Politics by Aristotle.

Following on from Aristotle's Ethics is Politics (Πολιτικά), and it is just as daunting! Aristotle finishes Ethics by saying,
Now our predecessors have left the subject of legislation to us unexamined; it is perhaps best, therefore, that we should ourselves study it, and in general study the question of the constitution, in order to complete to the best of our ability our philosophy of human nature. First, then, if anything has been said well in detail by earlier thinkers, let us try to review it; then in the light of the constitutions we have collected let us study what sorts of influence preserve and destroy states, and what sorts preserve or destroy the particular kinds of constitution, and to what causes it is due that some are well and others ill administered. When these have been studied we shall perhaps be more likely to see with a comprehensive view, which constitution is best, and how each must be ordered, and what laws and customs it must use, if it is to be at its best. Let us make a beginning of our discussion. 
The first part of Politics simply carries on with this train of thought:
Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, 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. 
Politics, which is slightly smaller than Ethics, is divided into eight books. I shall attempt a summary!

Book I

Aristotle defines "politics" as that which concerns the "polis" (πόλις), referring to the city, differentiating from smaller units such as the household or the village. As with the individual, the community strives towards good, however which it defines 'good', and to achieve goodness and realise one's true nature one must be part of the city. Aristotle then discusses the household, made up of several relationships: master and slave, husband and wife, parent and child. 'True' slaves, he says, are slaves by nature: one must not imprison and enforce slavery upon a non-slave (who would have a rational mind, as opposed to the irrational mind of the slave). He further justifies the argument by writing that there is a natural order in life, some must be ruled, some are born rulers. Whilst slaves benefit their masters, particularly economically, slaves too benefit by being ruled. Aristotle then moves on to acquisition, discussing farmers, hunters, and thieves. Like it or not, these are natural according to Aristotle: what is unnatural is excessive acquisition. Acquisition is useful in that from it arises exchange: money, for example, which again is natural. Too much accumulation is again excessive and unnatural. He then writes of the relationship of the sexes, arguing that men are natural rulers and this is why they are and ought to be head of the household.

Book II

Aristotle then moves on to discuss different forms of government, first criticising Plato's Republic (Πολιτεία) as a basis for arguing that plurality, not unity, is essential in a city. He also criticises Plato's ideas of sharing - that, for example, the state ought to 'share' responsibility for child-rearing, and the community of property as opposed to private property, which Aristotle argues is essential to generosity, and finally the idea of a ruling class is also counter-productive to Aristotle. He goes on to criticise Plato's Laws (Νόμοι) and a variety of other writers of the time (this I found hopelessly confusing - I ought to have at least read Republic, if not Laws too, and had a vague understanding of the other works). He finally moves on to critique three forms of government seen in Sparta, Crete, and Carthage.

Book III

In this Aristotle discusses constitutions, beginning with the idea of 'citizenship'. He suggests a citizen is he who may engage with "deliberative or judicial administration". But, as this is often based on a kind of inheritance, he then asks to whom should be status of citizenship be granted and what is it that gives a city its identity. This, he argues, is its constitution; a citizen, or a good citizen, upholds and respects the constitution. He then asks if manual labourers can properly be classed as citizens, arguing that one doesn't have to be necessary to a city to be a citizen. He goes on to point out however that in an oligarchy, a rich manual worker may in fact be properly classed as a citizen. From here, he outlines different types of government:

                                            Good / Just           Bad / Unjust

Single Person:                     Royalty               Tyranny
Small Group:                   Aristocracy      →      Oligarchy 
Mass (politeia):             Constitutional     →      Democracy 

The constitution, he continues, is thus the form of a city, which is made up of citizens - the matter. These citizens sole occupation is governing, there is no manual labour for them to do, that is done by those beneath them. Power is a somewhat separate issue, and Aristotle believes that those who are in possession of power are those who are in possession of arms (guns, weapons). Those who cannot afford them are without power.

From here to the notion of justice, and Aristotle writes about justice according to each type of government. With that in mind he evaluates the idea of sovereignty, suggesting a monarchy was voluntary, then there is the absolute monarchy, the barbarian, and the dictatorial. Justice is apart from sovereignty: those who govern cannot define that which is just. The definition of 'just' cannot be defined by a single person but a body of people - the politeia (masses). A monarchy, therefore, is undesirable.

Book IV

I was, I must admit, relieved to leave Book III (if you've read Politics you'll see I was badly floundering with it). Book IV is just as tricky, however. In this Aristotle continues his discussion on constitution and argues the different types suit different states, being as each differs in terms of, for example, size or wealth. He breaks down the concept of a city and identifies nine parts:
  1. Agricultural.
  2. Mechanical.
  3. Retail.
  4. Labour.
  5. Soldiers.
  6. Patrons.
  7. Executive civil servants.
  8. Deliberate civil servants.
  9. Judicial civil servants.
Society is divided into two: the rich and the poor. Democracy and oligarchy differs according to attitudes towards the wealthy, which he discusses at length. In brief -

  1. Everyone can participate equally.
  2. One must have a minimum level of income or property to participate.
  3. One must be of noble birth to participate but the law is sovereign.
  4. Everyone can participate equally but the law is sovereign.
  5. Everyone can participate equally but the public is sovereign (leading to demagoguery).
  1. A property qualification for participating.
  2. A high property qualification for participating.
  3. Public office (participating) is hereditary.
  4. Hereditary, and officials are sovereign.
A constitution can effectively mix them both and is the highest and most desirable form of government. It is in keeping with the idea of temperance, the mean between two extremes, which Aristotle writes about in Ethics. In this vein, he writes on social class, arguing the middle class is the mean: a strong middle class means a healthy society, and in this society a politeia (constitutional approach) is desirable. Aristotle then applies this to law-making and the degree of participation of the masses according to its form of government.

Book V

Aristotle goes on to discuss political change - what causes it, how it differs, and how it may be prevented. The obvious reason for change is fundamental differences in opinion between people, which he describes, and suggests a variety of reasons for change and conflict and how they are linked to the form of government, for example a democracy is overthrown when demagoguery, allowed in by democracy, creeps in (a rather chilling warning for 2017). To prevent such things from happening governments must always strive towards the good and maintain their honesty and integrity. Temperance too is key. He goes on to apply ideas for preservation to the various forms of government.

Book VI

In this Aristotle writes about the inherent paradox of democracy - that one wouldn't want to be too democratic as it opens the door for demagoguery. One must, he argues, use the principles of democracy wisely. He then discusses the idea of liberty in democracy, equality and sovereignty of the masses. Returning to the different parts of the city (in Book V) he writes on which best expresses democracy (agricultural class) and the worst - the working classes who invite demagoguery. He then adds that the city should not prosper from robbing the rich and that one must give the poor tools to improve their status rather than simply money. He then goes on to repeat this with reference to oligarchs - who it works best for, and how they may maintain their system, all the while referring to liberty as rational freedom.

Book VII

For the remainder of Politics Aristotle writes on the ideal. There are for Aristotle three types of 'goods: of the soul, of the body, and wealth. Of the soul is the highest of all, and the body and wealth contribute to the good of the soul. He then addresses the balance of introspection - the internal - and politics - the external. Once again it is balance that brings the ideal. From here, Aristotle becomes practical, discussing size (medium, naturally, being perfect!), and by the sea. Slaves are essential property. He then discusses education, believing that goodness and virtue can be taught, and even suggests plans for what is a good education, broken down by age groups.


In the final book continues his theme of education arguing the case for state schools as opposed to private tuition. He then discusses what ought to be taught, arguing that too much practical education (suggesting education on manual labour) is demeaning, abstract knowledge can be too overbearing, and virtue so complex it could be overwhelming. Knowledge, he goes on, is good in itself and for the soul, and should not be viewed as a commodity. Subject that should be taught, he said, are reading and writing, athletics, music, and drawing. He writes in further detail, and - yes - it should all be taught with temperance, and he then turns to how certain people from certain positions on the social strata view the different subjects, dwelling particularly on music. Politics ends quite abruptly with the words,
It is clear, then, that we have these three goals to aim at in education - the happy mean, the possible, and the appropriate.
From here, according to the Corpus Aristotelicum, it would seem likely that Aristotle then went on to write Economics (Οἰκονομικά), after which follows Rhetoric (Ῥητορική), which I'll be reading next. For now, though - oh, Aristotle is tough! Politics was an enlightening read given the extent of Aristotle's influence on Western culture. For that it was also somewhat depressing, both in the fact that it seems we've adopted some of the uglier aspects of it and that some of the warnings against the nicer parts seem to be coming true. It's a must-read, but hard on the brain and hard on the soul.


  1. Bravo for completing your mission! i've tried it in the past but never successfully... just bogged down in the density... also i think A was not much of a psychologist, but rather utilized an engineering approach...

    1. I studied The Politics (and Ethics) during my Philosophy degree. I became (and remain) a huge fan of Aristotle. I must really read more of his stuff. I found him much less... fussy... than Plato.

    2. I do find Plato harder, though still it's easy to get bogged down with Aristotle, it is indeed dense. But I do want to read more (I'm about to start Rhetoric, and wouldn't mind giving the Athenian Constitution and Metaphysics a go). All very tricky though, I think I've picked a difficult introduction to philosophy :)


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