Aristotle: The Politics “Books I-IV”
Aristotle was a philosopher in Ancient Greece that studied under another famous philosopher that you may have heard of, Plato. Aristotle wrote Politics in 350 B.C.E to cover the role that politics plays in society and how the political community can help fulfill the life of a citizen, hoping to steer people away from lives of barbarism and isolation.
Book I begins with Aristotle explaining that every state is a community that has been established in order to achieve what they believe to be good. Within these communities exists those who hold power, such as statesmen, kings, householders, and masters, who each have rule over others. “For example, the ruler over a few is called a master; over more, the manager of a household; over a still larger number, a statesman or king, as if there were no difference between a great household and a small state” (Politics, Book 1).
Since the family is created by nature to supply for everyday wants, several families who unite together in order to aim at something more than these everyday needs creates the first society, a village. Aristotle then describes the most natural form of a village, a group entirely of family filled with children and grandchildren, which is why some states were successfully ruled by kings who were elders of the family. After several villages are formed and are each self-sufficient and prosperous, a state is formed, helping to continue the creation of the bare necessities and the pursuance of what is good.
Aristotle uses this logic to say that the state is a creation of nature, making man a political animal. Those without a state are “a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces- the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts.” Aristotle elaborates on man being naturally political when he states that man is the only being that has been gifted with speech, as he is able to decide what is just and what is unjust, along with being the only one who has a sense of good and evil.
Above, country music artist Willie Nelson uses his talents and gift of speech to urge other members of the state to engage in political participation.
Aristotle claims that the state is prior to the individual, since “the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.” Aristotle seems to appreciate the state for providing a means of preventing barbarism and establishing order amongst individuals. According to him, if you do not align with the state or are somehow self-sufficient, you are either other worldly, or a savage. This shows us some of his personal beliefs as well, as most of this text is reflective of what we now call communitarianism, which highlights the importance of the individual and the importance of families within society.
TV series Rick and Morty displays how those without a state or state stability are barbaric.
In the next section, Aristotle describes the multiple relationships within the household, including master-slave, husband-wife, and father-child. He then describes the relationship between master and slave to be natural, stating that some are born to rule and others are meant to be ruled. The relationship between a master and a slave is compared to the soul and the body, with the soul/master being the rational and commanding and the body/slave being only capable of unskilled duties. Aristotle views slaves as the way that households and property owners achieve their means of living, but he does not believe that all forms of it are just. Those that are enslaved through war and those who are not not slaves by nature are not meant to be enslaved. This gives us a glimpse of what Aristotle thought about the rights of all people, since he thinks that there are tiers to society and that not everyone is born into the same rights and privileges as others. Some parties feel that the rule of a master over a slave is contrary to nature, since the difference between who is a slave and who is free is determined by law, not by nature. Thus, slavery is unjust because of its interference with nature.
With the relationship between husband-wife and father-child, the husband rules over both despite the wife and child being naturally free, since the husband is “fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.” Aristotle then states that the rule that a father has over his children is royal, while the rule over a wife is a constitutional way of rule.
Lastly, Aristotle discusses a different part of the household, acquiring wealth. Different people have different ways of doing so, including farmers, statesmen, soldiers, etc., but there are different types of wealth acquisition. Natural acquisition is the acquiring of basic needs like food, water, shelter, and other things that are required to live and run a household, while unnatural acquisition would be getting wealth for the sake of being wealthy. Aristotle advises against unnatural acquisition, since some are led to believe that getting wealth is the only objective of managing a household.
The purpose that Book II serves is to consider what form of political community is best. Aristotle provides three alternatives that members of a state must have: all things in common, nothing in common, and some things in common and some not. He notes that for individuals of a state to have absolutely nothing in common is impossible stating, “for the constitution is a community, and must at any rate have a common place- one city will be in one place, and the citizens are those who share in that one city” (Politics, Book II). He basically states that no matter what, people who share a community will have at least something in common, as you cannot live in the same community without an ounce of unity.
Aristotle takes into account the argument of Socrates that states, “that the greater the unity of the state the better” (Politics, Book II) in order to describe the necessity of the state. Aristotle certainly does not agree with the argument Socrates has put forward in regards to unity, but he analyzes it anyways. Aristotle contemplates the idea of a state and its nature of plurality, noting that it is possible that it could be too unified that it is no longer a state, and begins to show the process of unification by presenting the order it follows: from state, to family (which is perceived to be more unified than the state), to individual. He does warn that it is not the goal to attain such unity as the individual though, as it can serve to ruin the state. He backs this up by arguing that a state is not only made up of so many kinds of men, but of unique, far from similar ones. He further explains this argument by comparing a state filled with similar individuals to a military allegiance. For a military organization, similarity is important as all members of such a group are set on a common goal which is that of mutual protection, but a state does not have just one end goal and it relies on different perspectives in order to advance.
Defined as what is the salvation of states, Aristotle introduces the principle of compensation. He states that regardless of the equal standards that are set for individuals, this principle must be maintained. This principle focuses on ruling as an order of succession that sees an end goal of everyone having the chance to govern. As it is obvious, not everyone can govern at the same time, so changing who’s in charge must operate on some sort of schedule or designated time in order to keep it equal for everyone. An example provided that illustrates this principle is that of shoemakers and carpenters. Under this plan of governance, the same people will not remain shoemakers and carpenters their entire life, but will instead be given an opportunity to govern and contribute to the state in additional ways. To conclude his premise among this principle, it is stated that regardless of position within a society, all individuals should be treated equally. But, as everyone is given the chance to rule there is going to be variety amongst the different rulers. This is good as similarity is not the goal at hand and Aristotle warns that, “the extreme unification of the state is clearly not good..” (Politics, Book II). There is no self-sufficiency among extreme unification as different perspectives will not be accounted for under such circumstances.
Aristotle further examines the argument Socrates provides about unity in order to examine the role of women, children, and property within the state. Socrates provides another sign of perfect unity here that stems from the fact, “of all men saying ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ at the same instant of time” (Politics, Book II). Aristotle notes that the word ‘all’ is ambiguous due to the fact that if they follow this sort of perfect unity that Socrates provides, man will claim each person as their own wife or son or each other’s property as their own. Aristotle dismisses Socrates once again by stating that if all individuals call the same thing ‘mine’, there is no real unity at play. Focusing on the idea of human nature, this type of unity will not actually work because if everything is everyone’s to have, the selfish nature of man will override the common good. Aristotle also mentions the idea of increased crime and diminishing affection due to such unity as it serves to decrease the importance of familial bonds and if everyone owns each other, the importance of family will not stop people from committing a crime, nor will it help people mingle amongst each other in hope of creating offspring.
Circling back to the argument that Socrates gives, Aristotle does agree that unity is key, but he also states that, “Property should be in a certain sense common, but, as a general rule, private…” (Politics, Book II). He also pushes the idea that things can and should be common in a state, but where he differs from Socrates is that complete unity is not the way to go. Private property can spawn common use of property through voluntarily sharing. Other philosophers such as Plato and Phaleas also attempted to resolve the issue of property, but Aristotle is firm with the idea that property can be private, but also have a common use.
Lastly, Aristotle dives into different regimes and how they were carried out. He mentions the attempt of the first non-statesman to envision a government, Hippodamus, who believed the citizens should be divided into three parts (the artisans, husbandmen, and armed defenders of the state) while also dividing the land itself into three parts (sacred, public, and private). Hippodamus also talked of a law that honored individuals who discovered anything that would be of benefit to the state. Aristotle’s issue with what Hippodamus proposed is that dividing citizens is not effective at all and that honoring those who discover useful information that benefits the state is something that, “…cannot safely be enacted by law, for it may encourage informers, and perhaps even lead to political commotions” (Politics, Book II). Aristotle then moves on to the Spartan regime that presents women as owning a large amount of land but comes with its problems, the Cretan regime that is similar but also has its problems, and the Carthaginians that have neither had any rebellions or any tyrannical ruler. Aristotle ends Book II speaking of Solon who is said to have, “…put an end to the exclusiveness of the oligarchy, emancipated the people, established the ancient Athenian democracy, and harmonized the different elements of the state” (Politics, Book II). This is important, as Aristotle states, as what Solon contributed turned into the democracy that has flourished over time.
Book III of Aristotle’s Politics discusses several very important concepts that relate to the city-state and its citizens. Firstly, Aristotle dives into the true nature of citizenship and how this plays into how citizenship impacts those living in a city. By Aristotle’s definition of citizenship, a citizen must meet more requirements than simply being a resident of a city. In addition to this limitation, an individual living under a democracy must also contribute to the serving of justice and hold public office in order to be granted citizenship as Aristotle defines it. In his words, “the citizen whom we are seeking to define is a citizen in the strictest sense.” This definition of citizenship is significant as it allows the reader to be exposed to a concept that heavily intertwines with the Platonic concepts of the state and the impacts of the individual on governance of the state.
The other main concept introduced by Aristotle in Book III of Politics is the six varying forms of governance through constitutions. Amongst these six forms, three are deemed ‘just’ and three that are unjust. The three unjust forms are related to kingship, aristocracy, and constitutional government. With the kingship, kingship that is meant to fulfill the interests and desires of the king is known as tyranny. Next, an aristocracy that is aimed toward suiting the needs of the wealthy is known as an oligarchy. Finally, a constitutional government that is meant to serve the interest of the poor is known as a democracy.
Book 4 begins with the discussion of parts to wholes. In order to understand and discern different constitutions one must first be able to understand them as parts. Now in this context Aristotle does not use the term constitution in the manner that we know it today. He is not talking about “We the People,” instead he is discussing the formation of different forms of governments for a given city-state or state as a whole. His justification of political philosophy sheds insight into his inability to decisively name the ‘best regime’. This may also be because he recognizes that the best regime only exists in theory filled with ideal scenarios.
Aristotle proposes 6 questions to be discussed throughout Book 4: What is the best constitution in an ideal situation without obstacles; Which constitution is most appropriate for which states; Which constitution is best given certain assumptions, furthermore a statesman must consider how a constitution will stand once in place and how it will survive; Which constitution is most appropriate for all city-states and not just best but also possible, practical, and attainable;  How many kinds of constitutions are there, just as there is not one form of democracy there is not just one form of constitution; Which laws are best and/or appropriate for each type of constitution because the laws should be made to fit the constitution not the other way around.
Thus far, three correct forms of constitution have been previously established: Kingship, Aristocracy, and Polity. These are the ideal forms presented, however they each have deviances. From Kingship come tyranny, from aristocracy comes oligarchy, and from polity comes democracy. Aristotle goes on to attempt to rank these constitutions, although presents several different deviations of thought seeming unable to truly rank in a decisive manner. He stated that tyranny is the most bad, oligarchy is slightly less bad, and democracy is the least bad of the three. This preference for referring to the order in terms of “baddness” instead of “betterness” is done to avoid comparing different forms in an unfair manner. These constitutions tend to be established on the virtue that is furnished with resources.
Yet again, Aristotle sets more discussion points on the topic of constitutions:  How many varieties of constitutions are there; which he begins to discuss in that there are many types because each city state is made up of many parts. He goes into these parts further by separating the rich from the poor from the middle class. He also states that there are two main types of regimes: Democracy and Oligarchy (note that he excludes kingship/tyranny here).  Which kind is most attainable and which is most choiceworthy;  How may one go about establishing a given constitution; and finally  The ways in which constitutions are destroyed.
Throughout the entirety of this book, Aristotle continues to define differences between the different types of regimes, which allows the reader to fully understand how the similar regimes are in fact different. The cataloging also allows the reader to connect which types of laws follow given regimes. As stated previously the two main types of regimes to be discussed are Oligarchies and Democracies. Oligarchies are regimes in which the wealthy rule. Democracy in its truest form is a regime ruled by the majority, or freemen. The majority in this context tends to be inherently poor, which separates a democracy from an oligarchy. He rules that the best and most attainable regime is polity, the precursor of democracy. Polity in this sense is a mixed regime in that it combines elements of oligarchic laws and democratic laws to create mixed offices by election to transcend divisions of rich and poor.
In the last several chapters of Book 4, Aristotle focuses on the importance of the “middling element,” which is equivalent to what we know as the middle class. The middle class or middling element are essential to a stable government because the class does not envy the rich or seek power because they are concretely set right in the middle. They do not seek to oppress the poor because they have nothing to gain, so a large middle class is a stabilizing element for a strong government regime.
Kristina Zillic is a junior studying Political Science with a focus in National Security and Foreign Affairs and a minor in German. She is passionate about gender issues and reproductive rights. She hopes to move to Germany soon after graduation to continue her studies and possibly work for the State department making use of her language skills.
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