The Politics is one of the most influential texts in the history of political thought, and it raises issues which still confront anyone who wants to think seriously about the ways in which human societies are organized and governed. By examining the way societies are run--from households to city states--Aristotle establishes how successful constitutions can best be initiated and upheld. For this edition, Sir Ernest Barker's fine translation, which has been widely used for nearly half a century, has been extensively revised to meet the needs of the modern reader. The accessible introduction and clear notes examine the historical and philosophical background of the work and discuss its significance for modern political thought.
What The Politics does have in common with The Republic is the bias towards an aristocratic form of government, and a dislike of democracy, not aristocracy as it exists today, but in the ancient Greek sense of the word – the people with the most intellectual and moral merit being singled out and put in charge of the state, with those below them being ruled over for their own good. This system is quite different from the modern Western political system, in that the government would not be voted in, and the average person with no expertise in politics would have little influence on political goings on, which makes sense to me. However, Aristotle notes the danger of such a system, in that if it goes wrong there is the risk of it becoming much worse than the democratic system when it goes wrong, as power is held in the hands of the few; even though when at its best it is a more efficient system than democracy at its best.
Plato and Aristotle both split their state up into several classes, each have the lowest class being the agricultural, manual labour, shopkeepers and craftspeople, the next layer up being the military and police, and the highest layer being the guardians or government, the intellectuals and philosophers. Aristotle differs in his assignment of these roles from Plato, and I think he makes a mistake. Plato has the cleverest people occupying the top tier and being educated the most, and so on, while Aristotle has the least able in the lowest class, and the rest in the military class between the ages of 21 and 50 (after a general education is complete), and then has them move to the higher positions when they reach an age not suited to intense physical exertion. This denies the specialisation of the individual and the state which Plato favours, and I think is less ideal, but Aristotle opposes Plato's views more reasonably on the matter of family unity, that wives and children should not be held in common, and that the family is best in the traditional form. Aristotle also denies land ownership to those in the lowest class, which Plato does not, and I don't think this would work, both limit the amount of land allowed to each citizen though, with those having the most land only being allowed to posses for example five times more than those with the lowest, in order to reduce poverty.
Overall I don't like The Politics as much as The Republic, partly because it does not feel like a complete work, both in content and vision, but it is worth reading for the bits it adds that The Republic gets wrong. Both books would be disagreeable to the modern leftist, they oppose liberty for the sake of liberty, for the reason that the uneducated do not know what they want; their notion of equality is “proportionate equality” - equality for equals, not equality for everyone, and their state is controlling and elitist. Nevertheless, despite the fact that such systems as advocated would meet disapproval today, I don't think they are bad systems per se, and if a combination of the system suggested here, and that suggested in the Republic were to used, it could theoretically operate as well as a democratic system, the problem being in the practicalities more than in the theory. But, as both say, when a democracy goes wrong, it never goes as wrong as the other types of system. When a monarchy goes wrong it turns into a tyranny, and when an aristocracy goes wrong it turns into an oligarchy, and more people end up suffering than when a democracy goes wrong. Democracy is the safe option, Aristotle thinks, but it does not have the potential for perfection that the state controlled solely by the most able has, and this is the most prominent idea behind this and The Republic.
Aristotle. Somewhat of a difficult read for me. The introduction is worth the price of the book, especially if you have read The Politics before. I enjoy Aristotle, the fact
Unlike the approach of Plato, Aristotle focused on the examples that the Greek political world knew of to determine the best approach for government of a polis. Classifying the types of government into six forms, three “ideal” and three “perverted”, Aristotle described them as showing their pros and cons in an effort to establish the “best”. Then his analysis turned to various functions of government from laws, offices, and how to pass or fill either. Yet, underlying everything is Aristotle’s insistence that human nature determines everything concerned with governance.
Politics, while thought-provoking and significant in its analysis and conclusions, is unfortunately not without its flaws. The biggest is Aristotle’s argument of natural rulers and natural slaves that is so opposite to the way many think today. The next biggest is that fact that the overall work seems like it is not coherently organized or even complete as many aspects that Aristotle says he will cover never appear and he writes about the bringing about his conclusive best government before actually proving what it is, though given his argument that the best government for a polis depends on how its population is constructed.
Aristotle’s Politics is at the same both thought-provoking and maddening especially given the soundness of his analysis and the disorganized state of the overall treatise. Yet it is one of the most important treatises of political thought of the Western world and is significant in political and historical terms as it has been influential for millennia.
Decades ago, I was invited to some free private lectures given by a Mr. M_____ (hereafter M.) These evening lectures were given in M.’s living room, the guests all young. To this day I think it remarkable that he gave
M.’s lectures were inspired by the teaching of a mysterious (to me) figure named “Galambos.” The few lectures I heard ranged widely: Aristotle, Plato, Occam’s razor, John Stuart Mill, Mill’s wife, the original meaning of “liberalism,” patents, woman’s role, Jews, cigarette smoking, surfing, even credit card use for identification instead of state-issued IDs. Most important was Galambos’s vision of three categories of Private Property—primordial (one’s life); primary (one’s thoughts); and secondary (one’s money and material possessions). Private Property provided for Galambos the sole avenue to fulfilling the ethical injunction against coercion of any “volitional being.”
Galambos, you can surmise, was not a communist.
Plato, M. asserted, was a communist, definitely an accusation in those days. Having read The Republic, I understood that this opinion is an easy one to form because Plato seems well disposed toward such an ideology. I also thought it a false conclusion. Marx’s communism made abolition of private property a pre-requisite. Plato, in an effort to sever political power from the motive of personal economic advantage, denied private property to the rulers of his ideal state, and he goes on and on about that, but the vital point is he denied private property only to the rulers, not to the private citizens.
Aristotle was for M. a philosophical forebear of private property rights. I wonder, now, if M.’s view of Plato was influenced by the Politics, which criticizes Plato for his views on private property—his alleged communism—but not always accurately. Aristotle had been a student and then a colleague of Plato’s for years. He admired his character. Even so, he may just have had as much as he could tolerate of Plato’s sympathies on certain points. One imagines arguments in which the debate becomes less and less reasoned, more and more emotional. Easy for anyone to misrepresent matters when that happens. Aristotle did.
In the Politics, however, one discovers Aristotle’s own views are not wholly in accord with what private property advocates seek. For example, Galambos’s concept of primordial property (one’s life) is abrogated by Aristotle’s defense of slavery and by his disquieting justification of offensive war: “hunting ought to be practiced—not only against animals, but also against human beings who are intended by nature to be ruled by others and refuse to obey that intention—because war of this order is naturally just.” Nor are other forms of property immune. The Politics describes situations in which, it is asserted, common use of property provides a superior benefit. For democracies, he recommends an element of welfare, writing “the proper policy is to accumulate any surplus revenue in a fund, and then distribute this fund in block grants to the poor” and insists “This is in the interest of all classes, including the prosperous themselves.”
Not least, Aristotle was an opponent of great wealth and the making of money from purely financial transaction. He claimed that “there has been a vulgar decline into the cultivation of qualities supposed to be useful and of a more profitable character” and issued warnings against having a constitution congenial to an oligarchical or even aristocratic bias because such constitutions lead the favored to become even more grasping and covetous, adding that “The weaker are always anxious for equality and justice. The strong pay no heed to either.”
As for slavery, an apologist may wish to excuse Aristotle’s defense of it by attributing his views to the times he lived in. This excuse won’t do. Aristotle admits it: “There are some…who regard the control of slaves by a master as contrary to nature. In their view the distinction of master and slave is due to law or convention; there is no natural difference between them: the relation of master and slave is based on force, and being so based has no warrant in justice.”
But Aristotle owned slaves, so . . .
Aside from self-benefit, why did he believe in slavery? The soul, man, the soul.
Aristotle’s notion was that “The soul has naturally two elements, a ruling and a ruled; and each has its different goodness, one belonging to the rational and ruling element, and the other to the irrational and ruled. What is true of the soul is evidently true of other cases; and we may thus conclude that it is a general law that there should be naturally ruling elements and elements naturally ruled.”
To which element do you guess Aristotle assigned slaves?
In his will, Aristotle left instructions to emancipate some of his slaves. This can be represented as generosity and humane behavior. But one who is impertinent might ask whether Aristotle, in contemplating his own passing, perhaps discovered doubts that any in his family were rational enough to “naturally” rule all those whom Aristotle had ruled. That’s unfair to propose and likely nonsensical. Even so, it raises questions. How decide that an individual possesses a naturally ruling soul? Or a naturally ruled soul? And over whom is a ruler eligible to exercise his natural endowment? Aristotle’s answer is that superiority in goodness makes a master. I think a standard more liable to contention would be hard to invent and it is no surprise that he must concede, “not all those who are actually slaves…are natural slaves.” In the Politics, no practical standards exist by which to decide these questions except those of military power and social/economic status. How convenient.
So, yes, if you read the Politics you will discover Aristotle expressing some sentiment or other that’s disagreeable or even outrageous to most any modern citizen of a “free” country no matter where those citizens settle themselves in a political spectrum. Some of Aristotle’s opinions fit easily with general sympathies common today. He was a champion of the middle class and of state-supported public education rather than education as a private enterprise, and his concerns with air and water quality are those of an environmentalist. Second Amendment defenders will feel their convictions bolstered by his statement that tyranny’s distrust of the masses leads to a policy depriving them of arms. Others of his opinions may provoke you so much that you’ll want to slam the book shut. That incitement to book slamming might also be one thing that could keep you reading despite Aristotle’s less than dynamic argumentative style—what will he say next?
It need be noted that Aristotle was not a man rabidly inclined to avoid factual blunders by reliance on observation, despite his considerable devotion to reporting observations (the Politics opens with “Observation shows us…”). Some examples from his other writings:
On Animals. (In The History of Animals)
Aristotle argues that stinging bees must be male, since nature would not provide weaponry to females of any species [from James T. Costa’s notes to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species]. Quite an argument. Directly contradicting Aristotle is the fact that not only can female bees sting, only the females can. 100% off the mark!
On Motion. (From principles expressed in On the Heavens)
Imagine dropping two stones simultaneously from the top of a 10-meter-high tower. One stone is heavy, 20 kilograms say, and the other is ten times lighter at just 2 kg. Aristotle held that when the 20-kg stone impacts mother earth, the 2-kg stone still will be up there in the air, 9 meters above ground—an error of fully 9 meters. 90% off the mark!
Why, he even thought that females have blacker blood and fewer teeth than males, or so reports Bertrand Russell in his essay on “intellectual rubbish.” Aristotle’s faith in his own reasoning apparently made all these false conclusions so obvious that the mildly strenuous endeavor of watching what happens when stones fall out of his own hands, or bees sting, or wounds in women bleed, or teeth are displayed, becomes a superfluity of verification only a slave to doubt would undertake.
I think I’ll listen to that doubting slave if someone is dropping stones from a tower I’m standing beside. Unless I happen to be the slave’s owner (his motivations about my safety might change). Or unless my name is Aristotle.
While mindful of the insights to be found in Aristotle’s Politics, in conclusion I say: Approach skeptically and with critical vigor.
Aristotle's ideas were quite advanced. Society has changed since his time, and I don't agree with everything he said, but there is much
The edition I read, is excellent. The translation I have is excellent. I like the notes at the beginning of each chapter. They provide an excellent guide.