Before embarking on the question of the best form of government, we must first decide on the best on “way of life” that is most worthy of choice. And the most choice-worthy (disputed by no one) is the blessed and happy life based on external, bodily, and soulful goods. Aristotle calls upon the god as witness that a man like this will possess virtue, and good judgment, and action. Good luck is not synonymous with happiness. Happiness is the “being-at-work” of virtue (see Aristotle’s Metaphysics).
Although Aristotle elaborates extensively on how one ought to live in the Nicomachean Ethics, in the Politics he says: “For now, let this much be assumed: that the best way of life, both separately for each person and in common for cities, is one equipped with virtue to such an extent that one can take part in the actions that proceed from virtue” (1323 B 40 – 1324 A 1). Aristotle also leaves the door open for disputes against this claim.
It is commonly held that people happiness for a person is the same for a city. For example, if a person believes that a happy person is a wealthy person, then he will believe the same for a city. And the same goes for a tyrant, and an honorable person, and virtue, as well. How should a lawgiver lay down the law so that the city is in accord with virtue?
“The job of an excellent lawgiver is to study, for a city, a race of human beings, or any other association of people, how they can participate in a good life and in the happiness that is possible for them” (1325A 8-11). The job of a ruler on the other hand is “command and decision” (1326B 14).
Aristotle also discusses the ideal conditions of land and sea for military, naval, and self-sufficient (farming) purposes. He notes that peoples of the cold regions of Europe are spirited but lack thinking and art, so they are free but nonpolitical and incapable of ruling their neighbors. Conversely the Asian peoples have thinking and art, but lack spiritedness so they are constantly enslaved. Greece is right in the middle of the two. Both spiritedness and friendliness are key for the lawgiver to inculcate in the guardians.
For Aristotle, the best form of government extends to everyone who is part of the common life of the city, but not the people who produce necessities for the city. This is because leisure is required for virtue. Citizens should own property, serve in the military when young (for young people have power), serve in office-holding functions in middle age, and serve in a priestly function in old age.
There should be too distinct classes and everyone who owns property should have a piece that is owned by the city so they have a stake in the city’s defenses. Slaves should perform all the agricultural work but they should be offered a path to freedom.
A whole education should be considered that prepares citizens for both peace and war, business and leisure. For ancient cities that overemphasized education for war brought their cities to eventual disaster. Laws should concern themselves with bodily health: men should marry at age thirty-seven and women at age eighteen, and pregnant women should take daily walks and eat a healthy diet. Defective infants should be discarded and Aristotle provides a defense of abortion if a woman has already had a certain number of births. Adultery is discouraged and should be a bar from holding office. Aristotle closes Book VII by discussing the importance of infant care – young children should be exposed to noble and virtuous things so they may be most comfortable with these things.
Book VIII is one of the shorter books of the Politics, and in it Aristotle discusses the importance of education for citizenry. Civic education should look to develop free human beings. The best safeguard against any form of government lies in the character of its people. Gymnastic training is important, but Aristotle concludes with several chapters defending music against Socrates’s famous banishment in the Republic. This is a good reminder of Socrates desire to make a city that would sing in unison, while Aristotle views the goal of discussing the actual city as best when it brings to harmony the disparate parts of a city by means of education. Thus concludes the Politics.
For this close study of each book of Aristotle’s Politics I used the Joe Sachs translation.