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Research: Aristotle's political philosophy

Philosophy : Political Philosophy

Key themes

Man is a political animal

Aristotle's point of departure is the simple statement above, which, in the context of the text, is really saying that man is at his best when he dwells in a polis. He claims that nature has seen it fit to give man the power of speech, and so more than any other species he has the capacity to communicate moral concepts such as justice.

Aristotle therefore concerns himself with the kind of polis that would bring out the best in its citizens and its wider population (bearing in mind that only about one sixth of Athenians were citizens). He saw politics as a science, and just as a physician would study the body, Aristotle sought to study the state. Once the nature of the state can be understood, the politician can begin to frame the constitution of the state in its laws, customs (nomoi) and institutions, and then to protect it through education and legislation.

The first book of Politics describes the nature of any polis, in describing social and political relations that naturally develop between humans. The first relation that develops, he says, is that between man and woman, "that the race may continue" (26-27). Straight away, he also describes the nature of this relationship as that between master and subject, and claims that nature makes each thing for a single use. At the same time, the relationship of master and slave develops, that the two might survive; Aristotle gives little reason to believe that one couldn't survive without the other, and his insistence on this relationship may be seen more as a reflection of Athens than a key part of his philosophy. The second major relationship he describes is the family, which is again composed of the master (husband) and the subjects (wife and children), and which is established for the provision of man's everyday wants. As families unite in villages, the state emerges, as the first self-sufficing political community, which exists for the sake of a good life.

So already Aristotle has made several key claims:

  1. that we must look at nature to understand the nature of man and politics
  2. that every political relationship is naturally one of master and subject
  3. that the state ultimately exists for the sake of a good life

The state as prior to the individual

Despite analysing these relationships from marriage to the state, Aristotle then insists that the state is prior to the family and to the individual, since the individual couldn't survive without the state, whilst the state could survive without one particular individual or family. A consequence of this is that the value of any individual, and in particular that of the slave or the woman, to the state is prior to their own value to themselves.

The second defence for this position is more teleological. Because Aristotle states that man is by nature political, and is equipped with the capacity to communicate and discuss moral concepts, he sees that as man's highest virtue (just as sharpness is the virtue of a knife). Since man can't exercise this virtue alone, nor fully in a marriage nor a family nor a small village, man must be most complete and virtuous in a city state.

The second reason seems problematic for those who aren't supposed to be citizens, and so who aren't virtuous because they discuss justice. For women, children and slaves, virtue is to be found in being good at other things, most of which can be done fully in a family or small village. However, given that women, children and slaves can be as virtuous in a city state, Aristotle has no problem in suggesting that they ought to dwell in the city state for the sake of the citizens.

Inequality and naturalism

Inequality is a key feature of Aristotle's thought. He claims that people are not, by nature, born equal, and so trying to treat them as equals in any respect is unnatural, and therefore unjust. Though we may rail at this in a society that emphasises equality, some truth can be found in what he says when looking at, for example, our education systems, in which some would simply not benefit from studying an academic subject at University. But Aristotle goes further to say that if humans are unequal in one or two respects, the ought to be treated unequally in all respects in the polis. And so if a person is born a natural slave, they ought to be treated a slave, such that they can fulfil their nature.

It's important to note that Aristotle doesn't defend the kind of slavery that was practised in Athens in his time. If a man is made a slave without being a natural slave, that, Aristotle says, is unjust. But this introduces a major problem with Aristotle's naturalism: how can you tell whether somebody is naturally a slave? History and literature are full of examples of people who have suddenly excelled later in life, and so it would seem obvious that determining a person's nature at birth, or even at the age of 18, would be premature. Given that Aristotle's education system is designed for specific kinds of people, one can assume that the judgement would have to be made in childhood.

There is a further problem with Aristotle's naturalism: he seems to be equivocating when discussing "nature". In Physics he describes 'nature' as the set of laws that describe internal principles motion and rest. If the state and individuals were understood by this definition of 'natural', then both would develop according to predetermined rules as a plant grows from a seed. In Politics Aristotle makes the distinction between nature and craft, and says that the polis is constituted by a craft, that of the politician. These two definitions cannot, as they stand, be reconciled, since on the one hand Aristotle is saying that states develop in nature and so are just, and yet on the other hand says that states are the work of a craftsman. His only answer, first proposed by Ernest Barker, is to say that the state is natural in another sense, in that it develops from natural human needs and desires for the sake of natural human ends, but that a good state can only come about by the craft of politicians.

Brave New World?

One interesting problem with Aristotle's politics is that it appears to have no answer to Aldous Huxley's dystopia in Brave New World, in which humans are

More references

For an excellent summary of Aristotle's politics, see the following entry into the Stanford Encyclopeadia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-politics.

And for a good, brief analysis of Politics, see these ClassicNotes.

What follows is a short essay on a particular Aristotle quotation:

'The citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives'

(Aristotle, Politics, 1337a)

Aristotle wrote this statement late in his book Politics; it follows twelve chapters in which he describes and justifies the various features of his ideal state, before turning to education, which he saw as vital to the health of a state. By this statement he means to elucidate exactly why education is necesary, to specify its core subject, which is the moulding of citizens such that they live well under their particular form of government. He says this in reaction to what might now be considered common wisdom, that citizens should be educated such that they can critically appreciate the form of government under which they live, such that they might criticise and attempt reform, or find it agreeable and conform.

To put the quotation into context, Aristotle precedes it by stating that "the neglect of education does harm to the constitution", and previous to that that "the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth" (Politics, 1337a). In other words, Aristotle claims that the citizen ought to be moulded through education for the good of the state, and the state's constitution. He thus suggests that the state and its particular constitution are primary, and the individual secondary. Yet he also suggests that the legislator, who is symbolic of the state and its purposes, should "above all" be concerned with the education of the youth, suggesting that in a sense the state should be primarily concerned with individuals, making the state secondary. It is this apparent contradiction between the role of an individual and the role of a citizen that is the key to understanding Aristotle's quotation.

In the first few books of Politics, Aristotle describes the nature of a state and the reasons for its existence, as well as the various different kinds of state, and which are ideal. The state, according to Aristotle, is an inevitable political union "large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing... for the sake of a good life". (Politics, 1252b) Since the individual is not self-sufficing, and depends upon a state to survive let alone to seek a good life, Aristotle says the state must be prior to the individual. Leyden describes this as "priority of separation", whereby "X can exist without Y, but Y cannot exist without X" (Leyden, p. 46). To explain this priority, Aristotle refers elsewhere to anology with the human body, in which each each organ can only fulfill its proper function when it is part of the body, the whole. This analogy doesn't quite work, since the body also requires each organ to function, but if we reduce the scale to the cellular, and treat each citizen as a cell, then we can see that the body can survive without particular cells, and so the state can exist without particular individuals.

One consequence of this is that the character of the individual will therefore be defined or influenced by the nature of the state, rather than vice versa, unless the individual is able to directly alter the nature of the state; even if the individual could do this, they would nevertheless be shaped by the state that they lived in up until that reform, so one must conclude that the individual is unavoidably a product of the state in which he/she lives. We must therefore assume that Aristotle was aware of this fact, prior to making the statement with which this essay is concerned. Whether or not the individual must be moulded to suit the state, the individual will have already been moulded to some extent by the state.

Now assuming the state is a good state according to Aristotle's criteria (an assumption that I will address later in the essay), it is right that the state's nature, or as Aristotle puts it, the state's character, be preserved. For it is through the character of a good state that good citizens develop themselves, each according to his own character. Human virtue, according to Aristotle, comes about through nature, habit and reason; we are born with the potential for virtue, we can come to know virtue through assuming certain taught habits, and we can learn to understand virtue through philosophy. So education in its broadest sense, encapsulating both formal state education and informal education in the family, is responsible for the realisation of virtue in citizens. As the state will inevitably imprint certain habits upon its citizens, and as it is responsible for formal education and also for the conduct of its families, the state therefore becomes responsible for its citizens' virtue.

If we return to the supposition that the state is prior to the individual, this relationship between the state, education and virtue becomes all the more important, since if the state educates its citzens poorly, they will fail to function properly in the state, and so will be unable to be virtuous, fulfilled and therefore unable to lead a good life. In other words, the state will have failed them. This apparently paternalistic responsibility is precisely what Aristotle is concerning himself with in the last books of Politics.

Of course this apparent paternalism can begin to sound a little detached, making the state seem like some entity separable from the sum of citizens that constitute it. So it is important to remember that "Aristotle's argument for political naturalism... asserts that the polis is a human creation" (Leyden, p. 56) and is governed by humans, who are selected not according to hereditary or financial considerations but according to the abilities of the individuals in the state. So it is not that an authority is being paternalistic towards its subjects, but that the political community is caring for itself and ensuring that it perpetuates and doesn't disintegrate through educational neglect.

One might also object that it seems unnatural and therefore, according to Aristotle's own theory of justice as well as according to intuition, unjust to force certain habits upon individuals because their political community requires certain proportions of certain virtues. But "when Aristotle speaks of the politician as making the citizens good by habituating them, he does not imply the exclusion of nature. Although the ethical virtues do not arise 'by nature' in the strict sense of Physics, they are natural in an extended sense which refers to the natural end of huiman beings, e.g. 'reason and intellect are the end of our nature'." So in fact, according to Aristotle's theory of justice, it would be in a sense unjust not to habituate each citizen according to their own ends, their potential for particular virtues. This is a particularly problematic response, since one can reasonably ask how the state will know what each individual's particular virtues may be; often a person may not find their 'calling' until they have long since left formal education, and so an apparent ability in, for example, tilling soil, might condemn a citizen to a life of tilling soil when their particular virtue could in fact be carpentry.

If the state, and even the individual, cannot be certain as to that individual's particular virtues, then it seems wrong to expect formal education in that individual's early years to habituate the correct character. If the proper functioning of the state depends upon each citizen finding their own correct function within the state, as an organ finds its function in an organism, then it is not in the interests of the state nor therefore in the interests of the constituent individuals to have the state mould citizens in formal education.

There is a further worry with the idea of the state moulding a citizen to its particular functions, and that is that the state may in fact be a bad state. Whilst Aristotle finds some virtues in almost all forms of governance, he provides a description of an ideal state, and goes into some detail describing the shortcomings of other forms of governance, and in particular the unnatural and unjust nature of their form. So why, if he admits that forms of governance can be unnatural and unjust, does he suggest that citizens support such arrangements through submitting to the kind of education I have thus far analysed? If his project is to encourage statesmen and citizens of unjust states to reform bad governance, then it would make sense to place a caveat in the quotation in question to say: "The citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives, where that form is just". This problem underlines the inadequacy of the quotation in question; it presupposes an absolutely perfect state.


Aristotle, Politics, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. R. McKeon, 2001

Leyden W. von, Aristotle on equality and justice his political argument, 1985