Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.