Aristotle’s Politics, as the name suggests, detail Aristotles ideas about politics – he talks about different types of rule and constitutions and what he thinks is the best form of government. It’s pretty amazing how much this book, written in 300-something B.C. has so much to say that’s relevant to society more than 2000 years later.
In general, Aristotle’s method is based on the idea that the universe is rational and that each thing in it has a distinct purpose and function. He believes that a person can use reason to figure out the purpose of a thing – this is done by looking at its origin and its characteristics to figure out the end for which it exists. Aristotle considers the end result of the growth of something is its Nature.
He starts the Politics by talking about human nature and the city. He believes that the end result of growth of relationships among people is the city. Human nature can help to discern the purpose of the city – in this case, since the nature of a person is to reason and live a virtuous and good life, then the city exists to help people achieve this goal. The city allows a person to exercise sociability, debate justice, and fully exercise his virtue.
A somewhat surprising issue that Aristotle attacks early in the Politics is the issue of slavery. He acknowledges that some believe it’s just and others believe it is not just. His conclusion is that it is just in the case that a person is a ‘natural slave’ – someone who is naturally better suited to being ruled rather than ruling. He acknowledges, however, that is it difficult to determine whether a particular person is a natural slave.
In developing evidence on the nature of various human relationships, he describes different types of relationships – husband and wife, father and children, and master and slave. Aristotle acknowledges that men, women, children, and slaves all have a capacity for ‘goodness’ and virtue (otherwise they could not be obedient and ruled well), but that there are different types of virtue for each of these.
In general, he notes that the person who is in charge of the management of the household should focus on acquiring the materials needed for the family and arrange for the materials to be used properly. He argues that the goal of acquiring currency for its own sake as well as usury (money-lending) are unnatural.
In Book II, Aristotle looks at the underlying principles of a government regime/constitution and determines whether the regime lives up to the principles its meant to uphold.
Arisotle makes an interesting argument about the importance of education to prevent conflict and crime. Though some people suggest crime would be limited if all things were shared, Aristotle notes that some people commit crimes not because they are needy, but because they want more than they need or because they just enjoy stealing. These issues can only be addressed through education – not only general education, but education about laws and the constution.
He further disagrees with the idea that the city should aim to achieve unity – either by sharing property, or, as Plato suggests, sharing women and children in common. He notes that people take better care of their private belongings than of public goods, and they’re less likely to commit crimes against relatives. He argues that sharing children in common would not result in each person feeling that every child belongs to them, but rather believing that they are only 1/1000 of a father to each child (in a city with 1000 people), and therefore any one child is not really their responsibility.
He further argues that diversity is necessary in the city, because this is how the city becomes self-sufficient – many people each carrying out different roles and trading and working with each other.
Throughout this section, Aristotle re-iterates the importance of using written laws, rather than human discretion, in ruling a city.
In Book III, Aristotle focuses on the definition of a citizen, of virtue, and of different types of good and bad constitutions/governments. Aristitotle defines a citizen as someone who has a share in ruling the city, at least for some period of time. This reflects Aristotle’s view that the role of the city is to promote the ‘good life,’ so that those who are contributing to this goal are the true citizens. It also reflects Aristotle’s belief that not everyone is fit to rule – i.e. laborers and others can’t rule and therefore can’t be citizens.
Aristotle explains in a bit more detail how he views virtue – he believes the virtue of a good person is to lead him to his ultimate happiness, while the virtue of a good citizen is to preserve the constitution. Only in the best constitution will the virtue of the good person and the good citizen be the same. He compares this to sailors, where each member of the crew need to exceed at his particular skill/virtue in sailing, but also in the overall goal of keeping the ship safe.
Aritstotle argues that the best constitutions are those that involve people sharing in ruling and being ruled – this is a government of equals where the goal of the government is the common interest – constitutions that fit this description are kingship, aristocracy, and polity. In contrast, in a bad constitution, the goal of the government is the self-interest of those that are ruling – bad constitutions include tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. As mentioned before, he belives that all citizens should participate in judicial and deliberate office, but only some (those with more virtue) should be allowed to hold higher offices. The reasoning for allowing the multitude to participate is that as a whole they have more virtue, wealth, etc. than any one person. Though Aristotle believes people should share in ruling and being ruled, because he believes that virtue is important for ruling, he concedes that if there is one person that is much more virtuous than everyone else, then it is correct for that person to be made king.
Aristotle goes into detail about the idea of justice and equality. Justice is equality to those that are equal and inequality to those that are unequal. He believes that many people are confused about equality, because they have a hard time judging something that affects themselves. He says that rich people believe that because people are unequal in wealth, they are unequal in everything. Others believe that because people are equal in free birth, they are equal in everything. Aristotle explains that in the city, it is just for people to get an equivalent of what they contribute to the goal of the city – i.e. the extent that they help to rule and promote the ‘good life.’