Aristotle's Politics: Essay Q&A

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Aristotle, The Politics, Trans. T.A. Sinclair (London: Penguin, 1992).

1. How should we decide who is to hold office and exercise power?

In modern democratic societies the answer to this question is simple: every adult has the freedom to run for office and exercise power. But for Aristotle this is far from being the right method. His fear is that settling the question in this way, on the basis that all men are equal, is as inadequate as an oligarch settling it by insisting that the wealthy should have power, because both are likely to lead to government in pursuit of partial interests. Good government is that which pursues the interests of all.

But there is one other factor that also determines the best government. Power must be in the hands of those who are best equipped for it. The ultimate aim of the state is to promote the good life: to provide the conditions in which men can live virtuous and, therefore, happy and fulfilled lives. So, he would argue, it would make obvious sense to ensure that power lies in the hands of those who are best qualified to create and maintain such a society. It should go to those who can make the biggest contribution towards this objective. Such a distribution would be just, because it would ensure that the interests of all were pursued and not just the partial interests of the ruling elite.

But these qualities are more difficult to pin down. We would need a far more sophisticated means of deciding who to give power to that our modern method of universal suffrage. In modern democracies all adults over a particular age are given the vote and can hold office. But Aristotle believes we must have selection criteria that are far more sophisticated than this. This would allow anybody, whether they have merit or not, to assume power as long as they could persuade voters to support their application. So how do we pin down criteria, which would help us select on the basis of merit?

There are obvious things that Aristotle appears to want to include at times. Good birth and ownership appear to feature in his list as do virtues, like justice and courage. He obviously wants leaders to have a high level of culture, to be well educated and to lead a life of leisure that allows them the time for government and for philosophical speculation. Of course, there is unlikely to be equality in all of these, so we shouldn’t expect to see a representative system develop out if this. Still, he does believe that the numerical superiority of the other sections of the population should also be taken into account.

2. How are Aristotle’s arguments in Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics compatible?

In Nicomachean Ethics he explains that the ultimate end of man is happiness, to which all his actions are aimed directly or indirectly. To achieve this man must perform well that ultimate function that defines him: the “activity of the soul in accordance with reason.” Only man has reason; it is his defining characteristic. When he moderates his actions and feelings in accordance with reason he leads a virtuous life. So, a happy and fulfilled life is also a virtuous life. 

The aim of Politics, then, by extension, is to determine what kind of political association is the most effective in enabling the individual to lead a happy and virtuous life. Aristotle describes man as naturally sociable and, therefore, political. So the state is not only a means of meeting his physical needs, but also his need to be sociable, to discuss his concerns for justice, exercise virtue and lead in the fullest sense a virtuous and happy life. The interests of the state and the individual are, therefore, identical in pursuing the happiness of the individual.

In an ideal state the good citizen is also a good man, because both are concerned with the issue of justice, which Aristotle describes in Nicomachean Ethics as the most complete expression of all virtue. Essentially a citizen has the responsibility to rule the state and enter into the continuous debate and deliberation on the key issue of justice. But still, as Aristotle points out, there is a difference between the good citizen and the good man. The virtue of a good citizen is that which leads to the preservation and stability of the state. Nevertheless, in the best regimes the virtue of a good citizen matches that of a good man in that he possesses the moral character, the merit, not only to live a virtuous life himself, but to promote the common good and happiness of all. And, of course, happy men don’t cause revolutions or generate factional conflict.

This is endorsed in another way by Nicomachean Ethics in that virtue, for the individual, is the mean between two extremes and so it is with constitutions. There are three social groups in a state: the very wealthy, the very poor and those in the middle. Since the mean is the best, the most virtuous and happiest, in an ideal state there should be a large number of citizens with moderate and adequate property, less than the very rich and more than the very poor. If most citizens are equal and similar this is likely to diminish conflict between the rich and the poor, and prevent the constitution becoming an extreme one. Those occupying the middle rarely engage in factional conflict and, therefore, states with a large middle element are more stable.

But perhaps the most obvious connection between the two books is that the virtuous man of Nicomachean Ethics is also the most rational and best suited to government. However, here a contradiction appears. The most virtuous of men spend their time in a leisured and contemplative lifestyle in quiet philosophical speculation. Such an individual needs solitude, not the actively social life that politics demands.

So, Aristotle appears to be advocating two quite different lifestyles for the citizen: the solitary and the social. Citizens are expected to lead a social life engaged in the political activities involved in running the state, yet this is quite different from the solitary, contemplative life. It seems that while the contemplative life is the end for all citizens, political life is merely the means of maintaining the conditions necessary for it. While Aristotle argues that man is essentially a political animal, he is at the same time arguing that the highest activity for man, in which he finds ultimate happiness and fulfillment, should be found away from politics in the contemplative life spent in solitude and quiet philosophical speculation.

3. How does Aristotle justify the role of slavery in a Greek state?

At the core of his justification of slavery lie the teleological assumptions that run throughout Politics. He argues that nature is made up of those things whose function is to rule and those that are ruled. So some people are by nature slaves, while others are masters. A slave is one who does not belong to himself by nature. He is not an end in himself, but a mere tool. Aristotle argues that he is a “live tool,” used by his master as a means of securing his livelihood. 

As on many occasions his justification for this view is to point to the natural world where, he maintains, similar relationships can be found in abundance: better/worse, male/female, man/beast, mind/body, rational/irrational, ruler/ruled. The rule of the soul over the body is like the master’s rule over the slave and the rule of intelligence over desire. It is like a statesman’s or a king’s rule. It is naturally beneficial that the soul should rule the body as it is beneficial and just that a slave should be ruled by his master. Similarly, it is better for animals that they should be trained than allowed to run wild.

The master is by nature rational; he possesses commanding powers. The slave, by contrast, possesses none of these; he is better suited to menial duties. The natural slave perceives reason, but he doesn’t possess it. In contrast, he argues that the forced enslavement of captives during war is unjust, because superiority of force is not necessarily possessed by those who have moral superiority, which alone justifies slavery. In other words, might is not necessarily right. Therefore, while it is unjust as a result of war and conquest to enslave those who are not slaves by nature, it is just to enslave those who are naturally slaves as long as the rule of the master over the slave is beneficial to both parties.

Without reason slaves cannot be free, because freedom, like any other activity, depends on the correct use of reason. It depends on acting in accordance with right reason, which leads to virtue. True freedom consists of living a virtuous life. So without reason slaves cannot be free or virtuous. This sets the limit to Aristotle’s justification of slavery: beyond this he would not support it. His argument relies on the empirical assumption that there actually exists “natural slaves,” who lack rationality and so cannot exercise their own freedom. For them slavery is beneficial, because their rational masters can exercise their reason on the slave’s behalf.

Of course, if such a group actually exists, his argument might seem compelling. But he gives us no reason why we should not just reject his empirical assumption about their existence altogether and with it his whole argument. The situation is further complicated in that he does seem to attribute them with some measure of rationality, which, of course, they must have if they are to understand and follow their master’s orders. If this is the case, they cannot be “natural slaves” and, therefore, according to Aristotle, should not be enslaved.

4. How does Aristotle deal with the conflicting demands of change and conservatism?

For any stable state innovations and changes are likely to be viewed with caution for fear of bringing not just instability, but arbitrary and tyrannical government. So, not unnaturally, Aristotle’s arguments often appear to be resistant to social and political change, even though he accepts that at times improvements can and should be made to regimes, particularly as they undergo social and economic changes. Nevertheless, in much of what he says it is apparent that he does believe in the “best” state and that this can be achieved or at least approximated to. Once achieved there should be no reason for change.

Although this argument runs throughout the Politics, he does accept that this ideal state will often differ from the sort of state that is best suited to a particular society at a particular time and much of the Politics is devoted to practical suggestions about how states could improve themselves. Economic and social change can alter the balance of the population with some social classes becoming more influential as they grow wealthier. But there is no theory of history in Aristotle as there is in Marxist theory with political, reflecting economic, power and the state going through distinct stages as one class overthrows another and becomes the new ruling class.

As with most things in Politics Aristotle’s teleological assumptions determine how he responds to change. The function of the state is to ensure happiness and the good life, so it must be governed by those who are equipped for citizenship, who can provide the conditions in which men can live virtuous and, therefore, happy and fulfilled lives. For them reason is used in pursuit of a virtuous and happy life, which is the ultimate end, rather than used as a means to achieve less noble ends as it is with craftsmen, traders, farmers and others who have to supply the material needs of society. Aristotle believes that the pursuit of such a limited end is not fitting for a free man. To work for the sake of any good that is less than the virtuous life is demeaning for man, reducing him to the status of a slave.

So, throughout Politics there is this tension between those who are citizens and members of the state and those who are not members, but serve those who are. Aristotle never successfully deals with this, but it does mean he believes that in the ideal state power should rest with the same type of citizen, regardless of the economic and social changes that are going on around them, which probably explains the underlying conservatism of his ideas.

Nevertheless, despite his apparent resistance to change, he does pose problems we all have to consider and resolve for ourselves: whether someone whose time is spent in repetitive, manual labor has sufficient political and social wisdom to qualify for an effective role in making decisions that affect the rest of society. This means placing a value on wisdom, experience, virtue and merit in much the same way that Aristotle does, even though our conclusion may be quite different.

5. How does Aristotle’s approach differ from Plato’s?

In the Republic, Plato is describing a utopia, the ideal state. Although Aristotle, too, is concerned to describe what would make the ideal state, his approach is far more empirical, inductive and down to earth. His criticisms of Plato, although sometimes based on an accidental or deliberate misreading of him, reflect a persistent skepticism which continually brings Plato’s arguments back to the practical realities of human nature and a sober assessment of what individuals are capable of.

He is particularly distrustful of sweeping generalizations. He criticizes Plato’s account in the Republic of the way constitutions can change, arguing that the causes of such change are far more various and complex than Plato explains. First, there is no reason why there should be a cyclical pattern of change for regimes and Plato doesn’t explain why change should particularly affect what he describes as the best constitution any more than any other. Second, he argues, all constitutions more often change into their opposites than into those like them. So, typically, his criticisms of Plato’s account are that it is far too sweeping and simplified. Like all empirical, practical thinkers, he looks for the exception and the evidence against which to test the theory.

Although much of Politics is spent analyzing theoretical concerns about what makes the best state, he spends a surprising amount of space discussing practical considerations. In book 4 he argues that political theorists must not only be concerned with theory, but what can be done to create regimes that are best in the circumstances.

He insists we must examine four kinds of constitution: the ideal constitution, theoretically a utopian form of government exactly as we would wish regardless of circumstances; the “best in the circumstances,” suited to the particular persons that make up the state; constitutions that already exist in the circumstances and consider how they came about and how they can be improved; and fourth, the sort of constitution that would pretty much suit all states. Rather than always thinking of the very best constitution, he insists we must think about introducing a system which the people involved are likely to accept and could be easily introduced, starting from the system they actually have. However, to do this we must approach it inductively and see how many different types of government there are.

In the final two books, when he does address the question “What is the ideal form of the state and constitution?” unlike Plato, although he attempts to define the conditions of an ideal state, he still has his feet on the ground as he maps out what is within the bounds of possibility. He insists we must consider the practicalities of the ideal state. So he considers practical issues like how large should the population be and the importance of having a territory that, while it has ports that are open to trade and commerce, this should not leave the state vulnerable.

When he examines population he warns that it should neither be too large, nor too small: too small and the state might find it difficult to be self-sufficient and too large it might be difficult to govern. And, perceptively, he insists that the deliberative and judicial functions of a state depend heavily upon citizens’ ability to assess one another’s character and for this you must know one another. He concludes the quality of citizens is more important than quantity.

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