Aristotle’s two major influences on this life and research were from his father and the time he spent in Plato’s Academy before Plato’s death in 347 BC. Aristotle’s father Nicomachus was a physician and a became to teach his son Greek medicine and biology when Aristotle was very young.[1] We can gather that Aristotle’s father had a major influence on his life from how these subjects carried over to his research and from the fact that Aristotle named his son after his father. Aristotle’s time in Plato’s Academy set precedent that Aristotle would follow in both his political philosophy, and the trajectory of his life. Like Plato, Aristotle spent time in Athens and began his own school, the Lyceum, where Aristotle collected information on a myriad of subjects such as “botany, biology, logic, music, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, cosmology, physics, the history of philosophy, metaphysics, psychology, ethics, theology, rhetoric, political history, government and political theory, rhetoric, and the arts.”[2] According to some ancient accounts the manuscripts collect at the Lyceum was the great library of antiquity. Finally, towards the end of his life we can see Aristotle drawing comparisons between himself and Socrates, as when Alexander the Great died and a wave of anti-Macedonian sentiment took over Athens, Aristotle fled the city for his own safety. Leaving Athens, Aristotle said the probably apocryphal line that, “he saw no reason to permit Athens to sin twice against philosophy.”[3] This of course refers to the trail and condemnation of Socrates for questioning the status-quo.

In his political philosophy we can see two concepts that carried through three generations of philosophers; Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. One concept is better expressed by Aristotle’s answers to the question, “What makes a good city-state?” or “what is the best form of government?” The other concept as well comes from asking the question “how can we bring the ideal city-state (or form of government) into being?” Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all believed that the Athenian democratic government was not the best way to run a city-state and were connected in some way to external powers that had imposed control over Athens, i.e. the Thirty Tyrants and Alexander the Great’s empire. Although they provide different answers to the first question. Plato advocated for a philosopher kings, Aristotle greatly expanded this by arguing for a virtuous constitution for a city-state, whether it be a kingship or a polity. What both seems to agree upon, however, was the need for the city-state to educate citizens. Regarding the modern institution of public education both Plato and Aristotle were ahead of their time. They believed that the ideal citizen, should be given a philosopher’s education and so that they would be able to participate in the political process. Political participation is the key to a healthy city-state that would allow for greater happiness and more fulfilled lives for all of its inhabitants.

Aristotle and the City-State

 The word ‘politics’ derives from the Greek word polis for city-state. Politics for the Greeks had everything to do with the city-state, the political community that existed within it, and the relationship of citizens and other individuals to that political community. Aristotle defines a city-state as a community, noting that every community aims to be good, that has the most the most authority to do good. This community is the one called a city-state, the community that is political.  More specifically, Aristotle argues that a city-state is a product of nature because humans are political animals. Humans depend on each other for survival, and most cannot survive without belonging to a political community. However, a city-state is not simply a political community that has come together to survive, but rather to thrive and improve the lives of those within. Aristotle says that city-states come to, “be for the sake of living, but it remains in existence for the sake of living well.”  Aristotle’s moral and political ideas are predicated on his definitions of the city-state as a natural phenomenon.

Human Nature

Aristotle views the political conditions that humans live in as a result of each person’s nature as well with most relationships in the political community corresponding to that of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled; i.e. master and slave, man and woman, king and citizen. For example, on the relationship between man and woman Aristotle says, “Moreover, the relation of male to female is that of natural superior to natural inferior, and that of ruler to ruled. But, in fact, the same holds true of all human beings.”  Indeed, Aristotle believes that this dynamic is inside every individual in the relationship between the body and the soul. The soul being the one that rules, makes decisions, possesses reason; the body being the half that is ruled. Aristotle believes that the dynamic of ruler and the ruled is mutually beneficial for both parties, such as when he says, “For if something is capable of rational foresight, it is a natural ruler and master, whereas whatever can use its body to labor is ruled and is a natural slave. That is why the same thing is beneficial for both master and slave.”  Slaves are a piece of property that serve as a tool of action for their master, similar to how the soul can command the body to eat or breathe. Aristotle goes into depth about slavery, and the science of household management. His ideas on slavery certainly come off as elitist and appalling to our modern sensibilities today. Yet for Aristotle’s time, and throughout the following centuries, this would have been a widely accepted view.

Aristotle’s views on mutually beneficial relationships also apply to his ideas on city-state and how they should be governed. The purpose of the city-state is to promote the general happiness of all its inhabitants, and Aristotle believed that different forms of government could accomplish this goal. Aristotle’s definition of happiness was not subjective, meaning different things for different people, but rather, happiness was to live a life according to reason. Those who chose not to pursue happiness were choosing to live in a lesser state of existence. In pursuing the promotion of happiness, city-states did not have to justify their authority over the political community, which differs from our modern notion of sovereignty by the people. The forms that government could take are referred to by Aristotle as a city-state’s constitution. Neither monarchy, aristocracy, or a democracy were inherently good or bad because each has a capacity for both. Aristotle elaborated on the different forms that governments could take, and how each could be the correct form of government, or a deviant form. The correct forms, using Aristotle’s methods and definitions, are a kingship which is ruled by one, an aristocracy which is ruled by a few, and a polity which is ruled by many. These types of rule become deviant when they turn away from the goal of general happiness becoming a tyranny, oligarchy, or a democracy. Aristotle says, “For tyranny is rule by one person for the benefit of the monarch, oligarchy is for the benefit of the rich, and democracy is for the benefit of the poor. But none is for their common profit.” 

Citizenship

Aristotle’s views on citizenship may have contradicted some of the views of his contemporaries in that he does not believe citizenship should be based on birth or wealth, but rather, citizenship should be based on the usefulness an individual in safeguarding the political community. Aristotle uses the analogy of sailors on a ship who are responsible for the safety of everyone on the boat. The boat is the political community and the sailors are the idea citizens by the function that they serve. Aristotle says, “For the safety of the voyage is a task of all of them, since this is what each of the sailors strives for. In the same way, then, the citizens too, even though they are dissimilar, have the safety of the community as their task.”  The exact role that a citizen needs to fit is dependent on the type of government, or constitution, that their city-state has. Aristotle did not believe that women, slaves, or poor laborers had the capacity to be citizens. Citizens would come from the dominant side of Aristotle’s master/slave dynamic, but also be able to serve the political community. “A good citizen,” Aristotle says, “must have the knowledge and ability both to be ruled and to rule, and this is the virtue of a citizen, to know the rule of free people from both sides.”  Furthermore, being a good citizen does not also indicate that someone is a good person, although it is possible to be both. A good person, someone who lives a virtuous life, is defined by Aristotle’s singular definition of good. The attributes of a good citizen are dependent on the constitution of that citizen’s city-state.

Ethics

It is important to understand that Aristotle’s ethics are very much tied in to his political ideas as well. In that he believes that people and city-states share similar attributes, and that the qualities that make a good person, also make for a good city-state. He says opening the argument in Book VII, “It remains to say whether the happiness of each individual human being is the same as that of a city-state or not. But here too the answer is evident, since everyone would agree that they are the same.”[4] More specifically Aristotle argues that it is self-evident that human, individually and collectively, have the same end.[5] The collective life of people is equated the constitution of the city-state. While this is a little confusing for in our past discussion we have reviewed the idea that Aristotle being a good person was not the same as being a good citizen, in Book VII he often correlates the traits of a virtuous person and a virtuous constitution for a city state. This all goes into Aristotle’s ideas about collective education. Surely this is a influence from Plato who also argued for what we would today call public education. Both conclude that it would be very beneficial for political communities to educated citizens collective, so that they can gain the nessacery skills to be good citizens. 

Aristotle’s Ideal Political Community

Aristotle also argues that the ideal political community should have a large middle-class, notice that the term ‘middle-class’ is in context of how we then about it modernly. Aristotle believed that a large gap between the rich and the poor would only lead to infighting, and the demise of the polis. If a city-state is divided between the rich and the people (the poor) Aristotle argues that, “whenever one side or the other happens to gain more power than its opponents, they establish neither a common constitution nor an equal one, but take their superiority in the constitution as a reward of their victory and make in the one case a democracy and in the other an oligarchy”[6] When a legislator makes laws for a polis he should always include “the middle” in his constitution whether it is for an oligarchy or a democracy. A large “middle” produces a stable constitution.[7] This argument for having a strong “middle” in a city-state’s constitution seems to come from Aristotle’s ethics as well. As stated above, Aristotle believed what made a good person also made a good constitution equating the individual to the collective. Aristotle believed that virtue could be found in the middle of two polar opposite vices; likewise, in the structure of a constitution a middle should be found between rich and poor. I believe that Aristotle would argue for equality over individual rights as the qualities of a citizen was dependent on the constitution of a polis. 

Bibliography

L. Michael, Classics of Moral and Political Theory, 5th Edition (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 20110915. VitalBook file.)

Aristotle (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


Sources Cited

  • [1] Morgan 252
  • [2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy- Aristotle
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Morgan, Classical Moral and Political Philosophy, 413.
  • [5] Ibid, 416.
  • [6]  Ibid, 406.
  • [7] Ibid.