Review: The Politics, Aristotle

by Marc Geddes

I picked up the Politics with the full understanding that Aristotle’s signature piece was probably the Nocmachean Ethics. Nonetheless, I thought that the Politics could offer me the best understanding of Aristotle’s political thinking. Whether or not this is true, I will not know until I read the Nicomachean Ethics, which I have been told is more fundamental. So here are my thoughts on the Politics.

I have to say that the book was by far more interesting than Plato’s Republic. The structure of Aristotle’s work was perhaps not highly appealing for someone who wanted to read a coherent work on political philosophy and the foundations for a robust political theory. For those who like to read philosophy in bite-size, however, this book is to be recommended. Despite this, the Politics outpaced the Republic. It was not based as much on logic, and indeed formed the basis of a proto-constitutional comparative analysis of the states in the age of antiquity and before. Personally, I did not particularly enjoy Aristotle’s comparisons with ancient states and their goings-on – I know near to nothing about Syracuse or Carthage, and so trying to connect such ancient events with Aristotle’s philosophy often left me somewhat disgruntled in my ignorance or lack of understanding. Nonetheless, compared against the backdrop of Plato, the Politics was a liberal, open and free-minded work in which many topics were covered. There is no oppressive labelling of people into three classes. Rather, your worth is based on someone’s pursuit of virtue and the way he or she lives their life. This links in with Aristotle’s central work on politics, arguably the most interesting and important – citizenship.

Much is discussed of what ‘the good life’ is to Aristotle: to achieve happiness and pursue virtue. There are deeper discussions of what makes a good citizen and a good man – in some constitutions they are not the same thing. He goes on to argue that one can be a sound citizen, without being a good man. Once one draws out the consequences of this idea, some major thoughts on the ideal citizen and the ideal life become pertinent: what is the role of man in society? Is man by nature a political animal, as Aristotle claims? Can the ideal man become the ideal citizen? Are they the same thing? Who has a right to citizenship? To me, it is this which is of paramount importance to present-day society, less so his idea that every state must prepare for war and that currency is an evil on this earth. The most critical point that Aristotle makes with regards to the relationship between politics and citizenship is the following analogy: ‘the builder can certainly form an opinion on a house, but the user, the household-manager, will be an even better judge’; i.e. the politician will be able to form an opinion on the state, but the citizen will be an even better judge (p.205). Moreover, the citizen has rights and responsibilities, and I think it is this understanding that is crucial to understanding the good life: being both free to live as you please while at the same time taking your responsibilities seriously.

From this, Aristotle concludes that the best constitution is a ‘polity’. In his opinion, a mixture of democracy and oligarchy (providing it is the right mixture) will allow for the best constitution. My criticisms of Aristotle begin to surface here most clearly. In many ways, Aristotle does not spell out a specific ideology. Some areas are clear, yet others remain pretty shady. He concludes in the end that the ideal ‘polity’ will have a mean of everything – the middle way. Aristotle still prefers an elitist type of rule, and this upsets me somewhat. Aristotle makes countless arguments for democracy, including the work on citizenship that I mentioned above – but he then goes on to dismiss it. It is fascinating, not to mention frustrating, to the extent he does this. He claims that all men should have a say in the offices of state, he argues that the citizen and sound man rule supreme, that checks and balances in offices are an invaluable resource, and so on – only to then rule those out in favour of an aristocratic natural order of states. Perhaps this is caused by the deep epistemological difference between ancient Greek philosophers and modern day political theorists with regard to democracy. Throughout the Politics, it has been made clear that democracy does not simply mean rule by the people, it means rule by the many more poor people over the rich and few. The difference is in wealth and the meaning of ‘many’ – it does not mean ‘the people’, it means ‘the poor’. If Aristotle could have seen past that, I believe his work would be an invaluable guide even today.

If one could be selective about Aristotle’s work in the Politics, one should commend his thoughts on citizenship, his ideals of equality and his clearly liberal constitution for the aim of virtue and ‘the good life’; what should be left out are the normal musings of war, elitism and slavery. It is a stark antithesis to Plato’s harsh, bland and oppressive state where the focus is on maximal social production with a bias for the appreciation of philosophy.

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Please note that an edited version of this article was later published in Canvas, a student politics journal for which I was the Founder and Editor between 2010 and 2012. The article is available here.

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