The Concept of Political Science (politikê) in Plato and Aristotle

Paul Bullen (May 2000)

(This has since been revised for the sake of publication; criticisms are welcome; the128+ footnotes omitted here; upon request, a pdf file with them can be sent.)

The term ‘political science’ (politikê) was coined by Plato in a critique of the Sophist practice of training young men of means to engage in public affairs (politika). In his late thirties (ca. 390 BC) Plato introduced his own notion of political science by writing that ‘For the two subjects (pragmata), soul and body, there are two sciences (technai); the one concerned with the soul I call ‘ political science’ (tên men epi têi psychêi politikên kalô).’ Forty years later, he wrote that politikê is ‘the science (technê) whose business it is to treat (therapeuein) souls.’ These are surprising claims. What does Plato mean?

In Plato’s view the optimum level of well-being (eudaimonia) among humans cannot result from individuals acting on their own. On the contrary, it requires that everything be centrally organized by people who possess a form of expert knowledge that explains both the correct conception of well-being and the kind of organizing that will optimize that well-being collectively. As the world is unavoidably divided into a multitude of sovereign political societies, the closest one is likely to get to control of everything is control of one of those political societies, which is not a problem since the arrangements that optimize well-being function best on a small scale. The expert knowledge that enables its qualified possessor to organize everything in a political society (polis)--to make ‘constitutions’ (politeiai)--in such a way as to optimize the well-being of its citizens (politai) is ‘political science’ (politikê, sometimes translated ‘statesmanship’ or ‘political art’ or just ‘politics’). Those who possess this expert knowledge are ‘political scientists’ (politikoi, sometimes translated ‘statesmen’ or ‘politicians’ or ‘expert political leaders’). ‘Political science,’ as used here, is not a loose term that encompasses everything that Plato has to say that might be construed as political, in one sense or another. It is a term used by Plato himself to refer to a systematic body of knowledge that is both normative and collective in orientation, what today might be called an ideology (in the non-pejorative sense). Everything that is relevant to the well-being of citizens comes within its purview. The goal of political science is not the well-being of the political scientist, but the ‘well-being’ of his political society, which is the sum of the well-beings of the individual citizens.

The image of a whole society organized by highly competent people who have complete possession of ultimate knowledge is a theoretical construct. Plato is not a utopian or maximalist. Between the low level of collective well-being possible from the uncoordinated efforts of individuals and the optimal level possible with everything organized by people with expert knowledge, some success can be achieved by people with limited power or limited knowledge or both. The well-being of a citizenry will be optimized to the extent that its political society approximates the ideal of being fully organized by political scientists.

But how is it that political science has treating the soul as its business? It is because the well-being (eudaimonia) that political science is supposed to optimize consists in living in accordance with a soul that is structured in a certain way. This ideal structure of the psyche is called aretê (sometimes translated as ‘virtue’). The goal of scientific politics is a constitution (politeia) in which there is an optimal distribution among the citizens of possibly varying degrees of living in accordance with ‘virtue’. So political science concerns itself primarily with bringing the right arrangement to the soul, or ‘education’ (paideia), broadly speaking; and secondarily with securing the things necessary for the expression of rightly-arranged psyches, such as leisure, social stability, freedom, and property. These external conditions have true value only when used by people with correctly-constituted souls. It is because ordering political society is a means to ordering the psyche, as well as to providing conditions necessary for the successful expression of the ordered psyche, that Plato says that political science ‘has to do with the psyche’ and is supposed to ‘treat the psyche.’

Some people doubt there is a unified Platonic doctrine. Although I do think there is, skeptics should at least be able to accept the possibility that when Plato repeatedly utters the term ‘political science’ he has one thing in mind (after all, both in his thirties and in his seventies he said that political science takes care of the soul). If so, my account can be taken by them as a candidate for that one thing. It does not concern me now to argue the difficult-to-prove thesis that Plato held that account as his own personal ideology.

From his late teens to his late thirties, Aristotle studied and taught at Plato’s Academy in Athens, arriving soon after Plato wrote the Statesman and being present while he wrote the Laws. Following this, Aristotle spent several more years with members of the Academy, in Asia Minor. So it is not surprising that Aristotle should adopt Plato’s notion of political science. As with Plato’s, Aristotle’s political science aims to optimize the well-being of citizens, with well-being likewise understood to consist in the exercise of a correctly-structured soul. Aristotle too could have said that political science is in the business of treating souls, and does, in fact, make similar comments: ‘The political scientist should know something about the soul;’ ‘The political scientist . . . must study the soul;’ ‘The true political scientist . . . wishes to make the citizens good;’ ‘An examination of virtue is appropriate for political science;’ ‘Most of political science’s efforts are reserved for bringing about a certain quality in the citizens, that is, for making them good, i.e. (kai), disposed to engage in noble behavior (praktikous tôn kalôn);’ ‘Political scientists must legislate . . . in a way that accords with the parts of the soul and their actions.’ This orientation conforms to Aristotle’s definition of a political society (polis) as an association for living well (eu zên). ‘Political’ in its truest sense means having to do with an association of humans whose controlling purpose is to arrange for them to live in accordance with correctly-ordered souls.

The qualified possessor of political science, as we have encountered him so far, has the knowledge, experience, and power to think and act from first principles. But Aristotle suggests the possibility of forms of political science that are subordinate to this kind. These are to be possessed by people who do not need to think and act from first principles. Their task is to produce decrees in the assemblies or verdicts in the courts with the propriety of the existing constitutions and their laws presupposed. Their comparative lack of autonomy makes them similar to the practitioners of the non-political sciences. In fact, Aristotle suggests a relationship between the two kinds of political scientist similar to that between a person who is in charge of building a building (architektôn) and the craftsmen he employs to carry out the work. This is the same relationship he says exists between political scientists in general and all other scientists. These subordinate (deliberative and judicial) political scientists are like Plato’s cognitive (gnôstikê), directive (epitaktikê) scientists who pass along the orders of others. In relation to superordinate political scientists, they are like craftsmen, while in relation to other citizens they are like people in charge of building a building. But the political scientists we are interested in are like the cognitive, directive scientists who generate their own orders (autepitaktikê). They are sovereign. These superordinate political scientists are qualified to create or change the laws and constitutions that the subordinate political scientists must take for granted.

In the Gorgias Plato too divides political science: into a superordinate legislative science and a subordinate judicial science (unlike Aristotle, he does not speak of a ‘deliberative science’ as well). Judicial science or ‘justice’ (dikastikê, dikaiosynê) is a science of the psyche too because the judicial scientist purges the criminal’s soul of the deleterious effects of wrongdoing by the penalties he imposes. But in the Statesman Plato reclassifies judicial science as outside of, although kindred to (syngenês), political science, leaving the latter as primarily legislative, even when the direct rule of knowledge is possible.

Aristotle’s political science, as laid out in the Ethics and the Politics, is of the ultimate, legislative variety, although it may well be useful for judges and assemblymen too. The Politics is doubly legislative since it considers systems of laws directly (hence the impression given by the last chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics that only the Politics is legislative). The fact that the Ethics and the Politics are political science means that their purpose is to acquire and to preserve the good of the political society, which I have been calling optimum collective well-being, but which Aristotle calls the common good or (koinêi agathon) or shared benefit (koinêi sympheron). The well-being that both these works seek is to be had by individuals, but only incidentally by the individuals who study them. The Ethics provides the political scientist with his target, in the form of the correct conception of individual well-being. But it is not his private target; it is his target as a public person. He is to hit it in others by building or maintaining the institutions recommended by the Politics.

The title Ethics is a transliteration or mistranslation of ‘êthika’, which really means 'matters having to do with character-traits (êthê).' The title Politics is a transliteration of ‘politika’, which means 'matters having to do with constitutions (politeiai),' that is to say, having to do with the organization of citizens (politai) in political societies (poleis). Character-traits and constitutions are the main topics of Aristotle’s scientific politics because all well-being passes through character, and character is formed by constitutions.

A well-ordered soul, or virtue, exists when the rational will’s control of actions is not challenged by opposing desires. The dependable propensity of desires to listen to reason is (good) character. In the virtuous person rational will (logistikon, praktikon) is prudence (phronêsis), and the faculty of rational contemplation (epistêmonikon, thêorêtikon) is wisdom (sophia). Prudence persuades desires and directs actions for the sake of overall, long-term well-being. In the best life the most time possible is devoted to the exercise of wisdom in contemplation (theôria), although the society’s collective optimum may require of a particular individual less of this and more of the exercise of prudence in moral action (praxis) than would be optimal for his personal well-being, thought of in isolation. The distribution of such duties in a way that optimizes collective eudaimonia is ‘justice’ (to dikaion). So both wisdom and the common good ought to rule the whole soul as ends. Since the highest well-being consists in contemplation, wisdom could be said to rule the psyche as an end. Although the rational contemplator is Aristotle’s, and Plato’s, image of the ideal or true human, it should not be taken to indicate an empirical assessment on Aristotle’s part, or Plato’s, as to how many people have the natural capacity to be philosophical. Both men probably assumed something like what statisticians call a bell-shaped curve, at least as a starting point: a small number of philosophically-inclined Greeks, a large number of average Greeks, and a small number of hopeless Greeks. What is unclear is how much they thought the curve could be flattened or shifted or both. There are degrees of approximation of the human ideal, and a by-product of the exercise of prudence is a secondary form of well-being. A necessary condition of rational living of any sort, and hence of well-being (eudaimonia), is good character. Except in the case of the superordinate variety of political scientists, for the soul to be ruled by the common good is for it have the habit of obeying the the positive laws of the political society. The prerequisite for and steward of wisdom is prudence, and the prerequisite for and steward of prudence is a set of good habits of character. Although character is completed by integration with prudence, it is initially developed by habits. These habits are fostered by the constitution, which is the general organization and value orientation of society, including the laws and the systems of justice, education, censorship, and eugenics regulated by those laws. ‘The legislator makes the citizens good by habituating them . . . . Habituation is what makes the difference between a good constitution and a bad one.’

In addition to shaping the constitution so that it will produce citizens of good character, it is a goal of political science to make leisure available to these citizens. Prudence aims to arrange an individual’s affairs so he can take full advantage of that leisure by engaging in as much philosophically-informed contemplation of divine beings as allowable or possible. Since wisdom and prudence are created mainly by instruction (in those who have good habits of character), not socialization, these qualities are less dependent upon political institutions than is character. This is why scientific politics appears preoccupied with character, despite the inferior status of the non-rational part of the soul. Still, the scientific politician must keep an eye on intellectual education.

By his legislation the political scientist creates a new constitution, or changes, leaves alone, or strengthens an existing one. The overall standard is optimal collective well-being, which requires a combination of internal and external conditions. The primary consideration in choosing among these possible courses is which will, under the circumstances, lead to the most rationality in souls over the long run. A related consideration is which course will provide the commensurate amount of leisure and other conditions that enable citizens to express their orderly souls. (Calculations must include ‘transition costs’, which according to some interpretations of Aristotle are prohibitively high.) It is not the case that the lives of non-philosophers count for nothing in determining optimum collective well-being. It is only the pleasures of people with bad character that count for nothing. But a goal of scientific legislation is to improve character in future generations.

The functioning political scientist of both the superordinate and subordinate varieties has to close the gap between the generality of his science and the particularity of his circumstances. Political science provides him with a knowledge of the collective and individual end and of what to expect for the most part concerning the means to that end. But political science cannot be applied mechanically. Concrete policies have to be deliberated about. The ability to do this well is part of the skill of the political scientist, a political form of prudence (phronêsis). A tool of political deliberation is the science of rhetoric (rhêtorikê). All sciences ought to be subject to the direction of political science; but rhetoric is one that the scientific politician himself should know. In his deliberations with other political scientists, the political scientist uses the ‘probable reasoning’ that rhetoric trains him in. Although certainty about outcomes is not possible in institution building, political scientists must make decisions one way or another. Rhetoric helps them work out what is likely (eikos). It also helps them enhance their arguments’ acceptability to lay citizens by gaining their trust and by putting them in a receptive emotional state. It allows political scientists, if necessary, to temporarily raise citizens above their normal states so they can see things more clearly. (In the wrong hands, rhetoric can put citizens in a worse state.)

Despite Plato’s reputation as a critic of rhetoric, even in the Gorgias, where he initially calls rhetoric an unscientific false imitation of the lesser branch of political science, and an analog of the knack (empeiria) of cookery, he lays out a vision of a righteous and scientific rhetoric that could aid political science. The standards of a legitimate rhetoric are further developed in the Phaedrus; and in the Statesman rhetoric, like judicial science, is described as subordinate yet kindred (syngenês) to scientific politics.

There are, of course, differences between the political sciences of Plato and Aristotle. One need only mention Aristotle’s conclusion that ‘the good-itself (auto to agathon) . . . is of no help to political science.’ But even on that point, it is not clear that the good-itself, or the Form (eidos) or Idea (idea) of the Good, is necessary for Plato’s political science either (as important as it may be for his metaphysics). Plato does not depend on it in the Gorgias, the Statesman, or the Laws, and never actually says what it is in the Republic. The basic notion of political science is the same for Plato and Aristotle, and is contrasted by both with the political science of the Sophists. As Cicero noted, ‘The topic of what may fitly be called political science…was handled with authority and fullness by the early Peripatetics and Academics, who agree in substance though they differ in terminology.’ For both, political science is in the business of treating psyches collectively, especially by fashioning institutions that habituate them in ways that lead to the good character necessary for well-being. For both, the highest well-being is found in the philosophic contemplation engaged in after fulfilling political and other duties. And if there is justice in the political society those duties will be allocated, to the extent possible, according to the arrangement that optimizes collective well-being.

Appendix 1

Plato’s Coining of the Term ‘Political Science’ (Politikê)

Plato and Aristotle viewed the Sophists’ political science as a false imitation of the true political science. In the Protagoras, Plato has the greatest of the Sophists, Protagoras, accept Socrates’ labeling of what he teaches as a sort of political science. Nonetheless it is unlikely that the Sophists themselves used the term political science (politikê or politikê technê or politikê epistêmê). One finds the term in nothing surviving the fifth century BC. The earliest extant usage is in Plato. But there are three earlier men who are sometimes pointed to as the first to use the term ‘politikê’ or ‘politikê technê: Democritus, Thucydides, and Socrates. The first two were both born around the 460 BC, ten years before Socrates and thirty years after Protagoras. All three died many years after 420, when Protagoras died. Plato lived from 428 to 347 BC.


Thucydides was a pupil of the Sophists Prodicus and Antiphon. In his Peloponnesian War (I.71.3), during a gathering of representatives of many poleis in 432 BC at Sparta, a Corinthian representative, complaining about Sparta’s slowness to come to their aid against Athens, attributes it to their old-fahsioned ways: "it is just as true in politics as it is in any art or craft: new methods must drive out old ones" (Rex Warner, trans.). Woodruff has "New ways necessarily prevail over old: in politics as in technology." Edelstein goes even further: "For as in every other technical skill, so in the art of politics the new must always prevail over the old." The Landmark translation (revised Richard Crawley) has "It is the law, as in the arts so in politics, that improvements ever prevail, and through fixed usages may be best for undisturbed associations, constant necessities of actions must be accompanied by the constant improvement of methods." This sentence is discussed for other reasons by Dodds, who translates it as "in politics as in any technê, the latest inventions always have the advantage." But the word ‘politikê’ is nowhere to be found in the Greek: énãnkh de Àsper t°xnhw a§&Mac220; tå §pigignÒmena. Strangely, Thomas Hobbes’s translation from the seventeenth century is the most accurate: "But, as we have before declared, your customs in respect of theirs are antiquated: and of necessity, as it happeneth in the arts, the new ones will prevail."


If Democritus did use the term, he would probably have picked it up from the Sophists. "Democritus may be broadly classed with the sophists when he is concerned with ethical topics." In Plutarch’s Reply to Coletes we find the statement "Democritus urges us to learn the science of war (polêmikê technê), since it is the greatest, and pursue its labors, which lead to great and glorious things". But some say that the POLEMIKH should be changed to POLITIKH on the basis of the context. Other Democritus fragments, found in the Anthology of Johannes Stobaes (AD 5th century) (IV 1 42ff), might support that view too:

One should think it of greater moment than anything else that the affairs of the polis (ta kata tên polin) are conducted well, neither being contentious beyond what is proper nor allotting strength to oneself beyond the common good. For a polis which is conducted well is the best means to success: everything depends on this, and if this is preserved everything is preserved and if this is destroyed everything is destroyed. (DK 68 B 252)

It is not advantageous for good men to neglect themselves and look for other things; for their own affairs will go badly. But if anyone neglects public affairs (tôn dêmosiôn), he comes to have a bad reputation, even if he steals nothing and commits no injustices. (DK 68 B 253)

But Plutarch’s words were written 500 years after Democritus died, and the ones we have in the manuscript are not politikê technê, but polemikê technê. Politikê technê would seem to make sense in the context, but we should remember that Protagoras said that the science of war (polemikê technê) is a part of political science (politikê technê). And Aristotle divided the political life into military and peaceable actions. And even if Plutarch really did originally write ‘politikê technê,’ it does not follow with certainty that Democritus himself used the term. Plutarch could quite possibly be paraphrasing Democritus’s thought using words available to him (Plutarch), but not to Democritus. As Dodds (comm. on Gorgias 499 e 8, p. 317) says of another Democritus in Clement, "Clement appears to attribute this to Democritus (fr. 4); but he is probably paraphrasing, not quoting."


Socrates never wrote anything, so the only evidence we have for what he said or thought is what others wrote about him. In addition to what Aristophanes wrote in the Clouds, there were several followers who wrote ‘Conversations with Socrates’. The most important follower of Socrates in the first fifteen years of the fourth century was Antisthenes (ca. 445-ca. 365 BC). Like Plato (but earlier), he wrote a dialogue titled Politikos, which unfortunately is lost, together with his other works. And this is true for most of the other writers in this genre. What we are mainly left with, then, are the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon. Both of them have the character Socrates use the expression ‘politikê technê’.

Xenophon uses the term politikê once, and the equivalent ‘basilikê’ (royal science) twice. In the Memorabilia (I 6 15) ‘Socrates’ claims to be a kind of meta-politikos, or architektôn-politikos (my expressions), by "seeing to it that as many as possible are fit to practice [politics]." He talks about a science of "governing a polis (to proestanai poleôs)" (IV 2 2) and about becoming "proficient at speaking and acting in politics (ta politikâ) (IV 2 6-7)," which must be learned from competent teachers. Socrates calls "the kind of virtue that makes people politikoi and oikonomikoi and capable of ruling and benefiting mankind as well as themselves" the "most admirable aretê and greatest technê," the kind that "belongs to kings and is called basilikê" (IV 2 11). Aristippus says that Socrates identifies "royal science" (basilikê technê, II 1 17) (which is another name for political science) with eudaimonia. In the Xenophon’s Oeconomicus (XXI 2) ‘Ischomachus’ speaks to Socrates about "the aptitude for ruling (to archikon), which is common to all activities (to pasais koinon tais praxesi), whether those of agricultural science (geôrgikê), political science (politikê), household management science (oikonomikê), or military science (polemikê)."

In Plato’s Charmides (170B) ‘Socrates’ speaks in passing of political science (politikê) as the science of what is just (epistêmê dikaiou). In the Euthydemus Socrates speaks of a political or royal "technê that the military and other [sciences] transfer control (archein) of the products (erga) of their crafts (dêmiourgoi), as the only science knowing how to put them to use." The ruling science is "seated alone at the stern (prymna) of the polis, steering everything (panta kybernôsa), ruling everything, and making everything useful" (291D). The discussants seem to agree that the royal science makes people wise and good (292C), that it is the science "by which we shall make other men good" (292D). In addition to good people, political science produces poleis that are free, prosperous, and peaceful. In the Protagoras, it is Socrates who first characterizes Protagoras’s training as politikê technê (319A). In the Gorgias Socrates says "I am one of the few Athenians--so as not to say I’m the only one, but the only one among people now--to take up true political science (politikê technê) and to engage in politics (prattein ta politika) (521D), and he presents a classification of sciences that concern themselves with human well-being, with the soul being cared for by political science. In the Cleitophon, possibly written by a follower of Plato in the second quarter of the fourth century BC as a supplement to the Republic, it is said that the "science of steering humans (tên tôn anthrôpôn kybernêtikên)" is "the name that you, Socrates, frequently give to political science (politikê)" (408D).

But most of the many Socratic dialogues written by a variety of people were not meant to be records of the historical Socrates. And Xenophon cannot be considered an independent source of information about Socrates. Xenophon left Athens in 402 BC and did not write his Socratic dialogues until the 360s, after 30 years in exile from Athens and after the genre of Socratic conversations was well-established. What he wrote is derivative of Plato and other Socratics. Probably the only Socrates-centered writing that comes close to recording the beliefs of the historical Socrates is Plato’s Apology. It describes a public events: Socrates speeches in court in his own defense, which hundreds of Athenian citizens, including Plato, witnessed only few years before the dialogue was published.

In his 399 BC speech before the court, Socrates tells Callias that had his two sons been born as foals or calves (rather than humans) he could have hired a farm or horse expert (geôrgikos, hippikos) to "make them admirable (kalos) and good (agathos) with respect to the appropriate excellence (aretê)." But since they are humans, he asks who would have knowledge of the appropriate virtue, that is to say the "human and political" (anthropinê te kai politikê) kind? When Callias supplies a name, Socrates responds that this man must be blessed "if he really has such a science." Socrates knew that the Sophists claim to have a technê (or paideia) by which men could be trained to do well in a life of politics. Socrates believes that by leading people to an awareness of their ignorance, they were better prepared to be political leaders than those who lacked such a realization. But he denies that he is in possession of a technê. As Kahn (p. 103) puts it, "Since there is independent evidence (from Aeschines) that Socrates denied possession of any such expert knowledge or technê, we may reasonably infer that this was a characteristic of the historical Socrates" (see Apology 19A-20E). So although Socrates could offer a critique of what the Sophists taught, he could not offer a better politikê technê. As Aristotle says in the Sophistical Refutations (183b8), "Socrates would ask questions and not answer them; for he confessed that he did not know (ouk eidenai)."

The historical Socrates, as seen in the Apology, denies he possesses any moral technê (19E-20C). Socrate’s superiority lies in the fact that he was aware of his ignorance (21D). He says that "human wisdom is of little or no value; it is God who is really wise" (23A). He also says that a divine voice opposed his entering politics (31D). He says that he never promised or gave instruction (33A-B). So we can be fairly sure that Socrates did not claim to teach or possess a political technê. This view of the historical Socrates is reinforced by what we find in what remains of Aeschines’s Alcibiades (see Kahn 19-23):

If I thought it was by some art (technê) that I was able to benefit [Acibiades], I would find myself guilty of folly. But in fact I thought that it was by divine dispensation (theia moria) that this was given to me in the case of Alcibiades, and that it was nothing to be wondered at . . . . so although I know no science or skill (mathêma) which I could teach to anyone to benefit him, nevertheless I thought that in keeping company with Alcibiades I could by the power of love (dia eran) make him better. (in Kahn 21; also available, translated by Trevor Saunders, in the Penguin Ion)

"We may plausibly count this as a well-documented attitude on the part of the historical Socrates, deliberately distancing himself from the sophists as professional teachers" (Kahn, 21).

As Plato coined numerous other ‘—ikê’ words, including basilikê, dikanikê rhetorikê, tektonikê, and dialektikê, to describe preexisting practices, it is reasonable to think that Plato coined politikê (as well as nomothetikê and dikastikê) early in the fourth century. But it refers to practices begun in the fifth century: the knowledge used to train for a life of politics became ‘politikê’, as the knowledge used to train men in oratory became rhetorikê and philosophical inquiry through question and answer became dialektikê. Although the historical Socrates did not profess to teach a politikê technê (even without using that term), the Sophists did (even if they did not use the term). Inasmuch as Plato believed a politikê technê was possible and inasmuch as he believed Socrates to be closer to the truth than any Sophist, Plato could make the fictional Socrates claim to be the only one in Athens at his time to possess a politikê technê (Gorgias). But the realistic situation is that the Sophists claimed to be able to teach the aretê needed for a person to be an agathos politês, someone who could lead the polis. Plato termed such science rhetorikê (the technê of the rhetor) or politikê (the technê of the politikos) depending upon the emphasis required by the context. While Socrates was critical of the Sophists pretensions, Plato believed he had produced a true politikê to compete with the Sophists’ specious politikê. Aristotle accepted Plato’s basic notion of a politikê, and developed its application in his own way. Even if Plato invented the precise term, the idea of a political science could be said to have originated with the Sophists.

Appendix 2

Politikê as epistêmê, technê, dynamis, etc. in Aristotle

The term ‘political science’ is used approximately 58 times in the Aristotelian corpus. I say ‘approximately’ because there is uncertainty about 3 places in the Politics.

  • 42 (including 3 uncertain) in works generally taken to be authentic:
  • Nicomachean Ethics (21),
  • Politics (4 + 3 uncertain),
  • Rhetoric (5),
  • Eudemian Ethics (5),
  • Poetics (2), and
  • Parts of Animals (1).
  • 11 in the Magna Moralia, about which opinion is divided.
  • 5 in works generally thought not to have been written by Aristotle:
  • Economics (4),
  • Problems (1).

So there are 39 definite occurrences in works that are generally believed to be authentic. There is also a ‘politikê dianoia kai theôria,’ but this is not synonymous with ‘politikê’. Rather it means ‘constitutional thought and study’ (it excludes character thought and study). I also don’t count a ‘politikê synêsis’ (political understanding), whose meaning seems too vague. But I will treat below all possible occurrences (58) in all Aristotelian works, including one ‘philosophia politikê’ in the Politics (there is also a ‘philosophos politikê’ in the NE), which may or may not be synonymous or coextensive with ‘politikê’.

In all but 4 of the 58 occurences ‘politikê’ is used alone as a noun. The 4 exceptions:

  • Rhetoric (1): ‘politikê epistêmê
  • Politics (2): ‘politikê dynamis,’ ‘philosophia politikê
  • Magna Moralia (1): ‘politikê epistêmê kai dynamis

But there are also places where Aristotle appears to refer to ‘politikê’ as a ‘technê’, as ‘phronêsis’, and as a ‘methodos’.

1) Politikê Epistêmê

  • Rht I 4 7 1359b1718: "Nevertheless, let us now say what it is worthwhile to distinguish, while leaving their fuller examination to politikê epistêmê."
  • At Pol I 1 1252a13-16 the epistêmê may be politikê:

And as for what distinguishes a the basilikos from the politikos, they think it is the multitude or fewness of the rulers: basilikos when he himself is in charge, politikos when, according to the rules (logoi) of this sort of epistêmê, he is ruler (archôn) and ruled (archomenos) in turns (kata meros).

  • At EE I 5 1216b19 politikê is said to be a poiêtikê epistêmê (productive or practical science), which has as its end eunomia (law and order) "or something of the sort."

2) Politikê Technê

  • Poe 25 4 1460b14:"In addition, correctness (orthotês) in politikê is not the same as [correctness] in poiêtikê (poetry), nor is [correctness] in any other technê [the same] as it is in poiêtikê."
  • Eco I 1 1343a5-7 implies that politikê is a technê whose product is a well-managed polis. Unlike where there is one technê for making a thing and another for using it, politikê establishes a polis from scratch (polin ex archês systêsasthai) and uses it well (hyparchousêi chrêsasthai kalôs).

3) Politikê Dynamis

  • Pol III 12 1282b14-18: "Since in all epistêmai and technai the end is some good, the greatest and highest good [must be the end of] the most authoritative [epistêmê and technê], namely the politikê dynamis." This passage also implies that the politikê dynamis is a technê and an epistêmê.
  • MM I 1 9-10 1182a32-b1: "Every epistêmê and dynamis has an end, and this is its good....The best dynamis has the best good [as its end]. But politikê is the best dynamis; so its end is the [best] good."
  • MM I 1 23 1183a33: "he politikê epistêmê kai dynamis"

(For politikê as an epistêmê and dynamis see also: MM I 1 15, 17, 20, 23.)

Aristotle suggests that politikê is either an epistêmê or a dynamis at

  • NE I 2 1094a24-27: "If so, we should try to grasp, in outline at least, what the good is and which epistêmê or dynamis is concerned with it. And politikê appears to be like this."
  • NE X 9 1180b31-32: "But does politikê perhaps appear different from the other [various?] epistêmai and dynameis?"
  • Politikê appears to be simultaneously an epistêmê, a technê, and a dynamis, at Pol II 8 1268b34-8:

[Those who argue for the benefits of changing laws might say that] this [sc. change] has been advantageous, at any rate, in the various (epi tôn allôn) epistêmai [or: the epistêmai other (than politikê)]. For example, medicine (iatrikê) has changed from its traditional ways (para ta patria) [for the better], as has physical training (gynmastikê) and in general all technai and dynameis. So if politikê is to be posited (theteon) as one of these too, clearly the same necessarily holds for it [viz., that change is good, e.g., in the laws, which are a product of politikê].

  • At EE I 8 1218b13 politikê is a hexis, as are oikonomikê and phronêsis, which has the highest good as its end. Aristotle says he will deal with whether these three hexeis are different from each other at another time.
  • At NE VI 8 1141b23 politikê is a hexis, specifically that of phronêsis, although the being (einai) of each is different.
  • Nonetheless, at NE X 9 11813 it has products (unusual for phronêsis): "Laws (nomoi) would appear to be the products (ergois) of politikê."
  • At EE VII 1 1234b22 politikê is said to have as its ergon (task) to make friendship (poiêsai philian). And philia is a hexis of character (philia êthikê einai tis hexis).
  • At NE I 4 1095a16 politikê is either a gnôsis (knowledge) or a proairesis (choice or policy) or both (presumably a gnôsis only).
  • At NE I 2 1094a94b10-11, politikê is a methodos (investigation), or rather the Nicomachean Ethics records a methodos that is a politikê tis (sort of political science).
  • At NE I 13 1102a11-13 the zêtêsis (investigation) and skepsis (study) of virtue belongs to politikê.
  • At NE VI 7 1141a29 politikê is said not to be sophia (wisdom).

Aristotle speaks of political philosophy (Pol II 8) and political philosopher (NE VII 11) on one occasion each, in the Pol and NE respectively. Political science is also coextensive (and possibly cointensive) with the ‘philosophy of human affairs’ (NE X 9 1181b15). So politikê is an epistêmê, a technê, a dynamis, a methodos, a gnosis, a hexis, a philosophia, a phronêsis, and poiêtikê epistêmê. If it is not a praktikê epistêmê, what is?

In the Statesman, Plato goes back and forth between ‘politikê epistêmê’ and ‘politikê technê

(To be published; criticisms welcomed; a Word document with the footnotes can be sent as an e-mail attachment.)