Thoughts on Aristotle’s Political Philosophy

Aristotle was born in the town of Stagira located in the Chalcidic peninsula of northern Greece. His father was the personal physician of Amyntas III of Macedon. As a young man Aristotle was sent to Athens for education. There he met Plato and he remained a member of the Academy until Plato’s death. Rumors abound as to Aristotle being overlooked as successor to the Academy, and he is also rumored to have tutored Alexander the Great during this time. He later founded his school in Athens, the Lyceum, dedicated to the research and teaching of every aspect of human knowledge. After the death of Alexander and the subsequent rebellion of the Greek cities against Macedon, Aristotle was again forced to flee Athens ‘lest the Athenians sin a second time against philosophy.’ He died shortly thereafter.

A surprisingly small amount of work survives from Aristotle. Like Plato, Aristotle wrote dialogues intended for general audiences, however only mere fragmentary citations have endured into the present day. Primarily only treatises exist today. They are thought to be connected to Aristotle’s research and teaching activities, perhaps even notes compiled by his students. The format of his writing proceeds in a conversationalist style, by proceeding from commonly held opinions and examining them upward (much like Plato’s Socrates). Aristotle does not proceed by means of deduction from immutable principles of human nature, nor does he establish a rigorous technical vocabulary that is remote from the actual practice of politics in the world.

Aristotle’s works bring to light the mind of a great genius. In contrast to Plato, who gave preference to the art of politics over natural science (or “natural philosophy”) as evidenced in his masterful Republic and then Socrates’s silence in the Timaeus, Aristotle sees politics as one art or science among others, like rhetoric, physics, metaphysics, and so on.

Aristotle divides the sciences into “theoretical” sciences (i.e. pursued for the sake of knowledge) and “practical” sciences (i.e. pursued for the sake of benefits derived from them). Theoretical sciences may include metaphysics, theology, biology, mathematics and so on; while practical function in a mode of action (praxis) such as teaching someone carpentry or painting. Politics falls into the latter category for Aristotle. In fact, politics is the practical science par excellence. His political works are directed to the educated men of politics, and the legislators. However, his writings, like Plato’s, are esoteric, deliberately withholding Aristotle’s final or fundamental reflections on man.

Nicomachean Ethics
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is the prolegomena to his political writings. In Book VI of the Ethics he delineates political science into three branches: ethics, or the science of character; economics, or the science of household management; and political science, the art of governing the political community. Recall Aristotle’s opening line of the Ethics: “Every art and inquiry, and similarly every action and intentional choice, is held to aim at some good.” Thus, it seems that Aristotle subordinates all human actions and arts and knowledge of the good. The good or the good life (eudaimonia) is the overarching theme of Aristotle’s political science. This happy good life is the aim of the comprehensive human good (note that happiness is distinct from mere hedonistic pleasures which are pursued differently by many people from moment to moment. These men live like slaves to their passions, while superior men pursue virtue through politics, and finally a third type of man pursues the life of pure contemplation: the philosopher). Just as the Ethics is structured to be an ascent from mere commonly held opinions to a more refined philosophical contemplation in Book X, so Aristotle demonstrates his preference for the philosophic life throughout his works. For Aristotle, what separates man from the brutes is his distinctive capacity for reason (i.e. possessing a “rational soul”) and thus happiness is the activity of the soul in accordance with excellence (practicing reason). Wealth and mere pleasures are inferior to human relationships, which are dependent upon virtue. Thus Aristotle’s affirmation that man is by nature a social or political animal is reaffirmed.

The human soul is divided into two parts: the rational and non-rational. The rational part of the soul belongs to the intellectual virtues which are taught through speech, while the non-rational part of the soul is the locus of passion or emotion and it claims ownership of the moral or ethical virtues, or the virtues associated with “character.” Men have a natural potential to develop moral virtues but they require habituation. Thus education comes to light as greatly important. Moral virtues may be said to involve reason, though they are not necessarily rational (i.e. Aristotle does not subscribe to modern notions of “utilitarianism”). Virtue for Aristotle is a disposition involving intentional choice and it is directed toward observance of a “mean” between two vicious extremes. True virtue, such as courage, does not involve any ancillary reason for its end. For example a man dying in battle is courageous, however if he does so for any other reason, such as to gratify himself or others, it is merely political courage. Aristotle also notes that “greatness of soul” encompasses all the virtues.

Thus, greatness of soul represents the peak of moral virtue for a human being, while justice on the other hand, represents the peak of moral virtue for the city. Justice is what produces and preserves happiness for the political community. Aristotle explores the necessary tensions and ambiguity of justice with regard to the nature of law. Aristotle delineates between several common notions of justice: 1) distributions of honors; 2) “corrective” justice which involves transactions and contracts; 3) and he also discusses “reciprocity” -another form of justice that involves the exchange of benefits and goods.

However, Aristotle makes clear that justice may only exist in a community of free and equal men who are regulated by the law (i.e. he does not offer some fabled “social contract theory”). Justice belongs to the city and is akin to the changing nature of conventions (see Aristotle’s controversial section of Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics). However, he alludes to things that are ‘just by nature’ -implying a conception of natural right which is later attempted to harmonize with natural law under the Thomists. Aristotle does not give key first principles for natural law, however, and instead he seems to see natural right or natural law as more a floor from which to grow, rather than a ceiling beyond which we cannot grow. Aristotle’s examples of natural law include the case of a man with a stronger right hand, but who still has the capacity to become ambidextrous (a necessary but not sufficient condition for excellence). The best regime is the “regime that is by nature the best everywhere.” And the best regime is dependent upon a certain degree of harmony, or “friendship” (philia) which encompasses the love of a husband and wife, parents and children, the associated feelings between and among members of private associations and groups, citizens of the same city, and so on. Thus friendship is a critical element of justice as it “seems to hold cities together.” An important piece of the issue of friendship is overcoming men’s attachments to their private interests in favor of a spontaneous sharing of external goods (self-sacrifice for the sake of the group or betterment of another). Friendship reveals that the chosen way of life of the gentleman is not inherently tragic.

The beginning of Aristotle’s Politics closely parallels the opening of the Ethics:

“Since we see that every city is some sort of partnership, and that every partnership is constituted for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what is held to be good), it is clear that all partnerships aim at some good, and that the partnership that is most authoritative of all and embraces all others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city, or the political partnership.”

The city is predicated on commonality -an association of people having something in common. Aristotle seems to deny the parallels drawn by Plato and Xenophon between household management and the city. According to Aristotle, Plato’s confusion with other forms of rule (household management) is closely related to Plato’s fatal error, in having Socrates provide a defense of communism in the Republic. Aristotle argues against the unified city through the extreme abolition of marriage and common ownership of property. Neither of these cases strengthen “friendship.” Rather the city should be made unified through education, or laws and philosophy. Somehow the household is the origin of the city but the city’s structure and leadership is different.

Man is the political animal par excellence. For only in and through the city does mankind achieve nobility or happiness (contra modern liberal political theory). The city is the fulfillment of man’s natural potential, and the city is natural to human life. However cities do not simply arise naturally, they must instead be founded arbitrarily by men, for mankind is an integral part of the natural world, as are his ambitions. But since Aristotle acknowledges the existence of evil (with things like cannibalism and incest and transgressing sacred restraints) he determines there is need for law. Thus the first one to constitute a city is responsible for the greatest of goods (contra Rousseau).

There was a tendency among sophists of ancient Greece, as well as among modern “state of nature” theorists, to view the city as an unnatural occurrence, one that rests on the need for compulsion. However, Aristotle disputes this claim by bringing to light the naturalness of the city. Politics exists of necessity for human beings. It is not a “false consciousness” (a la Marx) that is to be rejected in favor of a utopia that more closely mirrors nature (anarchism, socialism, or even communism are examples).

Aristotle also offers a defense of slavery. Who are slaves? Essentially sub-human people who are incapable of caring for themselves; people who are enslaved to their passions, and are only capable of physical labors. However, slavery is merely a convention for Aristotle as he seems eager to see all of the slaves of the best regime promised their freedom as a reward for cooperative behavior. The requirements of virtue among slaves are paramount. Slavery, according to Aristotle, is dependent upon the master’s virtue, not on the rule of force.

Book III is the founding of a new beginning in the Politics. The topic is of the nature of political regimes. He begins by discussing citizenship, then the basic types of regimes, then kingship and law, followed by the nature of political rule.

A city and its correlative regime can best be determined by its citizens. Early citizenship is predicated upon family and ancestral ties. A citizen, generally speaking, is one who partakes in the decision making or rule. A city is determined by its type of regime (oligarchy, aristocracy, democracy etc) rather than by other factors such as geography or nationality. The virtue of a city’s citizens is critical. Political rule requires both: rulers who are educated in prudence, and people being ruled.

A regime concerns a city that is either ruled by one or a few people, and their aim is either of the common good of the whole city, or private gain. There are six types of regimes: kingship, monarchy is the noble version and tyranny the deviant version; aristocracy or its deviant form of oligarchy; and the rule of the many or its deviant form of democracy. Interestingly, Aristotle makes it clear that the determining factors for the deviant versions of regimes is not number, but wealth. Oligarchy is the rule of rich people, while democracy is the rule of poor people. Both agree on the question of distributive justice. Aristotle rather elusively refers to the “one political man” who is superior to the others, though he is not exempt from wild passions which act as a vital source for virtue.

Aristotle devotes considerable energy to finding a “middle” between conflicts between rich and poor -an early praise for a modern ‘middle class.’

In the final two books of the Politics, Aristotle discusses the best regime. The best regime for Aristotle seems to have only existed in Sparta and a few other places in Greece. Sparta had a regime with a class of free, leisurely men who handled the rule and military affairs, while the unfree class of farmers served the city. There is little doubt that Aristotle’s best regime is an aristocracy; a ruling body that is publicly dedicated to the rule of virtue, a move he considers a further clarification of Platonic political philosophy.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Politics.

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