2. Aristotle’s Politics

“We live under a constitutional form of government. We are, as citizens, constituent members of the State and its ruling class. No man is our political superior: those who hold the offices of state are our representatives, chosen by our suffrage. We are thus free men and equals. In other countries, where the reign of constitutional law is unknown and no one is a citizen, the despotic power wielded by some men subjugates the rest.

“The blessings of political liberty and equality, which we so often take for granted, are the gift of two great inventions for which we are indebted to the ancient Greeks–constitutions and citizenship. In the whole history of political thought and action, there are no ideas more revolutionary than these. Aristotle’s Politics is the first full statement of the theory of these ideas. Its opening book repeatedly calls our attention to the fundamental difference in the condition of those who, on the one hand, live as slaves or as the subjects of despotic kings and those who, on the other hand, live as citizens under constitutional governments and who, therefore, are ‘free men and equals, ruling and being ruled in turn.’” (“Aristotle: Politics” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Woolf, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 47-48)

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who was born in the small Greek colonial town of Stagirus on the Aegean Sea near the Macedonian border in 384 B.C.; attended Plato’s Acedemy in Athens in 367-347; helped set up and taught in an academy in the newly-built town of Assus on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea in 347-44; moved to Mytilene, capital of the nearby island of Lesbos, where he studied natural history in 344-342; tutored Alexander (the Great) and studied/taught in Macedonia in 342-336; established and taught in a school in Athens called the Lycaeum in 336-23; and died in Chalcis (his mother’s hometown) in 322. Great Books of the Western World devotes two volumes to his writings, most of which represent lectures which he delivered at the Lycaeum.

In volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, The Development of Political Theory and Government, Adler and Woolf discuss Books III-IV of Aristotle’s Politics. In them Aristotle considers citizenship, the various forms of government, and the best state.

Aristotle opens his consideration of citizenship by asking, “Who is the citizen, and what is the meaning of the term?” (Politics in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952, page 471). After considering various answers to the question, he defines a citizen as “he who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of [the] state [which he is a citizen of]” page 472). In accordance with the custom in his day, his definition doesn’t include women and children (or slaves), but today they can be citizens. After defining who is a citizen, Aristotle considers the virtue of the citizen, concluding that “the good citizen … should know how to govern like a freeman, and to obey like a freeman” (page 474).

Aristotle begins his consideration of the forms of government by affirming that government (the supreme authority in a state) must be in the hands of one, a few, or the many and by distinguishing between true forms of government and their perversions, true forms of government being ones in which the rulers govern with a view to the common interest and their perversions being those forms of government in which rulers govern according to their private interests. He goes on to identify the three forms of true government as kingship or royalty, aristocracy, and a constitution and their perversions as tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy and then, because of difficulties about these forms of government, examines each of them at length.

Two things stood out to me in Aristotle’s consideration of the best state, his stressing the importance of a large middle class (neither very rich nor very poor) in having stable government and his recognizing that a particular form of government may be best for some people and another form for other people. Incidentally Aristotle devotes the last two of the eight Books in Politics to picturing the Ideal State and describing the educational system it should have.

Please feel free to ask me to elaborate anything that I’ve said above about Aristotle’s consideration of citizenship, the forms of government, and the best state in Books III-IV of his Politics.

See also my post on Book I of Politics, https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/aristotle/.


2 thoughts on “2. Aristotle’s Politics

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Thanks. Unfortunately, as far as I can remember, I didn’t persevere to the end in previous ventures in The Great Books Program. Hopefully this time I’ll not only work through all ten volumes but also succeed in reporting in my blog on all the readings in them.


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