5. Aristotle’s Politics

“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 two 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 subjects of despotic kings and those who, on the other hand, live as citizens under constitutional governments and who, therefore, are ‘free man and equals, ruling and being ruled in turn.” (“Aristotle: Politics” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, 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 Academy 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 A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education Adler and Wolff discuss Book I of Politics. In it Aristotle considers the origin and nature of the state, slavery, and household management. Before summarizing what Aristotle says about each of those subjects, Adler and Wolff consider the relationship of Politics to Aristotle’s earlier Nicomachean Ethics and its structure, and after summarizing the three subjects they discuss several questions about Politics. I’ll consider just what they say about the three subjects. Incidentally, they study Nicomachean Ethics in another reading in A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, and I’ll consider it in when I share from the The Great Ideas volume on Ethics: The Study of Moral Values.

Regarding the origin and nature of the state, Aristotle says: “When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society [the family and the village] are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.” (Aristotle, Politics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 446).The state’s being natural means that it arises out of a human need, all men are meant to live in a state, what it is and how it comes to be cannot be completely due to human deliberation and rules, and it has an end or purpose.

After talking about the role of slaves as possessions of their masters used by them as instruments for maintaining life, Aristotle considers whether slavery is natural:

“But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature. “There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of facts. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” (Aristotle, Politics, page 447)

However there is another kind of slavery which in which the slaves are ones who have been taken in war rather than those who are slaves by nature. Aristotle questions whether it is just to view them as slaves.

Just as he distinguishes between natural and conventional slavery, Aristotle distinguishes between natural and artificial wealth-getting. Wealth-getting that is natural is part of the management of the household:

“Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, in so far as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches, for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited…. But there is a boundary fixed, just as there is in the other arts; for the instruments of any art are never unlimited, either in number or in size, and riches may be defined as a number of instruments to be used in a household or in a state. And so we see that there is a natural art of acquisition which is practised by managers of households and by statesmen, and what is the reason of this.” (Aristotle, Politics, page 450)

However there is another kind of wealth-getting in which the wealth-getters have unlimited desires and thus want the means of gratifying them to also be without limit. Just as he’d disapproved of conventional slavery, Aristotle disapproves of this art of wealth-getting, viewing both as unnatural.

In volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, The Development of Political Theory and Government, Adler and Wolff discuss Books III-IV of Politics, in which Aristotle considers citizenship, the various forms of government, and the best state. See my earlier post on Politics,
https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/aristotle/, for a summary of what he says about them.


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