Philosophy Practical Science: Ethics And Politics

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Practical Science: Ethics And Politics

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

G. R. G. Mure (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "Practical Man: Politics," in Aristotle, Ernest Benn Limited, 1932, pp. 157-62.

[In the following excerpt, Mure surveys Aristotle's Politics, asserting that Aristotle criticizes and completes the "broad outline of Platonic theory." Mure notes Aristotle's views on the role of the state, classes, and citizenship, and comments on the similarities and differences between Aristotle's and Plato's political philosophies.]

… Aristotle's Politics contains several sets of lectures, and some of them are fragmentary.1 But no other work of his displays more clearly the vast masses of fact which he mastered and analysed in order both to criticise and to complete the broad outline of Platonic theory. In history and politics he is as acute and comprehensive an observer as he is in the animal world. We can here only sketch his political views as a part of his whole system, but scarcely a chapter of the Politics has failed directly or indirectly to influence subsequent political thought.

We have already seen … that for Aristotle as for Plato the state exists by nature as the real prius of the individual, and that in consequence the main function of government is to promote the [endaimonia] of the citizens by making them virtuous: "Those may be expected to lead the best life who are governed in the best manner of which their circumstances admit" (Pol. [Politics] 1323a17).

Aristotle, like Plato, conceives political philosophy as normative, and the construction of an ideal state as an essential part of its task. He agrees too that in the ideal state the naturally better2 rules the naturally worse for the good—and the freedom—of the whole state. But he distinguishes sharply the statesman's activity from the philosopher's …, and he takes the view that Plato has over-simplified the structure of the state. To give to the state the unity of the sentient organism, which feels as its own the pains and pleasures of each several member, Plato had allowed no differentiation below the three classes of husbandmen, warriors, and rulers; and within the two latter classes he had abolished the family and private property as a menace to the loyalty of the citizen. In the Republic, justice, scarcely distinguished from friendship, culminates in a single [filia] in which love of self, kinsman, friend, and city is one undivided passion. Aristotle replies that the strength of love depends on limitation, and that the extension of family feeling to coincide with patriotism could only result in its proportionate dilution. The state is "a community of communities." Man takes to himself a wife and a slave, being fitted by nature to rule both of them; his wife as his delegate within the household, for she can deliberate; his slave, who can only obey, as "a living tool for the conduct of life," whose inferior natural function is to serve a master for their mutual benefit. Several families unite to form a village, several villages to constitute a state, which "comes to be for the sake of life, but is for the sake of the good life."3 The state is like all works of nature and man: its quantitative proportions must be precisely right. It must be neither too small to be self-sufficient, nor too great to be controlled: "Of an exceeding great multitude who shall be the general, or who the herald save a Stentor?" (ibid. 1236b5). The ideal territorial conditions can be determined accordingly.

The classes necessary to the proper functioning of the state are the serfs, the husbandmen, the mechanics, the traders, the warriors, the rich who bear costly public burdens, the rulers and officials, and the priests. But the warriors are those who are to become officials and rulers in middle age, and priests when they grow old; and they alone are to own the land. Hence the four latter classes, which are thus genetically one, are the sole organic parts of the state; the remainder, though they differ in degree of importance, are mere sine quibus non of the well-being of the...

(The entire section is 35,535 words.)