Aristotle’s Politics combines description with judgments about the ideal political community. Its eight separate books make up a work that, most scholars insist, was never intended to be one finished product. There is debate about the ordering of the existing books. However, in spite of the work’s variety, several dominant themes and interests prevail throughout. One theme is the characteristic Aristotelian stress on the purposive quality of political life—the view that a state, like any other entity in nature, has a nature understandable in terms of a purpose. Consequently, one cannot properly determine the nature of citizenship unless one first knows what, in general and particular, the state is established to accomplish. Another, yet related, theme concerns the way in which political life is viewed as an important, organized means to the ethical development of its members. Though the state is logically prior to the individual, according to Aristotle, its purpose centers in the production of the maximum human good. The Politics presupposes the ethical teachings found in Aristotle’s famous work on ethical life. The primary question for Aristotle is not whether people will act politically—because it is their natures so to act—but rather whether they will act well.

Aristotle’s insistence on the natural basis of human political activity accounts for his central concern with the proper education of the state’s citizens. Learning is induced by nature, habit, and reason. Education can influence habit and reason by modifying natural capacities, directing them to selected ends or kinds of action. Aristotle’s conception of the way in which human ethical capacities develop affects what he says about human political roles. Two broad classes of ethical facts exist—one of them moral, the other intellectual. These classes are interdependent. The moral virtues are learned. They result from habitual kinds of conduct. The morally virtuous person performs acts according to a rational mean between extremes of excess and deficiency that require prudential judgments in specific contexts demanding action. The chief aim of the moral virtues is action rather than contemplation, doing rather than theorizing. Political activity expresses the range of virtuous actions insofar as human beings must live in associations and devote attention to the family and to the public affairs of a commonwealth.

Citizenship and the State

The matter of what makes good citizenship possible is a complicated one. Good citizenship must occur in relation to some actually existing state, of which there may be different kinds. Thus, there can be “good” citizens of “bad” states. Good citizenship need not coincide with human goodness. A good citizen of a bad state will acquire a character that produces acts foreign to the character of the morally good person. Although Aristotle preferred a state that encouraged moral activity on the part of its members, he showed sufficient realism to recognize the possibility of a wide range of states and to admit that citizenship exists as a function of the end sought after by any actually existing state. Aware of the conditions needed to produce an ideal state, Aristotle nevertheless wanted also to describe and to classify existing and possible types of political units.

Aristotle’s sense of the variety of political possibilities becomes clear in his criticisms of Plato’s utopian scheme sketched so brilliantly in the latter’s Politeia (middle period dialogue, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701). Aristotle disagrees with Plato’s abolition of private property and his advocacy of social communism of wives and children. Aristotle insists that Plato’s recommendations are wrong in terms of both their end and their means. There can be too great a unity in any existing state. Plato’s political thought wrongfully sought after an impossible kind of unity in suggesting...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

The Types of States

Like Plato, Aristotle claims that there are three broad types of states, each possessing a corresponding possible perversion. The so-called “good” types are monarchy, aristocracy, and polity. The corresponding perversions (or so-called “bad” types) of these are tyranny, oligarchy, and radical democracy. By “radical democracy,” Aristotle means a state that permits an absolutely unrestricted suffrage and the right of all, without qualification, to hold office.

This classificatory scheme hides a great complexity, especially of degree, because Aristotle thinks both monarchy and aristocracy allow for at least five possible forms. The classification also contains puzzles. One is that though oligarchy is listed as a possible perversion of aristocracy, Aristotle indicates that the best state (practically, though not ideally) is a polity. A polity is defined as a state that mixes rule by the rich with rule by the poor. Ideally, then, a polity requires existence of a significantly entrenched middle class, whose interests moderate the extremes and receive furtherance through the state’s machinery. A polity therefore requires a constitution that expresses elements of oligarchical interests.

To achieve a balance between oligarchy and democracy is difficult because each type of state emphasizes a different end. Oligarchy rests on the assumption that people’s political rights ought not to be equal but rather based proportionately on their...

(The entire section is 409 words.)


The need of continuity and stability in a state receives ample recognition in Aristotle’s Politics. Yet all political systems are subject to revolutions. Existing forms of government share two general aims, “an acknowledgment of justice and proportionate equality.” People fail to translate these aims of government into adequate practice, producing conditions from which revolutions spring. In one example, Aristotle shows how the democrats’ emphasis on equality leads them to think that people are equal in all things, while the oligarches’ insistence on human inequality spurs them to claim too much for themselves. In any state in which both equalities and inequalities fail to receive proper balancing, hardened parties tend to arise that encourage revolution on behalf of a more thorough realization of their own partial interests. The citizens possessing the highest right to rebel—people who stand out for their virtuous conduct—are those who, by their nature, seem least willing to take part in rebellions.

A student of revolutions needs to understand, first, the general feeling or attitude of those who rebel; second, the specific motivation of any rebellion (its objects); and third, the immediate factors that cause the rebellion. In all revolutions, a general cause exists in the desire for equality. This leads inferiors to revolt in hopes of attaining equality. It also causes people who are genuinely capable to rebel to achieve...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Public Officers

The analysis of the causes of revolutions leads Aristotle to consider how constitutions may be preserved. Obedience to the spirit of existing law requires planned defense in any moderately stable state. Such obedience extends even to small matters. Like Plato, Aristotle shows suspicion of alteration when he writes that “men should guard against the beginning of change.” This remark shows that despite his awareness of variety, Aristotle adopted a conservative political stance. In democracies, offices should rotate frequently; and a number of institutions are required in cases where the governing class is numerous. Aristotle advocates a fairly wide personal participation in government. He wrote for a small Greek city-state, limited in territory and numbers. For this reason, many of his observations about participation in governing seem irrelevant or foreign to modern states whose extensive territories require an underpinning of bureaucratic machinery. Aristotle makes clear, however, that magistrates and others who perform public offices should never make money. Public service should exist as a self-justifying activity of the virtuous citizen.

The moral tone of much of Aristotle’s treatment of politics is apparent in his recommendations about the qualifications of those who wish to hold office in the state. In each existing state, office holders must show loyalty to the contents of the constitution. They must also possess administrative abilities of a...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Forming an Ideal State

In the final portion of the Politics (books 7 and 8), Aristotle discusses the way in which to form an ideal state as well as the educational practices necessary for its maintenance, once established. The treatment of these issues depends upon Aristotle’s conception of human nature. The human soul contains an element that is subservient to a rational principle of control. This is the desiring aspect of human nature that is amenable to command and persuasion. Each person also possesses a unique capacity for rational comprehension. The best life, in Aristotle’s view, is that which combines action with contemplation. Happy people will enjoy external goods, goods of the body, and spiritual (intellectual) goods in some...

(The entire section is 640 words.)


Additional Reading

Ackrill, J. L. Essays on Plato and Aristotle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. This work contains important and insightful reflections on two of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy.

Adler, Mortimer J. Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy. New York: Scribner’s 1997. A reliable interpreter provides an account that introduces Aristotle’s thought in accessible fashion.

Bar On, Bat-Ami, ed. Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato and Aristotle. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Feminist...

(The entire section is 683 words.)