Aristotle | Politics

Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Aristotle (384–322 BC)

1. Aristotle | Politics

Politics (Πολιτικά) is a work of political philosophy by Aristotle, a 4th-century BC Greek philosopher.

The end of the Nicomachean Ethics declared that the inquiry into Ethics necessarily follows into Politics, and the 2 works are frequently considered to be parts of a larger treatise—or perhaps connected lectures—dealing with the philosophy of human affairs.

The title of Politics literally means the things concerning the πόλις : Polis, and is the origin of the modern English word politics.

2. Overview

Aristotle's Politics is divided into 8 books, which are each further divided into chapters.

Book I

In the first book, Aristotle discusses the city (πόλις) or political community (κοινωνία πολιτική) as opposed to other types of communities and partnerships such as the household (οἶκος) and village.

The highest form of community is the Polis.

Aristotle comes to this conclusion because he believes the public life is far more virtuous than the private and because men are political animals.

He begins with the relationship between the city and man (I. 1–2), and then specifically discusses the household (οἶκος) (I. 3–13).

He takes issue with the view that political rule, kingly rule, rule over slaves and rule over a household or village are only different in size.

He then examines in what way the city may be said to be natural.

Aristotle discusses the parts of the household (οἶκος), which includes slaves, leading to a discussion of whether slavery can ever be just and better for the person enslaved or is always unjust and bad.

He distinguishes between those who are slaves because the law says they are and those who are slaves by nature, saying the inquiry hinges on whether there are any such natural slaves.

Only someone as different from other people as the body is from the soul or beasts are from human beings would be a slave by nature, Aristotle concludes, all others being slaves solely by law or convention.

Some scholars have therefore concluded that the qualifications for natural slavery preclude the existence of such a being.

Aristotle then moves to the question of property in general, arguing that the acquisition of property does not form a part of household management (οἰκονομική) and criticizing those who take it too seriously.

It is necessary, but that does not make it a part of household management any more than it makes medicine a part of household management just because health is necessary.

He criticizes income based upon trade and upon interest,

saying that those who become avaricious do so because they forget that money merely symbolizes wealth without being wealth and contrary to nature on interest because it increases by itself not through exchange.

Book I concludes with Aristotle's assertion that the proper object of household rule is the virtuous character of one's wife and children, not the management of slaves or the acquisition of property.

Rule over the slaves is despotic, rule over children kingly, and rule over one's wife political (except there is no rotation in office).

Aristotle questions whether it is sensible to speak of the virtue of a slave and whether the virtues of a wife and children are the same as those of a man

before saying that because the city must be concerned that its women and children be virtuous, the virtues that the father should instil are dependent upon the regime and so the discussion must turn to what has been said about the Best Regime.

Book II

Book II examines various views concerning the Best Regime.

It opens with an analysis of the regime presented in Plato's Republic (2. 1–5),

holding that communal share of property between the guardians will increase rather than decrease dissensions, and sharing of wives and children will destroy natural affection.

He concludes that common sense is against this arrangement for good reason, and claims that experiment shows it to be impractical.

Next, an analysis of the regime presented in Plato's Laws (2. 6).

Aristotle then discusses the systems presented by 2 other philosophers, Phaleas of Chalcedon (2. 7) and Hippodamus of Miletus (2. 8).

After addressing regimes invented by theorists, Aristotle moves to the examination of 3 regimes that are commonly held to be well managed. These are:

  1. Spartan (2. 9),
  2. Cretan (2. 10),
  3. Carthaginian (2. 11).

The book concludes with some observations on regimes and legislators.

Book III

1) Who can be a citizen?

He who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of any state is said by us to be a citizen of that state; and speaking generally, a state is a body of citizens sufficing for the purpose of life.

But in practice a citizen is defined to be one of whom both the parents are citizens; others insist on going further back; say 2 or 3 or more grandparents.

Aristotle asserts that a citizen is anyone who can take part in the governmental process. He finds that most people in the Polis are capable of being citizens.

This is contrary to the Platonist view, asserting that only very few can take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of the state.

2) Classification of constitution and common good.

3) Just distribution of political power.

4) Types of monarchies:

a) Monarchy: exercised over voluntary subjects, but limited to certain functions; the king was a general and a judge, and had control of religion.

b) Absolute: government of one for the absolute good

c) Barbarian: legal and hereditary + willing subjects

d) Dictator: installed by foreign power elective dictatorship + willing subjects (elective tyranny)

Book IV

1) Tasks of political theory

2) Why are there many types of constitutions?

3) Types of democracies

4) Types of oligarchies

5) Polity (Constitutional Government) – highest form of government

a) When perverted, a Polity becomes a Democracy, the least harmful derivative government as regarded by Aristotle.

6) Government offices

Book V

1) Constitutional change

2) Revolutions in different types of constitutions and ways to preserve constitutions

3) Instability of tyrannies

Book VI

1) Democratic constitutions

2) Oligarchic constitutions

Book VII

1) What is Eudaimonia, welfare for the individual? Restate conclusions of Nicomachean Ethics

2) Best life and best state.

3) Ideal state: its population, territory, and position

4) Citizens of the ideal state

5) Marriage and children


1) Paideia, education in the ideal state

2) Music Theory. For didactics, Dorian mode is preferred for its manly qualities, over Phrygian mode and Ionian mode

3. Classification of constitutions

After studying a number of real and theoretical city-states' constitutions, Aristotle classified them according to various criteria:

On one side stand the true (or good) constitutions, which are considered such because they aim for the common good,

and on the other side the perverted (or deviant) ones, considered such because they aim for the well-being of only a part of the city.

The constitutions are then sorted according to the number of those who participate to the magistracies: one, a few, or many.

Aristotle's 6-fold classification is slightly different from the one found in The Statesman by Plato.

Aristotle distinguishes 3 Good Constitutions:

  1. Royalty
  2. Aristocracy
  3. Constitutional Government

When they become Perverted, they turn into the corresponding Perverted Constitution:

  1. Tyranny
  2. Oligarchy
  3. Democracy

Moreover, following Plato's vague ideas, he developed a coherent theory of integrating various forms of power into a so-called mixed state:

It is … constitutional to take … from oligarchy that offices are to be elected, and from democracy that this is not to be on a property-qualification.

This then is the mode of the mixture; and the mark of a good mixture of democracy and oligarchy is when it is possible to speak of the same constitution as a democracy and as an oligarchy.

/Aristotle. Politics, Book 4/

To illustrate this approach, Aristotle proposed a first-of-its-kind mathematical model of voting, albeit textually described, where the democratic principle of one voter–one vote is combined with the oligarchic merit-weighted voting.

4. Composition

The literary character of the Politics is subject to some dispute, growing out of the textual difficulties that attended the loss of Aristotle's works.

Book III ends with a sentence that is repeated almost verbatim at the start of Book VII, while the intervening Books IV–VI seem to have different flavour from the rest;

Book IV seems to refer several times back to the discussion of the best regime contained in Books VII–VIII.

Some editors have therefore inserted Books VII–VIII after Book III.

At the same time, however, references to the discourses on politics that occur in the Nicomachean Ethics suggest that the treatise as a whole ought to conclude with the discussion of education that occurs in Book VIII of the Politics, although it is not certain that Aristotle is referring to the Politics here.

Some scholars suggested that the Politics actually represents the conflation of 2, distinct treatises:

The first (Books I–III, VII–VIII) would represent a less mature work from when Aristotle had not yet fully broken from Plato, and consequently show a greater emphasis on the best regime.

The second (Books IV–VI) would be more empirically minded, and thus belong to a later stage of development.

It is uncertain whether Politics was translated into Arabic like most of his major works. Its influence and ideas were, however, carried over to Arabic philosophers.