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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

“Man is a Political Animal”: The Method of Aristotle’s Politics

We are now as ready as we will be this year to look at Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle’s thinking on politics is one element of a comprehensive system of thought that is intended to account for the whole of reality. And what I have been doing is attempting to highlight and outline some important aspects of his system as a whole and supply enough about other parts of it that his Politics can be well understood.

During the past century, i.e. the 20th,  Aristotle took a decided second place to Plato when it came to generating interest among political thinkers. But for most of the past 2000 years Aristotle had by far the greater reputation as a thinker, and as a political thinker. For more than 1000 years, he was simply  referred to as “the Philosopher.”

In some ways, Aristotle is closer to our own culture than Plato is. Many modern political thinkers feel at home borrowing some of Aristotle’s doctrines., for example his idea of the political association as the only “place” where people can fully develop their specifically human capacities for rational and just action; or his idea of citizenship as ruling and being ruled; or his idea that politics is essentially about action (“praxis”) rather than the application of technique. Ideas like this show up again strongly in figures like Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. Plato, on the other hand, is much stranger to us. He is certainly more ambiguous and poetic. Aristotle is often valued highly for his liberal and even democratic elements, as opposed to Plato who, when he is read literally, is considered to be illiberal, even totalitarian, and often a flighty “utopian” – an “anti-political” thinker.

Nevertheless, Aristotle was Plato’s student. And even though he reformed Platonism thoroughly, and even though his differences from Plato are substantial on almost any topic, he is in the end much closer to Plato than to us, than to most of what follows the 16th century.

Both Plato and Aristotle were conservatives in the more important of two possible senses of the term. Both, that is, were “substantive” conservatives. Substantive conservatism refers to the belief in the essential rightness of a certain type of society; or the belief that society is essentially a differentiated whole in which each part has an assigned duty that follows from its natural function and limitations. For the substantive conservative politics becomes the pursuit of an objectively true moral end. The individual will not be able to fulfill him/herself without finding and accepting his/her rightful place within the social whole. These places will be “higher” or “lower”, carrying different types and degrees of responsibility and dignity.

But Aristotle differs from Plato in being, in addition, much more of a “situational” conservative. A situational conservative will tend to reject the belief in human reason to recast reality in the mold of its ideals or of the laws it discovers. He will stress the superior wisdom of history and tradition in slowly working out the best institutions and practices. A situational conservative need not necessarily be a substantive conservative. A situational conservative will focus on the necessity not to depart too much in action from what past experience and history have so far given us. For him, the main political danger lies in the arrogance of not recognizing that human life is a tremendously complex affair that cannot be mastered once and for all by theoretical reason. Change must be slow and incremental, when it takes place at all. Past experience is a better guide to truth than theory understood as pure abstract reasoning.

Aristotle’s situational conservatism is often celebrated by middle of the road political thinkers when Aristotle is contrasted to Plato in the following ways:

1. Aristotle bases political knowledge on empirical (experiential) grounds. He carefully and cautiously builds his theory on the basis of observation; versus Plato, who is a rationalist and an idealist. Plato simply deduces things from first principles, paying little attention to the evidence of the senses.

2. Aristotle is a “practical” thinker. He does not waste time overshooting for the unattainable ideal, but instead directs his efforts at  the best achievable given our all-too-obvious human limitations; versus Plato who is a dangerous utopian schemer.

3. Aristotle has a sense for the developmental in politics. He sees social and political life as a continuum (having many stages and gradations blending into each other). Political development is a sort of process with a beginning and an end, rather than a set of stark contrasts; versus Plato, who simply builds static models that don’t illuminate the better potentials in existing circumstances.

The situational conservatism in Aristotle (whatever are its strengths and weaknesses) is new (although there are traces of it in Protagoras). And it is what leads him, I think, to have a rather different view of the substance of a good society than Plato does.  But he is still a student of Plato’s. You don’t get that from his style of writing either. Instead of the master dramatist, Aristotle gives you the very driest in “academic” writing, although a good many people appreciate it for its directness and clarity more than they appreciate Plato.  Aristotle’s writing is this way because of the fact that the Politics was not composed in a literary form. It is a collection of lectures and notes for lectures compiled and arranged by Aristotle’s students and by later editors. It is also affected by the fact that Aristotle develops and presents his views by carefully examining and criticizing (and sometimes mangling) other current positions, opinions and practices, as well as referring to observation and experience. It often gives you the impression of a meandering discussion that covers too many points in too great detail.

But the possible impression of detached, neutral scientific analysis is misleading. Aristotle is definitely laying out a practical program of the best of possible states. The practicality and interestedness of Aristotle’s program is also somewhat obscured by the fact that it sticks pretty closely to current and historical Greek practice. It has been said, and rightly, that the essence of the Politics is a justification of then existing institutions like a mixed democratic/oligarchic form of government (radical democracy was over in Athens by then, and it was something that conservatives like Aristotle did not want to return to); institutions like slavery; the patriarchal family; property. In relation to Greek practice, Aristotle does not raise strikingly new points of view, but conceives existing relations in their ideal meaning. For much of conservatism, the actual is the ideal.

To understand how Aristotle does this (and attempts to justify it), it is important to concentrate on Book I of the Politics. It is especially important to see how Aristotle uses a set of interlocking concepts (with which we are now somewhat familiar) to define and justify the political association. For Aristotle the political association (the essence of the polis) is to be an organic whole, structured hierarchically and devoted to the realization of the moral excellence of its members, that is to their “happiness” in the sense of the Nichomachean Ethics. This is the end and purpose embodied in the polis. Everything about it is to be structured in such a way that its members (or at least some of them) can achieve this highest practical good.

The polis is not an instrument of “peace, order and good  government” (although it has to satisfy these requirements too). Nor is it a means to “life, liberty and the pursuit of [private] happiness”.

The main ideas Aristotle employs to justify the polis as an organic and hierarchical whole are his interlocking concepts of nature, teleology and organism. And if, looking back after having read the Politics through (in selections) you can see how Aristotle differentiates his idea of politics by the use of this method (or framework), you will have gone a long way to a good understanding of the whole book (and its weaknesses).

Aristotle’s first move is to define the polis as a specific type of association or relation (a form!). And he begins by saying that observation shows it to be natural to humans. This will lead to the most famous and most misused line in the whole book: “man is by nature a political animal”.  In this discussion, by saying that the life of the citizen of the polis is natural, Aristotle is doing at least two things: he is distancing himself immediately from Plato by saying there is a qualitative difference between rule in the polis and the rule of a monarch over subjects or the rule of a master over slaves or the rule of the (male) head of a family over its members. Second, he is saying, against the Sophists, that the polis is not a mere conventional arrangement (although it has conventions that are variable) useful to some, but whose usefulness depends on the situation. (he is also saying to the Cynics, who we will meet later, that there is no “self-sufficiency” outside the polis – that the human being, to live well, must live in a political relation with others).

So the polis is first of all an association (Gk. – “koinonia”, from the adjective “koinos”, common to…). But to understand how it is a very special type of association, and the best type, one must analyze it and break it down into its parts. It is a compound, rather than a simple, thing. It is an association of other, smaller and lesser, associations. Therefore to understand it, we must trace its development out of simpler, more uncompounded elements. Now this way of analyzing something is sometimes called a “genetic method”. To understand something you must identify its origins, and be able to trace how the parts or elements present at the origins combine in order to produce the larger whole which is the end result.

So to understand the polis (politics, political association, political action, citizenship, etc…) we have to understand its genesis and development. But Aristotle, as we already know, thinks that all development is teleological. You cannot understand development without grasping the purposes or ends in/of something as well as its origins or beginnings. You cannot understand the acorn, the sapling, or any of the parts of the mature oak without grasping the total form of the mature oak as the end/purpose of everything that precedes it. Now, Aristotle is understanding, defining,  the polis as a type or form of relation or association. Like all science for Aristotle, political science deals with forms. But these forms, as we know, are different from Plato’s, whether Aristotle is dealing with politics, biology, ethics or whatever… Although, like Plato, Aristotle believes that forms are permanent and therefore knowable, against Plato he does not believe that forms exist apart from matter.  Therefore science has to proceed from observation of what already exists to a true conception of form by looking at matter in its development towards a fully realized form. The form is an end towards which matter is determined. Everything in nature (and human institutions including the polis are also nature) can be analyzed in this way. Everything is matter imbued with form in constant movement from potentiality (relatively undeveloped form) to actuality (developed form).

Now, if this is the case, then “nature” or “natural” is applicable to all of the stages of a things development. The primary material is natural; the process of development is natural; and the fully developed and actualized form in which development ends is natural. There is no essential gap between nature and convention. Development does not take place through the application of external power by an outside agency, but is present in, given in the things themselves. The polis will then be the end and actuality of human association itself, of human relations themselves. It will be the highest development possible of association with others, of having/holding something in common with others, of acting in concert with others.

In political science, the simplest element of the compound form “polis” is the family, which is itself an association (a having and doing in common) of male and female. The second simple element according to him, is the union of master and slave. These two simple associations together combine to form the association of the household (“oikos”). These associations are formed on the basis of need. That is, neither is sufficient to itself. The next level of association is to be found in the “village”, which is still based upon the needs or necessities of the households composing it. Finally, we arrive at the polis. In the polis, Aristotle finds the end or purpose of association. In the polis association  has been developed to reach its final purpose. It is the complete and perfected form of association. The polis is the form of association which is “self-sufficient” – not in the sense that it produces everything that it consumes, but in the sense that in it, everything is present that is necessary and sufficient to achieving the good life. It is the only association in which the human being can fulfill his (or  her – in a much more limited way for Aristotle) rational and moral self.

So the polis is natural by virtue of the fact that it is the outcome of a sort of instinct struggling to achieve a goal. Also, says Aristotle, we can tell that the polis is natural because we can observe that nature always works towards the best, which is the end/goal or purpose of development. The purpose of association is self-sufficiency (people associate or combine insofar as they lack something on their own – we’ll see later what the slave is supposed to lack). Therefore that association which achieves the highest degree of self-sufficiency (in supplying the elements of the good life) is the most natural and best association. Finally, Aristotle says that nature makes nothing in vain (everything has a part to play in the whole) and nature has given human beings a power of speech that can distinguish between the just and the unjust. Outside of the polis such speech would be in vain since it is the common perception of justice that makes a family and a polis. Therefore – for all these reasons – the human being is destined by nature to live in a polis. Thus the human being outside the polis “is either a beast or a god”.

Human beings  can only fulfill their whole and greater potential , can only live an active life of virtue and justice in accordance with reason when they are supplied with the leisure and material bases of liberality and when they are joined in a common life with others pursuing the same ends, all of them united by justice and friendship.

Now, this is not our average everyday modern sense of the meaning of membership in the “political association” – although elements of it can get whomped up by good (or bad) speechwriters when there is a felt need for higher levels of patriotism/loyalty/self-sacrifice, etc… Our “commonsensical”, assumed and deeply entrenched but tacit view has it that the state is an instrument (more or less well tuned) for the protection of individual rights; in which the individual is conceived as something essentially different from and opposed to the whole; in which the individual is morally self-sufficient (the state does not instruct me in ethical action – all I need from it is protection); in which the state is seen as the unfortunate but necessary tool of the essentially self-sufficient individual and as something artificial.

But for Aristotle, interpreting the essence of the political association, nature is a set of developmental processes, processes that already have their ends and goals  included within them. Since we, as individuals, are parts of these processes, the end product, the whole which is a result of the process is necessarily prior to any and all of its parts. Thus, because Aristotle thinks of nature as teleological development, his view of society is organic: political society is like a self-sufficient organism. In organic unity, there is first the necessity of differentiation, and secondly, the dependence of each of the parts on the whole for its life and for its identity.  In that it is an organic unity --  and this is essential to all conservatism– the whole is prior to its parts, as Aristotle says, “in the order of nature”. The whole is prior to its parts (not chronologically) because, according to Aristotle, “All things derive their essential character from their function and their capacity.” Now ideally this whole, the polis, does not exist by subordinating any of its parts to its own different or separate purposes. Instead, membership in the whole is supposed to raise the potential of each part for a fullness of life – for a happiness – impossible outside the whole.

Nature therefore is, by observation, according to Aristotle, teleological. And that it is teleological implies that it is composed of ever more inclusive organic wholes. But Aristotle will go further than this and use his account of natural teleology and organicism to explain and try to justify hierarchy. Thus according to him, some parts are necessarily lower, less suited to freedom and more suited to being directed and ruled by someone else than are other parts. On this basis Aristotle will attempt to justify the institutions of slavery and patriarchy in Book I, and in the rest of the book what is, I will argue, ultimately in practice a form of  oligarchy. (The first two institutions, you are welcome to bring up in class at the beginning of our treatment of Aristotle. Be on the lookout for how his support for  “natural” slavery and patriarchy follows from his method, which relies upon inducing from observation what is natural.)

I said that ideally an organic whole is not an imposition upon or an injustice to its parts. It is insteadx what Aristotle calls, in Greek, a “holon”. A “holon” is an organic compound in which the coming together of the parts results in a new identity, but in which the parts also retain their existing identity. Aristotle, however, is not simply arranging a “holon” of individuals, but an organic arrangement of functions. Insofar as individuals are identified with with exclusive functions and those functions are arranged hierarchically, this leads Aristotle to making a distinction between full parts or full members of the whole and those parts which are merely conditions for the existence of the whole. 

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