By all accounts, Aristotle is one of the most influential thinkers in our history. Not only that he possessed one of the most brilliant, lucid and best-structured minds one can meet by reading, but the philosopher also had a more practical and ultimately feasible approach to this theories and teachings. Entire branches of science have been established, consolidated, and enriched by Aristotle, as he was the first person in Western civilization to separate philosophy from hard sciences. By virtue of his prodigious work, today we have the chance to read his extensive and exhaustive treatises on physics, metaphysics, logics, astronomy, politics, ethics, natural sciences, and pretty much every topic known to philosophers of Ancient Greece.
What is even more startling about Aristotle is that he actually wrote more books on topics such as plants, things heard, mechanics, virtues and vices, and even the entire universe. Some of them were lost, while others were burnt with the entire Library of Alexandria. He lived for 60 years, but left behind almost 2500 pages of challenging, insightful, and surprisingly timeless thoughts.
That’s why asking the question “What would Aristotle think about Bitcoin?” makes a whole lot of sense: he was a true polymath and a man whose intellect has irreversibly changed Western civilization. And if he lived today, he’d most likely dedicate an entire book to Satoshi Nakamoto’s invention – and perhaps disagree with contemporaries like Andreas Antonopoulos, Saifedean Ammous, and Imran Bashir on several topics.
But how does one take such an immense body of work and project it towards an invention that Aristotle could never even think about in his time? Well, the methodology for this article involves commenting on relevant parts from two of the works that I know and have studied the most in university “Politics” and “Nicomachean Ethics”. While other books like “Economics” and “Metaphysics” also contain interesting ideas that can be interpreted from a cryptocurrency-centric perspective, I have yet to study them thoroughly for the purpose of extracting the relevant information – in this sense, they might become the subject of future article in the series.
Aristotle’s “Politics” on Bitcoin
As a graduate in political science, I’ve had to learn by heart the classification that Aristotle makes in order to differentiate political regimes, as his criteria are still relevant today in spite of some semantic changes (for instance, today’s meaning of “aristocracy” is different from the ancient one). However, the most interesting parts in relation to Bitcoin can be found in the first book, parts VII, IX, X, and XI. It’s mostly because the philosopher talks about money, its purpose, and its uses in relation to morality or virtue.
Before beginning the analysis, it should be noted that these thoughts that Aristotle had on money were very influential in the Middle Ages and throughout the Christian world where sometimes financial wealth is still frowned upon or diminished in its importance.
In Part VII, the philosopher talks about a rather unusual way of making money: educating slaves to better perform their daily obligations to the master (at the time, slavery was considered a natural state which was determined by criteria that would outrage lots of contemporaries). This can be interpreted in many different ways by today’s standards, and if we accept the modern work relations as a way of slavery (which has been part of the debate since the Industrial Revolution) and embrace the idea of private education, then we can assess that Bitcoin (or any form of money) can enable useful transactions which teach skills.
However, it doesn’t get interesting until Part IX of Aristotle’s first book of “Politics”. He dedicates an entire section to what he calls the “art of acquisition” or “the art of wealth-getting”. By acknowledging that experience and art can create wealth and help individuals get out of the natural state of scarcity or poverty, he tries to define the value of objects. The philosopher thinks that all objects have a proper use which is obvious, and an improper one which is important for trade: a shoe has value because it protects your feet, but in relation to other wants, it can be a mean for barter.
Under these considerations, Aristotle would have probably thought that Bitcoin generates code, but also financial value. If he were to take it a little further, he could have defined the cryptocurrency as a store of value and a mean of exchange – if the shoes themselves are held within the household without being worn, then they retain a certain value for their practical use; and if they get exchanged, their price will be determined according to the supply-demand chain.
Nevertheless, Aristotle wasn’t a big fan of acquiring wealth just for the sake of it, and thought engaging in trade with the purpose of making more money is unnatural. He thought that coins should only be exchanged in order to ease the trade of vital and natural needs such as food, raw materials, and items that improve our lives. So from this point of view, it’s probably safe to say that the philosopher would frown upon the Forex traders who switched to cryptocurrencies and all the Lambo bros who dream of the moon just to get rich. And his retelling of the Midas fable is rather revealing: you can’t eat bars of gold, regardless of their physical or digital state. Aristotle was a practical philosopher.
There is also a passage in Part IX which should make us all reflect upon our financial choices: “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.”
Contemporary Keynesians would absolutely love the mentions that Aristotle makes in Part X, as he basically reiterates the idea that money has a functional purpose of being spent for something vital or useful, while increasing it at interest is immoral.
But as the practical philosopher that is is, Aristotle takes his time to explain how you can make a lot of money (at east in his time). In Part XI, he distinguishes between two ways of acquiring wealth: through speculative investments (knowing exactly what is most valuable and profitable), or through well-informed labors in fields which bring the highest payoff. In Bitcoin terms, this can mean that getting rich can be either a matter of knowing which altcoin to trade at the right time to get satisfactory returns, or a calculated speculation in mining. The former involves more risk and the placement of an investment, while the latter is more akin agriculture (or mining) and is labor-intensive.
Aristotle also encourages crypto geeks of the world to make use of their technical knowledge in order to make a lot of money, and implies that the art of acquiring wealth is more about having the will to spend your energy on it. The philosopher goes on and tells the story of Thales of Miletus (you might have heard about his theorem in math classes) who successfully proved that he can take himself out of poverty by using his knowledge of astronomy: he observed during winter that the movement of the planets predicts a great harvest of olives, and used his little money to rent all the olive presses in Chios and Miletus (which were in very little demand, and therefore cheap to hire). When harvest time came, he made a lot of money through his monopoly on presses and proved to everyone that knowledge can make you a lot of money if it’s used for mercantile purposes.
Maybe that the parallel to this story about Thales is mostly about reading charts and predicting Bitcoin price movements in order to place a speculative investment. But it can also be interpreted as the eternal “buy the dip” or “buy low, sell high” investment advices, and may have undertones related to BTC mining (buy ASICs when there is little demand and lots of supply, hold onto them until the craze once again emerges). Making a move definitely requires some insider info about investments, but if Aristotle was alive to take a look at the situation and explain it, he would have definitely provided a better explanation.
Other notable mentions about money are made in Book Five, Part VIII and Book Six, Part IV and V. However, the focus is on political regimes such as democracies and oligarchies, and how they should administer their finances in order to maintain their stability and avoid conflicts of power and status. These mentions would be much more useful in the case of Proof of Stake cryptocurrencies where the process of minting new coins is quantitatively dependent on the wealth you already possess, and perhaps that the Ethereum or NEO people would find some more fascination in these lines. However, this is strictly about Bitcoin.
For further reference, you may read the original text by clicking this link.
Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” on Bitcoin
“Nicomachean Ethics”, or Aristotle’s thorough lecture on ethics which his son Nicomachus has edited, is basically the predecessor of all the motivational self-help books. The philosopher asks the question “What does it take to live a good life?” and establishes a series of criteria to reach that state of plenitude that our greedy and consumerist selves should really know about.
The book is so important in Western civilization that Raphael has specifically painted Aristotle with a sample in his hand in his famous School of Athens fresque from the Vatican Palace. Furthermore, part of my PhD education in philosophy included a full 6-month course that was specifically dedicated to the study of “Nicomachean Ethics”. However, what does all this have to do with Bitcoin?
Well, the core idea of Aristotle’s book is to find virtue as a middle ground between two extremes. Being a good person who is honored and esteemed in a community is all about balance and moderation. If you’re too nice you will look like you’re foolish, and if you’re too nasty in your interactions then you will be an unwanted partner for conversations. This has a lot to do with attitudes on Crypto Twitter or BitcoinTalk.org, as we often notice a lot of irrational tribalism. But there’s also a technical aspect to it.
Bitcoin as a protocol seems to take some lessons from Aristotle, in the sense that it finds the virtuous spot to create consensus. So if the philosopher took a look at the code, he’d admire the rigorous application of game theory and the ways in which participants are incentivized to support the system as opposed to the more expensive option of attacking it. Though Aristotle lived before the days of the Byzantine Empire, he’d understand the issue at stake in the Byzantine General’s Dilemma, and ultimately appreciate Satoshi’s solution to create consensus. This can also be regarded as a way for political regimes to be kept in place, so under the considerations of the previously-mentioned ideas from Books Five and Six of “Politics”, he’d absolutely love Bitcoin.
Conversely, if we refer to Bitcoin as the community of coders, miners, and traders, then there’s a lot to learn from “Nicomachean Ethics” (especially Book IV). As a matter of fact, Aristotle would lecture lots of “shills” on moral virtues such as liberality and generosity. In such a greedy environment, we should not forget that Satoshi invented Bitcoin for the sake of providing a better way to transact value.
And given the greed and financial accumulation in the space, the philosopher would definitely recommend BTC whales to be generous and spread the wealth around for the sake of both being better people and creating a healthiest economic environment. This should not be confused with socialism, though: Aristotle was a big fan of private property, but also believed in the power of donations and charity. Therefore, he would advise everyone to build a better and fairer system through generosity and the absence of greed (remember how he spoke about accumulation of wealth being unnatural in “Politics”?). Doing good naturally causes a person both pleasures and pains, and we should all make sacrifices if we want to ditch the greedy old ways of managing affairs.
Another noteworthy mention which Aristotle makes in relation to money is that one should never boast about wealth. Such behaviors are always blameworthy according to the philosopher, and he would absolutely hate the entire Lambo culture.
The analyses of Aristotle are extensive and also include in-depth explanations on the theory of virtue and happiness (Book X, Chapters 6-8). And the essential part about this is that happiness is an activity and a process, not an end goal or a static object. So you might be thinking that holding a million BTC will make you happy, but in reality happiness is in that process of interacting with other community members and doing trades in order to acquire it. At the end of the day, don’t forget that every goal is empty and meaningless in itself, so it’s better to actually enjoy the process.