The Epitome of Aristotle's Political Theory

Paul Bullen (Feb. 1997)

In the first part of this essay I provide a summary of Aristotle’s political ideology, as I understand it. In the second part I provide some idea of how my understanding compares with those of other interpreters.

Political science.
‘Political science,’ as Aristotle uses the term, is a systematic body of knowledge concerning how to optimize the collective well-being of humans. Aristotle’s political science is outlined in the Ethics and the Politics, the former (the ‘characters’ part) describing what well-being consists in, the latter (the ‘constitutions’ part) explaining how to optimize it collectively.

Well-being. While all members of the human species share a common essence, end, and characteristic activity, most are defective and unable to actualize that essence, end, and characteristic activity. They are either children, female, or naturally slavish. Although, children can become adults, females and natural slaves cannot become male or naturally free. This ‘failure’ of nature is fortunate for those who are capable of becoming true humans. Without women and slaves, Greek men would not be able to actualize their human essence, achieve the human end, or engage in the characteristic human activity. Men are born of women and slaves provide the leisure needed for the highest human activity.

What distinguishes the human from all other animals (in fact, from all other sublunar beings) is the fact that he, like God, has intellect. The human essence is actualized in the fullest sense in a certain kind of thinking about God and the heavenly spheres. This is the human end, and in it consists primary human well-being. To think about divine beings in the way Aristotle has in mind, a person’s intellect must have achieved a certain understanding of them (‘wisdom’) as a result of studying ‘philosophy’. Unlike God, the human being also has passions and a practical intellect. By keeping the passions in order, the practical intellect is the steward of wisdom, procuring leisure for it. In addition, living according to the dictates of the practical intellect is itself a secondary aspect of human well-being. To fulfill its function, the practical intellect must be perfected as ‘prudence’ through the study of the characters part of political science (or something that approximates it). But prudence is possible only for those socialized by a well-ordered political community.

Well-ordered political community. A political community is a collection of free men who provide order within their respective households. The free Greek man rules his household variously as a father to his sons, a husband to his wife, and a master to his slaves. The responsibility for providing the community of free men itself with good order falls to those who are not capable of being philosophers but do have political virtue. Political virtue is prudence together with a knowledge of the constitutions part of political science (or something approximating it). By keeping the political community in order, such men are the stewards of philosophers, procuring leisure for them.

A well-ordered political community is one with good laws, a good system of public education, and the material resources sufficient to provide citizens with leisure. Good laws are those that are well-adapted to a political system that optimizes collective well-being. By forcing citizens to act outwardly as a person with virtue would voluntarily, laws engender good habits. This tendency of laws should be reinforced by a system of public education that shields students from base things and exposes them to ‘liberal’ arts.

To pursue philosophy Greek men need leisure. The political scientist should aim to provide it for as many Greeks as possible by enslaving foreigners. All non-Greeks (‘barbarians’) are naturally slavish, but Europeans make refractory subjects since they are combative by nature. If they are to be used as slaves, they need to be dispersed. Asians (Persians), on the other hand, are passive and do not produce natural leaders. This deficit is compensated for by the Greeks, who do.

Three types of rule. A political community is ruled in the wrong way when free residents are used primarily as instruments for the benefit of the rulers. Such ‘despotic rule’ is appropriate only with natural slaves. In free rule the ruler works for the sake of the common good of all free residents, or at least for those with leisure. There are two ideal types (in the ‘value-neutral’ sense) of how free men can be ruled correctly. In one, all power is concentrated in the hands of one man whose political virtue substantially exceeds that of the rest. In the other, ruling is divided horizontally among ‘citizens’, all of whom are equal in political virtue, and vertically between present citizens and past legislators. These are ‘royal rule’ and ‘political rule’, respectively. Royal rule is appropriate where there is (1) a person or a family of outstanding political virtue and (2) a people whose nature it is to support such an individual or such a family. When these conditions do not obtain, political or quasi-political rule is appropriate.

Citizenship and higher office. A person is a ‘citizen’ to the extent that he participates in ruling the political community, as long as he is not ruling alone. A person is qualified to rule a political community to the extent that his exercise of office optimizes collective well-being (which is a function of his political virtue). Generally, any free man (Greek) with leisure has enough political virtue to benefit his political community by participating in an assembly that votes for officials and audits them at the end of their terms. Such people have the capacity to elect others with greater virtue than themselves, and through audits to be a source of accountability. This is the minimum level of ruling, and hence the threshold of citizenship. To do more, i.e., to be one who is himself worthy of being elected to high office, a person should be of above-average political virtue. In the (value-neutral) ideal-type of political rule all citizens have equal political virtue. The likelihood of this ideal-type being realized is, of course, no greater than for that of royal rule.

Among those with political power, legislators have the most important ‘office’; so lawmakers should be especially virtuous politically. In political and quasi-political rule, a small body of ‘law guardians’ elected and audited by a popular assembly should draft laws that engender good habits and serve the common good. Such men should ideally know political science. In royal rule the king is also a legislator, although he is not subject to the rule of law himself.

Correct constitutions. Aristotle’s ideal is that those have power who know how to use it to optimize the collective well-being of free residents and are disposed do so. This is (generic) ‘aristocracy’, the rule of the best. There are royal and quasi-political varieties. The royal variety of aristocracy is (absolute) ‘kingship’. The quasi-political form of aristocracy is (specific) ‘aristocracy’, which is a mixture of royal and political modes of rule: political to the extent that a multitude of equals rules under the law; royal to the extent that a superior subset of free residents rules with discretionary power over an inferior but free rest. There is also a kind of constitution that is correct (optimizes collective well-being) but which is not strictly based on the rule of the most politically virtuous. Its mode of rule is purely political, and is called politeia (‘republic’ [what I now call ‘polity’]). The law rules and official functions are divided equally among a multitude of citizens. While in royal rule an archon is a ruler, in political rule he is an official. (Book VII of the Politics provides an account of political rule in which all free citizens with leisure are virtuous.)

Reform. Other things being equal, wrongs should be righted and deviant circumstances corrected. Although monarchies were making a comeback in fourth-century BC Greece, most governments were either democratic (a multitude of poor persons ruling the rich free men despotically) or oligarchic (a multitude of rich persons ruling the poor free men despotically). According to Aristotle, the collective well-being of free men is better optimized by a mixture of democratic and oligarchic institutions than by a pure form of only one or the other. A political scientist should introduce oligarchic measures (i.e., ones that tend to give power to the rich) in a democracy and democratic measures (i.e., ones that tend to give power to the poor) in an oligarchy. For example, while it is democratic for all matters to be decided upon by all citizens (assuming that the poor are the majority) and oligarchic for all matters to be decided upon by only the rich, it is better that some matters be decided upon by only the rich and others be decided upon by all. So a political scientist in an oligarchy should try to arrange for the common people to start participating in some decision-making, while a political scientist in a democracy should try to arrange for some matters to be taken out of the hands of the common people and given to the wealthy. (Such a mixture is ‘republican’ and ‘political’.) Since republic is a second-best constitution (if kingship and specific aristocracy are both viewed as generic aristocracies), the political scientist should try to make a republic more aristocratic (and hence somewhat less political), to the extent feasible. This would mean tending in the direction of having the minoritarian role played by the rich being played by the politically virtuous instead, and the ‘all’ excluding those without leisure. Tyranny (one man despotically ruling both the free rich and free poor) is the worst form of government (i.e., least conducive to collective well-being). Where possible, it should be changed into any other kind of constitution, though ‘legal’ quasi-kingship and oligarchy are the most likely. This change can be brought about by introducing the idea of the ruler acting in accordance with traditions in the former case (and working for the benefit of the political community) or of power being shared with the notables in the latter.

The further an official’s political virtue is from that of a true king, the more limits should be placed on his exercise of power. Given this, a political system can be improved in two complementary ways. A political scientist can seek constitutional adjustments that are calculated to increase the probability that the most politically virtuous people will hold office (through adjusting how officials are screened) or seek others that aim to minimize the damage caused by officials who lack political virtue (through adjusting how their exercise of power is limited and made accountable). The quality of officials can be raised through property qualifications, election (as opposed to lottery), competency tests, confirmation hearings, age qualifications, and education by good laws and public schools. Existing officials can be limited by audits, spreading of the duties of ruling over a larger number of people (which limits the jurisdiction of any one official), allowing ordinary people to sue officials, and dividing power between present officials and past legislators. The last of these is the rule of law. When lawmakers are very prudent, both types of result are in a sense achieved: higher quality people rule indirectly through lower quality officials who apply their laws.

Political platform. Consistent with these political beliefs, it is reasonable to suppose that there were three planks in Aristotle’s platform. To remedy the chronic instability of the Greek state system, Aristotle can be presumed to have supported the League of Corinth (established in 338/7), led by the Macedonian king (royal plank). The League was charged with not only enforcing peace between the states, but also moderation and stability within them. This is consistent with Aristotle’s desire to see stable republics or aristocracies replace oligarchies and democracies within the poleis (political plank). Aristotle also supported the invasion of Persia, not only so that the Greeks of Asia Minor could be freed from Persian tyranny, but also so that Persians could be transported to Greece in order to provide Greek men with the leisure to pursue philosophy (despotic plank).

[This section is incomplete]

If my perspective is correct, other interpreters tend to minimize the significance of slavery in Aristotle’s political thought. Some say that Aristotle is intentionally defining naturally slavery to be an empty set, or that the role of slavery in his thought is equivalent of what today is usually considered acceptable treatment of the mentally retarded or insane. Other interpreters also tend to minimize the extent to which Aristotle sees women as subordinate to men; minimize the role of monarchy; and minimize Aristotle’s intellectualism; exaggerate the importance of political participation. Richard Kraut (Aristotle on the Human Good), and I in my dissertation, maintain that political activity in particular is secondary well-being. I now (tentatively, as usual) take it to be the submission of the passions to right reason, not planning and thinking about political reform. Finally, most do not focus on the three types of rule. I think people tend not to treat the six types of constitution and the three of rule as ideal types. On my view, political activity is not for Aristotle intrinsically valuable; otherwise Aristotle would have to reject kingship in principle, which he does not do. This contrasts with Terence Irwin (Aristotle’s First Principles, pp. 402, 410).

With the exception of Newman’s commentary (Clarendon, 1887), the perspective on the meaning of ‘political science’ in Aristotle that I have presented has until recently been almost unknown. Many sniffed around it but moved on. With the publication of Richard Bodéüs’s The Political Dimensions of Aristotle’s Ethics, (1993; originally La Philosophie et la Cité, 1982) things are beginning to change. For example, these insights have been incorporated in Fred D. Miller Jr.’s recent book (Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics, 1995). Once one has considered the evidence for this habit-based interpretation, it is not very problematic. It does not require subtle reasoning. It requires a combination of taking seriously texts that tend to be ignored, together with realizing the cumulative significance of comments scattered throughout the Ethics and the Politics concerning what the legislator, politikos, and political science are supposed to do. One reason this meaning may have been missed is that the Ethics and the Politics are not usually read together. Political scientists study the Politics, but neglect the Ethics. Philosophers study the Ethics, but neglect the Politics. And a chapter crucial to this interpretation is located at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, and so readers usually arrive at it, if at all, in a state of exhaustion (as Bodéüs notes). Other key passages appear at the beginning of the Ethics in such a way that average reader cannot grasp their meaning and so moves on to more digestible stuff. Aristotle assumed a background in his audience that no longer exists. I have tried to present that background in my dissertation. Aristotle’s comments at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics would not be puzzling if one realized that the idea of a political science maintains a presence in Plato from the Apology to the Laws. The connection is rarely known because in the Republic, the most studied of Plato’s works, especially by political scientists, the term ‘the political science’ is for all intents and purposes unused.

(Concerning my ‘other dissertation’: The main controversial element in my interpretation of ‘equity’ in Aristotle is the denial that it has primarily to do with judges. It is rather the virtue of a lay person who declines to take full advantage of his legal rights when to do so would be unjust.)

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