The Politics: Theme Analysis
Aristotle's The Politics outlines many themes- namely Aristotle's beliefs about how government and society should be run. In general, his ideas contrast with Plato in that Aristotle is an empiricist- he understands the importance of active observation to determine the truth. Plato, on the other hand, believes that mere logical inference can establish ideal reality. On the whole, Aristotle is more educated in the differing constitutions of separate governments. From these observations, he establishes his world view. Plato, to contrast, spends most of his time in Athens, remaining an ivory-tower critic. Aristotle's idea of telos, which allows for human flexibility, contrasts sharply with Plato's idea of the Forms, which are unchanging and only understood by philosophers.
Aristotle specifically stresses the value of education. He believes that virtue, though a natural impulse in some ways, must also be learned and spread through tradition. The telos, or end result, of the study of politics is to Aristotle the highest form of education, since genuine human happiness can only be known in a community, or polis dependent on politics for survival.
Aristotle believes that any constitution that ignores the interests of the whole people, or has "unwrought" aims, is a government not based on the telos of good, but evil. He teaches that justice is the only way to legitimize government. Rulers need popular support to rule justly. Here, Aristotle's ideas about war follow. He believes that wars are not an end in themselves, but simply a means to an end.
Also, Aristotle recognizes the merits of different kinds of governments. Though he tends to favor aristocracy-based governments, he realizes these are not ideal. He describes each kind of constitution, "Tyranny is the perversion of Kingship; Oligarchy of Aristocracy; and Democracy of Polity...None of the three is directed to the advantage of the whole body of citizens." Yet when he addresses which body of people should posses sovereignty, Aristotle votes for the middle class. This is consistent with his notions of moderation. He asserts, "It is clear from our argument, first, that the best form of political society is one where power is vested in the middle class."
Aristotle believes that human communities are more than cooperative dwelling places where men seek only to satisfy their natural impulses and desires. Unlike Plato who believes that only philosophers are capable of determining truth, Aristotle maintains that every human, by nature, has the capability of reason. He asserts, "It is the peculiarity of man, in comparison with the rest of the animal world, that he alone possesses a perception of good and evil, of the just and the unjust." Aristotle believes that the polis has a special duty to cultivate men's minds in the pursuit of reason, which leads to justice and stability. He thinks that men can live peacefully if they use their minds above their more animal-like impulses. Through all of this, moderation is the key to "good" societies. (Aristotle believes that the telos of every society is to achieve good, a natural goal of man that needs cultivation.)
As stated earlier, Aristotle is not an idealist, but a practical philosopher (though that may seem a juxtaposition of terms). He isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, so to speak. Unlike Socrates and Plato, his teachers, Aristotle doesn't try to conceptualize a perfect governmental system. He knows that no human creation can be without at least minor faults. He simply strives for the best system possible. Aristotle also understands that not every inhabitant of the polis can achieve goodness. Only true citizens, those "who [share] in the administration of justice and in the holding of office," can find good, or happy lives. In this way, Aristotle shares some of the goals of his teacher, Plato, but disagrees with him about how man can achieve these goals.