Outline of Aristotle's Political Philosophy
Aug 30, 2022
The End of the State
According to Aristotle’s ethics, each individual and hence every community aims at some kind of good. But the state and therefore political science instead aim at the highest good i.e. Eudaimonia, which consists in the excellence of its citizens - happiness, or rather, human flourishing arising out of the habitual exercise of the virtuous life. This can be considered as the standard classical view, quite prevailing among ancient thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, and Cicero (Strauss, 1965, p.144). It regarded human excellence not merely as a good life, but more importantly, as a life in conformity with nature. This idea is closely tied to the problem of Natural Right discussed in my previous videos. Thus I will examine it in more detail below.
To come back to the question about the state’s end: unlike the previous forms of association, the state aims not only at the bare needs of life, at a mere existence, but at a good life, life in conformity with justice and law, i.e. with prudence and virtue. Life of excellence and philosophical leisure. For as Aristotle famously puts it:
“one who has no need because he is sufficient for himself is no part of a state, and so must either be a beast or a god.” (Aristotle, 1996, p.14)
To put it differently, an individual or a family separated from the state is like an organ severed from its organism - it is not self-sufficient and is therefore doomed to be destroyed both existentially and morally. Since according to Aristotle the state perfects its citizens in virtue by law and justice and thus protects them from degrading to the level of beasts.
Which brings us to his conclusion that the state is necessarily prior to the family and the individual. Since the whole is by nature prior to its parts. And if the whole gets annihilated the parts inevitably follow too.
The Nature of Man
But the question arises: why are humans bound to be part of the state? Does it necessarily follow from their nature? But how does Aristotle understand human nature? In his seminal work, Natural Right and History, Strauss gives a comprehensive overview of the classical, Platonic-Aristotelian view of human nature:
“[In contradistinction to the Moderns] the classics believed that man is by nature a social being. He is so constituted that he cannot live, or live well, except by living with others. Since it is reason or speech that distinguishes him from the other animals, and speech is communication, man is social in a more radical sense than any other social animal: humanity itself is sociality. Man refers himself to others, or rather he is referred to others, in every human act, regardless of whether that act is "social " or “antisocial.” His sociality does not proceed, then, from a calculation of the pleasures which he expects from association, but he derives pleasure from association because he is by nature social. Love, affection, friendship, pity, are as natural to him as concern with his own good and calculation of what is conducive to his own good… Because man is by nature social, the perfection of his nature includes the social virtue par excellence i.e. right and justice…” (Strauss, 1965, p.129)
To put it in Aristotle’s words, man is by nature a political animal, and thus as the final and most self-sufficient expression of his nature, the state is rather natural than artificial. It is the fulfillment of man’s inherent social instinct. The instinct that makes a human being much more a political animal than any kind of bee or any herd animal. Namely, the ability to communicate what is just and unjust, expedient and inexpedient instead of merely expressing the experiences of pleasure or pain as beasts do. I am talking about the gift of speech that is exclusive to human nature. To reiterate Aristotle’s chain of reasoning: human and only human is a political animal precisely because he is by nature an animal endowed with the gift of speech. Since a political union, the state is impossible without communicating what is just and expedient and what is - not.
Moreover, from the day of his birth man is fundamentally dependent on his parents; to go even further, a continuation of the human race itself is impossible without reciprocity of opposite sexes. Therefore, the individual on his own is so far from self-sufficiency that cannot even fulfill basic human needs when alone. Which further implies man’s natural inclination to live among his fellow humans.
The Family as the Origin of the State
But why is the state the most appropriate, or to put it in Aristotle’s words, the most natural form of human association? To understand this we must start from the origin, from the first growth of the state, and follow its natural development towards its self-fulfillment. This is because, like any other science, politics should always aspire to resolve its compound object into simple elements or at least parts of the whole (Aristotle, 1996, p.14). The simplest element of the state, the seed out of which it grows is the association of the male and female i.e. the family household; the first and most primordial form of community, conjoining of persons who cannot exist without one another.
According to Aristotle’s observation, the household consists of two basic forms of relationship:
On the one hand, there must of necessity be a unity of male and female i.e. husband and wife, On the other hand - of the natural ruler and subject.
The first relationship aims at the continuation of the human race, the other - to its preservation. The one is only present among the male and the female, whereas the second is present also among the master and slave, father and children. This is because the reproductive union of male and female is determined by their bare sexual differences, while the natural subjection of the less excellent to the more excellent i.e. the natural subject to the natural master is based on the difference with regard to the degree and manner each partake in the reasonable part of their soul. In short, as Aristotle himself puts it, he who can foresee with the mind is the naturally ruling and naturally mastering, while he who can do things with the body is the naturally ruled and slave (Aristotle, 1996, p.14). Any other disposition between the master and the subject will definitely prove itself disastrous.
Here the epithet “natural” must be taken seriously since it does not merely serve a rhetorical function but reminds us each time that Aristotle does not talk about just any form of subjection, especially that which stands solely on the power and abuse of authority. But rather about a very special kind of subjection - the subjection according to which the sole reason why a master ought to rule the subject is that he is more excellent than the latter. Aristotle believes that, unlike other forms of subjection, the one based on excellence and reason will definitely be mutually beneficial. The so-called natural subjection is then a rather synergic relationship between the master and the subject rather than parasitic. Aristotle thus concludes that not only slaves but the wife and children too should be subject to the head of the household i.e. the patriarch of the family. Since compared to him all of them are deficient in their use of reason. And therefore his rule will be equally advantageous for the whole family. This power dynamic is so important for Aristotle that it is present all throughout the different stages of his political development. Even though it undergoing very important qualitative alterations on its way.
Aristotle’s strictly hierarchical, nonegalitarian view of human affairs may sound very distasteful, harsh, and old-fashioned to modern ears; But for Aristotle himself, this hierarchical view is not merely a prejudice of his time, but the cornerstone of his whole philosophical worldview. As Strauss puts it:
“Since the classics viewed moral and political matters in the light of man’s perfection, they were not egalitarians. Not all men are equally equipped by nature for progress toward perfection, or not all " natures" are " good natures." While all men, i.e., all normal men, have the capacity for virtue, some need guidance by others, whereas others do not at all or to a much lesser degree.” (Strauss, 1965, p.134).
Aristotle goes even further and claims that the aforementioned relationship can be observed not only in the realm of politics but also throughout nature - both animate and inanimate:
“Whatever is constituted out of a number of things - whether continuous or discrete… always displays a ruling and a ruled element; this is something that animate things derive from all of nature, for even in things that do not partake in life there is a sort of rule, for example in a harmony.“ (Aristotle, 2013, p.46)
How the State is born and why it is a Natural association between Men
The family household, which consists of the aforementioned relationships between husband, wife, children, and slaves is the community constituted by nature for the needs of daily life. In other words, the sole aim of the household is a mere continuation and preservation of the human race.
But when the first community arises from several households and for the sake of non-daily needs the village is born. The community which is more developed and self-sufficient than any household and aims at something more than a bare existence. Yet not as self-sufficient and developed as the state. Besides, as Aristotle remarks: since the village seems to be a natural extension of the household, Its members are the children and the grandchildren of the patriarch (Aristotle, 2013, p.42); And because every household is under the eldest as king, the same may be held true for the village - it is bound under the personal rule of the monarch. To which Aristotle adds:
“This is why the states were at first under kings, and barbarians are even now. For those who joined together were already under kings” (Aristotle, 2013, p.42)
Which implies that from the associations of such villages the first states were born. The complete communities, arising from several villages. The association of men representing the last stage of political development. Hence the only one reaching a level of full self-sufficiency, so to speak. To again trace the Aristotelian genealogy: the origin of all human associations is the family i.e. household, which gives birth to the village, and from the latter, the state arises. Thus, to reiterate, the state is the most complete and self-sufficient form of political community, which while coming into being for the sake of living, continues its existence for the sake of living well. In other words, its end does not consist in a mere continuation and preservation of the human race anymore but rather in the good life of its citizens. As Strauss puts it:
“The state is essentially different from a gang of robbers because it is not merely an organ, or an expression, of collective selfishness. Since the ultimate end of the state is the same as that of the individual, the end of the state is a peaceful activity in accordance with the dignity of man, and not war and conquest.” (Strauss, 1965, p.134)
Therefore, unlike the household and village, the rule which prevails in the state is constitutional rather than monarchical. It is the rule not according to personal authority, but to political science. Where citizens rule and are ruled in turn. In other words, it is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.
But most importantly, according to Aristotle, the state is not an artificial institution, but like its earlier forms is a creation of nature. Which means that human beings are naturally and hence necessarily citizens of the state. Even though the state is itself the result of deliberation and statesmanship it is a natural institution. What Aristotle means by claiming the state to be natural can be understood in three ways:
While the earlier forms of human association are merely expressions of man’s nature, the state is its fulfillment; Since, unlike the household and the village, the state’s purpose is to enable its citizens to lead the good life. Which is a life in conformity with nature, more precisely, with human nature. The state then is the most natural of human associations in this sense. For it aims at what is most natural for human beings - the good life, the life according to human excellency, the life, which most distinguishes them from beasts, thus, the life most appropriate to men as men.
However the state may be considered natural also in another sense. Namely as a substance or telos, the final cause, the end to which the whole process of political development was for. The state as a complete self-fulfillment of the man’s political existence. The full growth and actualisation of its potentialities. As Aristotle puts it: “the state is an end of earlier forms of society and the nature of the 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” (Aristotle, 1996, p.13). In other words, according to Aristotle’s logic, the final and most complete form of a thing is actually its inherent nature, its essence only in correspondence to which it can be understood. Thus, since the state is the final and most complete form of human association, of political community, it must be understood as the nature and the fulfillment of the political existence.
And finally, the state’s naturality may also be understood as it follows: the state represents itself as a whole that unites all its citizens and their communities into one body politic. Which means that it enables individuals, households and villages to become self-sufficient through its efficient labor division. Thus if any of its parts be it individual citizen, household or a village breaks itself away from the state, like an organ severed from body it will no longer be self-sufficing; it is no longer able to exercise his proper quality - not only economically and politically but also morally. SInce as Aristotle puts it, man, when separated from law and justice, is the worst animal, while when perfected by them is the most excellent.
To sum this idea of the state being of the natural origin instead of artificial I will conclude it with the Strauss sharp observation as to why the classics including Aristotle stress so much on the notion of nature when talking about politics, law and morality:
“Aristotle and the classics in general presuppose the validity of that distinction between nature and law, when demanding that the law should follow the order established by nature, or when speaking of the cooperation between nature and law. They oppose to the denial of natural right and natural morality the distinction between natural right and legal right as well as the distinction between natural and (merely) human morality.” (Strauss, 1965, p.121)
Aristotle A. & Everson S. (1996). The politics. Cambridge University Press.
Aristotle A. & Lord C. (2013). Aristotle's politics (Second). University of Chicago Press.
Strauss, L. (1965). Natural right and history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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