat complex for Aristotle, however, as he sees this contradiction as arising from the fact that the art of household acquisition and retail trade “overlap.” Although the objective of the two modes of acquisition is quite distinct, one being the good life and the other money wealth, they both deal with material needs.

Since a fund of currency can readily be converted into material needs for household use, it is easy to confound the two modes of acquisition. A similar observation is seen in Marx when he refers to the “qualitative” aspects of money. Particularly, money is fungible. Marx wrote, “in its qualitative aspect, as formally considered, money has no bounds to its efficacy, i.e. it is the universal representation of material wealth, because it is directly convertible into any other commodity.” And from The Grundrisse, we read, “Money is not only an object, but it is the object of greed… Money is therefore not only the object but also the fountainhead of greed.”

Aristotle discovers two further reasons for the contradiction between true wealth, or household wealth, and money wealth. First, men desire physical enjoyments to an unlimited degree, and become unduly anxious about their livelihood. Thomas Hobbes observed that men desire commodious living. Similarly, John Stuart Mill, as a follower of utilitarianism, saw men as desiring unlimited physical pleasures. This desire tends to drive men to occupy themselves “wholly” with making money. Aristotle sees this lack of moderation as the main source of the perversion of the art of household management. It brings about the pursuit of money for its own sake, as in retail trade.

Finally, since such abundance can provide enjoyment, “each and every capacity” comes to be turned into a means of producing money. Such activity is a perversion of each human capacity, since it is contrary to their function. Cooking has the capacity of preparing food for nourishment, not of producing a hoard of money. It is the same with every other activity.

Aristotle gives the example of courage. The proper function of courage is to produce confidence, rather than money. The function of writing is communication. To use it for the purpose of gaining a fund of money would be to pervert its proper function.

In a similar way for Marx, in capitalist society, human capacities are reduced to a common denominator, raw labor, and become a commodity. Almost every skill and ability that one can think of is used for the purpose of making money in the private sphere today, and in most societies, almost everything is being relegated to the private sphere. In much of the world, the profession of teaching in universities, which should have the function of educating, has been turned into a money-making operation, pure and simple. This is the age of neoliberalism.

In this way, humans become instruments of production, which aims at a perverted result beyond the activity pursued. But for Aristotle, the activity should produce its proper function and so be a service complete in itself with no ulterior motive, such as making money.

Aristotle distinguishes between articles of household property whose function is action (praxis), complete in itself, and production (poiesis), which aims at a result beyond itself. It would seem that for Marx, technology takes care of the sphere of necessity, and the individual, to be free, must use his or her capacities as praxis, that is, to produce free of necessity and become a species being. And the human individual, for Marx, is the only being that is capable of this.

Aristotle’s Qualifying Statements:

Things get more complicated as Aristotle qualifies his earlier statement that appropriation from nature is a part of household acquisition. Another way to look at it is to see household acquisition as just managing what nature has provided ready at hand. Aristotle considers the statesman. It is clear that his art of statecraft does not produce the material needs of the state, such as the human stock, the land, sea, and air. The statesman just manages this natural wealth.

By the same token, one could view the householder as simply managing the resources which nature has provided. Aristotle argues that this view is strengthened by the example of the weaver. His job is not to acquire wool. It is simply to use it to make a useful item of clothing. In fact, Aristotle continues, if we say that acquisition is a part of household management, we could also say that the art of medicine is part of it, since the householder must be concerned with the health of the family members.

Here Aristotle becomes somewhat ambivalent in his discussion and says that the argument cannot be conclusive either way. In one sense, the householder must be concerned with the health of its members. But in another sense, the householder has no obligation and the doctors alone are responsible. This is analogous to property. In one sense, it is the business of the householder to see to the acquisition of property. But in another sense, it is not his business and the art of acquisition is merely “auxiliary” to it.

Aristotle believes that it is in the province of nature to provide the material at hand for the householder, just as it provides for animals in nature. However, the bottom line is that in every case the acquisition must be made from nature, rather than through exchange. In an exchange, the appropriation is made at the “expense of other men.”

Appropriation, then, can be seen as having two forms, direct appropriation from nature and retail trade, or exchange. The second form is “justly censored” as it exploits other men.

Similar to Aristotle, Marx saw unequal exchange in society as the origin of inequality. However, for Marx, the unequal exchange takes place fundamentally in the exploitation of labor power. In capitalist society, there is unequal exchange between the capitalist and the worker in the purchase of labor power. This is the genesis of surplus value and the accumulation of capital and it robs the working class of a large portion of their labor. It robs them of their entire life over their working lives. It is, in fact, a slow way of killing them for profit.

Usury and the Fetishism of Commodities:

Aristotle views usury as an extreme case of retail trade. Currency was meant to serve the function of exchange, but in this case, profit is made with no exchange. Usury, then, is a perversion of a perversion, a double perversion. Rather than M-C-M’ in retail trade, it takes the form of M-M’.

A hierarchy of modes of exchange can be seen in Aristotle and Marx.

C-C = simple barter

C-M-C = use of money as a medium of exchange, according to its proper function for Aristotle. The circulation of commodities for Marx.

M-C-M’ = retail trade for Aristotle. The circulation of money for Marx. This is a perversion for Aristotle, but legitimate for Marx.

M-M’ = usury. For Aristotle, a perversion of the function of money, which gives it a magical quality. For Marx, it leads to the acute manifestation of the fetishism of commodities.

In the Middle-Ages, the Christian Church adopted Aristotle’s teachings on usury, as it was seen to conflict with natural law. Later, Islam was to also forbid usury. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “to take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice.” Aquinas also quotes Aristotle saying that money was invented chiefly for the purpose of exchange. So usury is unlawful.

Moreover, for Aristotle, usury seems to make money breed itself. This attribution of a magical quality to money, Marx calls a fetish. He uses it to develop the concept of the “fetishism of commodities. For Marx, this leads to the dogma that capital, rather than human labor, is the source of wealth. This fetish produces social relations between commodities and objective relations between human individuals. This is an unnatural subject-object reversal as the object becomes a force which rules over humans. The individual’s fate is controlled by the market. By nature, one is a species being who is only free when he or she controls the forces of nature. Today this alienation has been intensified under neoliberal capitalism.


Aristotle is concerned that property be appropriated from that which nature has provided at hand for household use. As a means to an end, such needs are necessarily limited. Unnatural appropriation through exchange necessarily leads to the exploitation of other individuals, immoderate anxiety over livelihood, and the desire for unlimited wealth. The extreme example of this is seen in usury.

Marx too stressed need as is seen in the familiar phrase from the Critique of The Gotha Program, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”   

St. Thomas Aquinas and Marx both borrowed heavily from Aristotle in their economic writings. Particularly striking is the resemblance between Aristotle and Marx in dividing appropriation into two spheres, the natural and the unnatural. The first leads to the development of the individual’s natural being. The other leads to perversion. Aristotle saw natural appropriation of needs from nature as providing for necessary household wealth and leading to the good life. Unnatural appropriation through retail trade led to greed. Marx saw natural appropriation from nature as providing a springboard for the development of the productive forces and free human individuals from the “blind forces of nature.” Individuals could become species beings. Marx was concerned with the natural, rather than the ethical, and it was natural that humans, as species beings, transform their historical human nature and control the world around them in the realm of freedom. On the other hand, appropriation at the expense of others, most fully developed under capitalism, first bound humans to the “realm of necessity” but in a dialectical way, developed the forces of production which would liberate human individuals in the realm of freedom. This could only happen under socialism.  


Aristotle. The Politics of Aristotle. (E. Barker, Trans. and ed.), London: Oxford University Press, 1979.  

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics (Martin Oswald, trans.), Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.

Barker, E. The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle. New York: Dover, 1959.

Bigongiari, Dino. The Political Ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas. New York: Hafner Press, 1953.

Bottomore, T.B. (Trans and ed.). Karl Marx, Early Writings. New York: McGraw Hill, 1963.   

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. (Peter Laslett, ed.). New York: New American Library, 1960.

Marx, Karl. Capital, Volumes I and III. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations for the Critique of Political Economy. (Martin Nicolaus, trans.). London: Penguin Books, 1973.

February 16, 2014