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The Fundamentals of Aristotle's Political Theory

Aristotle's politics

Dive into the world of political philosophy with this beginner's guide to Aristotle's theories on politics. Gain a deeper understanding of his concepts and state.

Aristotle's political theory is a cornerstone of political philosophy and has influenced the way we think about government and society for centuries. Understanding the core ideas and principles of this theory can help provide insight into the ancient philosopher's views on justice, democracy, and citizenship. In this beginner-friendly guide, we'll break down the basics of Aristotle's political theory for you to explore.

Aristotle's Political Theory


''Man is political animal'' - Aristotle.

Introduction to Aristotle's Political Theory 

Aristotle's political theory is based on the concept of polis, which refers to a city or a state. He believed that humans are social creatures who thrive in organized communities with shared values, customs and laws. For him, politics was the study of how people can live together in such communities in harmony and justice. He emphasized the importance of ethical principles such as wisdom, courage, prudence, and compassion as necessary qualities for good governance. Aristotle viewed a state as an essential entity that arises out of the collective efforts of individuals coming together to form a community. According to him, rulers must prioritize the well-being of their subjects over personal interests or self-gain to create just societies.

ARISTOTLE'S Politics is both interesting and important-testing, as showing the common prejudices of educated Greeks in his time, and important as a source of many principles which remained influential until the end of the Middle Ages. I do not think there is much in it that could be of any practical use to a statesman of the present day, but there is a great deal that throws light on the conflicts of parties in different parts of the Hellenic world. There is not very much awareness of methods of government in non-Hellenic States. There are, it is true, allusions to Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and Carthage, but except in the case of Carthage they are somewhat perfunctory. 

There is no mention of Alexander, and not even the faintest awareness of the complete transformation that he was effecting in the world. The whole discussion is concerned with City States, and there is no prevision of their obsolescence. Greece, owing to its division into independent cities, was a laboratory of political experiment; but nothing to which these experiments were relevant existed from Aristotle's time until the rise of the Italian cities in the Middle Ages. In many ways, the experience to which Aristotle appeals is more relevant to the comparatively modern world than to any that existed for fifteen hundred years after the book was written.

What is Aristotle's Political Theory?

Aristotle's Political Theory is a comprehensive ethical and political philosophy that constitutes one of the earliest systematic attempts to understand politics and society. It lays emphasis on the need for a just society, where citizens work together to achieve happiness through virtue. According to Aristotle, human beings are social creatures and thrive in communities, and it is the role of the state to promote these communities' well-being. The theory does not see society as a collection of individuals pursuing their self-interests but rather as an organic whole where each member helps to create a common good.

Aristotle theory of state 

The book begins by pointing out the importance of the State; it is the highest kind of community, and aims at the highest good. In order of time, the family comes first; it is built on the two fundamental relations of man and woman, master and slave, both of which are natural. Several families combined make a village; several villages, a State, provided the combination is nearly large enough to be self- sufficing. 

The State, though later in time than the family, is prior to it, and even to the individual, by nature; for "what each thing is when fully developed we call its nature," and human society, fully developed, is a State, and the whole is prior to the part. The conception involved here is that of organism: a hand, when the body is destroyed, is, we are told, no longer a hand. The implication is that a hand is to be defined by its purpose that of grasping which it can only perform when joined to a living body. In like manner, an individual cannot fulfil his purpose unless he is part of a State. 

He who founded the State, Aristotle says, was the greatest of benefactors; for without law man is the worst of animals, and law depends, for its existence, on the State. The State is not a mere society for exchange and the prevention of crime: "The end of the State is the good life.  And the State is the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honourable life" . "A political society exists for the sake of noble actions, not of mere companionship" .

This leads to the question: how large should a State be? Large cities, we are told, are never well governed, because a great multitude cannot be orderly. A State ought to be large enough to be more or less self-sufficing, but not too large for constitutional government. It ought to be small enough for the citizens to know each other's characters, otherwise right will not be done in elections and lawsuits. The territory should be small enough to be surveyed in its entirety from a hill-top. We are told both that it should be self-sufficient  and that it should have an export and import trade , which seems an inconsistency.

"The city- sate is a product of human nature"

According to Aristotle, politics is the art of governing and organizing people in a society. He believed that humans naturally form political communities because they are social by nature and cannot survive alone. Politics involves making decisions about the collective affairs of a community, including laws, policies, and systems of government. 

Aristotelian theory of natural slavery

A State being composed of households, each of which consists of one family, the discussion of politics should begin with the family. The bulk of this discussion is concerned with slavery--for in antiquity the slaves were always reckoned as part of the family. Slavery is expedient and right, but the slave should be naturally inferior to the master. From birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule; the man who is by nature not his own but another man's is by nature a slave. Slaves should not be Greeks, but of an inferior race with less spirit ,  Tame animals are better off when ruled by man, and so are those who are naturally inferior when ruled by their superiors. It may be questioned whether the practice of making slaves out of prisoners of war is justified; power, such as leads to victory in war, seems to imply superior virtue, but this is not always the case. 

War, however, is just when waged against men who, though intended by nature to be governed, will not submit ; and in this case, it is implied, it would be right to make slaves of the conquered. This would seem enough to justify any conqueror who ever lived; for no nation will admit that it is intended by nature to be governed, and the only evidence as to nature's intentions must be derived from the outcome of war. In every war, therefore, the victors are in the right and the vanquished in the wrong. Very satisfactory!

Aristotle's criticism of Plato's republic

Plato's Utopia is criticized by Aristotle on various grounds. There is first the very interesting comment that it gives too much unity to the State, and would make it into an individual. Next comes the kind of argument against the proposed abolition of the family that naturally occurs to every reader. Plato thinks that, by merely giving the title of "son" to all who are of an age that makes their sonship possible, a man will acquire towards the whole multitude the sentiments that men have at present towards their actual sons, and correlatively as regards the title "father." Aristotle, on the contrary, says that what is common to the greatest number receives the least care, and that if "sons" are common to many "fathers" they will be neglected in common; it is better to be a cousin in reality than a "son" in Plato's sense; Plato's plan would make love watery. 

Then there is a curious argument that, since abstinence from adultery is a virtue, it would be a pity to have a social system which abolishes this virtue and the correlative vice . Then we are asked: if women are common, who will manage the house? I wrote an essay once, called "Architecture and the Social System," in which I pointed out that all who combine communism with abolition of the family also advocate communal houses for large numbers, with communal kitchens, dining-rooms, and nurseries. This system may be described as monasteries without celibacy. It is essential to the carrying out of Plato's plans, but it is certainly not more impossible than many other things that he recommends. ''Aristotle defends private property and the family''.

Plato's communism annoys Aristotle. It would lead, he says, to anger against lazy people, and to the sort of quarrels that are common between fellow-travellers. It is better if each minds his own business. Property should be private, but people should be so trained in benevolence as to allow the use of it to be largely common. Benevolence and generosity are virtues, and without private property they are impossible. Finally we are told that, if Plato's plans were good, someone would have thought of them sooner.  I do not agree with Plato, but if anything could make me do so, it would be Aristotle's arguments against him.

Aristotle sent his disciples and asked them to bring all the city-state constitutions. Aristotle studied all the constitution. They bring about 150 constitution.  After studying all the constitutions they realize that all the states have different systems.

Aristotle government classification


Correct       

deviant

1. One ruler                     

Kingship 

Tyranny

2. few ruler                     

Aristocracy

oligarchy

3. many ruler                   

 polity

Democracy

These term were coined by Aristotle and we still use this term in political science.

Aristotle categorized constitutions into three types based on the number of rulers and who they represented; the rule by one person (monarchy), rule by a few wealthy individuals (oligarchy), or rule by many citizens chosen through fair election (polity).

Aristotle good government

A government is good when it aims at the good of the whole community, bad when it cares only for itself. There are three kinds of government that are good: monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government (or polity); there are three that are bad: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. There are also many mixed intermediate forms. It will be observed that the good and bad governments are defined by the ethical qualities of the holders of power, not by the form of the constitution. This, however, is only partly true. An aristocracy is a rule of men of virtue, an oligarchy is a rule of the rich, and Aristotle does not consider virtue and wealth strictly synonymous. 

golden mean Aristotle virtue ethics

What he holds, in accordance with the doctrine of the golden mean, is that a moderate competence is most likely to be associated with virtue: "Mankind do not acquire or preserve virtue by the help of external goods, but external goods by the help of virtue, and happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are most highly cultivated in their mind and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities". There is therefore a difference between the rule of the best (aristocracy) and of the richest (oligarchy), since the best are likely to have only moderate fortunes. There is also a difference between democracy and polity, in addition to the ethical difference in the government, for what Aristotle calls "polity" retains some oligarchic elements . But between monarchy and tyranny the only difference is ethical.

Aristotle democracy and oligarchy

He is emphatic in distinguishing oligarchy and democracy by the economic status of the governing party: there is oligarchy when the rich govern without consideration for the poor, democracy when power is in the hands of the needy and they disregard the interest of the rich.

Monarchy is better than aristocracy, aristocracy is better than polity. But the corruption of the best is worst; therefore tyranny is worse than oligarchy, and oligarchy than democracy. In this way Aristotle arrives at a qualified defence of democracy; for most actual governments are bad, and therefore, among actual governments, democracies tend to be best.

The Greek conception of democracy was in many ways more extreme than ours; for instance, Aristotle says that to elect magistrates is oligarchic, while it is democratic to appoint them by lot. In extreme democracies, the assembly of the citizens was above the law, and decided each question independently. The Athenian lawcourts were composed of a large number of citizens chosen by lot, unaided by any jurist; they were, of course, liable to be swayed by eloquence or party passion. When democracy is criticized, it must be understood that this sort of thing is meant.

The main cause was the conflict of oligarchs and democrats. Democracy, Aristotle says, arises from the belief that men who are equally free should be equal in all respects; oligarchy, from the fact that men who are superior in some respect claim too much. Both have a kind of justice, but not the best kind. "Therefore both parties, whenever their share in the government does not accord with their preconceived ideas, stir up revolution" . Democratic governments are less liable to revolutions than oligarchies, because oligarchs may fall out with each other. The oligarchs seem to have been vigorous fellows. In some cities, we are told, they swore an oath: "I will be an enemy to the people, and will devise all the harm against them which I can." Now-a-days, reactionaries are not so frank.

Aristotle's class analysis

Aristotle understood class contradiction as the foundation of politics.  Aristotle did not use the term directory class, but he used the term  'faction'' for class. He said that the conflict between Athens and Sparta was also shaped by class contradictions. 

why Aristotle dislike democracy

Aristotle dislike democracy. he gave definition '' Democracy is when the poor, and not the men of property, are the rulers.  Why did not Aristotle support democracy  ? because people are so easily mislead and so fickle in their views the ballot should be limited to the intelligent.''  Aristotle supported the aristocratic system. 

Role of Law in Politics

The role of law in politics is a central concept in Aristotle's political philosophy. He believed that laws were necessary to achieve justice, maintain order, and fulfill social needs. According to Aristotle, there are two types of justice; distributive and corrective justice. Distributive justice refers to the fair distribution of resources such as wealth or property, while corrective justice deals with resolving disputes between individuals or groups.

In Aristotle's view, laws must be rooted in moral principles to promote the common good and prevent the abuse of power by rulers or private interests. Laws establish a framework for society by defining what is permitted and prohibited in both public and private life. By adhering to established laws and procedures, individuals could avoid conflict and protect their rights.

Furthermore, Aristotle argued that a just government should be based on constitutionalism where leaders are bound by law rather than being above it. This system guarantees due process rights for all citizens resolves any grievances through an impartial judiciary system. In this way, the rule of law contributes to effective governance based on fairness, equity, and public well-being in accordance with Aristotle's political philosophy.

Aristotle political theory summary

Aristotle concludes that there is no wickedness too great for a tyrant. There is, however, he says, another method of preserving a tyranny, namely by moderation and by seeming religious. The There is a long argument to prove that foreign conquest is not the end of the State, showing that many people took the imperialist view.

As we have seen in connection with slavery, Aristotle is no believer in equality. Granted, however, the subjection of slaves and women, it still remains a question whether all citizens should be politically equal. Some men, he says, think this desirable, on the ground that all revolutions turn on the regulation of property. He rejects this argument, maintaining that the greatest crimes are due to excess rather than want; no man becomes a tyrant in order to avoid feeling the cold.

There is, it is true, an exception: conquest of "natural slaves" is right and just. This would, in Aristotle's view, justify wars against barbarians, but not against Greeks, for no Greeks are "natural slaves." In general, war is only a means, not an end; a city in an isolated situation, where conquest is not possible, may be happy; States that live in isolation need not be inactive. God and the universe are active, though foreign conquest is impossible for them. The happiness that a State should seek, therefore, though war may sometimes be a necessary means to it, should not be war, but the activities of peace. no decision as to which method is likely to prove the more successful.

Men who work for their living should not be admitted to citizenship. "Citizens should not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue." Nor should they be husbandmen, because they need leisure. The citizens should own the property, but the husbandmen should be slaves of a different race . Northern races, we are told, are spirited; southern races, intelligent; therefore slaves should be of southern races, since it is inconvenient if they are spirited. The Greeks alone are both spirited and intelligent; they are better governed than barbarians, and if united could rule the world  . One might have expected at this point some allusion to Alexander, but there is none.

Aristotle's fundamental assumptions, in his Politics, are very different from those of any modern writer.

Both for good and evil, therefore, the day of the cultured gentleman is past.

Bibliography
A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell
The-history-of-philosophy-by-a.-c.-grayling
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, rev. edn, ed. H. Tredennick and Jonathan Barnes, trans. J. A. K. Thomson, London: Penguin Classics, 2004
Barnes, J. (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle. Available online:
https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/5975805
Ackrill, J. L., Aristotle the Philosopher, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981
Anagnostopoulos, G. (ed.), A Companion to Aristotle, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2009 Barnes, J. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1995 
Ross, W. D., Aristotle, London: Methuen, 1923
Shields, C., Aristotle, 2nd edn, London: Routledge, 2014

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