Aristotle’s treatise on politics is the essential work on political philosophy from classical antiquity. Since the death of Socrates, philosophy had to learn to conceal itself from the wayward opinions of the majority. People are biased and occasionally these biases are directed at people in an unenlightened way. Each age and political regime carries certain prejudices, but philosophy’s goal is to rise above particular prejudices in an effort to examine the nature of things -and this is a dangerous project to political life. Free inquiry is antithetical to the essentially religious nature of politics. In the ancient world there was no such thing as freedom of speech nor freedom of religion and so on. Thus, Socrates was condemned to die for impiety as well as for spreading his allegedly idle tricks to the youth of Athens. Therefore in an effort to continue the exploration of the best political regime (i.e. the pursuit of justice) philosophers are compelled to disguise their true convictions. Plato conceals himself behind a mask of poetry in dialogic form, while Aristotle takes another approach. We know Aristotle wrote some dialogues in his day, but what comes down are Aristotle’s extensive treatises.
In many of his treatises, Aristotle begins his texts by making large, declarative statements that generally reflect the established opinions of his day, but as the book proceeds, we soon discover that Aristotle has examined and broken apart those common opinions so that we may rise above what is common to see things from a higher perspective. And that is exactly what he does in his masterpiece, the Politics.
Book I of Aristotle’s Politics is devoted to distinguishing two different kinds of rule (which other writers confuse -presumably Plato and Xenophon), however the true meat of the text begins with a ‘new founding’ in Book III wherein the parts of the city are discussed, namely the citizens, as well as the four cardinal virtues (courage, moderation, prudence, and justice). Each of the cardinal virtues arise in Aristotle’s discussion of how to properly govern a household: not according to property, but rather according to virtue. At the outset, he claims that the best way to approach an examination of justice is to first examine
For Aristotle, the city is the highest expression of man’s political potential -it is small and distinct from a nation (ethnos) and further still from an empire. Perhaps most importantly, a city has limits. Readers of Aristotle cannot help but wonder what Aristotle would think of the nation state. Given his preference for a small, self-sufficient community which is in pursuit of virtue, Aristotle would likely find the modern nation state to be a hideous monstrosity. He follows from Plato’s lead in the Republic by analyzing the character of each regime (i.e. democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, republicanism and so on), though his preference comes to light for the rule of the ‘best of men’ -an aristocracy, or perhaps we might call it an aristocratic republic.
Curiously, in Aristotle the city is a naturally occurring organism for mankind because ‘man is a political animal,’ yet the city is also founded intentionally. The city does not occur automatically in the same way that herds of animals organize themselves. A city is founded on a vision of the good, on the idea of justice. Without the pursuit of justice, humans fall into hideous abuses because most of politics is about preventing the bad rather than pursuing the good. Aristotle does not hold an ‘optimistic’ view of human potential. The city, or any political association for that matter, arises out of several needs and desires: such as for humans to share with one another, for humans to derive meaning and purpose from their collective, and also out of a need for security and mutual benefit (which later becomes the primary justification for the modern political community from the so-called “state of nature” writers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau). The human political community begins as a naturally paternalistic embryo: it begins with the family, or the household. A family is ruled by two parents (contra popular opinion, Aristotle exoterically critiques the idea of full equality between men and women, while esoterically he cites ‘the poets’ with a quote from Sophocles’s Ajax in which Ajax goes mad while his wife attempts to reason with him).
At any rate, for Aristotle the household relies on slavery -a kind of natural slave who is deficient intellectually. He accepts a natural hierarchy among beings -some are better suited to lead, some are better suited to follow. A slave is someone incapable of ruling himself for Aristotle. The notion of ancient natural hierarchies is foreign to the modern mind as productive machinery and the firm belief in democratic values has overcome the desire for hierarchical order (this optimism has soured into skepticism in our present day).
The chief insight we gain in reading Book III of Aristotle’s Politics is an awareness of the immense complexity in determining the city in motion. A city, or politics, is rife with inconsistencies and tensions. Who speaks for the city -the revolutionaries? The leaders? How shall we characterize an existing regime? Who belongs to the city? Who is a citizen? Aristotle suggests the citizen is one who truly and fully engages in the decision-making and office of the city. Each citizen pursues his own interests, the rule of his household, while also seeking for the common good. Similarly each competing regime (i.e. democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, aristocracy and so on) believes it is pursuing the common good. Every regime claims to be just. Perhaps in some ways like Herodotus, Aristotle begins by posing a fundamental question about political life, he then answers that question with common opinions, and then puzzles the reader by presenting other conflicting common opinions. Dialectically, the conflict or disagreement leads the reader to a higher perspective regarding the problematic nature of politics.
At any rate, returning briefly to the inquiry about citizenry, Aristotle asks who the truly fulfilled citizen is: he discusses the democrat, the oligarch and so on. Ultimately, Aristotle suggests a certain level of praise for the remote contemplative life -the philosophic life. He offers a certain praise that is consistent with the Jeffersonian ideal -a rural republic of farmers who pursue an honorable life and the offices of governance are not desirable because the offices do not offer financial incentives. Active engagement in political life is not necessarily preferable for Aristotle: a life of leisure (the word leisure here means something akin to serious intellectual work, coupled with laborious daily work for business or personal reasons -it is different from idle oligarchs or overworked peasants). The Politics comes to light as a book that inspires politically inquisitive minds in all places and times: it is a trans-civic work of inspiration and inquiry.
This essay was heavily influenced by Thomas Pangle and Timothy Burns and their writings on “Aristotle’s Politics” in their book The Key Texts of Political Philosophy.