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.
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...
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