Population Policies and Eugenics
The Spartan sage Lycurgus instituted Greece’s most ambitious population policies.
True to his communitarian foundations, Aristotle argues that population policies — notably concerning immigration, naturalization, and reproduction — are a fundamental element of statecraft and ought to be determined by what serves the interests of the society as a whole. Aristotle observes very lucidly: “The prime factor necessary, in the equipment of a city, is the human material; and this involves us in considering the quality, as well as quantity” (1325b33). The city is defined not by mere geography, but above all by the population. Therefore: “To determine the size of a city — to settle how large it can properly be, and whether it ought to consist of the members of several races — is a duty incumbent on the statesman” (1276a24). The statesman then has a duty to decide who is fit to be a citizen and to ensure the biological reproduction and quality of the citizens, thus perpetuating the city.
In line with Aristotle’s imagined foundation of the city as an extended family, the Greeks typically granted citizenship according to rules of descent. Aristotle observes: “For practical purposes, it is usual to define a citizen as one ‘born of citizen parents on both sides,’ and not on the father’s or mother’s side only; but sometimes this requirement is carried still farther back, to the length of two, three, or more stages of ancestry” (1275b22). Aristotle also defines a city in part by the possibility of intermarriage among its members. Naturalized citizens are clearly considered exceptional, Aristotle deeming them citizens “in some special sense” (1274b38).
The ancient Greeks were obsessed with their ancestry and lineage, following aristocratic and hereditarian assumptions. Aristotle says that “good birth, for a people and a state, is to be indigenous or ancient and to have distinguished founders with many descendants distinguished in matters that excite envy” (Rhetoric, 1.5). Following the widespread Greek assumptions that both nature and nurture mattered, he writes that “it is likely that good sons will come from good fathers and that the appropriately raised will be of the appropriate sort” (Rhetoric, 1.9). Aristotle furthermore lists shared blood as one of the forms of friendship, an eminently adaptive view: “The species of friendship are companionship, intimacy, consanguinity, and so on” (Rhetoric, 2.4).
At the political level, each Greek city-state was similarly quite conscious of having a distinct ancestral identity. This identity was distinct from that of other peoples and persisted across generations. Aristotle evidently is describing a common view when he asks:
Assuming a single population inhabiting a single territory, shall we say that the city retains its identity as long as the stock of its inhabitants continues to be the same (although the old members are always dying and new members are always being born), and shall we thus apply to the city the analogy of rivers and fountains, to which we ascribe a constant identity in spite of the fact that part of their water is always flowing in and part always flowing out? (1276a34)
Aristotle himself does not fully accept this view, adding that the nature of the city evolves with changes in regime type.
There was also considerable debate about who should be citizens, and there were instances of cities assimilating foreigners. The legislator had a role to play in cultivating a common identity among the citizens, sometimes mixing different Greek stocks together. The sophist Gorgias of Leontini likened the statesman to a demiurge or master craftsman: “As mortars are things which are made by the craftsmen who are mortar-makers, so Larissaeans [a people] are made by the craftsmen who are Larissaean-makers” (1275b22).
The lawmaker has a duty to ensure the existence and reproduction of a population of high quality in appropriate numbers. This is the reason for the institution of marriage:
If we assume that the legislator ought, from the start, to see that the children who are brought up have the best possible physical endowment, it follows that his first attention must be devoted to marriage; and here he will have to consider what the ages of the partners should be, and what qualities they ought to possess. (1334b29)
Bearing and raising children is thus a duty for all citizens, husbands and wives together. They “render public service by bringing children into the world” (1335b26). Both man and wife should be able to have children and children should be born in time to take over their parents’ estate (but not sooner or later). Aristotle recommends men be married at the age of 37 and women at 18. He argues that adultery should always be a disgrace, but particularly at childbearing age, presumably because this means chaos for families because of paternity uncertainty. Adultery should be “punished by a stigma of infamy proportionate to such an offense” (1335b38). Marriage is therefore not meant for the mere convenience or pleasure of two individuals, but to create children and families in which they can be safe and educated. The Greek view thus reflected what should be obvious: that the formation and quality of the next generation is an absolutely fundamental metric of the city’s success and continuity, and thus a matter of critical public interest, according to which to citizens ought to be educated and regulated as appropriate.
Aristotle endorses the widespread Greek belief in heredity. He remarks on “the resemblances between children and parents” (1262a1). High birth is identified as one of the criteria for being recognized as a citizen: “the descendants of better men are likely to be better, good birth means goodness of stock” (1283a23). At the same time, he recognizes that the luck of the draw was also a factor in each generation: “They [hereditarians] are claiming that just as man is born of man, and animal of animal, so a good man is born of good men. It is often the case, however, that nature wishes but fails to achieve this result” (1255a21).
Aristotle, unlike Plato, does not draw particularly radical eugenic conclusions from these premises. He seems to take the basic quality of the population as a god-given variable which cannot really be modified:
It may be urged . . . that just as the art of the statesman does not produce human stock, but counts on its being supplied by nature and proceeds to use her supply, so nature must also provide the physical means of subsistence — the land, or sea, or whatever it be. (1258a19)
However, Aristotle does urge some limited eugenic measures. Husband and wife should both be neither too young (citing young mothers’ health risks) nor too old. Aristotle apparently adheres to a proto-Lamarckian view of inheritance, urging pregnant women to exercise so that their children have strong bodies:
Wives, as well as husbands, need the physical qualities of which we have just been speaking. Pregnant mothers should pay attention to their bodies: they should take regular exercise, and follow a nourishing diet. The legislator can easily lead them to a habit of regular exercise if he requires them to make some daily pilgrimage for the purpose of worshiping at the shrines of the goddesses who preside over childbirth. (1335b11)
Aristotle supports severe negative eugenics. The Greeks practiced infanticide through exposure of babies considered undesirable, most often either because their parents could not provide for them or the infant was congenitally deformed. concerning overpopulation, Aristotle argues that, it is better to prevent births in the first place, rather than kill infants. Concerning the congenitally deformed however, he urges mandatory infanticide: “There should certainly be a law to prevent the rearing of deformed children” (1335b19). This method was obviously supremely cruel for the infant but was considered salutary for the family and the community, as scarce resources could then be dedicated to healthy infants. The reasoning here is not fundamentally different from the widely-accepted modern practice of aborting fetuses suffering from severe congenital defects, such as Down’s syndrome.
In addition to quality, there is the somewhat more straightforward issue of quantity. There was generally a trade-off: the larger a city’s population, the more powerful that city tended to be, but the more the population grew, the more poverty there was. Depending on the context, the authorities might urge citizens to have more or less children. Lycurgus of Sparta encouraged fertility so as to have as many soldiers as possible:
Anxious for the Spartans to be as numerous as possible, the legislator encouraged citizens to have as many children as possible; they have a law that the father of three sons should be exempt from military service, and the father of four entirely free from all taxes. (1270a11)
The authorities might on the other hand attempt to limit fertility in order to prevent poverty (1265a38). In a world in which the economic security of households was largely defined by ownership of land, the Greeks understood that overpopulation led to poverty through the decline of land per person, leading to the impoverishment of households and the growth of the landless population. The urban proletariat was held in contempt by upper-class Greeks such as Aristotle, being considered uneducated and unstable. Aristotle lists overpopulation as one of the leading causes of “faction” or civil strife (1302b33).
Aristotle strongly emphasizes that social and economic problems such as poverty cannot be separated from demographic realities and therefore from population policies: “Those who propose legislation ought not to forget, as they continually do, that regulation of the amount of property ought to be accompanied by regulation of the number of children in the family” (1266a31). He notes that a certain Philolaus produced “laws of adoption” for Thebes which aimed to keep family plots constant by limiting the production of children (1274a22). The Cretans for their part sought to limit births by encouraging the segregation of women and homosexuality among men (1271b40). (Aristotle does not make clear whether he endorses the practice or not). Aristotle reports that Carthage successfully reduced poverty by exporting surplus population to new cities:
The Carthaginians have a constitution which is in practice oligarchical; but they get away with this by an excellent means — from time to time a section of the populace is planted out among the dependent cities and thus grows wealthy. In this way they remedy the defects of the constitution and give it stability. (1273b18)
Aristotle criticizes such measures as depending on “chance” and prefers that excessive births be prevented in the first place.
Aristotle’s discussion of population policy and eugenics reflects the view which the Greeks took for granted: that biological reproduction and the quality of the citizenry was a fundamental matter of public interest. The citizen had a duty to act and the lawmaker to regulate by whatever means necessary to achieve these goals.
Diversity, Conflict, and Citizenship
Dionysias I of Syracuse. Sicily was known for its ethnically divided population and tyrannical rulers.
If kinship was central to the foundation and solidarity of the Greek polis, diversity was likely to lead to conflict. Aristotle, like Plato, is very concerned about preventing the internal civil conflicts (stasis) which periodically plagued the Greek city-states: “Friendship, we believe, is the chief good of cities, because it is the best safeguard against the danger of factional disputes” (1262a40). He notes in another context that “every difference is apt to create a division” in the city (1303b7).
As a good empiricist, Aristotle meticulously documents all the instances in which diversity and a lack of common identity led to conflict and a loss of the much-cherished friendship (or philia) among the citizens. The philosopher writes that one the most common causes of “faction” and civil war was the unhappy consequences of unassimilated immigration and the consequent loss of identity and solidarity. Aristotle’s prose is perfectly clear:
Heterogeneity of stocks may lead to faction — at any rate until they have had time to assimilate. A city cannot be constituted from any chance collection of people, or in any chance period of time. Most of the cities which have admitted settlers, either at the time of their foundation or later, have been troubled by faction. For example, the Achaeans joined with settlers from Troezen in founding Sybaris, but expelled them when their own numbers increased; and this involved their city in a curse. At Thurii the Sybarites quarreled with the other settlers who had joined them in its colonization; they demanded special privileges, on the ground that they were the owners of the territory, and were driven out of the colony. At Byzantium the later settlers were detected in a conspiracy against the original colonists, and were expelled by force; and a similar expulsion befell the exiles from Chios who were admitted to Antissa by the original colonists. At Zancle, on the other hand, the original colonists were themselves expelled by the Samians whom they admitted. At Apollonia, on the Black Sea, factional conflict was caused by the introduction of new settlers; at Syracuse the conferring of civic rights on aliens and mercenaries, at the end of the period of the tyrants, led to sedition and civil war; and at Amphipolis the original citizens, after admitting Chalcidian colonists, were nearly all expelled by the colonists they had admitted. (1303a13)
Thus, immigration of different peoples was a common source of conflict, often leading to civil war and concluding with the ethnic cleansing of either the native peoples or the invaders. Would that this was understood by the contemporary political class.
Importing and enfranchising foreigners, whether by democrats or tyrants, was also a common method to subvert the political process and destroy the existing constitution. Tyrants were often keenly aware of the fact that common identity and civic solidarity were threats to their personal power. Kathryn Lomas observes that “the use of itinerant populations to subvert the status of the polis is common to many tyrants and hellenistic monarchs throughout the Greek world.” The case of Syracuse, that powerful Sicilian city governed by a string of tyrants, makes for a useful contrast with the homogeneous and free city-state. Paul Cartledge observes that Syracuse became
what Tyranny in essence was: an autocracy based on military force supplied by a personal bodyguard and mercenaries; and reinforced by multiple dynastic marriages, the unscrupulous transfers of populations, and the enfranchisement of foreigners.
In contrast, the Greeks considered homogeneity to be a source of strength in a state. During the Peloponnesian War, the adventurous Athenian political and military leader argued that Sicily would be easy to conquer, because its diversity meant its cities lacked solidarity and social trust. Instead of common civic action, the Sicilians were prone to individual selfish behavior in the form of corruption and emigration:
Sicily may have large cities, but they are full of mixed rabbles and prone to the transfer of populations. As a result no one feels that he has a stake in a city of his own, so they have taken no trouble to equip themselves with arms for their personal safety or to maintain proper farming establishments in the country. Instead, individuals hoard whatever money they can extract from public funds by persuasive speaking or factional politics, in the knowledge that, if all fails, they can go and live elsewhere. A crowd like that are hardly likely to respond unanimously to any proposal or to organize themselves for joint action: more probable is that individual elements will go with any offer that attracts them . . . (Thucydides, 6.17)
Given that Alcibiades made these comments in a successful speech trying to convince the Athenian Assembly to invade Sicily, we can assume such arguments resonated with Athenian citizens in general. In the event, the Athenian invasion of Sicily proved to be a disaster. Nonetheless, as one might expect, the Athenians did find local allies among Sicily’s diverse population, notably among the indigenous Sicels. Sicily’s lack of unity however was not sufficient to make up for the general riskiness of the enterprise, notably due to geographical distance from Athens, and Spartan support for Syracuse.
Aristotle’s ideal of citizenship, entailing great reciprocal civic duties and group solidarity, necessarily requires a strong common identity and a sharp differentiation between citizens and foreigners. Conversely, foreign mercenaries had no solidarity with the people, and were thus frequently used by tyrants to enforce their unjust rule:
Kings are guarded by the arms of their subjects; tyrants by a foreign force. Ruling according to law, and with the consent of their subjects, kings have bodyguards drawn from their subjects: the tyrant has a [foreign] body-guard to protect himself against them. (1285a16)
If a single man is entrusted with the command of these [foreign] mercenaries, he frequently becomes a tyrant . . . and if the command is vested in a number of people, they make themselves a governing clique. (1306a19)
The aim of a tyrant is his own pleasure: the aim of a king is the Good. Thus a tyrant covets riches; a king covets what makes for renown. The guard of a king is composed of citizens: that of a tyrant is composed of foreigners. (1310b31)
Thus, outsiders with no kinship ties to the local people were ideally suited for oppressing and exploiting the citizenry — a basic reality of Jewish history in traditional societies.
Aristotle also clearly expresses the idea that relatedness and shared identity enable the group solidarity that is needed to throw off tyrannical rule and defend a state. He advises against the use of mercenaries instead of native citizens:
Professional soldiers turn cowards, however, when the danger puts too great a strain on them and they are inferior in numbers and equipment; for they are the first to fly, while citizen-forces die at their posts, as in fact happened at the temple of Hermes. [At the battle of Coronea of 353 BC, Phocia’s mercenaries fled before the Thebans, while the Phocian citizen-soldiers actually fought and won.] (NE, 3.8)
If identity and community made a people better able to defend their freedom, Aristotle argues that a diverse population with no common identity is easier to enslave. If one has a population of slaves, Aristotle pragmatically argues that these should be ethnically diverse so as to be easier to subjugate:
The class which farms [. . .] should, ideally, if we can choose at will, be slaves — but slaves not drawn from a single stock, or from stocks of a spirited temperament. This will at once secure the advantage of a good supply of labor and eliminate any danger of revolutionary designs. (1330a23)
Thus, a mass of mongrels without identity is easier to rule than a self-conscious people, a truth which the hostile elites which rule many Western nations today seem to instinctively understand.
In any event, for Aristotle, solidarity and citizenship manifestly require a common identity, whereas the lack of this is a recipe for enslavement, civil conflict, and tyranny. The philosopher’s grim observations are worth repeating: immigration without assimilation can only lead to conflict, conflict which can only end through separation, separation which can only occur through the expulsion either of the invaders or the natives from their ancestral lands.