Aristotle's Politics: Book 1

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


Book 1


Aristotle begins by revealing the teleological assumptions that underlie his analysis. (Teleology is the philosophical study of design and purpose.) He says that all political associations are formed as a result of deliberate human acts and are designed with the aim of achieving a particular good. He then makes clear the methodological assumptions that will shape the way he goes about his analysis: that is by breaking down the whole into its parts and then the parts into their parts, until we reach the elementary parts of the whole. The most sovereign of all forms of association is the political association. It embraces all the other associations, because it aims at the highest good.     


He reveals his methodology in his analysis of the natural origins of the state, tracing its origins from the household, made up of two pairs, the master and the slave, and husband and wife, to the village, which is a collection of households, and finally to the state, a collection of villages. Each level is designed to meet natural human needs. The household meets the needs of daily life, while the state contains all that is necessary to lead a good life. It not only meets basic needs, but provides the means by which men can be fulfilled and live “well” in accordance with human virtues. He argues that “man is by nature a political animal” (P. 59, 1253a 2-3) and only in the state can he fully realize his nature. Without it he is no better than an animal. Someone who does not need the state, who is self-sufficient without it, is either a beast or a god.  


The household is made up of three kinds of relationships: master-slave, husband-wife and parent-child. He also cites a fourth element, “the acquisition of wealth.” Within these relationships he extends his teleological conception by arguing that a slave is a “live tool,” used by his master as a means of securing his livelihood. He offers a defense of slavery on the grounds that nature is made up of those things that 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.


Aristotle argues that slavery must be natural because the relationship conforms to a pattern found in various forms elsewhere: 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. This leads Aristotle to examine the arguments that surround the forcible enslavement of captives in war. He argues that unlike the enslavement of natural slaves, this form of enslavement is unjust, because superiority of force is not necessarily possessed by those who have moral superiority, which alone provides the justification. 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.


Similar relationships can be found between the monarch and the people, and between the statesman and free citizens. But he insists there are important differences between rule over naturally free men and rule over natural slaves. All forms of rule are not the same. Rule in the household is monarchical as there is only one ruler in a household, whereas the rule of a statesman is rule over free and equal persons. Mastery over slaves means more than the possession of a master’s knowledge: a master is a kind of person.


Aristotle then examines the acquisition of goods, in particular how we acquire those things we need for life. He divides this into natural and unnatural acquisition. First, he distinguishes between household management and business management: two different methods of acquisition. Businesses supply goods and households consume them. Household management involves expertise in acquiring the necessities of life, like food and shelter.


This is natural acquisition, which is comprised of activities, like fishing, hunting and farming. It’s the ways in which we take food directly from natural sources. We all satisfy our needs in different ways – some are nomads, some farmers, some hunters, even pirates. In warfare the acquisition of slaves is like the acquisition of wild beasts to serve our needs. Everything in nature is provided for a purpose. Nature has provided both beasts and slaves to be ruled, but they refuse to be, which means that hunting, warfare and conquest are necessary.


Exchange of goods for money is natural. Goods have an exchange value as well as a use value. This is important where there are excesses and deficiencies between states. To facilitate this money was created, which is quite natural as long as it is not pursued beyond the satisfaction of needs. This is unnatural acquisition as it involves accumulation of money for its own sake. It doesn’t itself produce goods, but only through exchange. Trade goes beyond what is necessary for the maintenance and self-sufficiency of the community. The unfortunate result is that household managers too believe they should have unlimited money either hoarded or increased without limit, which is a mistake. For the necessities of life, rather than the acquisition of money for its own sake, we only need modest and limited means.


The duty of the household manager is to use and distribute goods, not to accumulate them. Expertise in exchange that involves not goods but just money, designed to produce profit  in the form of interest, is usury and is beyond nature. It arises not from nature providing what we need to live, but from men gaining from each other.


In the household the relationship between husband and wife resembles that between a statesman and his people, while that between father and child resembles that between a king and his subjects. Both the mother and the child are free persons, but still there is a difference between them and the husband and father. The male is more fitted to rule than the female as the elder and fully grown is more fitted than the undeveloped child.


All members of the household (the husband as the head of the household, the wife, child and slave) must all have the skills to fulfill their various functions. This includes strength and technical skill, but also moral virtue, which is determined by the function of the person within the household. The slave has no function other than to serve so he has only minimal levels of virtue confined to ensuring he doesn’t neglect his work through intemperance or fecklessness. He has no capacity for reason, for deliberations, which is necessary for moral choices. The master ensures the slave has moral virtue only to the level the master believes is necessary. Unlike the slave, the female does have reason and the capacity to deliberate, but it is ineffective, while the child, too, has reason, but it is undeveloped.


So the virtues of each member of the household differ as is appropriate to their function. However educating women and children in the relevant virtues is important for the effective running of the state, because women make up a half of the population of free persons and children are future citizens.




In order to reveal the full meaning and significance of many of Aristotle’s arguments we have to understand the teleological assumptions that lie at the heart of The Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle assumes that everything has a purpose; that the world is rational and ordered with each part having its own distinct function and purpose.


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. In man’s case this is the “activity of the soul in accordance with reason.” Only man has reason; it is his defining characteristic. But how is he to know when he conducts himself in accordance with it? The answer is he does so when his actions and feelings are moderated at the mean point, where they are virtuous, between the excesses and deficiencies, which are forms of vice. So, for example, whereas the vice of fear and confidence lies in its deficiency, cowardice, and in its excess, rashness, virtue lies in the mean point between these, courage, and so for all other spheres of action and feeling. Thus, the good of man and, by definition, his happiness, is the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. A happy life is a virtuous life.


The aim of Politics, then, by extension, is to determine what kind of political association is the most effective in guaranteeing the individual’s happiness. 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, therefore, a happy life. The interests of the state and the individual are, therefore, identical in pursuing the happiness of the individual. Unlike modern views of the state in Western liberal politics, there is no opposition between the interests of the state and the individual. Like totalitarian theory, in Aristotle’s view man can only be fully human when he is fully involved in the affairs of the state; only then does he fulfill his ultimate purpose.   


The significance of this becomes clearer when we consider the passage that perhaps most jars with modern sensibilities. Slaves, he argues, only participate in reason in so far as they perceive it; they do not share it. Thus, without reason they cannot be free: freedom (the opposite of slavery) is like any other activity in that its virtuous use depends upon the correct use of reason. Freedom 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.     


His argument depends upon his belief that there exists “natural slaves,” who lack rationality and so cannot exercise their own freedom. Aristotle makes it clear that beyond this group he doesn’t support slavery. For natural slaves, slavery is beneficial, because their rational masters can exercise their reason on the slave’s behalf. If such people exist, Aristotle’s argument seems quite 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.


Questions of freedom and reason appear in a different form in his discussion of acquisition, which also conflicts with modern opinion and behavior. The pursuit and accumulation of money and wealth is something Aristotle roundly condemns. Yet in the modern global economy the single-minded pursuit of money universally underwrites the behavior of individuals and companies worldwide. 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. In these arguments Karl Marx claimed to have found similarities with his own arguments, particularly those that relate to the impact of capitalism in alienating the individual from the product of his labor, from himself, and from his fellow workers.


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