Aristotle's Politics

The previous post ended on the notion that Aristotle's attitude could be described as more authoritarian than Plato's, by which I meant that for Plato the goal was a harmonious community, for Aristotle it was the happiness of philosophers. In fact, for both, the two are related. But I think the difference in attitude is interesting, and puts into question the conception of Aristotle as some kind of democrat.

Aristotle's Politics begins where his Nicomachean Ethics left off. Associations, like everything else, aim at some good. The family provides for the daily material needs of each member. The village can ensure a broader range of material needs. The city can deliver self-sufficiency and the good life. Man is a political animal in that he cannot fully exercise his capacities in isolation: contemplation requires a moderate fortune (wealth must not turn into an end) and slaves. The city structures society so that those capable of the human virtues are able to demonstrate them.

Most are incapable of the human virtues. Like children, it is in their interest to be ruled. Natural slaves are identified simply as those people capable of being enslaved. Strength is a virtue. Those capable of winning wars and enslaving others deserve to do so. Slaves do not have the ability to deliberate (and so identify what is right in each circumstance), and even if they did, they lack the power to act according to what their reason suggests. Women can deliberate, but Aristotle claims this faculty lacks 'authority'. Women can be as rational as men, but their emotional nature disqualifies them from the opportunity of fulfillment.

Most of Aristotle's emphasis is on association through necessity, as a means to ensure survival and more broadly, the conditions for a philosophical life. However, he does concede that people also have a social impulse separate from self-preservation, which would suggest that fulfillment can also be found in perfecting that capacity and desire, i.e. in the political life.

The ambiguous relationship between intellectual and practical virtues is demonstrated by the fact that Aristotle provides two models for the best form of polity in his Politics, one ideal and one more realistic (it should be noted that the work's provenance and structure is not certain). We'll start with the latter.

The successful community has to ensure the common good (as the family does) rather than the interests of rulers (as Aristotle admits is the case between masters and slaves). The statement about slaves here is in tension with the one above. More generally, Aristotle is torn between having to preserve the common good and having to protect the interests of those capable of being philosophers. Ultimately, it is in the interests of contemplative men to have a stable society around them that provides the leisure needed for their inquiries, but this part of the work is mostly concerned with ensuring that stability.

Reason, prudence (as well as justice) demands that the excellent (those who would preserve the common good), should rule, rather than the well-born, the wealthy, or the many. If only one man exceeds all others in practical virtue, he should be king and the association will be a monarchy. If one man rules according to his private interest, then the association is a tyranny. Similarly, aristocracies are ruled by the few who are 'best', while oligopolies by the rich in their own interest. Constitutional governments are possible when the many have excellent qualities (usually of a military kind). Democracies are ruled by the poor multitude in their interest.

Aristotle argues that the many can rule well -- they can put a broader range of qualities in the services of the community. Deliberation in a group also has the effect of cooling passions. Aristotle is more lukewarm about rule by the poor -- they can merely identify good rulers. But if the community has a a large poor population, they will resent exclusion from political decision-making, and so they must at least be allowed to vote.

Aristotle lists the forms of government from best to worst:
  1. Monarchy (one is pre-eminently virtuous)
  2. Aristocracy (few are pre-eminently virtuous)
  3. Constitutional Government (many possess at least military virtue)
  4. Democracy (poor)
  5. Oligarchy (rich)
  6. Tyranny (self-interested king)
In an oligarchy, the rich are leisured, can devote time to politics and rule by decree. In democracies, the poor have to work, and so rely on laws. The mean: laws and prerogative, is always better. This points in the direction of constitutional government. This is redefined as a mixed constitution, where both rich and poor have a role in politics. However, a new mean is to be sought there. The rich are arrogant and ambitious, while the poor are envious and criminal, and their clashes lead to faction and the abandonment of the common good. The middle class is where reason and duty are to be located (perhaps they are the militarily excellent). Where there are no obviously pre-eminent men that can assume leadership of the community (so that it becomes a monarchy or aristocracy), a mixed constitution with a large middle class is optimal.

Now to turn to Aristotle's ideal polity. The focus is now firmly on the primacy of the philosophic over the political life. The polis has to be small enough so that citizens know each other (and can select suitable office-holders), and large enough to ensure self-sufficiency. The agricultural and manufacturing classes have no leisure and are excluded from citizenship (they are described as slaves or serfs). They are managed by citizens, whose other duties are determined by age. The young serve in the military (only to defend the community, conquest distracts away from internal development and contemplation, although slaves have to be acquired from somewhere...). Service in the army provides the experience needed for rulership. Once mature, citizens manage their households and the practical affairs of the city. When they reach old age, they retire from political life and assume the religious one. As noted in the previous post, for Aristotle the study and worship of the gods is equivalent to scientific and philosophical contemplation.

In this way, practical and intellectual virtues are apportioned according to age. Both are absolutely essential to the good life, although the latter is more distinguished. To relate this to the above list of constitutions, Aristotle's ideal looks most like an aristocracy, although the pool of citizens (who have to man the army) seems to be quite wide, so it retains elements of a constitutional government. The two models, I would argue, are broadly compatible. To return to my comments at the beginning, you need a harmonious community to philosophize in, but the philosophy, rather than the harmony, is the goal. Plato's philosophers rule for the good of all, Aristotle's rule for a time, and to ensure the conditions conducive to philosophy / the worship of the universe.

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