Aristotle's Politics

Aristotle's Politics Study Guide

Aristotle's Politics is one of the most influential and enduring texts of political philosophy in all of history. The Aristotelian tradition, following from the philosophy of Plato and continuing in the writings of Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas and other medieval theorists, has formed the backdrop against which all subsequent political and moral philosophy has found its orientation. Early modern political philosophers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes, as well as modern Enlightenment theorists and even postmodern authors have?either explicitly or implicitly?defined themselves against the Aristotelian model. While writers in the Aristotelian tradition believed that politics has to be based on a fundamental conception of the good as an objective ultimate end for human beings, political theorists from the pre-moderns to today have tried to base politics on anything but a shared idea of the good. The initial reason for this change is perhaps the fear that claiming the existence of one objective end for human life is too likely to lead to serious conflicts like the Wars of Religion. Coupled with this fear is a profound philosophical skepticism originating with Descartes that questions the existence of any intrinsic human nature, objective end for human life, and even objective truth in general.

These motivations are relatively clear at least in the case of Hobbes, who lived through both the Wars of Religion and the English Civil War, both of which were highly ideological conflicts, although concerns for power and material gain were also at the forefront. Hobbes attacks Aristotle vehemently in his writings, precisely because he is afraid that having such a clear-cut and universal conception of the good will inevitably lead to further ideological warfare. It is because the core assumptions of Hobbes' and Aristotle's thought are directly opposed to one another that Hobbes believes Aristotelian ideas sufficiently dangerous to merit such strong condemnation. While Hobbes constantly emphasizes the absolute necessity of acting rationally for self-preservation, Aristotle looks beyond the mere goal of living to the higher aim of living well, in accordance with the natural function of man. This emphasis on living well is a danger in Hobbes' view, for he believes that any lofty ideals for which one may be willing to sacrifice one's life can lead to rebellion and the dissolution of the commonwealth. From Aristotle's perspective, what Hobbes fails to understand is that the goal of self-preservation will not suffice to motivate people to moderate their desires and restrain their actions. Hobbes, however, a skeptic who had been highly influenced by the writings of Descartes, simply did not believe in the existence of an ultimate good, or even for that matter in the existence of objective reality outside the human mind.

The Enlightenment was likewise largely a reaction against the Aristotelian tradition. All liberal political theories, no matter how far-ranging in specific tenets and prescriptions, hold in common one fundamental premise: the freedom and equality of human beings. To safeguard this hallowed bedrock of liberalism, liberal philosophers shrink from the metaphysical view of virtue proposed by Aristotle. For with a fixed standard of human excellence, how can one say that all are equal when some are clearly more virtuous than others? Liberals saw the tendency toward hierarchy and inequality in the teleological view of man presented by ancient philosophy. At the same time, however, liberals still recognized the need for virtue in order to form and sustain a well-functioning society and government. Consequently, liberal political theory claims the ability to separate the virtues necessary for politics from an agreement on the foundations of those virtues. To effect this separation, liberals in the end must rely on a utilitarian conception of virtue based on enlightened self-interest, arguing that unless people act with at least a minimal amount of virtue, the society will collapse and all will be worse off. Yet in doing so, have liberals, proverbially speaking, thrown the baby out with the bath water? For by severing their political theories from objective foundations, liberals actually undermine their own goals and leave the premise of human freedom and equality vulnerable to attack.

Liberals do have some reason to fear the hierarchical tendencies of metaphysically-based theories of virtue. Aristotle's theory, for example, seems to justify vast inequality and class stratification. Unlike the liberal philosophers, Aristotle believes that there is a summum bonum toward which all human actions are consciously or unconsciously directed. Arguing from a metaphysical basis, Aristotle assumes that man must have a specific function and that human excellence and human happiness consist in performing that function well. That function must be something unique to man; therefore it is related to man's rational capacity. Man's ability to contemplate and reflect?that is, "activity of the soul according to reason"?is what separates him from other creatures (Nicomachean Ethics 1098a). Thus it is his highest action and the use of that action in contemplating the highest things is what constitutes man's perfection. Reason, aside from being able to contemplate the highest things, can also discover rules for human behavior. In this way the moral virtues come into play as a secondary but nonetheless important aspect of human excellence.

By setting up objective criteria for human excellence, Aristotle prepares the basis for his aristocratic political views. Perhaps the part of Aristotle's Politics most offensive to the liberal sensibility is his defense of slavery. Aristotle posits the existence of natural slaves, "those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from the beast, . . . who [participate] in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but [do] not have it." This justification of slavery, however, does not follow from Aristotle's logic but rests on an empirical claim that such slaves by nature actually exist. Aristotle's presentation of the best regime further demonstrates the aristocratic leanings of his theory on virtue. In this regime, the aristocracy of gentlemen, only a small class of elites are citizens and share in the responsibilities of ruling, while the majority of the people are slaves, doing manual work to maintain the city and produce the necessary goods. With such elements as these forming a part of Aristotle's political theory, it is clear why liberals want to avoid such a view. Still, the liberal project fails to resolve the problem of safeguarding freedom and equality in that it attempts to justify individual rights without providing any underlying philosophical basis for those rights.

John Stuart Mill is one of the clearest examples of the liberal desire to separate the goal of politics from a teleological conception of human nature and objective conception of the good, because he believes that dogmatism and conformism, the greatest impediments to freedom and enlightenment, are the worst things possible for society. (In "What is Enlightenment?", Kant also expresses a highly similar view.) In On Liberty, Mill asserts that above all society ought to preserve the freedom "of pursuing our own good in our way." Metaphysically speaking, the idea of "our own good" is a strange concept; for, as in Aristotle's theory, there is only one greatest good, which is the ultimate end for human existence. Yet for Mill, the idea of such a universal end is extremely dubious, for "there is no such thing as absolute certainty" except in subjects like mathematics. Because Mill cannot base virtue on metaphysical or religious considerations, he adopts a utilitarian framework: "I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."

Though the phrase "permanent interests of man as a progressive being" seems to have some sort of metaphysical tone to it, it is far from the idea of an ultimate good in the Aristotelian sense. For while Aristotle's conception of the good?and the classical metaphysical conception in general?rests upon universal principles of human nature, applicable to all human beings, Mill's idea of the good presupposes that each person has a unique "individual nature" and therefore a unique individual good. As a result, for Mill human perfection takes a relativistic turn, and is attained through cultivation of one's own unique powers and abilities. To achieve this end, Mill considers proper education and intellectual formation to be extremely important, as well as self-discipline in order to develop one's individual potential to the fullest. Crucial as well is toleration of differing points of view and open-mindedness, especially the ability to see the partial truth in different perspectives. The essence of a good existence in Mill's opinion is choice, irrespective of the correctness of that choice: "If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode" (67).

Mill's theory demonstrates that in order for liberals to sever the tie between religious or metaphysical absolute conceptions of the good without completely eliminating considerations of virtue, liberal societies must make virtue and the good dependent on utilitarian considerations. This outcome is a result of liberals' dilemma regarding virtue. For while liberals recognize that a well-functioning government and society require virtue, they cannot use the standard of objective human excellence as the basis of that virtue because they believe it necessarily creates hierarchy and inequality. Liberals also shrink from this objective standard because it seems to go against a person's individual freedom to choose his own good in accordance with his individual nature. Yet there are reasons to doubt that Mill's typically liberal approach to virtue and the good, based on utility and highly dependent upon the individual, really does provide a framework which can uphold the human freedom and equality which is both the foundation and goal of liberalism.

Mill's words remind us of Aristotle's critique of democracy, which provides some insight into this central dilemma of liberalism. Aristotle describes democracy's defining principle much like Mill: "to live as one wants." The problem with this principle, however, is its false conception of freedom: "[Democracies] define freedom badly. . . . [E]veryone lives as he wants and ?toward whatever [end he happens] to crave,' as Euripides says. But this is a poor thing. To live with a view to the regime should not be supposed to be slavery, but preservation." There are two crucial implications of the philosopher's assertion. First, it is the incorrect definition of freedom, not freedom itself, which is the problem. Second, this definition is incorrect because it leads one to slavery, and consequently even acts as a danger to the preservation of the regime. True freedom, as opposed to democracy's conception of it, entails one objective end?happiness defined as activity of the soul according to virtue or reason?and necessitates that any manner of action incompatible with this end be considered inferior, for such an action would in fact defeat freedom itself.

One could therefore conclude that Aristotle's emphasis on living virtuously as the central goal of politics actually stems from a desire to preserve freedom. When examined in this light, Aristotle's position that "the city exists not only for the sake of living but rather primarily for the sake of living well" and his consequent belief that "virtue must be a care for every city" are actually a means to protect the citizens' true freedom. Therefore it is Aristotle's emphasis on virtue, rather than the modern liberals' emphasis on unqualified freedom, which truly upholds the cherished value of liberty. This view is not unique to Aristotle, but was held by the most renowned ancient and medieval philsophers?Plato, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas and others?who all agreed that true freedom is inextricably connected to the proper end of human existence, and that severing it from this end leads one to the worst form of slavery?slavery to one's own whims, passions, and appetites.

Whether one agrees with Aristotle's political philosophy or not, a knowledge of its underlying principles is essential for a clear understanding of nature of all future political philosophy. The project of modern and postmodern philosophers cannot be fully appreciated or objectively analyzed without a basic knowledge of the fundamental ideas against which they were arguing. Even though they do not all criticize Aristotle directly, as do some authors like Hobbes and Nietzsche, modern and postmodern philosophy is largely a critique of the Aristotelian world-view and an attempt to provide new bases and justifications for politics.