Politics

By Aristotle

Not only is Aristotle’s Politics one of the greatest works of political philosophy ever written, one seriously wonders whether Aristotle left anything for his successors to do but repeat him.  His refutation of communism has never been bettered; indeed, it’s astounding to think that anyone has subsequently been able to take the idea seriously.  Before Cicero, he pointed out that the key feature of feature of the state is that it is founded on an idea of justice.  Before Montesquieu, he divided the functions of government into legislative, executive, and judicial.  He even propounds Montesquieu’s central idea—that different regime types call for different virtues in their citizens.  (In fact, one could say that The Spirit of the Laws is just the Politics with updated examples.)  Before Maritain, he pointed out that man’s ability to communicate and share moral ideals makes him more social than the bees.  The list goes on.

Man, says Aristotle, is a political animal, meaning he attains his natural perfection only as a citizen in a state.  Life in society not only allows man to receive help from his fellows in satisfying his basic needs, it also allows him to fulfill his social nature.  Society is divided into three layers:  the family (which satisfies man’s daily needs), the village, and the state (the largest level, and the one which is entirely self-sufficient).  Attempts to secure complete unity by stamping out private property and the family are wrong and monstrous, because personal relations are more meaningful than collective ones:  “How much better it is to be the real cousin of somebody than to be a son after Plato’s fashion!”  Aristotle is strongly republican in the old sense of the term:  he defines citizenship as the ability to participate in the responsibilities of government.   The form of government is the constitution.  Constitutions are good—whether they are monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic—if the common welfare is their aim.  The state exists to promote the good life.  In a good constitution, the virtues that promote the polis will be the same virtues that make one moral—the good man will be a good citizen.  In perverted forms of government, this may not be true.  A major concern for Aristotle is how power is distributed among economic classes, because the relative strength of the classes determines, or at least constrains, the type of constitution.  Ideally, the middle class should hold the most power.

Aristotle considers the question “who should rule” both from a practical standpoint—given the strengths of the various classes, what best ensures stability and responsible rule?—and from a moral viewpoint—who deserves to rule?  He believes that it is the last question which divides the partisans of different types of governments.  Everybody, he thinks, agrees that equals should be treated equally, and those who are better should be treated better.  But what differences are relevant?  Is quality based on freedom, on numbers, on wealth, or on virtue?  Each has their partisans.  Aristotle concludes that the quality which determines worth is the capacity to serve the state, so wealth, virtue, and the rest all figure in to some degree.

Here is the place where Aristotle starts really sounding strange.  After all, nobody obeys public officials because we think their private virtue gives them a title to our obedience.  It’s not a question of justice to that individual; it’s a question of obedience to legitimate authority.  Here we come to the one thing Aristotle didn’t think about, the thing that was invisible to him, and that is authority.  Where does authority come from?  What sort of moral constraints can it place on me?  With the coming of Christianity and Islam, these would become the central issues of political philosophy.  Followers of the great monotheistic faiths were confronted with two sovereigns:  the state and God.  How were they to be reconciled?  The only viable solution is the one proposed by St. Paul:  all authority belongs to God, but he has delegated it to the state (as well as to the Church and to heads of families).  But how is this delegation accomplished?  Is authority given first to specific individuals, to the mass of the people, to the state considered corporately, or what?  What authority has the state been given, and what has been withheld?  Since the coming of Christianity, political thought has been divided in its concerns.  Some have continued to consider Aristotle’s question of the best organization, The Spirit of the Laws and The Federalist Papers being examples of great works in this genre.  Others have focused on the origin of authority:  Aquinas would be a classic example, but so too would Locke’s Treatise on Government.

Aristotle exudes so much common sense and common decency that even prepared readers are apt to be shocked by his defense of infanticide, the enslavement of “natural slaves”, and his restriction of “the good life” to a small minority of mankind.  To allow oneself to be distracted by these things would mean a tremendous loss, though.  In all of political science, this is the one indispensible book.

3 Responses

  1. […] I’ve reviewed a couple of classics:  Aristotle’s Politics and Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Maybe I’m getting lazy, reviewing […]

  2. […] The Basic Works of Aristotle in one volume […]

  3. […] from what I can tell, not a major issue for the great classical political philosophers.  For Aristotle, the key question was, given that the polis exists, who should have a share in its […]

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