Aristotle is remembered as one of the greatest of the classical philosophers, metaphysicians, and epistemologists, but he was equally the most important political philosopher of the ancient world. Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics are fundamental in political philosophy studies, and his ideas were largely incorporated into Christian political theory through the rise of Catholicism (though Catholic political thought attempted the integration of Aristotle with St. Augustine). Many of the ideas of Aristotle’s political theory held sway until the Reformation, and then began to lose ground with the rise of the mechanical philosophers of the 17th century, challenged by the likes of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Benedict Spinoza. That said, Aristotle’s political theories are still influential today and serve as a fundamental starting point for political philosophy.
We have explored Aristotle’s virtue ethics here, and his virtue ethics are intertwined with his political theory. Aristotle can aptly be defined as a virtue political theorist. His politics is rooted in his famous declaration that humans are political (e.g. social) animals. The highest extension, or reflection, of our social animus is the politeia – the realm of the political. Although Aristotle disagrees with Plato that politics and law fundamentally suppress one’s ability to have happiness (in the name of the common good), he agrees with Plato in rejecting the political ideas of the sophists who advocate for the ancient equivalent of ethical egoism and self-interested advancement and material acquisition. We will look at the highlights of the first two books of the Politics in this post.
The first thing to know about Aristotle is that he believes that political community is naturally forming and accretes from organic development. Basically, the laws and institutions of a society emerge as the outgrowth of the community and its regime. Thus, Aristotle’s political theories are naturally organic and flow from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down. While aspects of Aristotle’s theory have traces of social contract theory, his traces of social contract thought are decidedly anti-sophist and not similar to the social contract ideas of Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza.
For Aristotle, the aim of politics is to established the good life in a well-structured and order society. This will require the cultivation of knowledge and virtue as highlighted in the post explaining virtue ethics listed above. Basically, intelligence and knowledge are critical to Aristotle’s political theory, since knowledge is what helps breed moderation, virtue, and the good life which helps us derive happiness.
For Aristotle, the State is the “most sovereign” association possible. It includes and encompasses all other associations for the purpose of achieving the highest good, which is happiness. Moreover, it is natural – the State is a natural product of humanity’s social animus. What Aristotle means when he says the State encompasses all other associations is that all other associate organizations in society happen within the boundaries of the State. Charitable organizations, religions, and economic associations, all occur within the parameters of a city and Aristotle thinks that their well-being and productivity is dependent upon the State’s well-being and productivity. For example, charitable organizations would have a hard time being charitable when the State is disintegrating. The same goes for religion and economic associations too. A healthy and orderly State, then, leads to the health and order of all other associations. Aristotle finds correlation between how the functions and machinations of a State are to all other organizations, including individuals, within a political community. Again, this means that a virtuous, orderly, and moderate State will contingently produce virtuous, orderly, and moderated people and all such institutions within such a State will reflect and embody that. A disorganized, chaotic, and unvirtuous State will contingently produce unvirtuous, disorganized, and chaotic internal organizations and individuals.
When Aristotle says man is a political animal this means that human nature is instinctively communitarian and social. Humans find greater meaning and happiness by belonging to community. It is only natural. After all, we are social creatures. Thus, Aristotle rejects all solitary, a-social, and atomistic outlooks concerning human nature and society. Aristotle is equally rebutting the cynics and Epicureans through these statements, and through his virtue politics, is also attacking the sophists who agree it is best for humans to partake in social and civil affairs, but not for the end of virtue and teleological happiness.
Aristotle’s theory of language is also important to his politics. The fact that humans are social animals and seek bonding together in community is reflected in humanity’s ability of speech. Speech is meant to bind people together, draw people together, and advance the truth (rather than perpetuate ignorance, e.g. the sophists), and human community in its most natural form is reflected by language. Common language, then, is the basis of political plurality in Aristotle’s account. One will find less happiness in being part of a community of a foreign tongue, foreign traditions, and foreign customs where such a person feels like an outsider rather than a member of the community which fulfills his or her social animus.
Thus, society is prior to the individual in Aristotle’s account. We are born into society, and we are to become members of society. This requires the cultivation of individual virtue, knowledge, and moderation. Humans are meant to live in social communities, the highest reflection thereof is the State.
Aristotle lays forth a historical argument for the state by looking at our social animus and how it develops organically. First there is a union between man and woman which is the family. Thus, family is the basis of all civilization for Aristotle. The most natural association is that which brings difference together for the purpose of advancing and growing the difference that has now been united in union. (This is a sociological extension of Aristotle’s hylmorphism.) Second, from man and woman (which is the family) developed the household (which includes children and family members). Thus, the household is an organic evolution of the union between man and woman. The household also embodies a functioning unit: children were born and therefore posterity is preserved, they become the new heads of the household, they are charged with certain responsibilities and tasks which require knowledge and virtue, but the household also employs others who need to know their role and tasks within the household to make it functioning. Third, from the household (which is rooted in the family) emerges the village. Multiple families lead to multiple households, and these multiple households constitute a village where they form the macro element to social animus while at the same time embodying the micro elements of social animus (i.e. each household will be slightly different from each other based on size, knowledge, and virtue, but they all aim and reflect the same ideal). Finally, the State emerges from a collection of villages which means the State is the largest extension of the household, which is also to say the State is the largest extension and embodiment of the family. Without the family there is no State. It is a simple logical syllogism.
The principal reason for such social structuring is man’s search for a fuller and happier life which animates from his social animus. After all, not only are people made self-sufficient in society, but it is only within the State that man is willing to subordinate to other men on the basis of justice, fairness, and equality. Aristotle makes a very provocative claim to us today by asserting true justice, fairness, and equality – i.e. each getting their just desserts – is only made possible through hierarchy. Which itself is the process of organic evolution and expansion upward. You cannot evolve linearly, that is motion; this is another basic philosophical syllogism. Evolution means growth and expansion upward while motion is latitudinal.
Aristotle then turns to the function of the State. Aristotle, following his doctrine of the mean, asserts that there has to be a limit to the size of the State. This is related to organic evolution in hierarchy rather than latitudinal motion. Latitudinal motion is never ending, but organic development toward an end (telos) implies this is an end to which all things are working toward, and that we can reach it. Thus, Aristotle’s politics is tempered by moderation. There is an ideal size for the State. For instance, a large society (population wise) will need a larger State than a small society would. A large society with too small of a state cannot provide the necessary instruments and resources demanded in a functioning and orderly society. Likewise, a State that is too large (“too big to fail”) becomes clunky, inefficient, and over burdensome.
Aristotle is both a statist and anti-statist. Statism, in political philosophy, does not carry the completely negative connotations that it does today when that term is used. Statism is basically the view that some State apparatus is a fundamental good, and that it is also natural. It is logically demanded by those who believe human nature is social. Aristotle is an anti-statist in the modern usage of the term. That is, he would agree with those who claim that there should be a limit to the State. But the question is what is the ideal size then? Aristotle is not an anarchist or “libertarian,” in other words, but he is also not a liberal or a communist.
Continuing to development his political theories, Aristotle stops to comment on the three natural forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutionalism. All three are based on the family model. The constitutional model refers to the household and where all persons are nearly equal to each other, yet there are those who retain household rights and responsibilities, which then extends to the citizenry. Basically, the constitutional model is the model that seeks to balance many families living together. The monarchial model is ground in the rule of the father over his children, and father (head of the household) over his subjects. He may delegate responsibility to his children to have some sway over the subject servants, but the father is still top dog so to speak. The monarchial model sees the civil political as one big family rather than many families. The aristocratic model is, essentially, rule of the best families. In this sense, aristocracy is closer to democracy or constitutionalism in the sense that the most well-managed, efficient, and productive filial households will produce the heads who lead the society.
Thus, Aristotle shows how all politics is also rooted in the family and evolved from the family. Different societies developed along these three lines for various different circumstances, but Aristotle would have argued that each is reflective of the priority of the values and conditions of said society. A society that values family-family equity would be more democratic. A society that values the stewardship of the father would be more monarchial. There are also possible environmental and historical reasons for these developments too.
Aristotle talks about property, slavery, and labor division too in Book I, but I would wish to address his concept of private property moreover than his views on the division of labor and monopolies. Aristotle gives a defense of property because he sees property as being part of the natural condition. Property is akin to kith and kin. One does not claim children that are not biologically his own, and so this principle extends to our relationship to land and property. The point of Aristotle’s defense of property is also one of rootedness. Just as one would be connected to his family for the roots of biology, one is also attached to land for reasons of rootedness in the land. The land is where one was born, raised, nurtured off of, worked, and has now been entrusted stewardship with.
Property is the basis of survival. Humans cannot survive without working the land. Thus, property as linked to survival, which leads to health and well-being – which are contingently related to happiness – is why Aristotle argues property is natural, “natural property” as he writes. However, Aristotle does not see property as license for exploitation and endless acquisition. Again, this is rooted in his hierarchal metaphysics and politics. The happy mean is found even in property. Again, latitudinal motion leads to the need of endless consumption, including the endless consumption or acquisition of land, whereas the virtue politics and hierarchal metaphysics of organic evolution through the mean would entail a limit to property. Thus, as Aristotle claims, property must be limited by how much a family needs to live well. The unnatural form of acquisition of property occurs when we engage in commercial life for pure profit. Sorry guys, Aristotle is not a capitalist because he is aware of a commercial driven mentality as leading to atomization, non-connectedness to land and people, and that one is driven purely for material acquisition and is no longer functioning as a social animal. We can read into that what we want about today’s world and politics in many ways.
On this note, this is not to say there should be no commerce as people at the Acton Institute would charge. Aristotle is not arguing that there should be no commercial aspects to political economy. However, he is saying that commercial economic livelihood has its place in society too, but it is at the bottom of the hierarchy. Again, absence the hierarchy means the unlimited expansion of the free flow of commerce – there is nothing to rein it in or put a check on it. Aristotle’s comments about the division of labor reflect the same ruminations about right size and so forth.
Moving into Book II, Aristotle critiques unrestrained collectivism as being unnatural. He argues that collectivism entails the elimination, or abolishment, of the family. Too much unity is also a bad thing because that reflects too much monism and is a rejection of pluralistic hylomorphism. Aristotle argues that this is unconducive to happiness.
Aristotle goes through a lengthy critique of the ideal political society that was proposed to us in Plato’s Republic. The basic gist of the argument is that too much collectivization, too much unionization, and too much “common ownership” destroys the ideal size, is unconducive to happiness, and detaches people from their roots – whether it is to land or even to family. Collectivization has little value in other words. This is because Aristotle is not a materialist or an economist (i.e. economism as I explained in this post). Aristotle is a hylomorphist; life is not reducible to materiality which is the logical foundation one needs to advocate for collectivism.
The gist of Book II is rather self-explanatory seeing that is Aristotle’s critique of “utopian” politics centered on the ideal of collectivization. The heart of Aristotle’s critique is metaphysical and ontological. As already stated, such a politics and life is oppositional to human nature and would be unconducive to teleological happiness and flourishing. Second, in the universalism of collectivism pluralism is destroyed. Related to this is Aristotle’s critique of monistic metaphysics, but one should expect this from someone who holds to a pluralistic metaphysics (Aristotle’s hylomorphism). Third is how collectivism is opposite of the process of organic growth and evolution from the family to the limited and regional State that he laid out in Book I.
Value and virtue is related to Aristotle’s critique as well. Collective ownership is of little value and is also impractical. Any piece of property owned by all is of little value and practicality because one doesn’t have much attachment to it, and can always shove responsibility off to others since he or she knows they’ll be taken care of anyways from the collective lot. Thus, the ideal of collectivization is also a product of unintelligent and unwise people – it is too excessive in nature which reflects a fundamental lack of understanding not only about politics, but of human nature, but also of the natural world itself.
After criticizing collectivism Aristotle begins to theorize about various political regimes to see which form of government would be ideal (the Cretan, Spartan, and Carthaginian regimes). We do not need to go into the nitty gritty details of each individual examination, but Aristotle ultimately concludes that the constitutional model is the ideal model of politics. It best reflects pluralism and the relationship of many families together and living in harmony together. It allows for limited private property, which demands the individual and individual families to cultivate wisdom and ethos for themselves and their lot – the actualization of practical wisdom put into action (which is phronesis). At the same time, it binds the households together in community and keeps the sociality of human nature, while also preserving the distinctness therein.
The Three Forms of Government: Books I, II, and IV in Context
It would behoove us not to look at one of the most famous parts of the Politics, Book IV, in conjuncture with Aristotle’s other political ruminations in Books I and II, where Aristotle analyzes, in some depth, the three forms of government and what they become when perverted. Monarchy, in its ideal form, again, is reflective of the fatherly subject ruling and caring over his family and household. The common good is seen as being embodied in the father (e.g. the monarch). As we all probably know, tyranny is the end result of perverted monarchy.
That tyranny is the end result of perverted monarchy is meant that tyranny is the rule of a single tyrant. A perverted constitutional government is not tyrannical, by definition, it is a “democracy” according to Aristotle. For Aristotle, the problem with monarchy is that it entrusts the common good and filial life to the singular. While beautiful and having affection in its own right, the danger of falling into tyranny is ever present. Just because you had a good king doesn’t mean his son is going to be a good king. Monarchy has no built in mechanisms to avoid the slip into tyranny. It is all at the discretion of the father, and “father knows best.”
Aristocracy, as rule of the few, is really rule of the best families. All virtues, practices, family lineages, and wealth are considered, but the end judge is practicality and efficiency. Aristotle doesn’t like aristocracy because of its implicit rest upon materialistic metaphysics to determine its politics. Too much practicality exhausts itself in the material and the material reigns. The result of aristocracy descending into oligarchy is the struggle between the pluralists and the materialists. The aristocrats, or best family men, who still adhere to hylomorpism, defense of virtue, wisdom, and family legacy and lineage, are the ones who defend the aristocratic order. Those aristocrats who have become corrupt to only seeking material goods as being virtuous make wealth the only arbiter for rule. No more virtue, wisdom, or family lineage is taken into consideration. The end result is the commercialized State that Aristotle warns against in Book I.
Moving onto constitutionalism, which is Aristotle’s preferred form of government after all of his studies, the constitutional model best reflects the realities of family life and pluralism which gets incorporated into the constitution and promulgated by law. It is has the most mechanisms and laws that promote wisdom and virtue. However, constitutionalism’s perverted form is democracy. Democracy is not a benign and wonderful political form in Aristotle’s thoughts. For Aristotle, democracy is the perverted form of constitutionalism when collectivism rears its ugly head. The downfall of constitutionalism is the push for collective egalitarianism. There is no more push for wisdom and virtue, but the unleashed reign of the passions. Furthermore, democratic government becomes inefficient, grows in bureaucratic control, and becomes excessively large as it has to become large in order to “appease all.”
That said, while democracy is bad, Aristotle thinks the drawbacks of democracy is not as bad as in oligarchy (commercialized politics) and monarchy (instability and destruction of common good by a single person). The drawback of democracy is that it becomes chaotic, disorderly, excessive in size, and inefficient, but this is the easiest form of deformed government to bring back to the mean. Why? To rein in an oligarchy, which is the result of commercialization – which also means it is the result of materialization in metaphysics – one must engage metaphysically with oligarchy, extolling the importance and truth of metaphysical and ontological pluralism. This is difficult because few people are actually wise in any society. And those who have accumulated such great material wealth and power will not give it up so easily. Monarchy’s problem is more of the fact that any given ruler can “get unhinged” so to speak. Aristotle, contrary certain advocates of monarchy today, actually thinks monarchy is inherently unstable rather than stable. Its longevity is not a product of its stability, but a product of the power of humanity’s filial nature. Democracy, on the other hand, neither embraces materialism nor rejects hylomorphism. It is the result of people becoming unhinged and followers of their passions and emotion. For various reasons, Aristotle does think it is easier to control passions and emotions through basic education and a restoration of private property landed laboring which teaches hard work, self-control, and practical virtues.
The question for us is whether our “democracies” are really constitutional, or more oligarchic. Or perhaps a weird combination of both with the oligarchs using the mob as their avant-garde?
Nevertheless, Aristotle’s political philosophy has been deeply influential and remains so to this day. It is rooted in rootedness itself, both with regard to tongue, land, and family. His political theory is something deeply conservative in the views concerning closed society, hierarchy, and organic evolution with the aim of teleological happiness, happiness, and virtue being the end result of politics. There is a happy medium to every aspect of political life, and all economic associations have their specific place within the natural order of the politeia itself. This aids us toward our end, which is teleological and ontological happiness and flourishing.
At the same time, because of Aristotle’s insistence on the need of education and virtue as being integral to politics, his political theory is value-negative. In essence, politics has the tendency to get worse rather than better. There are many forces that threaten political stability and virtue: passion, emotion, the unwise, sophistry, commercialization and capitalization, atomization, the unruly mob, the king or queen, self-obsessed materialists, the collapse of education and wisdom (i.e. an unphilosophical society), and so much more. That said, Aristotle does think politics is something natural and this extends to the State itself. It is all a reflection of our social animus.
Aristotle’s political views have much to offer. Even within Book I and II, I have but covered the bare bones reading and take away. His theory of labor division is captivating and thought provoking. The lines one can draw with his opposition to commercialization can be wrought out in many ways, and we can easily see that as a continued critique of political sophistry. Additionally, Aristotle’s views concerning political hierarchy and our social animus can lead to many thought provoking questions and contemplations. For instance, is he right that limited government and proper private property rights are only possible in metaphysical hierarchy? Does latitudinal and motional metaphysics, like those reminiscent of the liberal theorists of the 17th century, mean the endless acquisition and growth of State power and rape of the natural world as Aristotle suggest and implies? The reason for reading such classical works is precisely this: not only have these texts shaped the world, our history, and our inheritance, they still demand engagement, lead to thought provoking questions, and unleash the mind in its pursuit of truth, knowledge, and wisdom.