laps name lilies

AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Aristotle on the Ideal Constitution; A further Criticism of Aristotle

The main problem with which Aristotle leaves us is why, if the best  of the possible constitutions is one in which anyone may prosper, i.e. attain happiness and fulfill themselves, why are most people excluded from this possibility? In general, from Book I on, the answer Aristotle gives us is that nature must have intended it that way. Or, that in working towards improvement one must above all keep in mind the limitations imposed by the situation and previous history. Below the sphere of the Unmoved Mover, or the divine sphere, everything is formed matter, but also form limited by matter.

Politics is above all a practical affair and Aristotle in fact makes a distinction between practical and theoretical sciences in a way that Plato did not. Aristotle wants to be distinguished from Plato to a great extent by his “realism”, in this sense. But Aristotle’s realism will not be the realism of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Plato’s effort to separate nature and convention, and to judge convention in terms of absolute knowledge of nature is the sort of project that Aristotle does not want to give up, at least entirely. Political science is for him therefore not only a science of what is observable, but also a science of what should and can be. As he says, “nothing contrary to nature is right”. And nature is also a striving of the form to realize itself in matter. So in Book VII Aristotle begins a discussion of an ideal state, of the best state possible, beyond the best of the possible states. Books III-V had been concerned with the lower grades of constitution. In Book VII he turns towards the best.

I suggest that for all intents and purposes, the ideal state is not very far removed from the Polity; there will be only one major difference. In the ideal state, he assumes that the lower sorts of people will go about their business without clamoring for a share of political power, even a small one. We know the purpose of the political association; it will “enable all sorts of men to be at their best and live happily”. It will promote “partnership in a good life and the felicity thereby attainable”.  The best constitution allows all to develop their capacities as far as they can go. Of course, not their capacities to make more money, or more money than others, but their capacities to realize human goodness in practical and in intellectual affairs.

As usual, before he can get down to the business at hand, Aristotle believes there are a few preliminaries that have to be cleared up regarding what is a life of happiness.  This involves two questions: first,  which goods should be pursued, bodily goods  (like health, pleasure, strength, etc…), external goods (like property), or goods of the soul  (like harmony, understanding and inner peace). The second question is whether these goods are best achieved through action or contemplation (or what the best mix might be).

Of the three kinds of goods, although all are good and desirable for Aristotle, it is the goods of the soul  which are highest and best. One cannot have too much of them, whereas it is possible to have some other goods of body and of externals to excess. The truly happy man will have all three, but goods of the first two kinds have inherent limits of size. Also health and wealth will not get anyone goods of the soul. In fact the opposite is true. The upshot is that all are in some degree necessary, but everything is done for the sake of the goods of the soul, which are the only true route to happiness: “the amount of felicity which falls to each individual man is equal to the amount of his goodness and his wisdom, and of the good and wise acts that he does.”

With respect to the second preliminary question, the soul can be engaged in either action or contemplation. Both are necessary to happiness, as understood above. (Would Plato agree with this? If so, why do the Philosopher Kings need to be compelled to reenter the Cave?) Aristotle is ruling out a life of complete inaction, a life given over to even the social pursuit of pure contemplation. The city is in fact not a cave, not a place of darkness, stupidity and brutishness; it is rather the place where partnership and friendship in the good life are possible and are realized in action undertaken in common. Nevertheless, Aristotle regards contemplation as the highest and finest form of action. Why is this? Because contemplation turns out to be the most God-like action. When Aristotle is talking about contemplation, he does not mean simply fixing your attention on something, nor does he mean letting the mind wander or become empty. What he means by contemplation is intellectual activity, the effort (and success in the effort) of thinking about and discovering the reality, order, harmony, and purpose of the universe – of all of nature. This intellectual activity is non-utilitarian. It is not for the sake of something else and it is not like the toil of making things for use, nor is it like the practical deliberations of political affairs. It is an entirely free activity because it is not undertaken for any purpose external to it.  It is a free activity inasmuch as it is like play. It does not need to end in a decision to act. It is a purposefulness without purpose. Being without (external) purpose it is perfectly self-sufficient. It is self-sufficient activity for its own sake.

The trouble with the other sort of action (the one that is not contemplation) is that it can lead to rule over foreigners, which is – like the rule over slaves – an ignoble activity. In the Nichomachean Ethics somewhere he had told us that practical action can always lead to “trouble” and that the best is beyond “trouble”. So --- the best, the highest realization of happiness will be a combination of political participation and of  contemplation. There is no inherent conflict between the two (would Plato see it this way?) The ideal state would allow for the seamless combination and mutual support of political action and contemplation. Its citizens would not be required to sacrifice the one to the other. Both areas of activity would contribute to the individual’s happiness, without each canceling the other out.

Now we know what an ideal state  would aim to realize. The next question is how to set it up. What do its institutions look like, what is its constitution? The main characteristic of the ideal state might be said to be a 2 class system.

The state, we should always remember, is for Aristotle a compound; it is a natural compound; a “whole” or organic unity. Citizens are organs of the state. The state is the organism which supports and defines the activities of its organs. What and who the citizens are takes on its meaning from the whole, and the whole (when it is really a whole) does not deny their full development. On the contrary, it is the necessary (and even sufficient) condition of their full development. So far so good. Aristotle, however, distinguishes between parts of the state (or whole) and its necessary conditions. The state must carry on certain functions, but some of those functions are not parts of the state, only its necessary conditions. Therefore some people who are not citizens (or parts – same thing here) will be required to carry on those functions which are merely necessary conditions, functions like agriculture and industry. Other people, those who are parts, and therefore citizens, will carry on functions which are more than merely necessary conditions of the whole. These are the functions of defense, priesthood, politics and finally --- I’m sorry, but get this – land ownership.

So we have two groups of free men (we’ve left women and slaves behind a long time ago). One does the work of agriculture and industry (which, you’ll agree, is probably a lot of work even on top of the work of women and slaves). They will own no land and will not be citizens, but merely “necessary conditions” of the polis (perhaps a bit like the “guest workers” in various countries around the globe now – except that they will be of the same culture and language group). Being too busy with agriculture and industry to have the leisure to develop practical virtue (forget about theoretical virtue), and being without the ownership of land that allows them to develop a real sense of responsibility (see Book I again), they will of course have zero share in political power.

So much for the first group, which is by far the larger one. The other group does the work of defense (when young); of politics (when middle aged) and of prayer (when old). This neat division by age does not, however, affect the really important function of owning land which they get to do their whole life long, I guess.  Now ask yourself, How different is this from the Polity? And ask yourself whether Aristotle’s idea of realizing distributive justice is a distribution of power and honour to those who have merit, or is it the reverse? Is it a distribution of the judgement of merit to those who already have power and honour? Because they are the owners of property?

Almost all conservative theories contain this major non-sequitur (a logical argument in which the conclusion fails to follow from the premises):  1. “You must work your whole life long to give me the leisure I need to make me smarter and better-looking than you are.” 2. “I am smarter and better looking than you are” [not me, i.e., A. Horowitz, but our thinker of this type like Aristotle] . 3. “I don’t spend my whole life in drudgery and futility.”

Those are the premises. Here’s what follows: 4. “Therefore, you should obey me….So… let’s please see those foreheads hit the floor.” At least Plato was sensitive to the absurdity of this notion and showed that sensitivity precisely in the communistic and ascetic institutions he assigned to his rulers. He also showed his sensitivity to the absurdity of this notion in making the Myth of the Metals a myth.

Back to Lectures Schedule.

York University Copyright © - Asher Horowitz - All rights reserved