Aristotle's Politics: Theme Analysis

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Aristotle’s Teleological Assumptions

Aristotle’s teleological assumptions appear to rest on an analogy between nature and the sort of purposive activity we see in human behavior. He assumes that everything has a purpose; that the world is rational and ordered with each part having its own distinct function and purpose. It has been designed to fulfill its own unique function. In man’s case this is his faculty for reasoning. But in modern thought we are not so inclined to ascribe the same purposive behavior to nature. Scientific causal explanations have replaced the sort of purposive explanation we once gave for natural events.

What’s more, modern science has shown that the evidence for natural design is far from convincing. Buried deep in matter there are certain subatomic processes, so strange and unpredictable that they strike at our most deeply held common sense notions about the world, particularly our belief in its uniformity and predictability. The subatomic world is ruled by chaos. Nothing is predictable: atoms and their constituents move about in random order. Even a complete account of a situation cannot allow us to predict what a subatomic particle will do next. In his celebrated “uncertainty principle”, Werner Heisenberg, one of the architects of Quantum Theory, explained that any attempt to reveal what’s going on inside an atom is bound to fail. By probing one feature (say, its position) another (say, its motion) becomes uncertain. In a world resembling more a gaming table than traditional science nothing is certain; all is ruled by chance and statistics.

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. When he manages his actions and feelings in accordance with reason he functions well. At that point he lives according to virtue and experiences ultimate happiness and fulfillment. 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, is to apply the same teleological assumptions to define the perfect state. It is to determine what kind of political association is the most effective in guaranteeing the individual’s happiness. He maintains, that “If then nature makes nothing without some end in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made all of them for the sake of man” (p. 19, 1256a 20-2).

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.   

Aristotle and Totalitarianism

Despite Aristotle’s assumption that there is no opposition between the interests of the state and the individual, there are times, notably in book 4, when he shows an acute appreciation of the dangers this poses. There he advocates the rule of law as the defense against over-mighty tyrants driven on by popular support to increase their powers.

This is a very modern problem, particularly in the light of the totalitarianism of the regimes in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, whose leaders claimed to exercise the sovereignty of all as if it were just one will that could only be accurately interpreted by them. In one stroke they solved the problem that faces all political theory: how to match power with political legitimacy, so that a legitimate leader has sufficient power to carry out effectively the will of the people. Totalitarian leaders claimed not only was the state legitimate in what it does, because the leader is infallible and he reflects accurately the one true general will of the people, but it has no need to limit its powers. As Giovanni Gentile explains in Genesis and Structure of Society,

… since legitimate authority cannot extend beyond the actual will of the individual, authority is resolved completely in liberty. Lo and behold,

absolutism is overturned and appears to have changed into its opposite, and the true absolute democracy is not that which seeks a limited state but that which sets no limit to the state that develops in the inmost heart of the individual, conferring on his will the absolutely universal force of law.

As we saw in the analysis of book 4, why limit the powers of the state when it is only a form of self-government? As Rousseau points out, the individual will not voluntarily “forge fetters” for himself, he won’t voluntarily enslave himself. Given this, totalitarian regimes systematically subjugated the legal order, the institutions and procedures that could have limited these powers by holding the leader accountable. Unlike liberal democracies, totalitarianism appeared to have no fixed characteristics, everything was in flux. The most one could say about the regimes in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was that they possessed certain “contours,” to use Leonard Schapiro’s description. Under these conditions to talk about the state is fundamentally misleading: there was no state. As Schapiro says about the term “totalitarian state,” this is a contradiction in terms.   

But with no limits to his power the leader could invade all areas of life, even the private moral life of individuals. Censorship and intimidation penetrated the most personal recesses of private life, effectively destroying the distinction between public and private. One of the most popular jokes in Moscow in the 1930s concerned a hostess who had invited ten of her closest friends for a dinner party. Aware of her moral and political obligations to the state, she submitted the names to the secret police for their approval, fully expecting the list to be returned with two names added – the secret police needed their observers to be present to record who said what to whom. But to her dismay the list was returned unamended – there was no need to add two of their own. Unknown to her they were already there, among her own trusted friends.

That Aristotle saw the dangers in subjugating the legal order in this way is clear from what he says on book 4, that “The people becomes a monarch, one person composed of many, for the many are sovereign, not as individuals but as an aggregate…such a people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master, giving honour to those who curry its favour” (pp. 250-1, 1292a 11-20). 

Yet, in chapter 8 he still seems to suggest that there is no clear distinction between public and private, between the state’s interests and the individual’s. The education of the young, he asserts, should be the state’s responsibility, not the parents’, because the young are the future citizens and rulers of the state. The education system should serve the aims of the state, so it shouldn’t be left in the hands of parents and private tutors. Citizens don’t just belong to themselves, but to the state. Each is a part of the state and naturally all parts have a responsibility to the whole.

The explanation lies probably in the difference between the ideal and deviant states. In the ideal states leaders govern according to the rule of law. Leaders are virtuous men, selected as part of an aristocracy chosen on the basis of merit. The state’s primary function is to ensure citizens can lead virtuous lives, which are, therefore, happy and fulfilled. The most effective means of ensuring this is education, which not only develops the important moral habits at an early age before the young have reached the age of reason, but develops the skills they will need to govern the state wisely and effectively in the future. In this way the state not only fulfils its primary function but ensures its own stability.

In contrast, in deviant regimes power lies not with virtuous leaders chosen for their merit, but with those who have wealth or are chosen from among the poor for their popularity. It is this that poses the danger of tyrannical government of those who pursue sectional, rather than the common interests.   

Aristotle, Marxism and the Middle Class

Throughout the text there are sections in which many of Aristotle’s arguments seem to reflect a distinctly Marxist analysis of society. In books 3 and 4 he suggests, like Marx, that a more effective and, perhaps, crucial classification of regimes, is an economic one. Tyranny, he suggests, is a form of mastership with the monarch controlling citizens for his own ends much like a master will control his slaves, who are his property. Oligarchy occurs when the sovereign power of a constitution is in the hands of a small elite who control great wealth. In contrast, democracy occurs when power is in the hands of those who have no wealth.

It is, of course, a matter of accident that the rich are few in number and therefore create oligarchies and the poor are many and therefore form democracies. He explains, “…it is a democracy whenever the free are sovereign, oligarchy when the rich are sovereign; but what actually occurs is that the former are many, the latter few: many are free, few are rich” (p. 245, 1290a 45-8).

Elsewhere his arguments appear to take on a class analysis as he makes a case for the importance of the middle element: that group or class in society who have moderate means and whose only concern is the stability that will allow them to live their lives in peace. In book 5 he maintains that neither absolute oligarchy nor absolute democracy are stable in the long run, so he suggests a compromise in which the constitution is created around the middle social group. Such a constitution, he argues, is nearer to democracy than a constitution of the few and is, therefore, the most stable.

Of course, in view of his explanation that the ‘mean’ is the best, the most virtuous and happiest, the best states are likely to be made up of those citizens, who, while being moderately successful, are still not pursuing wealth and possessions for their own sake. 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.    

This is not unlike Marx’s arguments about the importance of meeting needs, rather than pursuing material possessions for their own sake in the form of uncontrolled consumerism. Both reject the pursuit of wealth and possessions as an end in itself and look towards a deeper, more personal sense of achievement and fulfillment. In contrast to wealth, which is merely the means to these ends, Aristotle argues that the goods of the soul (moral and intellectual goods) are ends in themselves. Only by developing these can the individual lead a virtuous life and achieve happiness and fulfillment.

So, the pursuit and accumulation of money and wealth for its own sake 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, 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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