Aristotle's Politics

Aristotle's Politics Summary and Analysis of Book II

Chapter 1

Because we want to study the best possible political partnership, we should study existing regimes and look at their strengths and weaknesses. First we will examine partnership, and the degree to which citizens are partners. In the Republic of Plato, Socrates talks about having women, children and property all in common.

Chapter 2

There are many difficulties to the scheme of having women in common. Socrates proposes this because he wants the city to be a unity, but his reasoning is flawed because the city by nature must a multitude‹otherwise it would be a household. A city is made up of many different kinds of people. What is necessary is not a unity, but rather a reciprocal equality in which citizens are free and each have a share in ruling. A city must also be self-sufficient, which requires a multitude of differing people.

Chapter 3

Socrates is also incorrect when he desires that people in a city will hold all things in common, even their wives and children. Aside from being impossible to implement in actuality, such a policy is harmful because people tend to care better for things that personally belong to them.

Chapter 4

This idea of holding women and children in common is also problematic because it may increase crime by taking away family ties, because a person is less likely to harm a relative. There is also the problem of possible incest. Affection is one of the greatest goods of a city, but the city's being one dilutes affection, because people feel affection for what is their own and for what is dear to them.

Chapter 5

Now let us examine whether in the best regime people would hold possessions in common. Having possessions in common would involve great difficulties and create a lot of friction between people who may have difficulty working together. If, on the other hand, there is private property, people will take care of their own possessions well and share them among friends, so that there will voluntarily be common things. The best scenario is to have private possessions which are for common use. Being able to consider something one's own is also a great source of pleasure, and allows one to exercise the virtues of moderation and generosity.

The main cause of Socrates' error is that his presupposition that the city should be a complete unity is incorrect. The city should be one in a certain sense, but not in every sense. Through education, the city should foster commonalities among the multitude. Furthermore, even Socrates' own city will end up being divided, because he separates the guardian class from the farming class and the artisan class.

Socrates' selection of rulers is also dangerous because the same people are always ruling, which can cause factional conflict. In addition, even the guardians themselves are not happy; their aim is the happiness of the city of the whole. But happiness cannot exist in the whole if it doesn't exist in individual parts.

Chapter 6

Plato's Laws gives similarly unrealistic and impractical prescriptions. In enacting laws, the legislator needs to take into account the territory and its inhabitants, and to look at the neighboring regions. In regard to possessions, it is good for the citizens to live "with moderation and liberally." The Laws also omits a discussion of how the rulers are different from the ruled.

The regime Socrates institutes in Laws is a polity, a mix between democracy and oligarchy, which is indeed the best attainable regime, although it is not the best regime in theory.

Chapter 7

Other philosophers have also tried to devise plans for the best regime. Phaleas asserted that all should have equal possessions, because he thought that property was the cause of factional conflict. Yet making property simply equal will not really solve the problem, because the legislator needs to take into account the different needs and circumstances of different citizens. Phaleas is also incorrect in supposing that property disputes are the only cause of conflict; in fact, much conflict is about honor. Furthermore, people may commit crimes not simply out of poverty, but also out of desire for luxuries. To remedy these difficulties, each have a sufficient amount of property and work, and live according to moderation. Those who want to be self-sufficient should pursue philosophy, for that is the only type of enjoyment which requires no external things or people.

Phaleas also forgets that people may engage in factional conflict precisely because property is equal. Some will think that they merit a greater amount than others and consider equality unjust. Human desires are by nature limitless and insatiable, and the majority of people live trying to satisfy their desires. Preventing conflict requires that the respectable and virtuous people not wish for their own aggrandizement, while the common people simply lack the means for such aggrandizement.

Chapter 8

Hippodamus attempted to lay out a plan for a regime, although he had no involvement in politics himself. Hippodamus had a fascination with threes‹he wanted to divide the city into three parts, dividing up citizens, territory and laws into 3 groups. He also proposed a single supreme court and a law rewarding innovation. This regime is flawed in many aspects. Dividing the citizens will cause great faction and strife. The law rewarding innovation will promote discord or revolution. Innovation is not necessarily bad, but it should not be publicly honored. It's good to change the laws if necessary, especially since laws by nature have to be general and universal while situations deal with particulars.

Chapter 9

What needs to be considered is is that a well-governed city must allow the rulers to have a certain amount of leisure from the necessities of life, but it is difficult to decide how to do this in practice. In the Spartan regime, the laxness of laws concerning women is harmful, and women live licentiously. Women also control a great deal of the property, and property has therefore been concentrated in the hands of a few. The governmental authority over the people in general is poor. The board of overseers has many poor men on it who can be easily bribed, and the office is so powerful that the king has to bow to their wishes. The regime has become more like a democracy than an aristocracy. The overseers have control over important judicial decisions, but because they are not particularly intelligent it would be better if they had less discretion and judged strictly according to written laws. The office of senator is also poorly handled, because many decisions have been affected by bribes and favoritism. The manner of election is bad, because the people decide for themselves whether or not they merit the job. Instead, the one who merits the office should take it, whether or not he really wishes to rule. Otherwise those who rule are ambitious and are more likely to commit acts of injustice through greed or ambition. Kingship should not be hereditary. Legislation concerning common messes (common areas for eating) is poorly handled in Sparta, because it is aimed to promote democracy but people are required to pay and the poor cannot afford it. The presupposition of Spartan laws is harmful in general, because it is aimed at the creation of warlike virtue to the exclusion of all other virtues. Therefore they are skilled at winning wars but do not know how to be at leisure. They consider the things they are fighting over to be better than virtue itself, which is incorrect. Common funds are also poorly handled, because tax collection is not well-enforced, and they never have enough money to carry on their continuous war campaigns.

Chapter 10

The Cretan regime is fairly similar to the Spartan regime. They both have common messes and a slave class which does all the farming. They also have a similar arrangement with overseers and senators. The Cretans handle the matter of common messes better than the Spartans, because the money is taken from the common treasury so that all can take part. The office of orderer, similar to the Spartan office of overseer, has many of the same problems as in Sparta. It would be better to do things in accordance with written law than with human wish, because human desires are not a safe standard.

Chapter 11

The Carthaginians handle some aspects of government very well, but are also similar in many ways to the Spartans and Cretans. Signs of a well-organized regime are that people voluntary agree with the arrangement, and if there has never been serious factional conflict or tyranny. Kings and senators are chosen from among the families the families that seem to be outstanding in virtue.

The problems of the aforementioned regimes may all be criticized as deviations from the best regime. Some features incline too much toward democracy, and others too much toward oligarchy. The Carthaginian regime tends toward aristocracy in that officials are unpaid and not chosen by lot. It tends toward oligarchy in that officials are not elected on the basis of merit alone but also on the basis of wealth. This deviation from aristocracy makes wealth more honored than virtue, and therefore leads the city to be greedy. For a regime to be truly aristocratic, wealth must be honored above all. Those who are most capable of ruling should rule. The Carthaginians are also incorrect in allowing the same person to hold several offices, because it is best to have one person be able to concentrate on each separate task. The regime manages to avoid some of the negative effects of oligarchy by making it relatively easy for new people to become wealthy.

Chapter 12

Solon was said to have been an excellent legislator because he dismantled oligarchy and established a democracy that was a proper mix of regimes‹the council was oligarchic, the elective offices were aristocratic and the courts were popular. However, most of these things were already in place before Solon, but he may have harmed the regime by giving too much authority to the court and making the people a tyrant. But this did not seem to happen as a result of Solon's intentions. Actually, Solon granted only a minimal amount of power to the people.


In can often be difficult to sort out the main point that Aristotle intends to make in Book II of the Politics because it is just a running commentary about the good and bad aspects of different theoretical and actual regimes. Still, the comments that Aristotle makes about the various regimes reveal some of Aristotle's own ideas of the best regime and point to some areas which he will discuss more directly later on in the book. Aristotle's method in examining each of the regimes is to look at the underlying principles of the regime and then to see whether the regime's institutions support or subvert those principles.

The importance of education relative to the regime, which is discussed at length in Book V, is alluded to in Aristotle's criticism of the various regimes and the way in which certain laws tend to produce certain attitude and tendencies among the citizens. It is clear that when Aristotle speaks of education, he does not mean simply the education of children in schools, but includes the entire influence of the laws and structure of the regime on the people. Because of his all-encompassing idea about education of citizens in the regime, Aristotle's discussion of the various cities includes the whole way of life of the regime. Economic life, personal life and cultural life are discussed in addition to more properly "political" topics like the arrangement of governmental offices, the mode of elections, the powers of different parts of the government and the mode of legislation. Aristotle recognizes that economics, private life and culture are affected by the laws of the regime and influence those laws. For Aristotle, the study of politics is not a narrow examination of governmental structures, but is rather the study of a whole way of life of a people.

It is worthwhile trying to theorize about the best regime‹"the sort of political partnership that is superior to all for those capable of living as far as possible in the manner one would pray for"‹even if such a regime may not be able to exist in practice. Study the best regime provides a theoretical model which reality can approximate and which can help existing regimes to evaluate themselves and make progress.

The differences between Aristotle's and Plato's ideas are brought into clear relief in this book. Aristotle harshly attacks the Republic at its weakest and most controversial points. He focuses his critique entirely on Book V of the Republic, which lays out the need for common property and for the communism of women and children. It is arguable that Aristotle's criticism is not altogether fair, because it does not take into account the fact that the city Socrates is speaking of is supposed to be a metaphor for the just soul, or that Book V of the Republic may be meant precisely as a criticism of the attempt to achieve perfect justice in a city, while justice in Plato's view justice truly exists only as an eternal and unchangeable form. While it is not clear why Aristotle would want to give such an unbalanced presentation of the regime which Socrates outlines in the Republic, his criticisms do act as a springboard for speaking about some of his disagreements with Plato regarding fundamental political presuppositions. Plato believes that "it is best for the city to be as far as possible entirely one," but in Aristotle's view this proposition is fundamentally flawed because such a unity is characteristic of a household or even a single human being, not a city. It would be apolitical. Aristotle writes: "As it becomes increasingly one it will no longer be a city. For the city is in its nature a sort of multitude." Recall, from Book I, that a characteristic of the city is that it is, for the most part, self-sufficient in producing that which the citizens need to live. Diversity within the city is absolutely necessary in order to obtain such self-sufficiency, because diversity will provide the means for a division of labor according to people's different skills and aptitudes.

Aristotle's criticism of Phaleas is based on basic reflections about the nature of the human soul. Phaleas believed that equalizing property would remove the root cause of factional conflict among citizens, but Aristotle argues that Phaleas' proposition is based on an overly simplistic model of human desires and motivations. People are driven to conflict not only as a result of property disputes, but also‹and perhaps more often‹as a result of striving after honor. The only exception is the philosopher, who needs neither property nor honor to satisfy his desires. Aristotle believes that the highest life for a human being is the philosophical life. He bases this conclusion on his analysis in the Ethics, where he reasons that to find the ultimate end of man, one must look at man's highest function, the function which man alone can perform. This function is the ability to reason. Reason leads one to properly govern one's appetites and desires‹thus acting virtuously‹and in its highest capacity allows one to contemplate the Good. This contemplation of the Good is philosophy, and is the action which is most continuous and self-sufficient of all other actions, and is therefore the highest happiness and dignity of man. Aristotle's comment in the Politics that the philosopher is in a sense above the city reinforces his conclusion in the Ethics and reminds the reader that the ultimate human good is beyond politics, although it is very difficult to attain and a proper political arrangement can facilitate its attainment.

In Book II Aristotle also makes his first statement about what he believes to be the best attainable regime. It is necessary to distinguish between the best attainable regime and the best regime because Aristotle believes that they are different. The best attainable regime is a polity, the regime which "is neither democracy nor oligarchy, but the one midway between them." In mixing oligarchy and democracy, Aristotle believes that one can avoid the negative effects of either regime in its pure form while preserving the positive aspects of those regimes. Aristotle speaks at length about the regime of polity in Book IV.