Aristotle James Schall, S.J.
Life, Legacy, and Times Aristotle’s father was court physician to Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. Aristotle studied under Plato and his thought shared Plato’s concern over form though in opposition to Plato, form was located in time and space. Political order is related to understanding the purpose and end of being a human being.
Life, Legacy, and Times - Continued Aristotle did not take over Plato’s Academy, but he started his own school, the Lycaeum. His teaching method, peripatetics, involved walking about and talking. Aristotle became Alexander the Great’s tutor though his philosophy focused on the polis and Alexander embraced the vision of a cosmopolis.
Life, Legacy, and Times - Continued With Alexander’s death, anti-Macedonian riots broke out in Athens, and Aristotle fled lest “Athens commit the same crime twice.” We have over 2,000 pages of writings attributed to Aristotle including his great book, Politics.
Background to Political Teachings Aristotle’s works are grounded in Greek traditions, and he acknowledged those with whom he disagreed in search of objective truth and validity. Aristotle advised us “to love Socrates, to love Plato, but to love the truth more. Aristotle’s political philosophy focused on the small-city state as the necessary arena for human excellences.
Problems of Politics and the State Do not expect to much certitude from political science since it is not like a theoretical science that cannot be otherwise. Ethics is the rule of ourselves over ourselves. Politics is concerned about the common good – the collective moral and intellectual flourishing of society. Aristotle’s ethical and political works are meant to be put into action.
Problems of Politics and the State - Continued Aristotle did not believe human nature varied radically from place to place but believed his philosophy was universally valid. Aristotle believed human beings are political animals and require the city to be “self-sufficient” and live “well.” Nature (physis) is the standard for Aristotle’s thought. This standard revealed the essences of things including human life.
Problems of Politics and the State - Continued Human essence included the possession of a rational soul and cognition. The end (telos) of a human being was a person of excellence just as the end of an acorn was fully developed oak tree. Human essence implied limits such human beings are neither beasts nor gods. Nature is always so regardless of what human will, custom, or agreement are.
Problems of Politics and the State - Continued Logos, or the capacity for reasoned speech and how this enables us to think, judge, and make moral decisions is essential to human nature. The law must be based upon the common good. Politics enables human beings to cultivate logos. Politics ministers to the life of the mind since that life deals with the highest, unchanging, and eternal things.
What Is the Common Good? Perhaps the common good of the political community can be illustrated by an analogy of a rowboat that develops a leak. The common good of all is served by making decisions, combining resources, setting priorities to fix the leak before the boat sinks. The common good also dictates that anyone who attempts to undermine the enterprise must be prevented from doing so through coercion if necessary. (This is a view that both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas share.)
Aristotle’s Understanding of Nature (Physis) Essential characteristic – The essence of something that makes it what it is. This essential characteristic is discovered by logos or reasoned speech. Terminal and peculiar excellence of a thing: The developed form of that thing, its terminal excellence, the objective perfection of that things character-that is, its highest manifestation. The terminal and peculiar excellence of a thing is not necessarily what that thing actually is in its present condition, but how it ought to be in its perfected state.
Aristotle’s Understanding of Nature (Physis) - Continued Limitation on being: The limits or boundaries that distinguish one thing from another. Universal: Unchangeable, objective, timeless. Distinct from convention: Not merely the product of custom or human will or prejudice.
Man Is a Political Animal, From Politics, Book I, Chapter 2 Now , that man is more of a political animal than bees or an other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech… The power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.
Nature of Politics and the Role of the State Aristotle’s Ethics examines a human being’s capacity or incapacity for self-governance. Ethics requires us to rule ourselves by an objective standard of right and wrong. Human happiness and flourishing require a high level of physical security, stable family life, friendships, education, and the enterprise of politics.
Question for Reflection What is the American sense of the good life that is the basis of our regime and political organization of office? Does the American sense of the good life tend to promote or undermine the public interest?
Nature of Politics and the Role of the State - Continued • Aristotle had collected and classified 158 regimes or constitutions. • The city is a reflection of the inner purposes of its citizens. • Politic I, Chapter 2 deals with economics or management of the household. • Discussion of what is sufficient for the development of the human soul • Parental rule (royal rule) is a good that protects children from their unreasonable state. • Constitutional rule defines the relationship between husband and wife
The Polis as the Most Comprehensive Community From Politics, Book I, Chapters 1-4 When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end.
Nature of Politics and the Role of the State - Continued • Two Kinds of Slavery: • Slaves by law – Anyone captured by war even if they had the capability to govern themselves could become a slave by law. • Slaves by nature – A person lacking the capability of self-governance and requiring rule by others would be a slave by nature. • Difficult, dirty, dangerous work necessary for society’s survival created slavery in the ancient world. Aristotle speculated this institution could be done away with if machines could be invented to do this work.
Aristotle On Slavery, From Politics, Book I, Chapters 5-6 We see then that there is some foundation for this difference of opinion, and that all are not either slaves by nature or freeman by nature, and also that there is in some cases a marked distinction between the two classes, rendering it expedient and right for the one to be slaves and the others to be masters: the one practicing obedience, the other exercising authority and lordship which nature intended them to have. The abuse of this authority is injurious to both; for the interests of part and whole, of body and soul, are the same, and the slave is a part of the master, a living but separated part of his bodily frame. Hence, where the relation of master and slave between them is natural they are friends and have common interest, but where it rests merely on law and force the reverse is true.
Question for Reflection Does Aristotle’s distinction between natural and conventional slaves cast doubt on the moral legitimacy of slavery as it was actually practiced in Athens? Has modern technology made the natural slave obsolete?
Nature of Politics and the Role of the State - Continued Aristotle criticized Plato’s community of wives and children as a tragedy of the commons. A citizen is ready to rule and be ruled. Law is reason without passion and is necessary to coerce the unruly. Justice is the virtue of human relationships and requires us to treat equals equally and unequals unequally.
Aristotle’s Critique of Plato, From Politics, Book II, Chapter 1-3 That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.
Nature of Politics and the Role of the State - Continued • Book V of Aristotle’s Ethics divides justice into two: • Legal Justice – any act that could affect others could be a proper object of law. • Special Justice: • Commutative justice – rendering what was due. • Distributive justice – rendering what is due in proportion to what is born for or contributed to the community. • Friendship is more important than justice for a polity
Aristotle’s View of Justice When a decision has to be made about awarding a Stradivarius violin-the rarest and very best kind of Italian Renaissance violins-what would be a just basis for determining who should receive it? Should the decision be based on ability to play? Family connections? Or talent alone? For Aristotle, what would it mean to treat equals equally and unequals unequally concerning talent for playing the violin? Using the principle, what do you think Aristotle’s position would be concerning affirmative action in higher education, which justifies special preferences for historically discriminated-against minorities?
The Best Possible Regime - Continued The best regime could be an actual regime. The polity would be the practically best regime since it was a mixed regime that included aristocratic and democratic elements. Envy and greed are balanced in the mixed regime. The mature man, spoudaios, plays a role in balancing these forces through the practice of the practical virtue of prudence.
The Best Possible Regime - Continued • A large middle class is also an important feature of the best regime. • The middle class would be a golden mean between the masses (envy) and the oligarchs (greed). • The mixed regime was favored by Cicero, Polybius, Aquinas, Montesquieu, and the American founders.
Middle Class/Mixed Regime, From Politics, Book IV, Chapters 8-11 …Wherefore the city which is composed of middle class-citizens is necessarily best constituted in respect of the elements of which we say the fabric of the state naturally consists. And this is the class of citizens which is most secure in a state, for they do not, like the poor, covet their neighbors’ goods; nor do others covet theirs, as the poor covet the goods of the rich; and they neither plot against others, nor are themselves plotted against others, nor are themselves plotted against, they pass through life safely. Wisely then did Phocylides pray – “Many things are best in the mean; I desire to be of a middle condition in my city.”
The Best Possible Regime - Continued Leisure for the higher things is a component of the best state. Aristotle states, “a state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only: if life only were the object, slaves and brute animals might form a state, but they cannot, for they have no share in happiness or in a life of free choice.”
The Best Possible Regime - Continued • Politics is not the highest thing to be pursued, but it lays the foundation for the pursuit of the highest including the theoretical virtues of wisdom, first principles, and science. • Political happiness consist of the activities of all the moral virtues in a full life. • Theoretical happiness is grounded in the contemplative life. • The philosopher must find a protected place in the polity to pursue this happiness though some regimes do not permit the division between the political and the theoretical.
The Best Possible Regime - Continued • Leisure (skole, from which are word school derives) consists of free activities of the human faculties in search of and in finding truth. • Leisure is not amusement or sport. • Leisure is not fooling around. • Pleasure must have a proper object
The Best Possible Regime - Continued • Friendship could be for: • Utility • Pleasure • The highest good • The best city would facilitate the friendships in pursuit of the highest good and the contemplative life. • Politics and prudential statesmanship is not a substitute for philosophical life but requires it and leads to it.
The Best Possible Regime - Continued Democracy is a weak and disordered regime. Some modern regimes that call themselves democracies are either polities or tyrannies. Aristotle helps us to see past rhetoric and understand the essence of a regime. Tyrannies would want to destroy private friendships from emerging to preserve themselves. Public works and wars are essential to the preservation of tyrannies. Most regimes are oligarchies or democracies according to Aristotle. Change from better to worse and from worse to better is an essential possibility of regimes.
On Revolution, From Politics. Book V, Chapter 1-2 Oligarchy is based on the notion that those who are unequal in one respect are in all respects unequal; being unequal, that is , in property, they suppose themselves to be unequal absolutely. The democrats think that as they are equal they ought to be equal in all things; while the oligarchs, under the idea that they are unequal, claim too much, which is one form of inequality. All of these forms of government have a kind of justice, but tried by an absolute standard, they are faulty; and therefore, both parties, whenever their share in the government does not accord with their preconceived ideas, stir up revolution.
Contributions and Influences Aristotle has been in the Medieval Latin and Muslim worlds, as well as in modern European thought though much of modern science has been built upon refuting Aristotle. Henry Veatch contends that the reasons for rejecting the legitimacy of Aristotle’s approach are now themselves under assault opening the doors for reconsidering Aristotle. Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship of principles to prudence is a lasting contribution to politics.
Contributions and Influences The cyclic nature of history that the Greeks understood indicates we are likely to see the things described by Aristotle repeated. Aristotle is a realist who has not given up on the good and the best. Aristotle acknowledges there is more to life than politics. Aristotle was committed to the small polis because larger political bodies made the practice of virtue difficult. Aristotle allowed space for both the mature human being and the philosopher in his best regime.