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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Politics by Aristotle

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Pivoting from the last chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle explicitly links individual and civic ethical concerns by tasking the city-state with cultivating virtuous citizens, the Politics details the hierarchies and methods by which a state might achieve these goals.  Readers of Plato's Republic will find this concern with politics familiar, but over the course of eight books, Aristotle provides the blueprint for something quite different from Plato's kallipolis.  In place of a thought experiment, which Socrates proposes as a means to discover the nature of justice, Aristotle's city-state is something rather more "real world."  He underscores that several families – each family itself embodying the natural unit of human social organization – come together to form a small village, and such small villages in turn combine in order to form a city-state.  No mere intellectual exercise, Aristotle's theory of a city-state is one that he explicitly draws from the people and societies around him.

Pericles speaks before the Athenian Assembly in a 19th century painting by Philipp Foltz (Wikimedia Commons)Pericles speaks before the Athenian Assembly in a 19th century painting by Philipp Foltz (Wikimedia Commons) This quasi-empirical approach leads Aristotle to incorporate into his work elements of his own historical era.  And the enormous chronological and cultural separation from our own modern worldview is perhaps nowhere more apparent and jarring than in his discussion of slavery.  Arguing that "natural slaves" are those who lack the sufficient capacity for deliberation to make choices for themselves, Aristotle presents such subordinate humans as a key element of human societies.  And Aristotle argues that natural masters – those with the capacity to choose well – should use these natural slaves as tools for their own economic and social benefit.  Incorporating this framework into his view of the family, too, Aristotle posits that women have such capacity for deliberation but "no authority" and that children have not yet formed this capacity for themselves.

Even from this description of the family and of natural slaves, it becomes immediately apparent in the Politics that Aristotle's text does not envision a city brimming with Platonic philosophers or even wise lawgivers from the last book of the Nicomachean Ethics.  That is, he does not imagine that human societies are filled with humans who all exhibit the full array of Aristotelian virtues.  Drawing a distinction between the "good man" and the "good citizen," in fact, the Politics allows those who fall short of exemplary virtue to partake in civil society – they should simply be able "to rule and to be ruled."  Unlike the human virtues described in the Nicomachean Ethics, the characteristics of good citizens are those that uphold the constitutions under which they live. The absolutely good man, or "wise lawgiver" of the Ethics, by contrast, might simply rule those around him in the aim of cultivating the virtue of his subjects.

But as another author puts it, "a good man is hard to find" and, accordingly, Aristotle – in marked contrast to his academic predecessor – gives a much less enthusiastic endorsement to the monarchic rule of an ideal philosopher king.  As in Plato's Republic and Machiavelli's Discourses, Aristotle sketches several kinds of constitutions, but whereas Plato describes the inevitable decline from a kallipolis to the chaos of democracy, leading ultimately to outright tyranny, Aristotle presents a different framework for the relative merits of different models of governance.  Aristotle positions tyranny, where "the one" rules in his own interest, as the negative counterpart of monarchy, where "the one" rules for the benefit of all.  As the negative counterpart to an aristocracy, an oligarchy – "rule of the few" – governs for the benefit of only the wealthy.  Following this logic, Aristotle positions democracy, which rules for the poor, as the negative counterpart of the politeia (a "polity" or "republic").   As each kind of negative example shows, Aristotle's notion of an ideal city-state is one that aims for the good of the whole society, not merely one portion.

As in the Nicomachean Ethics – whose last book bears some resemblance to Plato's Republic in its recommendation of the contemplative life and its call for a city to take up the task of cultivating virtuous citizens – the final books of the Politicsgive some political recommendations that reflect the ideals of Aristotle's teacher.  Following Plato, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of balancing the parts of the soul, and he gives special importance to the role of education in maintaining the city, and even a program of education that involves elements of the musical training and artistic censorship proposed in the Republic.

Both authors, in fact, make clear that they are building not just any city for any people; rather, they are building a model of a Greek city for Greek people, a city unfit for the "barbarians" who live outside their familiar environment.  These explicitly Hellenic approaches leave students in Contemporary Civilization with some lingering concerns about the political recommendations of Plato and Aristotle.  To what degree do the Politics and Greek political texts more broadly prescribe characteristics of an ideal city, and to what degree do they merely describe characteristics of the Greek cities that Aristotle and Plato already knew?   Man is a political animal, so Aristotle argues, but do these texts require that he be a Greek one, too?


Written by Charles McNarama, Core Lecturer, Classics, Columbia University