Aristotle's Politics Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Aristotle's Politics: Book 7

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In the final two books Aristotle addresses the question “What is the ideal form of the state and constitution?” This picks up the key these of Nicomachean Ethics, that a happy life is a virtuous life, so an ideal state will be that which enables the individual to lead a life of virtue. But, unlike Plato’s Republic, 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 distinguishes between three ingredients that must be present to be capable of a happy life: our bodily existence (health, the senses, sensual pleasure, etc.); our intellectual and moral qualities (wisdom, virtue, etc.); and things external (wealth, reputation, power, property, etc.). He argues that it is not by having external goods that one becomes virtuous and happy, but the reverse. A life full of happiness is achieved by those who are outstandingly well-equipped with the intellectual and moral qualities – a good character and intellect – who only have a moderate amount of external possessions. They are happier than those who have more goods than they need, but are deficient in the other qualities.    


The fact is external goods are like tools: they are useful for some purposes, but you can have too many. But it is quite different with goods of the soul (moral and intellectual goods). These are valued for themselves; they are ends in themselves, whereas external and bodily goods are merely means to these ends. Each man’s happiness is in relation to his virtue. Similarly, a state can only be happy and do well with virtue and practical wisdom. A state’s courage, wisdom and sense of justice are all manifested in the same way as that of an individual. The life best for men and states is the life of virtue supported by sufficient material resources so that it can engage in the actions that virtue calls for. 


Now Aristotle tackles the dilemma whether a happy life is one spent actively in public affairs or is a contemplative life spent in philosophical speculation. He dismisses the view that an active life should be aimed at enabling the state to become powerful enough to conquer and control neighboring states. Some animals are naturally equipped for such a life of forcible exploitation of others, but not man. War is a means of protecting the good life; it is not the good life itself.


As for statesmanship in general, this is a high-minded activity and it is always better to be active than inactive: happiness is a state of action, not inaction. Aristotle believes those who undervalue a life spent as a statesman fail to distinguish between mastery of men and political rule, which involves a man in ruling his peers and in being ruled by them. This is a noble activity and shouldn’t be confused with the sort of power exerted over others by a slave-master. Unlimited power is rarely used just for good. The exercise of power must be guided by virtue. 


However, the life of contemplation is far from being inactive: thoughts are the authors of one’s deeds, so they are closely linked with action. Thought is active in a special sense. A life spent governing others is not fulfilling, but a life spent in philosophical speculation is. Running through this argument is the central teleological theme of Nicomachean Ethics, that happiness is an activity. All animals are made for certain functions, which they fulfill when they engage in certain activities. Excellence in these activities is virtue and brings with it happiness. Man’s function that distinguishes him from all other animals is his rational function, which in its highest form is contemplative, philosophical speculation.


Next Aristotle shifts his attention to consider the practicalities of the ideal state. His first concern is population. A state’s population should be neither too large, nor too small: too small and it might find it difficult to be self-sufficient and too large it might be difficult to govern. The deliberative and judicial functions of a state depend heavily upon citizens’ ability to assess one another’s character, for this you must know one another. The quality of citizens is more important than quantity. So the optimal number is that which is necessary for achieving self-sufficiency.


The same applies to territory. It should be large enough to guarantee self-sufficiency, allowing citizens to live at leisure and with moderation. It ought to be hard for a hostile force to invade and easy to launch an expeditionary force. It must also be easily surveyable so that assistance can be brought at any point. It must be well situated for commerce, allowing easy importation of crops and raw materials. But, while it’s important to have easy access to a port, this makes it difficult to avoid the influx of foreigners. Still, it is important to be defended well and to have effective commerce, so living by the sea is an advantage. But trade must be in the state’s own interests and not in other’s. Aristotle also recommends building up a navy in the light of the way of life of the state. However, the seamen should be drawn from agricultural laborers, who should form no part of the state.    


As for the type of people that make the best citizens, Aristotle believes that those who live in the colder, northern European regions are full of spirit, but lack skill and intellect, so they lack political cohesion and the ability to rule over their neighbors. On the other hand, Asians have intellect and skill, but lack spirit, so they remain slaves. But Greeks, lying at the mid-point between these two geographically, have a measure of both spirit and intelligence. So they make good citizens and continue to live under the best constitutions.


Like anything else in nature a state is organic, so there are some parts of it that, although indispensable to its efficient running, are not part of it in a strict sense. So citizens are genuine parts of the state, while slaves, craftsmen, foreigners, etc., while being necessary to its efficient running, are not part of it. Slaves are like property: while no state can exist without them, they are not part of it.  


A state is an association of similar people for the purpose of living the best life possible and what is best is happiness that comes as a result of the active exercise of virtue. But different states are composed of different proportions of different types of people seeking their happiness in different ways, so they lead different lives and form different types of constitutions. Nevertheless, there are certain necessities that all states must provide: food, skill, arms, money, religion and a method of arriving at decisions about matters of expedience and justice. These, then, are the essential functions a state must perform. So, different types of people will be necessary: agricultural workers to provide food, skilled workers, fighting men, wealthy men, priests and judges.  


In the best run states the governing element must be citizens who own all property and have sufficient virtue to make the legal and political decisions and to bear arms. They must not be merchants or farmers, because they need enough leisure to live virtuous lives and govern. In their different “primes of life” they should be successively soldiers, judges and statesmen, and priests, when they come to old age. The state should be divided into different classes of people. There should be communal meals. As for private land, one part should be near the frontier, the other near the city, so that each man has two estates and every man has a share in both localities.


As for the siting and fortification of a city, Aristotle argues that it should be in a place where the terrain and climate are favorable to people’s health. The four things that must be looked for are good air, clean water, administrative convenience and it must be defensible. It should be well-fortified to safeguard against attack. He describes the latest advances in military hardware and warns of the escalation if warfare. 


He then moves on to describe the physical layout of the ideal state and the duties of officials responsible for markets, streets, the countryside, etc. There ought to be common meeting places for the different classes. The main purpose of that one devoted to free men is to insulate them from the danger of acquiring the degrading practice of trade.


From these practical issues Aristotle turns to, perhaps, the most important issue that any state must settle: how to educate its citizens. A state is composed of citizens who are “sound” men capable of living virtuous lives and are united by their acceptance of the standards prescribed by the state. It follows, therefore, that they should be educated in these from an early age. The aim of the ideal state is to ensure citizens lead virtuous and, therefore, happy lives. Happiness (eudaimonia) is the perfect use of our faculties guided by virtue. The best constitution, therefore, is one that consists of, and is governed by, men who lead virtuous lives. Although such things as health and wealth are necessary, more important are nature, habit and reason. The state can influence citizens in all three through its educational program. For the state to be sound, citizens must be sound in this way. Unlike other animals, man lives by reason as well as nature and habit and so needs these three things working in concert.     


Aristotle now attempts to relate this sort of educational program more closely to the duties of citizenship. In states of equal citizens, where there is no one person or group that is pre-eminent in virtue, citizens should rule and be ruled in turn. But, if this is the case, man must be educated for citizenship: he must be educated morally and intellectually, so that he is fit to hold office. In this way the alternation between being ruled and ruling will satisfy the demand for equality, which it is dangerous to ignore, while education does justice to the need for merit and ability. Still, within the ruling class a distinction must be drawn on the basis of age. The older should rule the younger, this way the young learn how to rule by first being ruled properly by others.


As he begins his description of the educational process, he characteristically divides the soul into two parts: the rational and irrational (feelings, passions and qualities). Education aims mainly to influence the former. But reason can be further divided into the active and speculative parts. The active or practical part of reason is important, but it is always a means to an end, whereas the speculative is an end in itself. It requires leisure, but not in the normal sense as involving rest and recreation, but in the form of undistracted opportunities to devote oneself to something worthwhile: citizenship in a time of peace. So citizens should be educated to pursue noble things at all times. They should not view war as an end in itself, but only as a means of guaranteeing security. They must know how to be capable of being at leisure and this involves a number of virtues, particularly wisdom and temperance.


He concludes that habits of citizens should be trained first, followed by the intellect. Because reason and the life of the intellect are the ends of human nature, habits should be formed with a view to promoting them. The education of the body and man’s appetites and desires must precede the development of man’s rational side. Ultimately the aim of the educational program is to train men in the virtues necessary for the proper use of leisure in cultural, intellectual and political activities.


He now turns to the problems involved in the upbringing of children and reflects on birth, marriage, parenthood and procreation. He argues that legislators should have laws governing marriage in order to ensure procreation takes place at the right time (in the winter when the wind is northerly) and with respect to capability for child rearing. Men should marry at the age of 37 and women at 18, and they should cease reproducing after 17 years. He also discusses the issues of leaving babies to die of exposure, when they are deformed, and abortion of the embryo before it acquires sensation and life in order to control population. He recommends harsh penalties for adultery. 


As for the detail of raising and educating children, Aristotle divides this into three age groups: 0 to 7, 7 to 14 and 14 to 21. Children’s education should be controlled with a view to helping them grow physically and develop the habits of virtue. Up to the age of 5 they should play games that involve movement to develop them physically. They should be told stories and avoid all vulgar influences, particularly bad language, indecent pictures and slaves. Up to the age of 7 they should observe older children, but the main periods of education are from 7 to 14 before puberty and 14 to 21 after it.  




In the first part of this book Aristotle distinguishes between three ingredients that must be present to be capable of a happy life: our bodily existence, our intellectual and moral qualities, and external things like wealth, power and property. He then dismisses the idea that all one needs to become happy and virtuous is bodily goods, like health, and to be well-provided with external goods. Having health, power, wealth and property are only the means, the tools, but not ends in themselves. They have extrinsic, but not intrinsic, value. However it is quite different with moral and intellectual goods. These are valued for themselves; they have intrinsic value. They are ends in themselves, whereas external and bodily goods are merely means to these ends.


In this we can see tensions that run throughout the Politics, particularly the implications this has for the social structure of the state and for the value Aristotle places on the contemplative life spent in philosophical speculation as opposed to an active life spent in the practical politics of the state. Take the first of these. An ideal state is designed to create the conditions that make it possible for citizens to achieve happiness and virtue by having the leisure to conduct their lives according to the dictates of reason. A citizen should not have to labor and engage in activity that takes him away from a life of reason and speculation. His basic needs must be provided by others, like laborers, women, slaves and so on.


So, while the life of a citizen has intrinsic value and is an end in itself, the lives of non-citizens only count as means to that end. In the analysis of the last book we noted the similarity in the ideas of Aristotle and Kant. Here they diverge: Kant argued that all those with rational natures must be treated with dignity as ends in themselves and never as mere means. Of course, in this you might argue that the only difference is that Kant recognized that all individuals have rational natures, whereas Aristotle saw different levels of rationality. But still, it means that at the heart of Aristotle’s ideal state society is divided into two social groups: those that labor to provide the necessities of life and the elite composed of those who are constantly at leisure.


As for the contemplative life spent in philosophical speculation as opposed to an active life spent in the practical politics of the state, in Book 10 of Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle makes it clear that only in the contemplative life does man achieve perfect virtue and happiness. However in Book 7 of Politics he also recognizes that for a state to function well it should be neither too large, nor too small: too small and it might find it difficult to be self-sufficient and too large it might be difficult to govern. To be governed effectively it must be small enough to allow effective social interaction. All citizens should know one another. 


So, he 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 contemplative life, which is, essentially, a life of solitude. 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, to whom the practical reason of politics is essential, he is at the same time arguing that the highest activity for man, in which he finds ultimate happiness and fulfillment, is the contemplative life spent in solitude and quiet philosophical speculation.  



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