Aristotle, along with Plato is widely believed to be one of the most significant philosophers of any time. The studies and theories of numerous principles including logic, natural sciences, biology and physics can all be traced back to Aristotle. Born in 384 B.C. in Stageira Aristotle was the son of a physician, as most generations of his family had been physicians. His father Nichomachus even was a physician to King of Macedonia. Aristotle would remain here until the age of seventeen, then moving to Athens where he would get his first taste of the experience with the sciences. Here is also where he would meet up with Plato, in which a relationship of mutual respect was established.
Each admired the other greatly, but both criticized each other’s viewpoints and reasoning often. Aristotle would be recognized and attributed to many things including logic, chemistry, biology, anatomy and politics. His Politics however, will be the focus. Written in a series of books it reflects what the ideal state should be by examining typical weakness and strengths according to Aristotle, and just how politics and citizen interact with one other. Broken into three sections The Politics is structured with the first three books being an introduction to the field, the next three discussing sensible politics, and finally the last two discussing the perfect or ideal state. Often criticized because it’s disorganized and unsettled it still is a respected series of books.
Aristotle opens with an analysis of the city state. Aristotle uses the city state rather than the national state because to him, the model government must allow citizens to meet in a single localized assembly where every voice literally can be heard. Further simplifying, he saw the basic unit as the family. This family joining together with another family and so on and so forth to join together and form these city states. This development is seen as expected and will be a part of the eventual end for the individual in the city state, or in modern terms the society. The city state is the beginning, for it to function properly it must supersede the family. Those that chose not to take part in the city state are not accepted. To Aristotle only a god can fit this criteria and thus everyone is expected to participate in the community.
Despite being widely respected Aristotle did have his quirks, one of them being his advection of slavery. Aristotle saw non-Greeks, mostly Persians, as peasants fit to be ruled. An early manifest destiny if you will. He viewed slaves as nothing more than property and tools. Simply there for the better of the city state. Despite this viewpoint from an otherwise intellectual man he does offer some reasoning in his rationale. He recognized that slaves could reason like any other person and even allowed the privilege to look ahead to freedom. In addition, he knew of the practical difficulties in doing slavery, mainly being who is naturally meant for it? How does war fit into the equation? Citizens were the only ones allowed to participate in the city state so what were slaves to do?
This extension continued to children, women, and a portion of the working class if they didn’t participate fully. Even Aristotle himself, as he was an alien and even they couldn’t participate. Aristotle later offers his view on government systems and constitutions. From his standpoint ‘the good life’ must be offered and engaged by the government towards its citizens. Because of this many forms of government are instantly incredible including oligarchies (a select few yield the power). It’s here where we see democracy. Aristotle felt that this would be best utilized if coupled with protections. The realistic template for Aristotle to is have the city state have elements of all forms of government; some democracy, some oligarchy, some aristocracy etc. The books go on to discuss such things as the role of education and how it is crucial to the city state and revolutions.
Happiness for the individual cannot be spoken or thought of without mentioning the city. Everything comes back to the city according to Aristotle. The ‘political animal’ that is the human being is achieved because human aspirations go hand in hand with the community. One can not exist without the other. In fact, Aristotle argues that they can only be attained in a political forum. Subsequently, the appropriate community is a polis; a self governing city state aimed at sharing the rule and having the good of its citizens has it primary and only goal.
To Aristotle, politics and ethics were closely related. Unlike most before him and during his time he saw ethics and politics as going hand in hand with one another. The morals that are normally present in the everyday life are still present in politics only under a different context. Because as humans we are communal beings our own rational thoughts and actions leads to what Aristotle calls a ‘social union’; a branch or extension of the family so to speak. Although this union is originally formed because of one’s and the society’s inherent needs and wants it later serves the purpose as a moral end in the strive for a higher life according to Aristotle. Most of all, and perhaps most importantly Aristotle saw this as the moral organization crucial to human development.
Finally, the best or ideal state cannot be directly answered according to Aristotle. Different cultures and societies will have different needs; there is no true or ideal form that is uniform. The best form is the form that best meets the needs for the state and what the circumstances are. In any case, the best possible state will be the one that allows everyone the most happiness. The location should be favorable to land and sea, it should not make ‘the man’, an it should allow and encourage free religious worship.
It seems that the good man, in harmony with Aristotle’s belief, should not be ostracized from the city, for the goodness of his character is something that there is a lot to be learned from. The alternative being making this good man an educator rather than a ruler; as according to Aristotle being in this position will allow him to influence the children of the society so that they can grow up and replenish the society.
Aristotle was and still is one of great thinkers that ever lived. His influences are far reaching more than this short paper can even begin to scratch. His influence continues to be felt today, and will be far into the future. The frank importance of The Politics is arduous to evaluate. Obviously, the city state has long come and gone, yet Aristotle’s vision of the association between individual and community continues to motivate the apparition of modern politicians and provides a solid framework for those to study. Obviously this is only a brief overview of him. One could easily write endlessly about his works and his visions. Throughout it all one must keep in mind that Aristotle was a great thinker far ahead of his time and we will forever be remembered as one of the greatest philosophers to ever live.
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Aristotle. The Apple or Aristotle’s Death. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1968. Trans. Rousseau, Mary F.
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Cooper, John M. Reason and Human Good in Aristotle. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 1975.
Wedin, Michael. Mind and Imagination in Aristotle. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.