Aristotle: Politics

July 9, 2017

Translated by Benjamin Jowett
(Everyman, 1941) [c.325 BC]
264 p.

Obviously this is a great book, and these notes make no pretence to be anything other than jottings. I might begin by confessing that I’m not, all things considered, very interested in politics or political theory, but I chose this of Aristotle’s works because I’d already read some of those more interesting to me (Ethics, De Anima, Physics), and because some of the others more interesting (Metaphysics, Logic) looked too hard to tackle in my current state of life.

It had been some time since I last spent any extended time with Aristotle. I know people say that his works as they have come down to us lack personality – and may well not be from his pen at all – but that lack of personality is itself a kind of personality, and it was nice to be back in his company.

Aristotle can be counted on to state basic principles clearly. Sometimes these principles are obvious, and sometimes not, but anyway it is part of his thorough method to state them. It feels good just to say them aloud:

The state is a creation of nature, and … man is by nature a political animal. (Bk I)


A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature. (Bk I)

Obvious, as I say, but contrary to the founding principles of much modern political philosophy, and refreshing. Or he says this of the rule of law:

Two parts of good government; one is the actual obedience of citizens to the laws, the other part is the goodness of the laws which they obey. (Bk IV)

With this consequence:

In some states the good man and the good citizen are the same, and in others different. (Bk III)

Sometimes his declarations have the force of aphorisms:

Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all. (Bk I)


The law is reason unaffected by desire. (Bk III)


To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls. (Bk VIII)

Or, in a claim that I am sure must be cited in The Abolition of Man:

Virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright. (Bk VIII).

Of course, the Politics is more than just aphorisms; it’s a set of arguments. His principle purpose, as I understand it, is to inquire into the nature of states, and to survey different models of governance, studying their characteristic strengths and weaknesses.

Aristotle has a high view of the state. He writes:

If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good. (Bk I)

This is broadly consistent with the political vision set forth by Plato in Republic, and once again at odds with the main trunk of modern political theory, which (insofar as I understand it) rolled back the state from pursuing a vision of the highest good, opting instead for a more modest role as custodian of peace and guarantor of certain individual freedoms. Of course, highest goods are hard to ignore permanently, and a reasonable argument can be made that those “individual freedoms”, which were originally an alternative to a politics of the highest good, have become in time themselves that highest good. But that’s another story.

Aristotle’s view that the state “embraces all the rest” gives his vision of politics an uncomfortably totalitarian flavour. Here, for instance, he comments on the place of the family and the individual in politics:

The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part.” (Bk I)

The citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives. (Bk VIII)

Neither must it be supposed that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state… (Bk VIII)

That first statement is the opposite of what I would argue: in fact the family is the most basic political community, prior to all others, because parts are of necessity prior to the whole. The second is less objectionable, and can be taken in a banal way – in a democracy, for instance, citizens should be virtuous, since they can hardly govern a polity well if they cannot govern themselves. But there’s something ominous about it too, especially that “should”. The third statement comes from his remarks on education, in which he criticizes the practice of parents deciding for themselves how to educate their children, and argues instead for public education specifically on the grounds that it is necessary to cultivate in children the virtues required for the preservation of the common good: “since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all.” One can see the force of the argument, of course, but I’m wary of any attempt by the state to form the souls of children — especially my children.

The principal forms of government Aristotle analyzes are monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government – rule by one, few, or many. He proceeds by looking at a number of real cases, as well as some theoretical ones (such as that described in Republic). He notes that each of these forms of government can become corrupted, with monarchy devolving to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, and constitutional government to democracy. By “democracy” he doesn’t mean exactly what we usually mean, but specifically that form of “rule by the many” in which the will of the majority has the force of law (rather than operating under the law). He argues that, whatever the form of government, a healthy government is one that rules in favour of the common good.

As far as I could see, he took no strong position on which form of government was to be preferred, but he did express a mild preference for rule by the many, both because “passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men”, and because the many, on account of their wide variety of knowledge and experience, may be able to act more prudently and with better reason than the few. I do not find this entirely convincing.

Bad Aristotle makes a number of appearances in these pages. We get, for instance, his famous statement that slavery is natural (“the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master”). Those of us who admire Aristotle would like to chalk this up to limitations in the moral vision of the time and place in which he lived, and this is true to some extent, but he makes things more difficult by acknowledging (in Bk I, 3) that this view of slavery is contested. At least as reprehensible are his views on infanticide (“let there be a law that no deformed child shall live”). He would permit abortion, but only “before life and sense have begun”; he may be bad, but on this point he is, at least, not so bad as we are.

In the eighth and final Book, he has a very interesting discussion of leisure, and in particular of music-making and music-appreciation as leisure activities. As Josef Pieper argued in his wonderful book, Aristotle had a high view of leisure, seeing it not as a time for mere amusement, but for activities which are valued for their own sake. Precisely because leisure activities are intrinsically valuable, they are better than servile work: “The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end” (Bk VIII). I’m not sure just what he means by calling leisure “the first principle of all action”, but when he says that leisure is the “end” of occupation, he means that we do our servile work in order to have leisure. I remember that Jacques Barzun somewhere says that it is the sign of a healthy soul to hate one’s job, precisely because for most of us it prevents us from spending our time on what is intrinsically worthwhile; this chaffing against employment obligations, while wearisome and frustrating, is fundamentally sound. And leisure, on this view, should not be confused with “idleness”, but might be very vigorous and even exhausting. Philosophy, for instance, is a good example of a worthy leisure activity, as are the arts, religion, and maybe even sports. Music enters into this discussion because it is one of those things which we can enjoy for its own sake. It amuses us, but also gives us a kind of intellectual enjoyment which is the special purview of rational creatures.

Music can also serve instrumental purposes, and in this role is crucial to education, in Aristotle’s view, because it has the power to influence and shape the soul and the character of the hearer. He discusses the different musical modes and their effects on listeners, and goes on to argue that its capacity to evoke emotional responses makes music of special value for teaching virtue, which, as was already said above, “consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright”. That music can bear resemblance to moral qualities is almost unique among objects of sense.

I knew that Plato gave attention to music in Republic because of its power to affect the soul, but I was not, until reading Politics, aware that Aristotle had done the same. It would be interesting one day to sit down and compare the two treatments.


I’ve done little more in these brief notes than skim the surface, picking out a handful of things that most interested me. There’s a lot of detailed argumentation in Politics about effective policies, principles, and objectives of different types of government. For the most part this was more than I wanted, but naturally that’s a reflection of my own limitations.

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