For the purposes of this essay, definitions will be kept simple: a realist is someone who represents or views things as they are in reality, while an idealist is someone who has high ideals that are not necessarily based in reality, someone who sets a standard to aim at that could be considered unrealistic. This essay will answer the set question by looking at Aristotles’ views on human nature, the ends of politics, liberty, and equality, and deciding whether they are realistic or idealistic.
Aristotles’ most famous view of human nature is that “…a human being is by nature a political animal…” (Politics, Bk1 Ch2). Aristotle closely linked humans/human nature and politics, believing that humans were naturally intended to live in city states, which he believed to be natural in themselves, hence “…anyone who is without a city state, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else superhuman.” (Politics, Bk1 Ch2). In terms of human nature, Aristotle thought that people, or more specifically, men, tended “…by nature to be on an equal footing and to differ in nothing.” (Politics, Bk1 Ch12) by which he means that all men are born with broadly similar faculties. Aristotle regarded women as inferior to men, following the tradition of his time, saying “…a male, unless he is somehow constituted contrary to nature, is naturally more fitted to lead than a female.” (Politics, Bk1 Ch12)
He also had views on the soul and human nature: “The soul is divided into two parts, of which one has reason itself, while the other does not have it in itself, but is capable of obeying reason…the element having reason is better.” (Politics, Bk7 Ch14). Aristotle regarded the part of the soul that did not have reason as being the irrational part of human nature, or the appetite, whereas the part with reason was the reasonable side of human nature, the intellect. Aristotle saw the intellect as being more important because it led to the ‘studying sort’ of human, theorists like himself, and those who took part in politics. Aristotles’ links between human nature and his enviroment, such as the city states, the position of women in society, and his own position as an intellectual, thus demonstrate that his views on human nature were predominantly realist.
For Aristotle, the ultimate end of politics was also the highest human goal, the human ‘telos’ or ‘end’, which he called ‘eudaimonia’: the happy feeling you get when your life is fulfilled. He believed that eudaimonia could only be achieved through politics because he believed that you could not be fully human except through taking part in politics. Aristotle believed that the city states were the proper form of politics, and their citizens politicians, saying “The unqualified citizen is defined by nothing else so much as by his participation in judgement and office.” (Politics, Bk3 Ch1). He believed that those citizens who did not take part in politics, and were not philosophers like himself, were shirking their duties – “…those who contribute the most…have a larger share in the city state that those who are equal or superior in freedom or family but inferior in political virtue…” (Politics, Bk3 Ch9). Thus Aristotles’ views of the ends of politics were realistic, being based on his experience of the city states and their citizens which existed in his time.
Aristotle believed that freedom or liberty (the terms will be used interchangeably) was natural to some but not to others – only those who were ‘capable’ of freedom, and who were brought up in the right cultural and political enviroment (as in, brought up as citizens in a city state), should have it. He did not regard the common practice of slavery as wrong, saying “It is evident, then, that there are some people…for whom slavery is both just and beneficial.” (Politics, Bk1 Ch5).
Aristotle recognised two concepts of freedom: true freedom and deviant freedom. True freedom is liberty, where a rational man governs himself and his appetites (the irrational parts of himself). Deviant freedom is libertarian freedom, the freedom to do what you like: Aristotle regarded this as bad, since living as one likes means you are governed by your appetites, by the irrational part of yourself. He says “The fundamental principle of the democratic constitution is freedom… One component of freedom is ruling and being ruled in turn…[an example of good freedom, when a man for example rules his family, and is in turn ruled over by the state]… Another is to live as one likes [bad freedom, where a mans’ appetites have no imposed limitations].” (Politics, Bk5 Ch2) These types of freedom apply only to free men, since slaves are not free – “…the result…of slavery is not to live as one likes.” (Politics, Bk5 Ch2). Therefore, Aristotles’ views of liberty/freedom are realistic, based as they are on the world around him.
Aristotle saw equality as being split into two parts. Arithmetic, or simple equality, equality based purely on numbers, he believed was bad. Aristotle preferred proportionate equality, or ‘equality of equals’ – “…equality consists in giving the same to those who are alike…” (Politics, Bk7 Ch14). A reasonable comparison is the Cabinet. With the exception of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet are in theory all roughly equal in power, yet no-one else in the country is equal in power to them: hence, equality of equals. This is, however, a very hierarchical view of nature: most people base their views of equality in terms of arithmetic equality, and overcoming this would make Aristotles’ system very hard to work: it is certainly more fanciful than most of his ideas.
This belief in a social order was quite conservative; but he did believe in equality of property, as he linked rebellion to lack of property – “For faction is everywhere due to inequality, where unequals do not receive proportionally unequal things” (Politics Bk5 Ch1). Aristotle believed that a good legislator would aim for rough equality of property, since an aim of the legislators is to achieve happiness (eudaimonia), and happiness cannot be achieved if the people are being disorderly due to material inequality. Aristotles’ views on equality are hard to put into practice: his goal of ‘equality of equals’ would be hard to impose on people used to equality of numbers. Hence, Aristotles’ views here are quite idealistic in nature, aspiring to a different standard.
In conclusion, this essay believes that Aristotles’ views on the subjects of human nature, the ends of politics, and liberty, are all realistic, based on his observations and experiences of the time and place he lived in. Aristotles’ views on equality are more based on Aristotle setting a standard which he believed in and aiming to change other peoples’ views, making him more idealistic. Overall, therefore, Aristotle was mostly realistic, but he does have elements of both realism and idealism in his work.
Aristotle (2001), ‘Politics’, in Morgan, M. L. (Ed), Classics of Moral and Political Theory, Hackett
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