The Teaching of Aristotle’s Politics

It was once said, in an uncommon fashion, that Aristotle’s Politics contains the “coherent and comprehensive understanding of political things;” or the pre-scientific (i.e. pre-modern natural and social science) understanding of political things. Yet it is still the text upon which modern natural and social science are also dependent (and the text which they react against). Therefore, any understanding of the present-day sciences, as they attempt to distinguish between facts and values, requires an understanding of Aristotle’s Politics.

In Leo Strauss’s The City and Man, his book contains three essays: on Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Republic, and Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War. He begins the book not chronologically by relative publication date, but rather with his essay on Aristotle’s Politics which opens with the phrase: “According to the traditional view;” then his essay on Plato’s Republic which begins with “generally speaking;” and his third and final essay focuses on Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War which begins in the middle of things “turning” from the hypothetical noble city into the clamor the actual city in motion. For Strauss, Aristotle writes from the traditional viewpoint, Plato delivers the general account, and Thucydides gives an account of action (or the city in motion).

First, it was Cicero who claimed that Socrates called philosophy down from the heavens and brought it into the cities. In Cicero’s distinction between heaven, or the divine things, and the city, there is no account of Socrates bringing divine things down for the sake of the earth or to please divinities. The divine things are supra-human. Humans rely on divinity, but divinities do not need man. In Ciceronian terms these divine things are “natural” -a part of the cosmos. Thus the Socratic reorientation is also natural, since turning our attention to the study of human things is also the study of nature. Compulsion is required to make philosophy return to the study of human things from which it departed. Compulsion is the Socratic act, for philosophy appears ridiculous to some people, but political philosophy appears ridiculous to many people. So, as Pascal mentions, Plato and Aristotle wrote playfully about the topic of political philosophy, concealing their innermost convictions behind irony. For a distinction between nature (physis) and convention (nomos) we need only turn to the Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws, who claims there is a natural justice, or natural right and natural law. One view holds that convention’s only justification for its existence is simply that it is held by accident. Another view holds that causal determinism ensures that convention is pre-determined and necessary. But this view is not relevant unless someone clearly demonstrates the preceding causes that allowed for a particular convention to arise (i.e. flora, fauna, geography, climate and so on). One can either accept the determined goodness of all conventions and all legislators, or on the other hand find fault in the legislator for his particular biases or errors in superstitions. However, this view requires intimate knowledge of the common good and well-being of people. This problem led certain philosophers to posit the development of conventions as some kind of “growth” and this led further to a kind of progressive theology as advanced in Hegel, in which history comes into conflict with nature, in that history even comprehends nature, but it is essentially relative to the historical mind. The Athenian Stranger, in contrast, acknowledges some kind of natural justice. To him the soul is the ruler of the body, while the sophists claim justice is akin to rhetoric, or tyranny.

“The status of the just things depends on the status of the soul. Justice is the common good par excellence; if there are to be things which are by nature just there must be things which are by nature common; but the body appears to be by nature each one’s own private. Aristotle goes to the end of this road by asserting that the political association is by nature and that man is by nature political because he is best characterized by speech or reason and thus capable of the most perfect, the most intimate union with his fellows which is possible: the union in pure thought” (The City and Man 16-17).

At the outset, Aristotle appears to locate the origins of political philosophy with one lawgiver, Hippodamus, who clearly and simply laid out his city by clear numerical divisions (10,000 people and three parts). However, on closer inspection, Aristotle notes Hippodamus’s confusion over never addressing the prior philosophic question of “What is political?” or “What is the polis?” This question is a comprehensive noetic question that is not reductionist and also forces comparison among and between other causes par excellence. They are the “first in themselves” essences of things which are revealed in men’s opinions, and those opinions reveal an order which ranks the highest and most authoritative opinions as pronouncements of law. “The law makes manifest the just and noble things and it speaks authoritatively about the highest beings, the gods who dwell in heaven” (20). Aristotle, like Socrates, must cautiously transcend from the commonly held opinions (nomos meaning law or custom) and ascend to knowledge and nature. The wisest man cannot escape the transcending which gives a mere glimpse of the whole, but only knowledge of parts, whereas modern natural and social science is aware of the elusiveness of knowledge of the whole, and so they abandon the question altogether in favor of other questions.

Whereas Plato writes dialogues that demonstrate these conflicts, Aristotle presents his works in the form of treatises, intended to instruct future rulers and lawgivers, however it is no accident that the most fundamental discussion of the Politics is a discussion between the oligarch and the democrat (Book III, Aristotle’s Politics 1281a).

A second problem with Hippodamus is his connection between the arts and law, whereas Aristotle notes the fundamentally progressive character to the arts (i.e. technological refinement) while custom comes into being over an extended time period. The law is buttressed by ancient accounts of gods, a “civil theology,” that is not reliant upon reason (also hence why the sophistic reduction of politics to rhetoric is absurd). There are natural slaves, as well (people only capable of being ruled) who are persuaded by compulsion not reason. The best life is devoted to contemplation, as distinguished from the practical or political life. Aristotle keeps himself within the boundaries of nomos without justifying a need or origin (recall the opening lines of Leo Strauss’s essay). Prudence is key to his teaching, hence why Plato and Aristotle teach that virtue is knowledge.

Aristotle’s teaching is of the common sense of the Greek upper class. The highest good of the individual and the city is happiness. The core of happiness is the practice of modern virtue. Now, this is different from modern notions of happiness. The moderns understand there to be a difference “state” and “society” while the ancients understood the state and society as one: the city. And modern happiness varies from person to person. The chief role of the state is to provide the conditions for modern man to pursue happiness in whatever way he sees fit. This is the modern political right. Happiness is private and the goals of the individual and political society are essentially different. The state is essentially indifferent to private virtue and vice, providing a public marketplace, as in the city of pigs in Plato’s Republic.

Book III contains Aristotle’s most fundamental teaching and in it he proceeds (without accident) with an account of democratic origins, and then an account of citizens. The first citizen that occurs to him is a democrat. Democracy appears to be the rule of all, unlike aristocracy or oligarchy, but it is in fact a rule by a part: the majority. It so happens that in most cities the majority is not wealthy so democracy becomes a rule of the poor. Nevertheless he appears to lay the groundwork for an argument in favor of democracy. However, it is a kind of democracy that is foreign to the modern conception of democracy, which presupposes a purely rational society achieved by universal enlightenment. It replaces the distinction between nature and convention with a distinction between nature and history.

On the contrary, Aristotle accepts a natural hierarchy among men. Some men are meant to be ruled, and others rulers. Democracy even presupposes this hierarchy, as elections are a kind of meritocracy. Political inequality is justified by natural inequality. Similarly there is inequality among men of moral virtue in Aristotle. This is distinct from Rousseau’s admission of natural inequality that becomes replaced and enforced by a social contract of conventional equality. In Aristotle, the city is sufficiently justified by meeting the needs of men at every rank and station. It is the natural extension and inclination of man’s striving toward excellence. It is the avenue by which men may achieve happiness, in contemplation of the whole by means of reason or speech. It presupposes a natural harmony between the human mind and the whole, while the modern project sees man as uniquely separate from nature, indeed even the “conqueror” of nature. At any rate, the happy man and the happy city is rare in Aristotle, seemingly the result of chance at first glance. All men’s lives are meant for the end of human excellence, while the modern philosopher retorts that the end of man is freedom; a coerced and highly “not-natural” freedom.

The theme of the Politics is the politeia (the “regime”) or the form of the political association. This theme appears at the beginning of each book, except the first book, whose task is to establish the uniqueness of the city as distinct from a household (contra Plato and Xenophon) and that it is a natural association, rather than an arbitrary or wanton unnatural association. By his third book, he has begun discussing citizens -the truth of the good citizen versus the good person. This leads Aristotle toward a discussion of the ends of a regime, which is looking toward human excellence, but rather than changing its form, the entire regime may change depending upon the character of its people, and the loyalty of the people to the country and the regime by means of a constitution. The transformation from one regime to another only happens in a state of decay. The principle of legitimacy for a regime is not natural law or the divine right of kings and so on, but rather it is justice as understood through the lens of a particular regime: justice understood democratically, justice understood oligarchically, justice understood aristocratically and so on.

“This is to say, every political society derives its character from a specific public or political morality, from what it regards as publicly defensible, and this means from what the preponderant part of society (not necessarily the majority) regards as just” (48).

We must see the city in light of a variety of regimes, and a variety of public moralities. This viewpoint (the viewpoint of the political man) gives rise to the question of the best regime – the central question of Aristotle’s Politics – but this subject is better discussed on another occasion. The highest end of man is happiness, which for the individual is contemplation. The highest end of man is supra-political, and trans political. Man transcends the city only by what is best in him. The same holds true (in Aristotle) for the city, as well. The highest end for the city is happiness as contemplation, though this is merely an analogue for the best life of the human mind which transcends higher than any mere city, thus the natural tension between the city and man has been exposed (as the greatest city may only exist in “speech” a la Plato) and the best possible city will fulfill man’s happiness, not merely the ‘pursuit of happiness’ however relatively understood.

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

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