Aristotle's Politics

Aristotle's Politics Summary and Analysis of Book I

Chapter 1

The city is a political partnership aimed at the most authoritative good. Investigating the composition of the city will allow us to understand the different kinds of rule‹political, kingly and household‹to see how they differ from one another.

Chapter 2

It is best to study these matters by looking at their natural origins. The most basic human partnership is that between a male and female for the sake of reproduction. The female is distinct from the slave. The household arose from the male-female partnership and the master-slave partnership, and it is arranged to fill the needs of daily life. A partnership of several households is a village, and the union of several villages is a city. A city is self-sufficient in that it contains all that is necessary to lead a good life. The city originates for the sake of basic survival, but "it exists for the sake of living well." The city therefore exists by nature, because it is the natural end of human partnerhips. "Man is by nature a political animal," because he alone among the animals has the ability to communicate his ideas about justice and the good.

The city is prior to the individual in importance because the individual apart from the city is not self-sufficient. One who does not need the city and is self-sufficient is either a beast or a god. Man has potential for great good, but without law and virtue can be the worst of all the animals. Justice belongs to the city.

Chapter 3

The household involves three types of rule: mastery (master-slave rule), marital, and parental. Some think that mastery is similar to political rule, and some think that slavery is unjust.

Chapter 4

A slave is "a possession of the animate sort," meaning that he is an instrument of action and belongs completely to the master. A slave by nature is one who does not belong to himself by nature.

Chapter 5

Now we must investigate whether such a person exists by nature or not, and whether or not it advantageous for anyone to be a slave.

First it is necessary to examine the proper relationship between body and soul as analogous to different types of rule. The soul rules the body as a master rules a slave and the intellect rule the appetites like a king rules a city. It is natural and advantageous for the soul to rule the body. It is better for animals that they be ruled by man, and the relationship of male to female is a relationship of superior to inferior.

A natural slave is one who does not have the full use of reason, because such a person is as different from other men as the body is from the soul. The natural slave perceives reason, but does not have it. It is difficult to tell who a natural slave is, because the beauty of the soul is not easy to see, but for those who are natural slaves, slavery is both advantageous and just.

Chapter 6

Yet those who believe that slavery is unjust are correct in a sense, because, in addition to natural slaves, there are also slaves according to law. Legal slavery, usually the result of military conquest, is unjust because not all the conquered people are slaves by nature. If someone who is not a natural slave is enslaved by force, the situation is disadvantageous both to the master and the slave.

Chapter 7

Mastery and political rule are not the same thing, because political rule is over those who are free and equal.

Chapter 8

Let us now examine expertise in business as compared to household management. The two are not the same, because businesses supply and households consume. There are several ways of life based on self-generated work (as opposed to trade and commerce): the life of the nomad, the farmer, the pirate, the fisher and the hunter, or a combination of several. Everything in nature is made for a purpose; thus other creatures are made for the sake of human beings. Household management is a type of expertise for the acquisition of life's necessities.

Chapter 9

Business expertise is also a type of acquisitive expertise. Expertise in commerce is distinct from expertise in business because the former involves exchange. Commerce arose from creation of money as a result of necessary exchange. Business expertise is the same type as household expertise. The difference is that in business there is no limit, because the amount of wealth continually increases.

Chapter 10

Expertise in household management is necessary praiseworthy, but expertise in exchange is not according to nature because it involves usury and taking from others. Usury is the type of business most contrary to nature.

Chapter 11

The useful types of business expertise are experience regarding livestock, farming methods, and the raising of animals. There are three parts of expertise in exchange: marketing and transport, money-lending, and wage labor.

Philosophers are often poor, but only because they are not concerned with business, not because they could not become wealthy. Political rulers should be familiar with business matters because cities need revenues.

Chapter 12

Now let us examine marital rule. The wife is ruled in a political fashion, and the children in a kingly fashion.

Chapter 13

Household management is concerned with human beings and their virtuousness. Perhaps there are separate virtues for women and for children; otherwise how could one justify their being ruled? The female, unlike the slave, does have the deliberate element of reason, but she lacks authority. The child also has the deliberative element but it is incomplete. Therefore the virtues of men and women are different, and the virtues of slaves are different as well. Education of women and children with a view to the regime is necessary because women make up half of the free persons in the city and children are future citizens.


Book I of The Politics provides the reader with insight into Aristotle's philosophical method as well as his views on human nature. Aristotle conducts his philosophical inquiries based on the presuppositions that the universe is a rational and ordered whole in which each part has a distinct purpose and function. Reason can discern a thing's purpose by looking at its origin and characteristics in order to determine the end for which it exists. The Ethics follows this method in order to discern the ultimate end of human life. Because reason is the distinct capability of human beings, Aristotle argues that ultimate good for a human being is a life lived according to virtue and in contemplation of the highest truths of the universe. Aristotle defines happiness, the ultimate end for human beings, as activity of the soul according to virtue. Aristotle's political views are inextricably linked to his emphasis on virtue and reason in relation to the ultimate good for a human being.

We see Aristotle's inductive method at work in his account of the origin and purpose of the city. Aristotle theorizes that the city naturally comes into being as a result of physical necessity, as the natural completion of the smaller partnerships, the household and the village. Yet he looks to human nature to discern the deeper purpose of the city. Because man is naturally social, as Aristotle pointed out in The Ethics, he also naturally political. Human beings have speech, which they can use to communicate their ideas about the just and the unjust: "Nature does nothing in vain; and man alone among the animals has speech. . . . Speech serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust." This dialogue about justice is the essence of the politics. Therefore, "while coming into being for the sake of living, [the city] exists for the sake of living well." Man can only really live well in the city, because the city for his physical needs, allows him to exercise his sociability, provides a forum for the debate about justice and is the arena in which he can most fully exercise virtue.

Aristotle's discussion of slavery, while not the most popular part of the book, is extremely important for an understanding of Aristotle's conception of freedom and its relation to virtue. It is also important to note that Aristotle does not support slavery in the conventional sense, but only in the case where the slaves are actually slaves by nature. Aristotle's assertion that such natural slaves do exist is not a conclusion that follows from his logical argument but simply an empirical assumption. One could agree with Aristotle's argument but simply disagree with his empirical assertion that natural slaves actually exist, in which case slavery is unjustifiable. Aristotle had no conception of inherent human dignity, and therefore had no reason to assume that all human beings are free and equal.

Freedom, while not explicitly discussed with much depth or frequency in The Ethics or The Politics, in nonetheless a key concept because of its intimate relationship with virtue. By examining what Aristotle means by slavery, we indirectly discover what he means by freedom, which is the opposite of slavery. A natural slave is one "who participates in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does not have it" (Politics 1245bl). Freedom‹the opposite of slavery‹must then presuppose the correct use of reason. It is right reason which directs man to the ultimate end of his existence. There must be one final end of all human actions, because a human action in Aristotle's definition is one that is done on purpose and for a definite goal. Now the ultimate end of man is happiness, for that is the goal at which all actions aim, either directly or indirectly. To define happiness, Aristotle maintains that one must look at man's highest function, the function which man alone can perform. This function unique to man is "activity of the soul according to reason" (Ethics). The ultimate good of man should naturally flow from performing his function well; therefore, "the good for a man [and, by extension, the definition of happiness] turns out to be an activity of the soul according to virtue" (Ethics). Freedom necessitates acting in accordance with the conclusions of right reason, and right reason leads one to choose virtue; therefore true freedom consists in being virtuous. As Moira Walsh states in "Aristotle's Conception of Freedom" (Journal of the History of Philosophy): "The most manifestly free man is the one who apprehends the best end achievable in human action, and successfully directs himself towards it. Thus, it would not be fitting for a free man as such to direct himself towards a limited end as if it were his final end; it would be slavish to work for the sake of any good less than the virtuous life."

Aristotle's ideas about women are also rather controversial. Upon deeper examination one finds that his ideas may be different than what one would conclude from a cursory reading. First of all, Aristotle believes that women are fully human‹that is, they are not natural slaves and have the full use of reason. The husband's rule over the woman in a marriage is akin to political rule, which is rule over free and equal persons, in which both the ruler and the ruled are free and equal. It is also intriguing that in his discussion of the different virtues particular to women he quotes a line from Sophocles' play Ajax: "To a woman silence is an ornament." The protagonist Ajax says this line to his wife. Ironically, the advice his wife had given him had been correct and he acted unwisely, leading to his death. By choosing to quote this line, Aristotle seems to be challenging the view prevalent in his time, that women are inferior to men.