Aristotle’s Political Theory
The modern word ‘political’ derives from the Greek politikos, ‘of, or pertaining to, the polis’. (The Greek term polis will be translated here as ‘city-state’. It is also translated as ‘city’ or ‘polis’, or simply anglicized as ‘polis’. City-states like Athens and Sparta were relatively small and cohesive units, in which political, religious, and cultural concerns were intertwined. The extent of their similarity to modern nation-states is controversial.) Aristotle’s word for ‘politics’ is politikê, which is short for politikê epistêmê or ‘political science’. It belongs to one of the three main branches of science, which Aristotle distinguishes by their ends or objects. Contemplative science (including physics and metaphysics) is concerned with truth or knowledge for its own sake; practical science with good action; and productive science with making useful or beautiful objects (Top. VI.6.145a14-16, Met. VI.1.1025b24, XI.7.1064a16-19, EN VI.2.1139a26-8). Politics is a practical science, since it is concerned with the noble action or happiness of the citizens (although it resembles a productive science in that it seeks to create, preserve, and reform political systems.) Aristotle thus understands politics as a normative or prescriptive discipline rather than as a purely empirical or descriptive inquiry.
In Nicomachean Ethics I.2 Aristotle characterizes politics as the most authoritative science. It prescribes which sciences are to be studied in the city-state, and the other capacities — such as military science, household management, and rhetoric — fall under its authority. Since it governs the other practical sciences, their ends serve as means to its end, which is nothing less than the human good. "Even if the end is the same for an individual and for a city-state, that of the city-state seems at any rate greater and more complete to attain and preserve. For although it is worthy to attain it for only an individual, it is nobler and more divine to do so for a nation or city-state." (EN I.2.1094b7-10) Aristotle’s political science encompasses the two fields which modern philosophers distinguish as ethics and political philosophy. (See the entry on Aristotle’s ethics.) Political philosophy in the narrow sense is roughly speaking the subject of his treatise called the Politics.
Characteristics and Problems of Aristotle’s Politics
The work which has come down to us under this name appears to be less an integrated treatise than a collection of essays on various topics in political philosophy, which may have been compiled by a later editor rather than by Aristotle. The following topics are discussed in the eight books:
I Naturalness of the city-state and of the household
II Critique of ostensibly best constitutions
III General theory of constitutions
IV Inferior constitutions
V Preservation and destruction of constitutions
VI Further discussion of democracy and oligarchy
VII-VIII Blueprint of the best constitution
This ordering of the books reflects, very roughly, the program for the study of constitutions which concludes the Nicomachean Ethics:
First, then, if any particular point has been treated well by those who have gone before us, we must try to review it; then from the constitutions that have been collected we must try to see what it is that preserves and destroys each of the constitutions, and for what reasons some city-states are well governed and others the reverse. For when these things have been examined, we will perhaps better understand what sort of constitution is best, and how each is structured, and which laws and customs it uses. Let us then begin our discussion. [X.9.1181b15-23]
However, scholars have raised problems with the Politics as we have it. The first concerns the intended order of its eight books. Some (including W. L. Newman) have questioned the traditional ordering, arguing that the discussion of the best constitution (books VII-VIII) should follow directly after book III. Indeed, book III concludes with a transition to a discussion of the best constitution (although this may be due to a later editor). However, cross-references between various passages of the Politics indicate that books IV-V-VI form a connected series, as do books VII-VIII, but these series do not refer to each other. However, both series refer back to book III which in turn refers to book I. With some oversimplification, the Politics is comparable to a tree trunk supporting two separate branches: the root system is I, the trunk is II-III, and the branches are IV-V-VI and VII-VIII. (The summary in Nicomachean Ethics X.9 describes only the visible part of the tree.)
The second problem concerns the order in which the books were actually written. If they were composed at very different dates, they might represent discordant stages in the development of Aristotle’s political philosophy. For example, Werner Jaeger argued that books VII-VIII contain a youthful utopianism, motivating Aristotle to emulate his teacher Plato in erecting "an ideal state by logical construction." In contrast, books IV-VI are based on "sober empirical study." Other scholars have seen a more pragmatic, even Machiavellian approach to politics in books IV-VI. A difficulty for this interpretation is that in book IV Aristotle regards the business of constructing ideal constitutions as perfectly compatible with that of addressing actual political problems. Although much ink has been spilled since Jaeger attempted to discern different chronological strata in the Politics, it has not resulted in a clear scholarly consensus. Because there is no explicit evidence of the dates at which the various books of the Politics were written, argument has turned on alleged inconsistencies between different passages.
This leads to the third problem, whether there are major inconsistencies of doctrine or method in the Politics. For example, Aristotle’s account of the best constitution assumes his theory of justice, a moral standard which cannot be met by the actual political systems (democracies and oligarchies) of his own day. He does discuss practical political reforms in books IV-VI but more in terms of stability than justice. This raises the question of whether books IV-VI mark a radical departure from the political philosophy of the other books. Resolution of this problem requires careful study of the Politics as a whole.
Political science studies the tasks of the politician or statesman (politikos), in much the way that medical science concerns the work of the physician (see Politics IV.1). It is, in fact, the body of knowledge that such practitioners, if truly expert, will also wield in pursuing their tasks. The most important task for the politician is, in the role of lawgiver (nomothetês), to frame the appropriate constitution for the city-state. This involves enduring laws, customs, and institutions (including a system of moral education) for the citizens. Once the constitution is in place, the politician needs to take the appropriate measures to maintain it, to introduce reforms when he finds them necessary, and to prevent developments which might subvert the political system. This is the province of legislative science, which Aristotle regards as more important than politics as exercised in everyday political activity such as the passing of decrees (see EN VI.8).
Aristotle frequently compares the politician to a craftsman. The analogy is imprecise because politics, in the strict sense of legislative science, is a form of practical knowledge, while a craft like architecture or medicine is a form of productive knowledge. However, the comparison is valid to the extent that the politician produces, operates, maintains a legal system according to universal principles (EN VI.8 and X.9). In order to appreciate this analogy it is helpful to observe that Aristotle explains production of an artifact in terms of four causes: the material, formal, efficient, and final causes (Phys. II.3 and Met. A.2). For example, clay (material cause) is molded into a vase shape (formal cause) by a potter (efficient or moving cause) so that it can contain liquid (final cause). (For discussion of the four causes see the entry on Aristotle’s physics.)
One can also explain the existence of the city-state in terms of the four causes. It is a kind of community (koinônia), that is, a collection of parts having some functions and interests in common (Pol. II.1.1261a18, III.1.1275b20). Hence, it is made up of parts, which Aristotle describes in various ways in different contexts: as households, or economic classes (e.g., the rich and the poor), or demes (i.e., local political units). But, ultimately, the city-state is composed of individual citizens (see III.1.1274a38-41), who, along with natural resources, are the "material" or "equipment" out of which the city-state is fashioned (see VII.14.1325b38-41).
The formal cause of the city-state is its constitution (politeia). Aristotle defines the constitution as "a certain ordering of the inhabitants of the city-state" (III.1.1274b32-41). He also speaks of the constitution of a community as "the form of the compound" and argues that whether the community is the same over time depends on whether it has the same constitution (III.3.1276b1-11). The constitution is not a written document, but an immanent organizing principle, analogous to the soul of an organism. Hence, the constitution is also "the way of life" of the citizens (IV.11.1295a40-b1, VII.8.1328b1-2). Here the citizens are that minority of the resident population who are adults with full political rights.
The existence of the city-state also requires an efficient cause, namely, its ruler. On Aristotle’s view, a community of any sort can possess order only if it has a ruling element or authority. This ruling principle is defined by the constitution, which sets criteria for political offices, particularly the sovereign office (III.6.1278b8-10; cf. IV.1.1289a15-18). However, on a deeper level, there must be an efficient cause to explain why a city-state acquires its constitution in the first place. Aristotle states that "the person who first established [the city-state] is the cause of very great benefits" (I.2.1253a30-1). This person was evidently the lawgiver (nomothetês), someone like Solon of Athens or Lycurgus of Sparta, who founded the constitution. Aristotle compares the lawgiver, or the politician more generally, to a craftsman (dêmiourgos) like a weaver or shipbuilder, who fashions material into a finished product (II.12.1273b32-3, VII.4.1325b40-1365a5).
The notion of final cause dominates Aristotle’s Politics from the opening lines:
Since we see that every city-state is a sort of community and that every community is established for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they believe to be good), it is clear that every community aims at some good, and the community which has the most authority of all and includes all the others aims highest, that is, at the good with the most authority. This is what is called the city-state or political community. [I.1.1252a1-7]
Soon after, he states that the city-state comes into being for the sake of life but exists for the sake of the good life (2.1252b29-30). The theme that the good life or happiness is the proper end of the city-state recurs throughout the Politics (III.6.1278b17-24, 9.1280b39; VII.2.1325a7-10).
To sum up, the city-state is a hylomorphic (i.e., matter-form) compound of a particular population (i.e., citizen-body) in a given territory (material cause) and a constitution (formal cause). The constitution itself is fashioned by the lawgiver and is governed by politicians, who are like craftsmen (efficient cause), and the constitution defines the aim of the city-state (final cause, IV.1.1289a17-18).
Presuppositions of Aristotle’s Politics
Aristotle’s political philosophy is distinguished by its underlying philosophical doctrines. Of these the following four principles are especially noteworthy:
(1) The principle of teleology Aristotle begins the Politics by invoking the concept of nature (see Political Naturalism). In the Physics Aristotle identifies the nature of a thing above all with its end or final cause (Phys. II.2.194a28-9, 8.199b15-18). The end of a thing is also its function (EE II.1.1219a8), which is its defining principle (Meteor. IV.12.390a10-11). On Aristotle’s view plants and animals are cardinal examples of natural existents, because they have a nature in the sense of an internal causal principle which explains how it comes into being and behaves (Phys. II.1.192b32-3). For example, an acorn has an inherent tendency to grow into an oak tree, so that the tree exists by nature rather than by craft or by chance. The thesis that human beings have a natural function has a fundamental place in the Eudemian Ethics II.1, Nicomachean Ethics I.7, and Politics I.2. The Politics further argues that it is part of the nature of human beings that they are political or adapted for life in the city-state. Thus teleology is crucial for the political naturalism which is at the foundation of Aristotle’s political philosophy. (For discussion of teleology see the entry on Aristotle’s biology.)
(2) The principle of perfection Aristotle understands good and evil in terms of his teleology. The natural end of the organism (and the means to this end) is good for it, and what defeats or impedes this end is bad. For example, he argues that animals sleep in order to preserve themselves, because "nature operates for the sake of an end, and this is a good," and sleeping is necessary and beneficial for entities which cannot move continuously (De Somno 2.455b17-22). For human beings the ultimate good or happiness (eudaimonia) consists in perfection, the full attainment of their natural function, which Aristotle analyzes as the activity of the soul according to reason (or not without reason), i.e., activity in accordance with the most perfect virtue or excellence (EN I.7.1098a7-17). This also provides a norm for the politician: "What is most choiceworthy for each individual is always the highest it is possible for him to attain" (Pol. VII.14.1333a29-30; cf. EN X.7.1177b33-4). This ideal is to be realized in both the individual and the city-state: "that way of life is best, both separately for each individual and in common for city-states, which is equipped with virtue" (Pol. VII.1.1323b40-1324a1). However, Aristotle recognizes that it is generally impossible to fully realize this ideal, in which case he invokes a fall-back principle: it is best to attain perfection, but, failing that, a thing is better in proportion as it is nearer to the end (see DC II.12.292b17-19).
Aristotle’s perfectionism was opposed to the subjective relativism of Protagoras, according to which good and evil is defined by whatever human beings happened to desire. Like Plato, Aristotle maintained that the good was objective and independent of human wishes. However, he rejected Plato’s own theory that the good was defined in terms of a transcendent form of the good, holding instead that good and evil are in a way relative to the organism, that is, to its natural end.
(3) The principle of community Aristotle maintains that the city-state is the most complete community, because it attains the limit of self-sufficiency, so that it can exist for the sake of the good life (Pol. I.2.1252b27-30). Individuals outside of the city-state are not self-sufficient, because they depend on the community not only for material necessities but also for education and moral habituation. "Just as, when perfected, a human is the best of animals, so also when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all" (1253a31-3). On Aristotle’s view, then, human beings must be subject to the authority of the city-state in order to attain the good life. The following principle concerns how authority should be exercised within a community.
(4) Principle of rulership Aristotle believes that the existence and well-being of any system requires the presence of a ruling element: "Whenever a thing is established out of a number of things and becomes a single common thing, there always appears in it a ruler and ruled. . . . This [relation] is present in living things, but it derives from all of nature." (1254a28-32)
Just as an animal or plant can survive and flourish only if its soul rules over its body (Pol. I.5.1254a34-6, DA I.5.410b10-15; compare Plato Phaedo 79e-80a), a human community can possess the necessary order only if it has a ruling element which is in a position of authority, just as an army can possess order only if it has a commander in control. Although Aristotle followed Plato on this principle, he rejected Plato’s further claim that one form of rule is appropriate for all. For Aristotle different forms of rule are necessary for different systems: e.g., political rule for citizens and despotic rule for slaves. The imposition of an inappropriate type of rule results in disorder and injustice.
The aforementioned principles account for much of the distinctive flavor of Aristotle’s political philosophy, and they also indicate where many modern theorists have turned away from him. Modern philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes have challenged the principles of teleology and perfectionism, arguing against the former that human beings are mechanistic rather than teleological systems, and against the latter that good and bad depend upon subjective preferences of valuing agents rather than on objective states of affairs. Liberal theorists have criticized the principle of community on the grounds that it cedes too much authority to the state. Even the principle of rulership which Aristotle, Plato, and many other theorists thought self-evident has come under fire by modern theorists like Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek who argued that social and economic order may arise spontaneously as if by an "invisible hand." Modern neo-Aristotelian political theorists are committed to defending one or more of these doctrines against such criticisms.
It is in these terms that Aristotle understands the fundamental normative problem of politics: What constitutional form should the lawgiver and politician establish and preserve in what material for the sake of what end?
(TO BE CONTINUED )
by Fred Miller
Aristotle (b. 384 – d. 322 BC), was a Greek philosopher, logician, and scientist. Along with his teacher Plato, Aristotle is generally regarded as one of the most influential ancient thinkers in a number of philosophical fields, including political theory. Aristotle was born in Stagira in northern Greece, and his father was a court physician to the king of Macedon. As a young man he studied in Plato’s Academy in Athens. After Plato’s death he left Athens to conduct philosophical and biological research in Asia Minor and Lesbos, and he was then invited by King Philip II of Macedon to tutor his young son, Alexander the Great. Soon after Alexander succeeded his father, consolidated the conquest of the Greek city-states, and launched the invasion of the Persian Empire. Aristotle returned as a resident alien to Athens, and was close friend of Antipater the Macedonian viceroy. At this time (335-323 BC) he wrote or at least completed some of his major treatises, including the Politics. When Alexander died suddenly, Aristotle had to flee from Athens because of his Macedonian connections, and he died soon after. Aristotle’s life seems to have influenced his political thought in various ways: his interest in biology seems to be expressed in the naturalism of his politics; his interest in comparative politics and his sympathies for democracy as well as monarchy may have been encouraged by his travels and experience of diverse political systems; he criticizes harshly, while borrowing extensively, from Plato’s Republic, Statesman, and Laws; and his own Politics is intended to guide rulers and statesmen, reflecting the high political circles in which he moved.
First published Wed Jul 1, 1998; substantive revision Fri Jul 19, 2002