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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.
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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...
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state. Plato’s political thought wrongfully sought after an impossible kind of unity in suggesting abolition of property and the private family. Such recommendations could never lead, as means, to the minimal unity any state requires. They would increase the chances of dissension in the state. Aristotle argues that differentiation of functions is a law of nature—that things actually differ. Political philosophers must accept this fact and not seek to alter the unalterable.
In Nomoi (last period dialogue, 360-347 b.c.e.; Laws, 1804), written later than the Republic, Plato softened some earlier political suggestions by abandoning his theory of social communism. Aristotle also criticizes the Laws on several grounds: It fails to discuss foreign relations; it makes new states too large in territory; and it fails to limit property, population, or the respective roles of ruler and subject. Just as Aristotle insists that philosophers must never seek greater certainty in ethics than the subject-matter permits, so he argues that the political philosopher must recognize that judgments must conform to an inevitable relativity in types of political systems. “Since there are many forms of government,” Aristotle asserts in book 3 of Politics, “there must be many varieties of citizens, and especially of citizens who are subjects.” Nevertheless, he agrees with Plato that the best states—however specialized the functions of their citizens—seek the common interests of all.
When Aristotle describes existing states of his own day and age, he mentions the three that he considers best: Sparta, Crete, and Carthage. During his lifetime, Aristotle also directed a study of the various constitutions, showing his interest in the empirical details of political life. Yet his empirically minded studies never paralyzed his independent judgments about the values of what he studied. Thus, Aristotle pointed out that Sparta was fit only for conducting war; the Cretan state was too narrowly a rule of the rich (oligarchy) whose cities remained safe only because of their accidental geographical inaccessibility; and the Carthaginian state relied on a policy of emigration to keep down domestic insurrection. The best existing states fail to measure up to what is possible. Aristotle realized that a description of what exists politically need not suffice either as a basis for classifying possible type of states or as a means of making clear the nature of an ideal state. In various portions of his Politics, he devotes attention to such matters.
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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 possession of wealth. Democracy stresses human equality—that each shall count as one in political affairs. Neither is absolutely correct. Virtue stands as the sole general aim of statecraft, meaning that any form of political organization that produces virtuous conduct is politically justifiable. Aristotle understood that polity results from a compromise. It involves a mixed constitution. Polities may come into being in several different ways, but their constitutions must find a mean that mingles some property qualifications with offices open to lot or election. Aristotle’s comments about the value of a polity result, in part, from his unwillingness to consider absolute kingship the best political unit. Admitting that an absolute king who rules according to the spirit of law produces an excellent model for governing, Aristotle suggests that the rule of law receives less abuse if reserved for many citizens. He objects to monarchy because, in his estimation, it evolved as a response to the problems of a primitive social order. Monarchy often becomes simply hereditary. Its additional weaknesses are that it is subject to the passions of a single man and that no king can adequately handle all the affairs of ruling.
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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 superiority over those who are in fact not their equals. The motivation for rebellion centers around “the desire of gain and honour, or the fear of dishonour and loss; the authors of them want to divert punishment or dishonour from themselves or their friends.” Other causes play important roles. These causes of revolution include contempt, fear, insolence, a disproportionate increase in some aspect of the state, and excessive superiority. Other kinds of causes of rebellion include intrigues at elections, unjust differences in the elements in the state, lack of care, and neglect of trivial issues over a period of time.
What causes an actual revolution depends often on the type of constitution involved. For example, Aristotle claims that democracies usually enter revolutionary times because of the demagogic intemperance of the leaders. Oligarchic states must guard against revolution-producing causes of two kinds—severe oppression of the people and personal political rivalries between important oligarches in the state. Revolutions occur in aristocratic states when too few qualify for honors and in constitutional states when the constitution itself permits lack of justice. Aristotle insists that mixed constitutions that lean toward the democratic possess, in general, the greatest stability.
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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 high order and express the kind of virtue that their particular state requires. In the case of democratic governments, Aristotle never makes clear how office holding by lot or election can guarantee that able administrators will rule. He does insist that only those who are citizens can qualify for office, and he excludes from the citizen body slaves and mechanics. Aristotle shares the cultural prejudices of his own age when he confines the virtues of the governing class (the citizen body) to the well-born and the aristocratic.
A reliance on common sense runs throughout the Politics. Aristotle realizes that, once the purposes of governing are understood in principle, any state requires the practical wisdom of sound leadership. Individuals must apply their knowledge of principles to specific situations. At this point, the art of governing passes beyond the sphere of scientific prediction and control. Indeed, Aristotle makes clear that each and every form of state is subject to change and possible revolution, including the most tyrannically controlled states. He also indicates an unusual sensitivity to the ways in which any political form—say, democracy—must adapt itself to the special geographical and cultural circumstances with which it must in practice operate.
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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 appropriate proportion. Goods of the soul exist as that to which the other goods are a necessary and enjoyable means. Individuals and states need sufficient external goods to permit the pursuit of virtue and happiness. Aristotle treats such a view as axiomatic, beyond argument.
To the question of which is the more preferable, the life of a philosopher or that of a statesman, Aristotle’s answer is that political activity is not degrading, though political power can never stand as the highest good. Aristotle claims that natural capacities, developed in a proper order, can lead to the realization of the philosopher’s ideal of wisdom. An important aspect of Aristotle’s attitude toward the functions of political philosophizing is the manner in which he relates its aims to common sense. The political philosopher acts not so much like the scientific theorist, discovering new theories, as like the practical person who rediscovers the applicability of rules evolved in the history of political communities.
When he discusses the formation of an ideal state, Aristotle considers a small state. Its population and territory must be controlled. There must be a sufficient economic base to make the state self-sufficient. Agricultural workers, mechanics (artisans), and men of commerce are excluded from the body of the citizens. Slaves possess no rights at all. Only soldiers, priests, and rulers qualify for the rights of citizenship. These groups alone own land. Each citizen, in addition, should perform the functions of soldiering, act as priest, and rule at different periods in life. A hard distinction should hold between rulers (citizens) and subjects (noncitizens). In addition, in any ideally formed state, attention is given to the city’s planning from the standpoints of utility and beauty.
Education functions to perpetuate the state. Potential citizens learn to obey in order later to know how to rule. The legislative body of the state holds responsibility for the education of the citizens. The aim again is the production of the good person. The humanistic aim of well-rounded human development is emphasized. Physical fitness is encouraged to stimulate practical and contemplative efforts. The legislative body exercises a moral watchfulness over the content of the music and tales heard by the potential citizens. Legislators control the age of marriage, determine the physical requirements of parentage, decide when exposure takes place (the Greek practice of putting infants out to die), and oversee the duration of existing marriages. These educational arrangements serve, for Aristotle, as necessary ingredients in the political perpetuation of the state.
The lasting features of Aristotle’s Politics are its emphasis on the moral justification of a state and the way in which the philosopher accepts the inevitability of a wide range of existing states. Through the work also runs a firm defense of common sense as the touchstone of all political philosophizing. Aristotle attempted to make sense out of politics rather than to impress individuals by proffering complicated theories. There can be no blueprint guiding the statesman’s prudential judgments. Aristotle’s classical work has inspired people in different times and places when political events have forced them to seek sanity rather than drama in their political thought.
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Bar On, Bat-Ami, ed. Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato and Aristotle. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Feminist perspectives are brought to bear on Aristotle’s philosophy in significant ways.
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Barnes, Jonathan, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. An excellent guide to Aristotle’s thought, which features significant essays on major aspects of his work.
Broadie, Sarah. Ethics with Aristotle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. This carefully done book concentrates on Aristotle’s ethical theory and its implications.
Brumbaugh, Robert S. The Philosophers of Greece. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981. An introductory study that discusses Aristotle’s philosophy within the larger context of the Greek world.
Cooper, John M. Reason and Human Good in Aristotle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. Cooper’s book is a study of the “theoretical backbone” of Aristotle’s moral philosophy—his theories of practical reasoning and of human happiness.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. A leading scholar of Western philosophy discusses Aristotle’s life as well as his logic, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.
Edel, Abraham. Aristotle and His Philosophy. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1996. A careful and helpful study by a veteran interpreter of Western thought.
Ferguson, John. Aristotle. Boston: Twayne, 1972. Assisting the general reader in the study of Aristotle’s works, this book discusses Aristotle’s life and his views about nature and psychology and also offers perspectives on Aristotle’s lasting influence.
Hughes, Gerard J. Aristotle on Ethics. New York: Routledge, 2001. A fresh introduction to the philosopher, refining the translation of Arstotle’s terms with a sensitivity to context.
Husain, Martha. Ontology and the Art of Tragedy: An Approach to Aristotle’s Poetics. Albany: State University of New York, 2001. An examination of the Poetics using Metaphysics as a touchstone. Husain demonstrates the relationship between the works and how the latter illuminates the former.
Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: The Classical Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. Combines historical interpretation of Aristotle’s far-reaching thought with relevant readings from Aristotle’s writings.
Kenny, Anthony. Aristotle on the Perfect Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. This work focuses on Aristotle’s views about human nature, ethics, and politics.
Lear, Jonathan. Aristotle and Logical Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. A detailed study of Aristotle’s views on logic and their continuing significance for understanding human reasoning.
McLeisch, Kenneth. Aristotle. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.
Mulgan, R. G. Aristotle’s Political Theory: An Introduction for Students of Political Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977. Seeks to bring the major themes and arguments in Aristotle’s political theory into sharper focus than they appear in the Politics itself.
Randall, John Herman, Jr. Aristotle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. An older but reliable survey of Aristotle’s philosophy.
Robinson, Timothy A. Aristotle in Outline. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1995. Accessible to beginning students, this clearly written survey covers Aristotle’s full range of thought.
Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg, ed. Essays on Aristotle’s ‘Ethics.’ Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. An important collection of essays that concentrates on various facets of Aristotle’s influential moral philosophy.
Smith, Thomas W. Revaluing “Ethics”: Aristotle’s Dialectical Pedagogy. Albany: State University of New York, 2001. Smith argues for a reading of Ethics, not as a moral guidebook, but as a pedagogy—course work—for developing a questioning mind.
Strathern, Paul. Aristotle in Ninety Minutes. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1996. A brief, easily accessible, introductory overview of Aristotle’s philosophy.