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Aristotles Politics Critical Essays On Alice

Aristotle’s Teleological Assumptions

Aristotle’s teleological assumptions appear to rest on an analogy between nature and the sort of purposive activity we see in human behavior. He assumes that everything has a purpose; that the world is rational and ordered with each part having its own distinct function and purpose. It has been designed to fulfill its own unique function. In man’s case this is his faculty for reasoning. But in modern thought we are not so inclined to ascribe the same purposive behavior to nature. Scientific causal explanations have replaced the sort of purposive explanation we once gave for natural events.

What’s more, modern science has shown that the evidence for natural design is far from convincing. Buried deep in matter there are certain subatomic processes, so strange and unpredictable that they strike at our most deeply held common sense notions about the world, particularly our belief in its uniformity and predictability. The subatomic world is ruled by chaos. Nothing is predictable: atoms and their constituents move about in random order. Even a complete account of a situation cannot allow us to predict what a subatomic particle will do next. In his celebrated “uncertainty principle”, Werner Heisenberg, one of the architects of Quantum Theory, explained that any attempt to reveal what’s going on inside an atom is bound to fail. By probing one feature (say, its position) another (say, its motion) becomes uncertain. In a world resembling more a gaming table than traditional science nothing is certain; all is ruled by chance and statistics.

In Nicomachean Ethics he explains that the ultimate end of man is happiness, to which all his actions are aimed directly or indirectly. To achieve this man must perform well that ultimate function that defines him. In man’s case this is the “activity of the soul in accordance with reason.” Only man has reason; it is his defining characteristic. When he manages his actions and feelings in accordance with reason he functions well. At that point he lives according to virtue and experiences ultimate happiness and fulfillment. Thus, the good of man and, by definition, his happiness, is the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. A happy life is a virtuous life.

The aim of Politics, then, is to apply the same teleological assumptions to define the perfect state. It is to determine what kind of political association is the most effective in guaranteeing the individual’s happiness. He maintains, that “If then nature makes nothing without some end in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made all of them for the sake of man” (p. 19, 1256a 20-2).

Aristotle describes man as naturally sociable and, therefore, political. So the state is not only a means of meeting his physical needs, but also his need to be sociable, to discuss his concerns for justice, exercise virtue and lead in the fullest sense a virtuous and, therefore, a happy life. The interests of the state and the individual are, therefore, identical in pursuing the happiness of the individual. Unlike modern views of the state in Western liberal politics, there is no opposition between the interests of the state and the individual. Like totalitarian theory, in Aristotle’s view man can only be fully human when he is fully involved in the affairs of the state; only then does he fulfill his ultimate purpose.   

Aristotle and Totalitarianism

Despite Aristotle’s assumption that there is no opposition between the interests of the state and the individual, there are times, notably in book 4, when he shows an acute appreciation of the dangers this poses. There he advocates the rule of law as the defense against over-mighty tyrants driven on by popular support to increase their powers.

This is a very modern problem, particularly in the light of the totalitarianism of the regimes in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, whose leaders claimed to exercise the sovereignty of all as if it were just one will that could only be accurately interpreted by them. In one stroke they solved the problem that faces all political theory: how to match power with political legitimacy, so that a legitimate leader has sufficient power to carry out effectively the will of the people. Totalitarian leaders claimed not only was the state legitimate in what it does, because the leader is infallible and he reflects accurately the one true general will of the people, but it has no need to limit its powers. As Giovanni Gentile explains in Genesis and Structure of Society,

… since legitimate authority cannot extend beyond the actual will of the individual, authority is resolved completely in liberty. Lo and behold,

absolutism is overturned and appears to have changed into its opposite, and the true absolute democracy is not that which seeks a limited state but that which sets no limit to the state that develops in the inmost heart of the individual, conferring on his will the absolutely universal force of law.

As we saw in the analysis of book 4, why limit the powers of the state when it is only a form of self-government? As Rousseau points out, the individual will not voluntarily “forge fetters” for himself, he won’t voluntarily enslave himself. Given this, totalitarian regimes systematically subjugated the legal order, the institutions and procedures that could have limited these powers by holding the leader accountable. Unlike liberal democracies, totalitarianism appeared to have no fixed characteristics, everything was in flux. The most one could say about the regimes in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was that they possessed certain “contours,” to use Leonard Schapiro’s description. Under these conditions to talk about the state is fundamentally misleading: there was no state. As Schapiro says about the term “totalitarian state,” this is a contradiction in terms.   

But with no limits to his power the leader could invade all areas of life, even the private moral life of individuals. Censorship and intimidation penetrated the most personal recesses of private life, effectively destroying the distinction between public and private. One of the most popular jokes in Moscow in the 1930s concerned a hostess who had invited ten of her closest friends for a dinner party. Aware of her moral and political obligations to the state, she submitted the names to the secret police for their approval, fully expecting the list to be returned with two names added – the secret police needed their observers to be present to record who said what to whom. But to her dismay the list was returned unamended – there was no need to add two of their own. Unknown to her they were already there, among her own trusted friends.

That Aristotle saw the dangers in subjugating the legal order in this way is clear from what he says on book 4, that “The people becomes a monarch, one person composed of many, for the many are sovereign, not as individuals but as an aggregate…such a people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master, giving honour to those who curry its favour” (pp. 250-1, 1292a 11-20). 

Yet, in chapter 8 he still seems to suggest that there is no clear distinction between public and private, between the state’s interests and the individual’s. The education of the young, he asserts, should be the state’s responsibility, not the parents’, because the young are the future citizens and rulers of the state. The education system should serve the aims of the state, so it shouldn’t be left in the hands of parents and private tutors. Citizens don’t just belong to themselves, but to the state. Each is a part of the state and naturally all parts have a responsibility to the whole.

The explanation lies probably in the difference between the ideal and deviant states. In the ideal states leaders govern according to the rule of law. Leaders are virtuous men, selected as part of an aristocracy chosen on the basis of merit. The state’s primary function is to ensure citizens can lead virtuous lives, which are, therefore, happy and fulfilled. The most effective means of ensuring this is education, which not only develops the important moral habits at an early age before the young have reached the age of reason, but develops the skills they will need to govern the state wisely and effectively in the future. In this way the state not only fulfils its primary function but ensures its own stability.

In contrast, in deviant regimes power lies not with virtuous leaders chosen for their merit, but with those who have wealth or are chosen from among the poor for their popularity. It is this that poses the danger of tyrannical government of those who pursue sectional, rather than the common interests.   

Aristotle, Marxism and the Middle Class

Throughout the text there are sections in which many of Aristotle’s arguments seem to reflect a distinctly Marxist analysis of society. In books 3 and 4 he suggests, like Marx, that a more effective and, perhaps, crucial classification of regimes, is an economic one. Tyranny, he suggests, is a form of mastership with the monarch controlling citizens for his own ends much like a master will control his slaves, who are his property. Oligarchy occurs when the sovereign power of a constitution is in the hands of a small elite who control great wealth. In contrast, democracy occurs when power is in the hands of those who have no wealth.

It is, of course, a matter of accident that the rich are few in number and therefore create oligarchies and the poor are many and therefore form democracies. He explains, “…it is a democracy whenever the free are sovereign, oligarchy when the rich are sovereign; but what actually occurs is that the former are many, the latter few: many are free, few are rich” (p. 245, 1290a 45-8).

Elsewhere his arguments appear to take on a class analysis as he makes a case for the importance of the middle element: that group or class in society who have moderate means and whose only concern is the stability that will allow them to live their lives in peace. In book 5 he maintains that neither absolute oligarchy nor absolute democracy are stable in the long run, so he suggests a compromise in which the constitution is created around the middle social group. Such a constitution, he argues, is nearer to democracy than a constitution of the few and is, therefore, the most stable.

Of course, in view of his explanation that the ‘mean’ is the best, the most virtuous and happiest, the best states are likely to be made up of those citizens, who, while being moderately successful, are still not pursuing wealth and possessions for their own sake.He argues that it is not by having external goods that one becomes virtuous and happy, but the reverse. A life full of happiness is achieved by those who are outstandingly well-equipped with the intellectual and moral qualities – a good character and intellect – who only have a moderate amount of external possessions. They are happier than those who have more goods than they need, but are deficient in the other qualities.    

This is not unlike Marx’s arguments about the importance of meeting needs, rather than pursuing material possessions for their own sake in the form of uncontrolled consumerism. Both reject the pursuit of wealth and possessions as an end in itself and look towards a deeper, more personal sense of achievement and fulfillment. In contrast to wealth, which is merely the means to these ends, Aristotle argues that the goods of the soul (moral and intellectual goods) are ends in themselves. Only by developing these can the individual lead a virtuous life and achieve happiness and fulfillment.

So, the pursuit and accumulation of money and wealth for its own sake is something Aristotle roundly condemns. Yet in the modern global economy the single-minded pursuit of money universally underwrites the behavior of individuals and companies worldwide. Aristotle believes that the pursuit of such a limited end is not fitting for a free man. To work for the sake of any good that is less than the virtuous life is demeaning for man, reducing him to the status of a slave. In these arguments Karl Marx claimed to have found similarities with his own, particularly those that relate to the impact of capitalism in alienating the individual from the product of his labor, from himself, and from his fellow workers.

Aristotle's Politics holds up the highest ideals of human flourishing and excellence, while fearlessly diving into the nitty-gritty of everyday political circumstances, where neither flourishing nor excellence may seem possible. As such it is rare and invaluable even among the classics of political philosophy. While Aristotle's ethical treatises have inspired massive profusions of fine philosophical work, philosophers have shown comparatively little interest in the Politics. This is surprising, considering that Aristotle opens the Nicomachean Ethics by defining knowledge of the human good as politikê (political knowledge) and given that he closes the work by exhorting us to bring virtue and happiness to life in cities, after studying politics and constitutions. The NE addresses the student of politics and the politician throughout, and virtue and happiness loom large in the Politics. We ought to suspect from all this that the two books are mutually illuminating; and that without further attention to the Politics our philosophically informed understanding of Aristotle's practical thinking may be significantly incomplete.

Students and scholars of Aristotle's practical thought do face significant obstacles to an understanding of his ethics as integrated with politics and vice versa. First of all, there is the text of the Politics: without a clear structure, it seems to ramble from topic to topic. (Scholars have tried to rearrange its structure, but the rearrangements are not a significant improvement, and have, I think, fallen out of fashion.) Aristotle's approach to politics seems first historical, then empirical; here to argue from general normative principles, there not to argue at all. Aristotle's treatment of key questions such as the value of democracy or the rule of law seems dialectical and aporetic. The prose style is considerably drier than that of the NE. The text breaks off in book 8, apparently incomplete. Readers of the NE fired up by questions of virtue and happiness will be puzzled by long discussions of pragmatic political considerations that seem to have nothing to do with either.

The literature on the Politics reflects the apparent lack of structure and focus of the text. One can find voluminous literature on particular topics, such as slavery, rights, or the nature of citizenship, but one will be hard pressed to find a way into the text that begins from the questions of virtue and happiness familiar from the NE and that treats the book as a whole from a perspective familiar to philosophers. Richard Kraut's Aristotle: Political Philosophy (2002) is one exception, as is C.D.C. Reeve's introduction to his translation of the Politics (1998). Still, the flood of philosophical literature integrating Aristotle's ethics and politics that they should inspire has yet to appear.

The present book appears not long after the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle's Politics (2013), and both provide valuable contributions to the existing literature. Both books together and separately have the virtues of a broad representation of scholars, both established and newer, and a variety of approaches to the text from philosophy, classics, and political theory. As the editors of the Critical Guide put it, this volume provides a snapshot of the current state of scholarship. Unfortunately, thanks to its diversity in approach and its broad coverage of the Politics, the reader can lose sight of the unity of the collection and how the various questions relate to one another. That said, the editors have brought together essays that are both separately illuminating and often interconnected with one another.

Here I will carve off for discussion those essays that bear on questions about the political manifestations of virtue and happiness. Comments on other topics will be mostly brief.

The centrality of ethics to the Politics is a matter of controversy since the text presents a great deal of what looks like counter-evidence to it. Aristotle describes his ideal city, 'the city of our prayers' in Politics 7 and 8, based on a definition of human happiness as residing in leisure rather than in war and conquest. He suggests that only in such a city will full human excellence be found, and describes the various physical and social conditions that make this excellence and its exercise possible. However, in discussions of other types of regimes, Aristotle often seems to treat political stability as something independently and even primarily valuable. Interpreters have been divided as to how to understand this. Eckart Schütrumpf in "Little to do with justice: Aristotle on distributing political power" presents a powerful challenge to scholars wishing to interpret Aristotle's concern for stability in ethical or eudaimonistic terms. In a detailed analysis of Politics III.6-8, he argues that Aristotle clearly thinks that a regime where the virtuous few rule is just, but unstable, and so ought to compromise its justice by including social classes inferior in virtue. Schütrumpf has raised an important challenge to virtue-centric readers of the Politics like myself. Why would it be beneficial to give power to people with a lower degree of virtue if virtue is the sole standard by which we judge the regime? Or, to put it another way, why or how would excluding large numbers from rule cause problems for the virtue of a regime, as Aristotle sees it?

Pierre Destrée addresses the question of stability from the opposite perspective in "Aristotle on improving imperfect cities." Destrée presents a general argument that when Aristotle discusses the improvement of regimes in Politics 5, he is not concerned with stability as such but with virtue and happiness, and that he holds up the 'city of our prayers' of books 7 and 8 as a model for would-be improvers to imitate. One difficult case for the virtue-centric reader of the Politics is Aristotle's apparently Machiavellian claim that the tyrant can preserve his regime by typical tyrannical means: "that the ruled not trust one another; that they be powerless; that they think small." (1314a25-29; Reeve trans.). Destrée points out that Aristotle seems to reject these recommendations and to endorse a second path: pretending to be a moderate, kingly, person while playing the demagogue with the people (Pol. 1315a41-b4). Aristotle is careful to describe such an improved tyrant as at least "half good" and to say that he rules "better people" (1315b4-10). Thus tyrannies are preserved and made more stable by improvements with respect to character and virtue.

Arlene W. Saxonhouse's "Aristotle on the corruption of regimes: resentment and justice" also deals with the question of stability by drawing attention to the more pessimistic aspects of Aristotle's political thinking. Saxonhouse raises the prospect that in an Aristotelian polis, resentment and envy may never be put to rest. Because of the ubiquity of what she calls 'the prick of exclusion', every political organization is unstable. Her question is captivating, but her case struck me as incomplete without more detailed attention to the prospects for stability and justice. Why are Aristotle's numerous recommendations for improving cities not enough? (I was struck by one of Saxonhouse's proof texts: "All regimes dissolve . . . " (1307b19) only to discover that she left out a condition that changes the meaning of the sentence ". . . when there is a constitution of the opposite type nearby and powerful.")

In all three of these essays I found the interpretations of individual sections of the book instructive, but I was left wondering how the authors would have addressed evidence found elsewhere in the book. Destrée and Schütrumpf come to opposite conclusions, but they are also examining different chapters. Part of the enormous difficulty of the Politics is that Aristotle returns to the same questions many times in different parts of the work. One can analyze a few chapters in the De Anima and feel confident one has addressed Aristotle's view on an issue. But a full treatment of Aristotle on questions of civic virtue or the value of stability or the fragility of political arrangements requires synthesizing passages across a variety of contexts, without losing nuance -- and that is easier said than done.

That makes Ryan Balot's accomplishment in "The 'mixed regime' in Aristotle's Politics" particularly admirable, as it is a sure-footed, wide-ranging, and subtle treatment of a central topic in Aristotle's political thought. Balot contrasts Aristotle's mixed regime or 'polity' with the 'city of our prayers' as a more practicable ideal, although the two regimes resemble each other in important ways. This helps to explain how the city of our prayers functions as the standard of human flourishing by which other political arrangements are judged, and illustrates the unity of Aristotle's political theory. The advantage of the polity over democracy or oligarchy is military virtue, the rule of reason, and civic friendship. But, as Balot points out, the reliance on military virtue may make polity vulnerable to Aristotle's criticisms of the Spartan regime: that since war is for the sake of peace, the exercise of the war-like virtues yields only an incomplete and unstable version of human flourishing. Balot concludes by pointing out that it is a distinctive feature of Aristotle's mixed regime, as opposed to Roman and later versions, that it does not involve managed conflict. Agreement (homonoia) about who should rule and the civic friendship that makes possible are central to a good political order for Aristotle.

Three essays concern the great controversy as to whether and how Aristotle supported democracy. Thanassis Samaras in "Aristotle and the question of citizenship" argues forcefully that the mixed regime or polity as Aristotle endorses it involves the exclusion of the lowest classes, the banausoi or manual workers and so is consistent with his condemnation of democracy elsewhere. At the other end of the spectrum, Josiah Ober's "Nature, history and Aristotle's best regime" argues that the 'city of our prayers' in books 7-8 is (a) a mixed regime or polity and (b) includes all possible citizens as citizens, and so is roughly speaking democratic. Ober's essay also includes a valuable account of Aristotle's views on the historical evolution of the polis through various types, and he makes a fascinating argument that the city of our prayers is the end-point of that evolution. Lastly, Chris Bobonich closely analyzes the famous chapter (Pol 3.11) where Aristotle seems to attribute wisdom to the deliberations of a crowd ("Aristotle, political decision making, and the many.") Bobonich's essay is aporetic, but raises hard-headed questions and difficulties that are a valuable challenge for both existing interpretations and for future interpreters.

Authoritative accounts of linguistic and historical background are a useful addition to a volume of this kind. The word politeia, translated in Aristotle by 'constitution', 'regime' and 'polity' is a complex and crucially important word. Unfortunately, J. J. Mulhern's treatment of its history is flawed, and students and scholars ought rely on it only with caution ("Politeia in Greek literature, inscriptions, and in Aristotle's Politics: reflections on translation and interpretation"). Mulhern's main point is salutary and valuable: politeia meant far more in Greek than an arrangement of political offices, and readers ought not be misled by the common translation 'constitution'. However, his more detailed historical claims are false. Mulhern treats the use of politeia in Herodotus IX.34.3, where it means 'citizenship', as the first instance of the word and thus as reflecting its primary meaning. He neglects the Politeia of the Athenians by pseudo-Xenophon ("The Old Oligarch"), a text roughly contemporary with Herodotus and possibly pre-dating it.[1] Here politeia has its more familiar meaning as the ways, customs and culture of a given community in a given place, including its political structure and laws. The fact that politeia sometimes means 'citizenship' is noteworthy and interesting, but Mulhern presents no clear evidence that this meaning is primary.

Part of Mulhern's historical story involves the Athenian Stranger's claim in Plato's Laws that cities ruled for the sake of the rulers are not true politeiai (712d9-713a2, 715a5-d5; at 832b10-c1 the Stranger says they ought be rather called 'conflict-tutions', stasioteiai). Mulhern claims that the passages show that the word politeia had come to mean by that time an arrangement of offices in a city, and that the Stranger is recommending a linguistic reform in the face of confusion about its meaning. But it is more plausible that the Stranger's concern is not changes in the use of language but in political practice: cities had become ruled by factions. A politeia truly so called -- i.e. one that unifies the city rather than dividing it against itself -- does not serve only the rulers but the whole community.

I will briefly summarize the remaining essays.

Aristotle's remarks on women in Politics I are the subject of Marguerite Deslauriers' very clear and well-argued essay ("Political rule over women in Politics I"). She starts from Aristotle's puzzling claim that the rule of the husband over the wife is 'political' -- a term normally reserved for rule over equals. This is hard to reconcile with other passages where his belief in the inferiority of women is evident. After carefully surveying the evidence, she concludes that women in the household have 'a voice but not a vote' -- they participate in deliberations without making decisions.

Politics I also contains a famous account of the sense in which humans are political animals and the way in which speech and reason (both translating logos) distinguish our political nature from that of the other animals. Jill Frank, in "On logos and politics in Aristotle", interprets logos, normally translated as 'reason', as 'speech', and gives an analysis of political speech and persuasion drawing on Aristotle's Rhetoric. On her view persuasion is both more active and communal than has otherwise been thought.

The second book of the Politics contains Aristotle's critique of previous regimes, real and imagined. In "Politics II: Political critique, political theorizing, political innovation", Thornton Lockwood argues that the book is more than a laundry list of complaints, and analyzes the structure of Politics II with an eye to questions about the role of political critique in political innovation.

Pierre Pellegrin in "Is politics a natural science?" considers whether the naturalness of the polis for Aristotle makes it an appropriate subject of a natural science, and concludes that the role of human agents in politics supports Aristotle's treatment of it as a practical science instead.

The quality of the hardcover is very poor -- a page came out when I first opened the book, and by the time I finished it the loose pages had multiplied many times. This seems to be a new development in the Critical Guide series; previous volumes have been competently bound. The publisher has done the authors and editors a great disservice to print such a poor quality book and at such a high price. Libraries ought to order the e-book version; those attached to paper like myself ought go to those libraries and print off what interests them.

This is a highly useful and interesting volume for scholars of Aristotle's political thought. Its merits far outweigh its faults, physical or otherwise.


My thanks to Kieran Setiya and Rachel Singpurwalla for their helpful comments on a draft of this review.

[1] The date of neither text is certain. For the Old Oligarch, the early date of 443 is defended in Bowersock's introduction to the Loeb edition (Xenophon. Scripta Minora. Loeb Classical Library 183. Harvard University Press, 1925.). For the later date of 425 see J.M. Moore, Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy, University of California Press,1986, p.20, with references. Herodotus' History is generally believed to have been published before 425, although some have speculated that parts were published later. See David Sansone, "The Date of Herodotus' Publication." Illinois Classical Studies Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1985), pp. 1-9; J. A. S. Evans , "Herodotus 9. 73. 3 and the Publication Date of the Histories." Classical Philology Vol. 82, No. 3 (Jul., 1987), pp. 226-228.

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