Politics, Books I, III
Aristotle: Plato’s Adopted Son
Statue of Plato outside the Academy, Athens / Wikimedia Commons
I’ve always been told that any serious introduction to political philosophy has to start with a big piece of Plato. We’ve made some effort to do that. Now, we have to move on. So we move to Plato’s son, his adopted son, in a manner of speaking, Aristotle. There’s a story about the life of Aristotle. It goes something like this. Aristotle was born. He spent his life thinking and then he died. There is, obviously, more to his life than that. But, to some degree, this captures some of the way in which Aristotle has been perceived over the centuries. That is to say, the ultimate philosopher. Aristotle was born in the year 384, 15 years after the trial of Socrates. He was born in the northern part of Greece, in a city called Stagira, which is part of what is now called Macedonia. It was called that then. When he was about your age, when he was 17 or thereabouts, maybe slightly younger than many of you, he was sent by his father to do what you are doing. He was sent by his father to go to college. He was sent to Athens to study at The Academy, the first university, spoke about and established by Plato. Unlike most of you, Aristotle did not spend four years at the Platonic Academy. He remained attached to it for the next 20, until the death of Plato. After the death of Plato, perhaps because of the choice of successors to The Academy, Aristotle left Athens, first for Asia Minor and then to return to his home in Macedonia where he had been summoned by King Phillip to establish a school for the children of the Macedonian ruling class. It was here that Aristotle met and taught Phillip’s son, Alexander the Great.
Aristotle returned to Athens later on and established a school of his own, a rival to the Platonic Academy that he called the Lyceum. There is a story that near the end of his life, Aristotle was himself brought up on capital charges, as was Socrates, due to another wave of hostility to philosophy. But rather unlike Socrates, rather in staying to drink the hemlock, Aristotle left Athens and was reported to have said he did not wish to see the Athenians sin against philosophy for a second time. I’ll go back to that story in a minute, because I think it’s very revealing about Aristotle.
In any way, this story helps to underscore some important differences between Plato and Aristotle. At one level, you might say there is an important difference in style that you will see almost immediately. Unlike his intellectual godfather, Socrates, who wrote nothing but conversed endlessly, and unlike his own teacher, Plato, who wrote imitations of those endless Socratic conversations, Aristotle wrote disciplined and thematic treatises on virtually every topic, from biology to ethics to metaphysics to literary criticism and politics. One can assume safely that Aristotle would have received tenure in any number of departments at Yale, whereas Socrates could not have applied to have been a teaching assistant. These differences conceal others.
For Plato, it would seem, the study of politics was always bound up with deeply philosophical and speculative questions, questions of metaphysics, questions of the structure of the cosmos. What is the soul? What is the soul about? Aristotle appears from the beginning to look more like what we would think of as a political scientist. He collected constitutions, 158 of them in all, from throughout the ancient world. He was the first to give some kind of conceptual rigor to the vocabulary of political life. Above all, Aristotle’s works, like the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics, were explicitly intended as works of political instruction, political education. They seem to be designed less to recruit philosophers and potential philosophers than to shape and educate citizens and future statesmen. His works seem less theoretical in the sense of constructing abstract models of political life than advice-giving, in the sense of serving as a sort of civic-minded arbiter of public disputes.
Unlike Socrates, who famously in his image in Book VII of the Republic, compared political life to a cave, and unlike theApology where Socrates tells his fellow citizens that their lives, because unexamined, are not worth living, Aristotle takes seriously the dignity of the city and showed the way that philosophy might be useful to citizens and statesmen. Yet, for all of this, one might say there is still a profound enigma surrounding Aristotle’s political works. To put it simply, one could simply ask, what were the politics of Aristotle’s Politics? What were Aristotle’s own political beliefs?
Aristotle lived at the virtual cusp of the world of the autonomous city-state of the Greek polis. Within his own lifetime, Aristotle would see Athens, Sparta, and the other great cities of Greece swallowed up by the great Macedonian Empire to the north. What we think of as the golden age of Greece was virtually at an end during the lifetime of Aristotle. Other Greek thinkers of his time, notably a man named Demosthenes, wrote a series of speeches called Philippics, anti-Phillip, to the north to warn his contemporaries about the dangers posed to Athens from the imperial ambitions of Macedon. But Phillip’s [correction: meant to say Demosthenes’] warnings came too late. Again, the autonomous Greek polis that Plato and Glaucon, Adeimantus and others would have known came to an end.
What did Aristotle think of these changes? What did he think was going on? He is silent. Aristotle’s extreme reluctance, his hesitance to speak to the issues of his time, are perhaps the result of his foreignness to Athens. He was not an Athenian. Therefore, he lacked the protection of Athenian citizenship. At the same time, you might think his reticence, his reluctance to speak in his own voice may have also been a response to the fate of Socrates and the politically endangered situation of philosophy. Yet, for a man as notoriously secretive and reluctant as Aristotle, his works acquired over the centuries virtual canonical status. He became an authority, really one could say the authority on virtually everything. For Thomas Aquinas, who wrote in the thirteenth century, Aristotle was referred to, by Aquinas, simply as “the philosopher.” There was no reason even to say his name. He was simply The Philosopher. For the great Jewish medieval philosopher, Moses Maimonides, Aristotle was called by him “the Master of those who know.” Think of that, “the master of those who know.”
For centuries, Aristotle’s authority seemed to go virtually unchallenged. Are you with me? Yet, the authority of Aristotle obviously no longer has quite the power that it once did. The attack began not all that long ago, really only as late as the seventeenth century. A man, who we will read later this semester, named Thomas Hobbes, was one who led the pack, led the charge. In the forty-sixth chapter of Leviathan, a chapter we will read later, Hobbes wrote, “I believe that scarce anything can be more repugnant to government than much of what Aristotle has said in his Politics, nor more ignorantly than a great part of his Ethics.” Think of that – “nothing more repugnant to government than what Aristotle wrote in hisPolitics.”
Naturally, all thinkers, to some degree, have read Aristotle through their own lenses. Aquinas read Aristotle as a defender of monarchy. Dante, in his book, De Monarchia on monarchy, saw Aristotle as giving credence to the idea of a universal monarchy under the leadership of a Christian prince. But Hobbes saw Aristotle quite differently. For Hobbes, Aristotle taught the dangerous doctrine of republican government that was seen to be practiced particularly during the Cromwellian Period in England, during the civil war. Aristotle’s doctrine that man is a political animal, Hobbes believed, could only result and did result, in fact, in regicide, the murder of kings. There are certainly echoes of this reading of Aristotle as a teacher of participatory republican government in the later writings of democratic thinkers from Tocqueville to Hannah Arendt.
Man Is, by Nature, the Political Animal
For Aristotle, logos, ethos, and pathos constituted the elements of argument. / Wikimedia Commons
Anyway, this returns us to the enigma of Aristotle. Who was this strange and elusive man whose writings seem to have been enlisted both for the support of monarchy and for republics, even for a universal monarchy and a smaller participatory democratic kind of government? Who was this man and how to understand his writings? The best place to start is, of course, with his views stated in the opening pages of the Politics on the naturalness of the city. His claim that man is, by nature, the political animal. That’s his famous claim. What does that mean–we are the political animal. Aristotle states his reasons succinctly, maybe too succinctly.
On the third page of the Politics where he remarks that every city or every polis exists by nature, and he goes on to infer from this that man is what he calls the zoon politikon, the political animal, the polis animal. His reasoning here, brief as it is, is worth following. Let me just quote him. “That man” he says “is much more a political animal than any kind of bee or herd animal is clear.” Why is it clear? “For we assert,” he says, “nature does nothing in vain and man alone among the animals has speech. While other species,” he notes, “may have voice, may have sounds and be able to distinguish pleasure and pain, speech”–logos is his word for it. Man has logos–reason or speech. The word can mean either.– “is more than the ability simply to distinguish pleasure and pain.” He goes on. “But logos,” he writes, “serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful. And hence,” he writes, “the just and the unjust. For it is peculiar to man as compared to other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad, just and unjust and other things.” In other words, he seems to be saying that it is speech or reason, logos, that is able to both distinguish and create certain moral categories, certain important moral categories that we live by–the advantageous, the harmful, the just and unjust, and things of this sort that constitute, as he says, a family and a polis.
But that’s Aristotle. In what sense, we could ask ourselves and I think you probably will be asking in your sections, in what sense is the city by nature? In what sense are we political animals by nature? Aristotle appears to give two different accounts in the opening pages of the book that you might pay attention to. In the literal opening, he gives what looks like a kind of natural history of the polis. He seems there to be a kind of anthropologist writing a natural history. The polis is natural in the sense that it has grown out of smaller and lesser forms of human association. First comes the family, then an association of families in a tribe, then a further association in a village, and then you might say an association of villages that create a polis or a city. The polis is natural in the sense that it is an outgrowth, the most developed form of human association, in the way that one used to see in natural history museums, these kind of biological charts of human development from these lesser forms of life all the way up to civilization in some way. That is part of Aristotle’s argument. But there is a second sense for him and, in some ways, a more important sense in which he says the polis is by nature. It is natural.
The city is natural in that it allows human beings to achieve and perfect what he calls their telos. That is to say their end, their purpose. We are political animals, he says, because participation in the life of the city is necessary for the achievement of human excellence, for the achievement of our well-being. A person who is without a city, he says, who isapolis–without a city–must either be a beast or a god. That is to say, below humanity or above it. Our political nature is our essential characteristic. Because only by participating in political life do we achieve, can we acquire the excellences or the virtues, as he says, that make us what we are, that fulfill our telos or fulfill our perfection. When Aristotle says that man is a political animal by nature, he is doing more than simply asserting just a truism or just some platitude. In many ways he is advancing a philosophic postulate of great scope and power, although the full development of the thesis is only left deeply embedded. He doesn’t fully develop it in this work or in saying.
He isn’t saying that man is political by nature. Note that he is not saying, although he is sometimes taken to be saying this, that he is not saying that there is some kind of biologically implanted desire or impulse that we have or share that leads us to engage in political life. That is to say we do not, he wants to say, engage in politics. To say it’s natural for us to do so is not to say we engage in political life spontaneously and avidly, as you might say spiders spin webs or ants build anthills. He is not a kind of socio-biologist of politics, although he sometimes appears this way when he says that man is a political animal. In some ways, to the contrary. He says man is political not because we have some biological impulse or instinct that drives us to participate in politics, but, he says, because we are possessed of the power of speech. It is speech that makes us political. Speech or reason in many was far from determining our behavior in some kind of deterministic biological sense, speech or reason gives us a kind of freedom, latitude, an area of discretion in our behavior not available to other species. It is a reason or speech, not instinct, that makes us political.
But then the question is, for Aristotle, the question he poses for us is: What is the connection between logos, the capacity for speech of rationality, and politics? How are these two combined? Why does one lead to or entail the other? In many ways, he’s not making a causal claim so much. He’s not saying that it is because we are rational creatures possessed of the power of speech that causes us to engage in politics. He has more of an argument of the kind that this attribute oflogos actually entails political life. He makes his argument, I think, because logos entails two fundamentally human attributes. First, the power to know, you could say. The power to know is our ability to recognize, by sight, members of the same polis or city. It is, above all, speech that in a way, ties us to others of our kind. That we share not just the capacity for language in the way a linguist might assert, but that we share a certain common moral language. It is this sharing of certain common conceptions of the just and unjust that make a city. It is the capacity to know and to recognize others who share this language with us that is the first sense in which logos entails politics.
But reason or logos entails more than this capacity. It also entails for Aristotle, interestingly, the power of love. We love those with whom we are most intimately related and who are most immediately present and visible to us. In many ways, Aristotle believes our social and political nature is not the result of calculation, as we will see in Hobbes, Locke, and other social contract theorists, but such things as love, affection, friendship, and sympathy are the grounds of political life and are rooted in our logos. It is speech that allows a sharing in these qualities that make us fully human.
Athens polis – Acropolis with agora and theatre / Wikimedia Commons
But to say, of course, that man is political by nature is not just to say that we become fully human by participating with others in a city. It means more than this. The form of association that leads to our perfection is necessarily something particularistic. The city is always a particular city. It is always this or that particular city. The polis, as Aristotle as well as Plato clearly understand, is a small society, what could be called today a closed society. A society that leads to our perfection that leads us to complete and perfect our telos must be held together by bonds of trust, of friendship, of camaraderie. A society based simply on the mutual calculation of interests could not be a real political society for Aristotle. We cannot trust all people, Aristotle seems to say. Trust can only be extended to a fairly small circle of friends and fellow citizens. Only a small city, small enough to be governed by relations of trust, can be political, in Aristotle’s sense of the term. The alternative to the city, the empire, can only be ruled despotically. There can be no relations of trust in a large, imperial despotism.
It follows, in one sense, that when Aristotle says that man is by nature a political animal and the city is by nature, the city can never be a universal state. It can never be something that incorporates all of humankind. It can never be a kind ofcosmopolis, a world state or even a league of states or nations. The universal state will never allow for or does not allow for the kind of self-perfection that a small, self-governing polis will have. The city, as Aristotle understands, will always exist in a world with other cities or other states, based on different principles that might be hostile to one’s own. That is to say not even the best city on Aristotle’s account can afford to be without a foreign policy. A good citizen of a democracy will not be the good citizen of another kind of regime. Partisanship and loyalty to one’s own way of life are required by a healthy city. To put the argument in terms that Polemarchus, from Plato’s Republic would have known, friend and enemy are natural and ineradicable categories of political life. Just as we cannot be friends with all persons, so the city cannot be friends with all other cities or the state with all other states. War and the virtues necessary for war are as natural to the city as are the virtues of friendship, trust, and camaraderie that are also necessary.
Note that in the opening pages of the book, Aristotle doesn’t say anything yet about what kind of city or regime is best. All he tells us is that we are the polis animal by nature and that to achieve our ends, it will be necessary to live in a polis. But what kind of polis? How should it be governed? By the one, the few, the many, or some combination of these three categories? At this point we know only the most general features of what a polis is. It must be small enough to be governed by a common language of justice. It is not enough merely to speak the same words, but in a sense, citizens must have certain common experiences, certain common memory and experience that shape a city and the people. The large polyglot, multiethnic communities of today would not, on Aristotle’s account, allow for sufficient mutual trust and friendship to count as a healthy political community. So Aristotle seems to be offering, in some respects, a kind of criticism of the kind of states with which we are most familiar. Think about that when you have your sections or when you talk about this text with your friends. What is Aristotle saying about us?
The citizens of such a city can only reach their telos or perfection through participating in the offices, in the ruling offices of a city. Again, a large cosmopolitan state may allow each individual the freedom to live as he or she likes, but this is not freedom as Aristotle understands it. Freedom only comes through the exercise of political responsibility, which means responsibility for and oversight of one’s fellow citizens and the common good. It follows, for him, that freedom does not mean living as we like, but freedom is informed by a certain sense of restraint and awareness that not all things are permitted, that the good society will be one that promotes a sense of moderation, restraint and self-control, self-governance, as Adeimantus says, that are inseparable from the experience of freedom. In many ways Aristotle there offers, as does Plato, a certain kind of critique of the modern or even the ancient democratic theory of freedom, which is living as one likes.
The Naturalness of Slavery
A dancing girl, probably a slave (she has short hair). The young man lying on a couch, with a cushion, is holding a pair of flutes. / Wikimedia Commons
You can see these opening pages of the book, dense argument being condensed in very deep ways, carry a great deal of freight. There’s a lot in there that needs to be unpacked. I’ve only tried to do a little of that here with you today, to go over what Aristotle is suggesting in this idea of man, the polis animal. Whatever we may think about this view, whether we like it or don’t like it or whatever your view might be, you must also confront another famous, more like infamous, doctrine that is also very much a part of Book I. I refer to his arguments for the naturalness of slavery. Aristotle tells us that slavery is natural. The naturalness of slavery is said to follow from the belief that inequality, inequality is the basic rule between human beings. Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson seem to disagree over the basic fact of human experience, whether it’s equality or inequality. If this is true, Aristotle’s Politics seems to stand condemned as the most antidemocratic book ever written. Is that true? Aristotle’s claim about naturalness seems to require, as he told us, slavery, the categorical distinction of humanity into masters and slaves. How to understand that?
Again, Aristotle’s argument is deeply compact and will be easily misunderstood if you only read it once. It will just as likely be misunderstood if you read it three, four, five, or ten times, if you are not attentive to what he’s saying. You must learn to read closely. What was Aristotle saying? In the first place, it’s important that we avoid, I think, two equally unhelpful ways of responding to this. The first, which one finds among many modern-day commentators, many kind of neo-Aristotelians, we might call them, is to simply avert our eyes from the harsh, unappealing aspects of Aristotle’s thought and proceed as if he never actually said or meant such things. We need to avoid the temptation, in many ways understandable as it might be, to airbrush or sanitize Aristotle, to make him seem more politically correct for modern readers. Yet, we should also avoid the second, equally powerful temptation, which is to reject Aristotle out of hand, because his views do not correspond with our own.
The question is what did Aristotle mean by slavery? Who or what did he think was the slave by nature? Until we understand what he meant, we have no reason to either accept or reject his argument. The first point worth noting about this, is that Aristotle did not simply assume slavery was natural, because it was practiced virtually everywhere in the ancient world. You will notice that he frames his analysis in the form of a debate. He says at the outset of his argument, “There are some,” he says, indicating this is an opinion held by many people. “There are some who believe that slavery is natural, because ruling and being ruled is a pervasive distinction that one sees all societies practice.” But he says, “Others believe that the distinction between master and slave is not natural, but is based on force or coercion.” Even in Aristotle’s time, it appears slavery was a controversial institution and elicited very different kinds of opinions and responses.
Here is one of those moments when Aristotle, as I indicated earlier, seems most maddeningly open-minded. He’s willing to entertain arguments, both for and against the debate. Aristotle agrees with those who deny that slavery is justified by war or conquest. Wars, he remarks, are not always just. So, those who are captured in war, cannot be assumed to be justly or naturally enslaved. Similarly, he denies that slavery is always or only appropriate for non-Greeks. There are no, he is saying, racial or ethnic characteristics that distinguish the natural slave from the natural master. In a stunning admission, he says–listen to this–that “while nature may intend to distinguish the free man from the slave,” he says, “the opposite often results. Nature often misses the mark,” he says. Now we seem to be completely confused. If slavery is natural, and if nature intends to distinguish the slave from the free, the free from the unfree, how can nature miss the mark? How can the opposite often result? I mention this because such complications should alert the careful reader. We’re trying to read carefully. What is Aristotle doing in making this seem so complicated?
At the same time, Aristotle agrees with those who defend the thesis of natural slavery. His defense seems to run something like this. Slavery is natural because we cannot rule ourselves without the restraint of the passions. Self-rule means self-restraint. Restraint or self-control is necessary for freedom or self-government. What is true, he seems to suggest, about the restraint over one’s passions and desires is true of restraint and control over others, just as he appears to be saying there is a kind of hierarchy within the soul, restraint of the passion. So does that psychological hierarchy translate itself into a kind of social hierarchy between different kinds of people? The natural hierarchy, then, seems to be a sort of hierarchy of intelligence or at least a hierarchy of the rational.
“How did this come to be?” Aristotle asks. How is it that some people came to acquire this capacity for rational self-control that is necessary for freedom and others seem to lack it? How did that come to be? Is this hierarchy, again, a genetic quality? Is it something we’re born with? Is it something that is implanted in us by nature in that sense, or is that distinction something that is created by nurture and education, what we would call today maybe socialization? If the latter, if this hierarchy of intelligence or this hierarchy of the rational is the result of upbringing, then how can slavery be defended as natural? Doesn’t Aristotle call man the rational animal, the being with logos, suggesting that all human beings have a desire for knowledge and the desire to cultivate their minds and live as free persons. Isn’t there a kind of egalitarianism, so to speak, built in to the conception of rational animal and political animal?
He begins his Metaphysics, his great book the Metaphysics, with the famous opening statement, “All men have a desire to know.” If we all have a desire to know, doesn’t this connote something universal, that all should be free, that all should participate in ruling and being ruled as citizens of a city? Yet, at the same time, Aristotle seems to regard education as the preserve of the few. The kind of discipline and self-restraint necessary for an educated mind appears, for him, to be unequally divided among human beings. It follows, I think, that the regime according to nature, that is to say the best regime, would be what we might think of as an aristocracy of the educated, an aristocracy of education and training, an aristocratic republic of some sort where an educated elite governs for the good of all. Aristotle’s republic, and I use that term to remind you of Plato as well, is devoted to cultivating a high level of citizen virtue where this means those qualities of mind and heart necessary for self-government. These qualities, he believes, are the preserve of the few, of a minority capable of sharing in the administration of justice and in the offices of a city. It seems to be a very elite teaching. Would you agree? Unappealing to us, perhaps, for that reason, very contrary to our intuitions and the way we have been brought up. Yes? You’ll agree with me.
But before we dismiss Aristotle’s account as insufferably inegalitarian and elitist, we have to ask a difficult question, not just of Aristotle, but more importantly of ourselves. What else is Yale, but an elite institution intended to educate, morally and intellectually, potential members of a leadership class? Think about that. Can anyone get into Yale? Do we have an open admissions policy for all who want to come here? Hardly. Does it not require those qualities of self-control, discipline, and restraint necessary to achieve success here? I will leave aside, for the moment, what happens on Friday and Saturday nights. Is it any coincidence that graduates from this university and a handful of others not unlike it find themselves in high positions of government, of business, of law, and the academy? Is it unfair or unreasonable to describe this class, as Aristotle might, as a natural aristocracy? I leave you with this question to think about. Before we reject Aristotle as an antidemocratic elitist, take a look at yourselves.
Politics, Book IV
Introduction: Aristotle’s Comparative Politics and the Idea of the Regime
On to Aristotle’s comparative politics and focusing on the idea of the regime. This is the theme that you remember in the opening day I said was really the central concept or the leading thread of this course and it’s in books III through VI of Aristotle’s Politics that he develops his idea of the regime and regime politics. Book I, that we spoke about last time, really in a way tells us something about the–you might say almost the metaphysics of Aristotle’s politics. Today Aristotle speaks more empirically, more politically about what a regime is. His idea of regime politea, again, the same word, the same word that was used for the title of Plato’s Republic is the centerpiece of Aristotle’s politics literally. It occupies the theme of the middle three books, books III through VI.
These books are difficult in many ways; they’re complicated. They’re not everybody’s favorite part of the book, but they are my favorite part because it tells us more precisely than anywhere else how Aristotle understands the nature of politics and that after all is what we are most interested in.
What Is a Regime?
A regime refers to both the formal enumeration of rights and duties within a community, but it also addresses something closer to what we would call the way of life or the culture of a people. Their distinctive customs, manners, laws, habits, moral dispositions and sentiments, and Aristotle’s constitutional theorizing begins by asking a simple question. What is the identity of a city? What gives it its identity and enduring existence over time? His answer is the regime; the regime is what gives a people and a city its identity.
Aristotle distinguishes between what he calls the matter and the form of the regime. Let me examine both of these in turn. The matter, the substance, the material basis of a regime concerns its citizen body. That is to say the character of those who constitute a city and here he rejects a number of alternatives for what constitutes a citizen body. He rejects the idea that the city is defined simply by a group of people who inhabit a common territory, the same space as it were. The identity of a polis he writes is not constituted by its walls. That is to say, it is not constituted by geography alone, and similarly, he rejects the idea that a regime can be understood as a defensive alliance against invasion by others. In our terms, for example, NATO would not be a regime, a purely military or defensive alliance. Finally, he denies the possibility that a regime exists that whenever a number of people come together to establish commercial relations with one another, organizations like NAFTA, or the WTO, the World Trade Organization do not a regime make. A regime cannot be understood simply as a commercial alliance.
What is a regime then? It is evident Aristotle said, is that a city is not a partnership in a location or for the sake of not committing injustice against one another, or for transacting business, so what is a citizen body? The citizens who constitute a regime, he tells us, do more than occupy the common space but are held together, according to Aristotle, by bonds of common affection. It is affection, loyalty and friendship that make up a regime. This sort of thing he says, this political partnership is the work of affection, philia is his word, is the work of affection. “Affection is the intentional choice of living together.” 1280a, if anyone’s interested. “It is the intentional choice of living together.” Friendship, he writes, “is the greatest of good things for cities, for when people feel affection for each other they are less likely to fall into conflict.” But what kind of friendship is he talking about? Is it the kind of friendship that you feel for your best friend, or for your parents or siblings? What kind of a friendship are these bonds of affection, that he says hold the city together and that make it a regime?
Political friendships, he tells us, are not the kind of thing that require us to forego our own individual identities in a way that one might find in passionate relations of love, right? Rather, they presuppose relations, that is to say political relations, not between lovers or even best friends of some kind, but between civic partners who may in fact be intensely rivalrous and competitive with one another for positions of political office and honor. Civic friendship, civic philia is in other words not without a strong element of what might be thought of as sibling rivalry in which each citizen strives to outdo the others for the sake of the civic good. Many of you have siblings and know a little bit about what sibling rivalry is like. Siblings, as everyone knows, may be the best of friends, but this does not exclude strong elements of competition, rivalry, and even conflict for the attention of the parents, and fellow citizens, for Aristotle, are like siblings, each competing with one another for the esteem, the affection, and the recognition of the city that serves for them as a kind of surrogate parent. That is the way that Aristotle understands a civic body, a citizen body.
So that when he says that citizens are held together by ties of common affection he means something very specific. The civic bond is more than an aggregate of mere self-interest or rational calculation as was going to be defended by someone like Thomas Hobbes or by most of today’s modern economists who believe that society can be understood simply as a series of rational transactions between buyers and sellers of different goods and that can be modeled along some kind of game theoretic lines. Aristotle denies this, explicitly denies this. He seems to have known something about the modern economic theory of society long before modern economics was even developed. But again, when Aristotle speaks of the kinds of affection that hold a citizen body together, he does not mean anything like the bonds of personal intimacy that characterize private friendships. What he means, when speaking about civic affection, is more like the bonds of loyalty, camaraderie that hold together members of a team or a club. These are more than, again, ties of mutual convenience. They require loyalty, trust, what social scientists today sometimes call social capital, that successful societies require social capital. A distinguished political scientist at another university, I will not mention its name here, at another university, has spoken about the importance of social capital or trust as a sort of basic relation, the basic component of a healthy democracy. Aristotle knew that, he didn’t use a kind of ugly social scientific word like social capital; rather he spoke about civic friendship and philia.
The political partnership he says must therefore be regarded as being for the sake of noble actions and not just for the sake of living together. The city, as he likes to say or the regime exists not merely for the sake of life but for what he understands to be the good life, the life of friendship, the life of again, competitive relations for positions of honor and office. So we can say that a regime is in the first instance constituted by its citizen body. Citizens are those who share a common way of life. The citizen in an unqualified sense, Aristotle writes, is defined by no other thing so much as sharing in decision and office. Or, as he puts it a little bit later, whoever is entitled to participate in an office involving deliberation or decision-making is a citizen of the city. Listen to the words he uses there in describing a citizen. A citizen is one who takes sharing in decision and office, who participates in deliberation and decision-making. A citizen is one therefore who not only enjoys the protection of the law, is not merely you might say a passive beneficiary of the protection of society and its laws, but is one who takes a share in shaping the laws and who participates in political rule and deliberation.
Aristotle even notes, you probably observe, that his definition of the citizen, he says, is most appropriate to citizens of democracy, where in his famous formulation everyone knows how to rule and be ruled in turn. It is this reflection and the character of the citizen that leads him to wonder whether the good citizen and the good human being are one and the same. Can a person be both, as it were, a good man, a good person and a good citizen? Famous discussion in Aristotle’s book; Aristotle’s answer to this is perhaps deliberately obscure. The good citizen, he tells, us is still relative to the regime. That is to say, the good citizen of the democracy would not necessarily be the same person, or the same kind of person as the good citizen of a monarchy or an aristocracy. Citizen virtue is relative, or we might say, regime relative. Only in the best regime, he says, will the good citizen and the good human being be the same. But what is the best regime? At least at this point he has not told us. The point he’s trying to make is there are several kinds of regimes and therefore several kinds of citizenship appropriate to them. Each regime is constituted by its matter, that is to say, by its citizen body as we’ve been talking about, but also now by its form, by its formal structures. That is to say every regime will also be a set of institutions and formal structures that give shape to its citizens. Regimes or constitutions you might say are forms, or formalities that determine how power is shared and distributed among citizens. Every regime is an answer, consciously or not, to the oldest political question of all, who governs? Who should govern? Every regime is an answer to that question because every regime sets forward a way of distributing, formally distributing powers and distributing offices among its citizen body.
What Are the Structures and Institutions of the Regime?
The full– and partial-change spirals that either degrade or upgrade politeia.
So we move now from the matter of the regime, as to what constitutes its citizens and its citizen body, to the question of the form of the regime, its forms, its formalities, its structures and institutions you might say. Entirely too much of modern political science is focused on simply the forms and formalities of political life, not enough, in my opinion, with questions of the citizen body and what makes, what constitutes, the character or the virtue in Aristotle’s terms of its citizens. But nevertheless, Aristotle gives extraordinary importance and attention to the forms or formalities that make up a regime. What does he mean by that?
Aristotle defines the strictly formal criteria of a politea twice in his politics and I’m sure you noted both times where they appeared? Yes. Book III, chapter 6, famous definition: “The regime,” he says, “is an arrangement of a city with respect to its offices, particularly the one who has the authority over all matters. For what has authority in the city is everywhere that governing body, and the governing body is the regime.” The regime is an arrangement of a city, he says, with respect to its offices and every city will have a governing body, that governing body being a regime. The second definition appears at the beginning of Book IV, chapter 1. “For a regime,” he writes, “is an arrangement in cities connected with offices, establishing the manner in which they have been distributed, what the authoritative element of the regime is, and what the end of the partnership is in each case, a similar but slightly different definition of what constitutes the formal structure of regime politics.”
But from these two definitions appearing in book III, chapter 6 and Book IV, chapter 1 we learn a number of important things. First, is to repeat, a regime concerns the manner in which power is divided or distributed in a community. This is what Aristotle means when he uses the phrase, “an arrangement of a city with respect to its offices.” In other words, every regime will be based on some kind of judgment of how power should be distributed to the one, to the few or the many to use the Aristotelian categories of political rule or some mixture of those three classes that constitute every city. In every regime one of these groups, he says, will be the dominant class, will be the dominant body, the ruling body, as he says, in that definition and that ruling body will in turn, he says, define the nature of the regime. But Aristotle tells us something more than this.
A regime, his regime typology is, to say, his division of power, his division of regimes and to the rule of the one, the few and the many is based not only on how powers are distributed in a purely factual way, he also distinguishes between regimes that are well ordered, well governed, and those that are corrupt. What does he mean in terms of this distinction? Aristotle’s distinction seems to be not only empirical, again, based on the factual distribution of powers. It seems to have a–what we might call today a normative component to it, it makes a distinction or a judgment between the well-ordered and the deviant regimes, the corrupt regimes. On the one side, he tells us, the well ordered regimes are monarchy, aristocracy and what he calls polity, rule of the one, the few, and the many, and on the corrupt side he calls, he describes them as tyranny, oligarchy and democracy also ruled by the one, the few, and the many. But what criteria, we want to know, does he use to distinguish between these, as it were, six-fold classification of regimes? How does he distinguish the well-ordered regimes from the corrupt regimes?
Here is where Aristotle’s analysis gets, in some ways, maddeningly tricky because in many ways, of his general reluctance, to condemn any regime out of hand. If you were to read more than I had assigned for you in class, if you were to read throughout, through all of Book VI for example, you would find Aristotle not only giving advice to Democrats and democracies and other regimes on how to preserve themselves, you would find a lengthy description of how tyrants should moderate, or how tyrants learn to preserve and defend their own regime. It seems as if, it seems almost as if, living before the incarnation of pure evil in the twentieth century with the rise of modern totalitarianisms, that Aristotle seemed to think that no regime was so bad, no regime was so devoid of goodness that its preservation was not worth at least some effort, think of that. Rather, in many ways, he provides reasoned arguments for the strengths and weaknesses of several different regime types.
The Democratic Regime
Let’s consider the one that’s closest to our own, democracy, let’s consider what Aristotle has to tell us about that regime. In fact, it would be an interesting question for people to consider, to know how would Aristotle confront or what would his analysis be if a regime like Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, the Iran of Khomeini, regimes that are clearly tyrannies but do they even go beyond in some way, the tyrannies that Aristotle spoke about and what kind of advice, what would he have to say about them? Anyway let’s think about democracy.
Interestingly, we find Aristotle defending democracy on the grounds that it may contain collectively greater wisdom than a regime ruled by the one or the few. In Book III, chapter 11, for example, he writes, “For because they are many,” that is to say the citizen body, the ruling body of the democracy, “each can have a part of virtue and prudence and on their uniting together, and on their joining together he says, “the multitude with its many feet and hands and having many senses becomes,” he writes, “like a single human being, and so also with respect to character and mind.” Think of that, the people in a democracy he says, “coming together, uniting together, become like a single human being with many hands and feet,” and he says, “with greater character and mind.” We even hear more than any single individual, and then, in the same text, we also hear Aristotle praising the practice of ostracism, that is to say exiling, banishing those individuals deemed to be pre-eminent in any particular virtue or quality.
He makes a similar point in Book III, chapter 15, in describing the process of democratic deliberation as a superior means of arriving at decisions. He compares it to a potluck dinner; any one of them, he says, that is to say any one of the citizens, taken singly is perhaps inferior in comparison to the best. But the city is made up of many persons, just as a feast to which many contribute is finer, is better, than a single and simple one and on this account a crowd also judges many matters better than a single person. Furthermore, what is many, he says, is more incorruptible like a greater amount of water than many is more incorruptible than the few. So he gives there a powerful argument in defense of democracy, like a potluck dinner; each individual cook may not be as good as the best chef but many taken together will provide many more dishes and many more variety, for a variety of tastes than does a single chef.
He says, furthermore, a crowd, the many, is more incorruptible than the few. Less light incorruptible, here, I take it in a kind of ordinary sense of the term, less susceptible to bribery, you can’t bribe a lot of people in the way that you can a single individual. Are Aristotle’s views on democracy correct here in his analysis? Do in fact many chefs make for a better dinner than a single chef? Well, I don’t know, would you rather have dinner at the Union League with one chef, a master chef or would you rather have dinner with a bunch of your friends each providing some piece of the dinner? Well, it’s an interesting argument; it’s open to debate anyway. Yet at the same time, is Aristotle seen defending democracy, providing reason and many sensible arguments for democratic regimes?
You find him, in the same section of the book, providing a defense of kingship and the rule of the one. In Book III, chapter 16, he considers the case of the king who acts in all things according to his own will. Sounds like a kind of absolute monarch of some kind; this is the part of Aristotle’s politics that seems closest in a way to the idea of a platonic philosopher-king, a king who rules without law and rules for the good of all, simply on the basis of his own superiority. Aristotle coins a term for this kind of king overall, he calls it the pambasileia, baseleia being the Greek word for king, like the name Basil, it’s the Greek word for king and pan meaning universal, pambasileia, the universal king, the king of all.
Aristotle does not rule out the possibility of such a person emerging, a person of, what he calls excessive virtue, almost hyperbolic excellence, he says, who stands so far above the rest as to deserve to be the natural ruler overall. But how, we want to know, does Aristotle reconcile his account of the term baseleia, the king of overall, with his earlier emphasis upon democratic deliberation and shared rule, the citizen, recall, is one who takes turn ruling and being ruled in turn.
When readers look at Aristotle’s account of kingship and particularly this notion of the pambasileia, the king overall, this suggestion must at least occur that there is a hidden Alexandrian or Macedonian streak to Aristotle’s political thinking that owes more to his native Macedon than to his adopted Athens, the idea of universal kingship. Think of Alexander the Great later on, and in fact, in one of my favorite passages in the book, which you will read for next time, I cannot resist quoting already a passage from Book VII, and near the end of the book, Book VII, chapter 7, where Aristotle writes as follows. He writes, “The nations in cold locations, particularly in Europe, are filled with spiritedness.” There is that platonic word again, thumos, are filled with thumos, “but lacking in discursive thought,” lacking in the deliberative element in other words. Hence, they remain free because they’re thumotic, but they lack political governance. “Those in Asia, on the other hand,” he writes, thinking probably here of Persia, places like Egypt and Persia, “have souls endowed with discursive thought but lack spiritedness, lack thumos, hence they remain ruled and enslaved.”
But then he goes on to say, “The stock of Greeks share in both, just as it holds,” he says, “the middle in terms of location. For it,” that is to say the Greeks, “are both spirited, are both thumotic and endowed with deliberative thought, and hence, remained free and governed itself in the best manner.” “And,” he writes and he concludes, “at the same time is capable of ruling all should it obtain a single regime.” That these Greeks are capable of ruling all, he says, all, who is all? What does he mean by the all here? The Greeks? The rest of the world? Should our–are capable of attaining it seems a single hegemony, a single regime, are if in fact, circumstances developed. So here is a passage in which Aristotle clearly seems to be pointing to the possibility of a kind of universal monarchy under Greek rule, at least as a possibility.
This passage I read at length, is important for a number of reasons, let me just try to explain. In the first place, it provides us with crucial information about Aristotle’s thinking about the relations of impulse and reason, of thumos and reason, as you might say the determinants of human behavior or the crucial pet term in that passage is this, again this platonic term spiritedness which is both a cause of the human desire to rule and at the same time a cause of our desire to resist the domination of others. It is the unique source of human assertiveness and aggressiveness, as well as the source of resistance to the aggression of others. It’s a very important psychological concept in understanding politics. And second, the passage tells us something about certain additional factors. Extra, in many ways, extra-political factors such as climate and geography as components in the development of political society. Apparently, quality such as thumos and reason, thumos and deliberation, are not distributed equally and universally. He says, he distinguishes, between the people’s of the north, he calls them the Europeans, spirited and war-like but lacking thumos; those of Persia and Egypt containing highly developed forms of intellectual knowledge, no doubt thinking about the development of things like science and mathematics in Egypt but lacking this quality of thumos which is so important for self-government, for self-rule. These are, one might think about this, these things, he says, are at least in part determined by certain kinds of natural or geographic and climatic qualities.
A modern reader of this passage that comes to mind is Montesquieu, in his famous book, the Spirit of the Laws, with its emphasis upon the way in which geography and climate, and environment become in part determinants of the kind of political culture and political behavior exhibited by different peoples. Finally, this passage tells us that under the right circumstances, at least Aristotle suggests, the Greeks could exercise a kind of universal rule, if they chose. He does not rule out this possibility. Perhaps it testifies to his view that there are different kinds of regimes that may be appropriate to different kinds of situations, to different situations. There is no one-size-fits-all model of political life, but good regimes may come in a variety of forms. There seems to be at least built in to Aristotle’s account of politics, a certain flexibility, a certain latitude of discretion that in some passages even seems to border on a kind of relativism.
But nevertheless, Aristotle understands that a person, this pambasileia, this person of superlative virtue is not really to be expected. Politics is really a matter of dealing with less than best circumstances which is perhaps one reason why Aristotle gives relatively little attention to the structure of the best regime. Such a regime, which I do want to talk about Wednesday is something to be wished for, but is not for practical purposes something to which he devotes a great deal of time. Most regimes, and for the most part, will be very imperfect mixtures of the few and the many, the rich and the poor. Most regimes, for the most part, most politics for the most part, will be struggles between what he calls oligarchies and democracies, rule by the rich oligarchies, ruled by the poor democracies. In that respect, Aristotle seems to add an economic or sociological category to the fundamentally political categories of few and many. The few are not simply defined quantitatively but they are defined, as it were, also sociologically. The rich, the poor, again defined as, the many and defined by him as the poor.
Law, Conflict and the Regime
School of Philosophy fresco by Raphael, Vatican / Wikimedia Commons
It was not, you have to see when you read these passages, it was not Karl Marx but rather it was Aristotle who first identified the importance of what we would call class struggle, in politics. Every regime is in many ways a competition between classes. But where he differs from Marx, is not that he believes that the fundamental form of competition between classes is not just for resources, it is not a struggle over who controls what Marx calls the means of production, it is a struggle over positions of honor, of status and position, of positions of rule. Struggle is, in short, political struggle not economic struggle. Every regime, he believes, will be in some ways a site of contestation with competing claims to justice, with competing claims to political rule for who ought to rule. There is, in other words, not only a partisanship between regimes, but partisanship within regimes, where citizens are activated, different groups of citizens, different classes of citizens are activated by rivalrous and competing understandings of justice and the good.
The democratic faction, he tells us, believes because all are equal in some respects, they should be equal in all respects. The oligarchs, he tells us, because people are unequal in some respects, they should be unequal in all respects. For Aristotle the point and purpose of political science is to mediate the causes of faction, to help causes of faction that lead to revolution and civil war. Aristotle’s statesman, Aristotle’s statecraft, his political science, is a form of political mediation, how to bring peace to conflict ridden situations. It is always surprising to me that many people think that Aristotle ignored or has no real theory of political conflict when it seems to me conflict is built in to the very structure of his understanding of a regime. And again, not just conflict between rival regimes but conflict built into the nature of what we would call domestic politics, different classes contending with different conceptions of justice and how can the political scientist bring peace, bring moderation to these deeply conflict ridden situations?
Aristotle proposes–how does he propose to do this? He proposes a couple of remedies to offset the potentially warlike struggle between various factions. And the most important of these remedies is the rule of law. “Law insures,” he says, “the equal treatment of all citizens and prevents arbitrary rule at the hands of the one, the few, or the many.” Law establishes what he says is a kind of impartiality for law, he says, is impartiality. “One who asks the law to rule,” he says, in Book III, chapter 16, “is held to be asking God and intellect alone to rule while one who asks man, asks the beast. Desire is a thing of this sort, and spiritedness,” he writes again, “thumos, spiritedness perverts rulers and the best men, hence law is intellect without appetite. Even the best men,” he says, “can be perverted by spiritedness. Law is the best hedge we have against the domination of partiality and desire.” But this is not the end of the story. In fact, it is only the beginning. Aristotle raises the question, a very important question, whether the rule of law is to be referred to the rule of the best, the best individual.
Typically again, he seems to answer the question from two different points of view, giving each perspective its due, its justice. He begins in many ways by appearing to defend Plato’s view about the rule of the best individual. “The best regime,” he says, “is not one based on written law.” Law, and his reason seems to be something like this, law is at best a clumsy instrument, a clumsy tool because laws only deal with general matters and cannot deal with particular concrete situations. Furthermore, law seems to bind the hands of the statesmen and legislators who always have to be responding to new and unforeseen circumstances and yet at the same time Aristotle makes the case for law. The judgment of an individual, no matter how wise, is more corruptible whether due to passion or interest, or simply the fallibility of human reason than is law. He notes, as a practical matter, no one individual can oversee all things. Only a third party, in this case law, is capable of judging adequately. Again, he seems to give reasons and good reasons for both cases.
So he, but he moves to question, should law be changed? Is law changeable? If so, how? And once again, he puts forward different arguments; in Book II, chapter 8, he compares law to other arts and sciences and suggests why sciences such as medicine and has exhibited progress, this should be true for law. The antiquity of a law alone is no justification for its usage. Aristotle seems to reject, you might say, Burkean conservatism long before the time. Antiquity or tradition alone is no justification, yet at the same time he seems to recognize that changes in law, even when the result is improvement, are dangerous. He writes, “It is a bad thing to habituate people to reckless dissolution of laws. The city will not be benefited as much from changing law as it will be harmed through being habituated to disobey the rulers.” In other words he’s saying, lawfulness, like every other virtue, is a habit, it is a habit of behavior, and the habit of destroying, disobeying even an unjust law will make people altogether lawless.
This emphasis upon law is a constraint on human behavior. In many ways seems to introduce a strong element of conventionalism in Aristotle’s thought. This is the view that justice is determined by laws, by customs, by traditions, that it is conventions, nomos in the broadest sense of the term that constitutes justice. As I indicated, there’s also seems to be a certain degree of relativism associated with this since conventions vary from society to society. The standards of justice will seem to, again, be regime dependent and this seems to be entirely consistent with parts of Aristotle’s anthropology. After all, if we are political animals by nature, then the standards of justice must derive from politics, a right that transcends society cannot be a right natural to man.
The Aristotelian Standard of Natural Right or Natural Justice
Yet Aristotle’s conception of our political nature seems to require standards of justice that are natural or right for us. Rule of law presupposes that there is a form of justice or right natural to us. But what is the Aristotelian standard of natural right or natural justice? Aristotle makes a surprising assertion; unfortunately, it’s an assertion in a book you’re not reading. A book, the Nicomachean Ethics, Book V, chapter 7, he says there that, ” all natural right is mutable or changeable, all standards of natural justice are changeable.” And by this he means that natural right is revealed not in general propositions or universal maxims, as for example, Immanuel Kant would argue later on, but in the concrete decisions of a community or its leaders about what is right or wrong. Natural right is mutable because different circumstances will require different kinds of decisions. So does this mean then that for Aristotle there are no universally valid standards of justice or right? That all that ends in circumstances that justice, like the good citizen is, as it were, regime dependent? Is this not to fall into the boundless field of Machiavelianism that declares right and wrong to be entirely relative to circumstance, context dependent, is that what Aristotle is saying? Not at all.
Aristotle emphasizes the mutable character of natural right in part to preserve the latitude, the freedom of action required by the statesmen. Every statesman must confront new and sometimes extreme situations that require inventiveness and creative action. And in such situations where the very survival of the community may be at stake, we might call these emergency situations, the conscientious statesmen must be able to respond appropriately. Nine-eleven [reference to the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001] for example, a moral law that refused to allow the statesmen to protect the community in times of crisis would not be a principle of natural right, it would be a suicide note. To a considerable degree Aristotle, Aristotelian standards of natural right reside in the specific decisions, the concrete decisions of the ablest states; these cannot be determined in advance but must be allowed to emerge in response to new, and again, different and unforeseen situations. What is naturally right, what is right by nature in peace time, will not be the same as what is naturally right or right by nature in times of war. What is right in normal situations will not be the same as what is right in states of emergency. The statesmen in the Aristotelian sense is the one who seeks to return as quickly and efficiently as possible to the normal situation. This is what distinguishes Aristotle from Machiavelli, and all those later thinkers who take their bearings from Machiavelli. I’m thinking of thinkers like Hobbes, like Carl Schmitt, and Max Weber in the twentieth century. All of these thinkers take their bearings from the extreme situation, situations of civil war, of social collapse, of national crisis. The Aristotelian statesman will not be unduly affected by the occasional need to depart from the norm, whether this means this is spent in the case, to take an American case, the suspension of habeas Corpus, as Abraham Lincoln did in the, during the Civil War, or the regrettable need to engage in domestic espionage. But in any case, the Aristotelian statesman’s goal will be restoration of the conditions of constitutional government and rule of law as quickly and again as efficiently as possible.
Politics, Book VII
The Regime that Most Successfully Controls for Faction
I want to talk today about Aristotle’s discovery of America. This will probably come as a surprise to some of you that Aristotle discovered America, but I will get to that in a minute. In many ways for Aristotle, as it is for every student of politics, the most serious, the most difficult issue one confronts is the problem of faction. How to control for factions. How to control for conflict between factions. That is the issue addressed especially in Books IV and V of the Politics, where Aristotle goes on to describe by the term polity, the regime that he believes most successfully controls for the theme of faction. The essential feature of this regime, the polity, which in fact he gives the name politea, the generic Greek word for regime. The polity is the regime that represents, for Aristotle, a mixture of the principles of oligarchy and democracy. Therefore, he says, avoids dominance by either extreme.
By combining elements, as it were, of the few and the many, polity is characterized by the dominance of the middle class, the middle group. The middle class, he says, is able to achieve the confidence of both extreme parties where at least it is sufficiently numerous to avoid the problems of class struggle and factional conflict. “Where the middling element is great,” Aristotle writes, “factional conflict and splits over the nature of regimes occur least of all.” So Aristotle, in a way, has discovered long before James Madison’s famous article in Federalist Number 10, the remedy for the control and containment, so to speak, of faction. You remember, many of you if not all of you who have read the Tenth Federalist Paper, that Madison outlines a scheme for an extended republic, he says, where numerous factions, in many ways, check and balance one another, compete with one another and therefore, avoid the dominance of a single faction leading to the kind of tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of the majority class.
Aristotle’s proposal for a mixture of oligarchy and democracy seems, in many ways, to anticipate, 2,000 years before the fact, Madison’s call for a government where powers must be separated and where, he says in Federalist Number 51, ambition must be made to counteract ambition in order to avoid, in other words, the extremes of both tyranny and civil war. The inevitable conclusion that I reach and I believe any sensible reader of Aristotle would reach is that Aristotle, in fact, discovered the American Constitution 1,500 or 2,000 years before it was written. This may seem surprising to you, since of course Aristotle lived long before. But that may simply be our own prejudice to think that my friend at the CUNY Graduate Center, Peter Simpson, has argued in a paper that I found quite convincing, that Aristotle had, in fact, discovered the American Constitution. I say, it may simply be our prejudice that he didn’t.
Aristotle writes, in Book II of the Politics that the world is eternal and everything in it has been discovered. The earth experiences, he says, certain periodic destructions and cataclysms, civilizations are reduced to barbarism only to recover and grow again. If this theory, you might say, of sort of cataclysmic change is true, we cannot rule out the possibility that a constitution like ours or even identical to ours existed at some point in the ancient past, in the far distant past that Aristotle knew about. Do you think that’s possible? Well, why not? But Aristotle’s mixed constitution differs from ours still in certain important respects. Aristotle understands the mixed constitution as a balance of classes–the one, the few, and the many. He doesn’t so much insist, as you will see in your reading, on the actual separation of functions of government, putting them into separate hands. It is enough for him, he says, if each class shares in some aspect of the governing power. But that leads to a further difference.
We tend to think of the separation of powers doctrine as necessary for the security and liberty of the individual, don’t we? We usually think of individual freedom and security as the purpose of the separation of power. It is when political functions become concentrated into the hands of, again, the too few hands that we risk arbitrary government and the endangerment to the liberty of the individual. But for Aristotle, it is not the liberty of the individual so much as the functioning or functional well-being of the city that is the highest priority. Individual freedom may be, at best, a desirable byproduct of the Aristotelian mixed regime, but individual freedom is not its defining or principle goal. For anyone interested in this difference, I suggest you contrast or compare Aristotle’s account of mixed government to Book XI of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws or to some of the central Federalist papers to see the way in which Mr. Aristotle revised, in some ways, the wisdom of Madison. You could compare them in some way that I think would be valuable.
The Importance of Property and Commerce for a Flourishing Republic
Not only did Aristotle understand the importance of the separation of powers doctrine and the kind of balance of factions as a way of controlling conflict and struggle, but he also understood the importance of property and private property and commerce for a flourishing republic. We didn’t really pause to talk much about this, but in Book II, you remember, he criticizes at considerable length Plato’s Republic for the excessive unity it demands of its citizens. Socrates demands for common ownership of property, at least among the auxiliary class. But Aristotle claims that the city is not naturally one. That is to say, a certain diversity is necessary to make up a city. Where all property is held in common, it is more likely to suffer from common neglect than it is from common ownership. He clearly understands, in many ways, the virtues of private property and of commerce. It is evident, Aristotle writes, that as it becomes increasingly one, as it becomes increasingly unified–the city–it will no longer be a city. A city is, in its nature, a multitude. As it becomes more of a unity, it will be like a household instead of a polis and a human being instead of a household. There we see in Book II, Aristotle offering his criticism of the claims for the sort of excessive unification of centralization, concentration of property.
Yet, despite his awareness of the importance of commerce and the importance of property, the aim of the city, he tells us, is not wealth, is not the production of wealth. In that way it would be useful to make a contrast between Aristotle and someone like Adam Smith, the great author of The Wealth of Nations. If wealth were the purpose of politics, Aristotle writes, the Phoenicians, you might say, in the ancient world–the Phoenicians were the commercial people par excellence–the Phoenicians would be the best regime. But he denies that. Aristotle could never endorse the view stated by a famous American president that the business of America is business. The political partnership, he says, must be regarded for the sake of noble acts performed well. Wealth, property, he tells us, exists for the sake of virtue, not virtue for the sake of wealth.
Just as Aristotle would have been critical of the American tendency to regard government as for the sake of business or for the sake of the economy, he also criticized beforehand the American tendency to organize into clubs, what we call political parties which exacerbate rather than control political conflict. These political clubs or parties use their influence to incense the populous, using their power to whip up dangerous passions that tend to make American politicians closer to demagogues than to statesmen. He would also regard the peculiar American practice of elections, rather than the Greek practice of appointing political offices by lot. He would regard elections as merely exacerbating the tendency to demagoguery, where each person seeking office plays shamelessly to the mob, promising all manner of things that they know they will not and cannot deliver. Think of almost anybody you like. Furthermore, while the American regime in many ways is, in principle, open to all and prides itself on a belief in equality, no doubt Aristotle would remark that its offices are, in fact, open only to the rich and to leaders who can acquire the support of the rich, making it rather an oligarchy in the guise of a republic. So Aristotle was not without his own critique of the American constitution and American political culture.
The Aristocratic Republic: A Model for the Best Regime
There is, obviously, much in the American regime that Aristotle would have found admirable, even though it does not conform to his idea of the best regime, which is the subject of the last two books of the Politics, Book VII and VIII. Aristotle is very sketchy here about the structure, the institutional structure, the make-up of the best regime, acknowledging the best regime is one where the best men rule. That is to say, it is a kind of aristocracy or an aristocratic republic. I want to talk about this regime a little bit now, what Aristotle understands to be the requirements or the fulfillments, the necessities, of this aristocratic republic.
In these parts of the Politics, Aristotle offers a serious challenge to existing Greek traditions and patterns of political education. Every bit, in many ways, is far reaching as Plato’s Republic. In the first place, he tells us the purpose of the best regime, the purpose of Aristotle’s Republic is directed not to war, but in fact to peace. The citizen of the best regime, he says, must be able to sustain war if duty requires, but only for the sake of peace and leisure. Again, a critique not only of Sparta, but also of Athens and its imperialistic ambitions. Second, Aristotle understands the purpose of leisure when he says the end of the regime is peace and the purpose of peace is leisure. He doesn’t understand by leisure simply relaxation, enjoying your private moments, enjoying your vacation time. Leisure does not simply mean rest or inactivity, but leisure is necessary for education or what he sometimes calls by the term philosophy.
By philosophy, he seems to suggest not so much the capacity for abstract or speculative thought, but rather a kind of liberal education that he regards to be the preserve of what he calls by the term the megalopsychos, literally, the great-souled person or the great-souled man. Mega, megalo, being our terms for great and psychos, related to our word psyche, soul. The great-souled person, the great-souled man, the gentleman is, in many ways, for Aristotle, the ideal recipient of this form of education, of liberal education and also, in some respect, the ideal or perfect audience or readership of the book itself. We can begin to see it is clear how Aristotle’s best regime differs from Plato’s intransigent demand for the rule of philosopher-kings. The megalopsychos, the gentleman, whatever else he is, is not a philosopher in the strict sense.
Sociologically, Aristotle makes clear that the megalopsychos, unlike the philosopher, is a person of some inherited wealth, chiefly landed property, but whose way of life will be urban. He will be a member of what we might call the urban patriciate. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides us with a vivid list of the psychological and even physical characteristics that such a person must possess, this megalopsychos. Such a person, he says, exhibits a sort of lofty detachment to the more or less petty things that weigh most of us down. Aristotle tells us he is slow to act, unless something of great importance is at stake. He repays favor with interest so as not to be under any obligations to others. The gentleman, he says, speaks his mind without fear or favor, somewhat like the New York Times, because to dissemble would be beneath him. He may occasionally hurt others, but this is not done out of deliberate cruelty. In addition, Aristotle tells us such a person will possess beautiful but useless things, suggesting the possession not only of wealth, but of a kind of cultivated aesthetic sense. As if that weren’t enough, Aristotle tells us that the megalopsychoswalks slowly, because to hurry is undignified, is tall and speaks with a deep voice. Very clear about who, again, the ideal statesman or reader, potential statesman the reader of this book would be. Most importantly, you might say, what distinguishes the gentleman as a class from the philosophers is a certain kind of knowledge or practical intelligence. The gentleman may lack the speculative intelligence of a Socrates, but he will possess that quality of practical rationality, of practical judgment necessary for the administration of affairs.
Aristotle calls this kind of knowledge, this kind of practical judgment, he calls it by the term phronimos, that I have on the blackboard. The person who possesses it is the phronimos, a person of practical judgment. Again, a term that captures something of our meaning of common sense, practical wisdom, the capacity for judging, the capacity for judgment, which is not the same thing, obviously, as speculative or philosophic intelligence. The phronimos is the person who is able to grasp the fitting or the appropriate, the appropriate thing to do out of the complex arrangements that make up any situation. Above all, such a person embodies that special quality of insight and discrimination that distinguishes him or her from people, again, of more theoretical or speculative cast of mind.
How is this quality of phronimos, of judgment, of practical wisdom, of horse sense, how is it acquired? Aristotle tells us that this kind of knowledge is a kind of knowledge most appropriate to politics. Again, it is neither–and he wants to be clear about this–it is neither the theoretic knowledge aimed simply at abstract truths, nor is it the productive knowledge, what he calls techne, the productive knowledge used in the manufacture of useful artifacts. What is it, then? It is a knowledge of how to act where the purpose of action is acting well. You might say it is less a body of true propositions than a shrewd sense of know-how or political savvy. This kind of knowledge entails judgment and deliberation, the deliberative skill or the deliberative art. We only deliberate, Aristotle says, over things where there is some choice. We deliberate with an eye to preservation or change, to making something better or to preserve it from becoming worse. This kind of knowledge will be the art or craft of the statesman concerned above all with what to do in a specific situation. It is the skill possessed by the greatest statesmen, you might say, the fathers of the constitutions, as it were, who create the permanent framework in which allows later and lesser figures to handle change. This is the kind of political skill and wisdom, again, possessed of the founders of cities, the legislative founders of regimes.
Aristotle’s Politics is a book about the kind of knowledge requisite for that kind of skill. This quality of practical judgmentphronimos, practical wisdom, was developed, I think, in a beautiful essay, without any explicit reference to Aristotle, by the English political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Anyone here ever heard of Isaiah Berlin? Not one of you? Famous, famous English philosopher, died a number of years ago in the late ’90s. This, I hope, will be an inspiration to–you should read Isaiah Berlin. In any case, he wrote a wonderful essay called Political Judgment. In it he asks, “What is the intellectual quality that successful statesmen possess that distinguishes their knowledge from all other forms of rationality and knowledge?” He writes as follows. I’m going to quote him.
“The quality that I am attempting to describe is that special understanding of public life, which successful statesmen have, whether they are wicked or virtuous. That which Bismark had or Talleyrand or Franklin Roosevelt or, for that matter, men such as Cavour or Disraeli, Gladstone or Ataturk in common with the great psychological novelists, and something which is conspicuously lacking in men of more purely theoretical genius, such as Newton or Einstein or Bertrand Russell or even Freud.”
So there, too, like Aristotle, he distinguishes a kind of practical skill possessed by the greatest minds, political minds at least, and says it’s quite different and from what he calls the great psychological novelists, from that possessed of the greatest philosophers and scientists. “What are we to call this capacity?” Berlin continues. He writes, again, as follows.
“Practical reason, perhaps is a sense of what will work and what will not. It is a capacity for synthesis rather than analysis, for knowledge in the sense in which trainers know their animals or parents their children or conductors their orchestras, as opposed to that in which chemists know the contents of their test tubes or mathematicians know the rules their symbols obey. Those who lack this quality of practical wisdom, whatever other qualities they may possess, no matter how clever, learned, imaginative, kind, noble, attractive, gifted in other ways they may be, are correctly regarded as politically inept.”
There, Berlin tells us something about the character of this political knowledge that Aristotle describes as phronimos. Again, how is this knowledge acquired? Are we just born with it? Do some people just have it or is it a product of experience? Aristotle doesn’t say, but I think the answer is clearly some of both. It is a quality, as I agree with Berlin, possessed by some of the great psychological novelists. I mention the names of Tolstoy, Henry James, and perhaps the greatest of all, Jane Austen, if you want to know a novelist who employs this great skill of judgment, discrimination and practical reason.
It is also a virtue of great statesmen. Principally, Berlin mentions Bismark, Disraeli, Franklin Roosevelt. I would also add the names of Pericles, Lincoln, and Churchill. Read their works. Study their histories. They provide a virtual education in statecraft, in how to negotiate affairs in precisely the way Aristotle would have us do.
What Is Aristotle’s Political Science?
Aristotle’s three types of knowledge
That leads me to the larger question, you might say, which is posed throughout Aristotle’s work as a whole. What is Aristotle’s political science? What is it for? What is he attempting to do? Already you could say to ask this question is to state a claim. Does Aristotle have a political science, a science of politics? Again, if so, what is it about? To begin to answer this question, you might say even begin to think about it in the right way, requires that we stand back from Aristotle’s text for a while and ask some fundamental questions about it. What does Aristotle mean by the political? What is the goal or purpose of the study of politics, and what is distinctive about Aristotle’s approach to the study of political things?
Today, the term “political science” stands for one among a number of different disciplines that we call collectively the social sciences. This not only includes political science, but economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, among others. Each of these disciplines seeks to give us a handle on a distinctive set of human actions and interactions. Economics deals with the transactions involving the production and distribution of wealth, sociology with the transaction governing status and class, anthropology with the domain of culture, and so on.
What is it that political science studies and what is its relation to the other disciplines? The core of political science, at least according to Aristotle and to this degree I’m very much an Aristotelian, what distinguishes it from all other studies is the concept of the regime, of the politea. The regime, for him, is not one branch of human activity among others, it is the fundamental principle or ordering principle that makes all the others even possible. This is why Aristotle does not regard the study of politics as one social science among others. It is rather what he calls the master science that determines the rank and place of all the others within the polity. His study of the regime, that is to say the underlying constitutional principles that govern each order is what distinguishes Aristotle from the other social scientists. When you came into this class in the beginning of the semester, you may have thought you were just signing up for a class in political science. You did not know, perhaps, that you were coming in to study what he calls “the master science,” the science of sciences,” in some respects.
It is that priority that Aristotle attributes to the regime that I think is what distinguishes his kind of political science from that of today. Today, you might say political scientists and social scientists, they’re more modest in ascribing priority to any particular branch of knowledge. With, I should say, the possible exception of the economists, who often will believe that economic motives and transactions provide the key to all possible human behaviors. Who knows, maybe they’re right, but Aristotle would deny it. For Aristotle, however, politics has a priority to all the others, because as he has argued, man is the political animal. To be a political animal means first to possess speech or reason that allows us to participate in a community or a way of life governed by shared standards of justice and injustice. Aristotle’s political science presupposes, in other words, a certain conception of human beings as linguistic animals who are capable not only of living together–so do a range of other species–but rather sharing in the arrangements of rule. It is our logos, our reason that makes a community possible and also expresses or creates, you could say, a certain latitude or indeterminacy in how our behavior distinguishes us from other species. It is precisely, he believes, this latitude that makes political communities not only sites of agreement over shared standards, but also, as he says, sites of moral contestation over justice and injustice. Politics is about conflict and conflicts over justice. To be a political animal, for him, is to engage or to be engaged in this ongoing conversation and debate over the very nature of justice, to refuse to participate in that conversation, to declare oneself an outsider to it, he says, is either to be below humanity or above it. To be human is to be part of that conversation.
The centrality Aristotle ascribes to politics forces us to consider another question, namely what is the purpose of this study? Why do we engage in it? At first glance, this seems to be overwhelmingly obvious–to gain more knowledge. But knowledge of what and for what? Most people today are attracted to the study of politics because they are interested in things they’ve read about in newspapers or seen on TV. Things like elections, political leaders and parties, different causes to which they may feel some attraction, interested in wars and revolutions that they see or have heard about. It is to learn more about these things that we come to the study of politics. It’s as true now as it was in the time of Aristotle.
Aristotle certainly recognized that the accumulation of political knowledge, you might say the gathering of data, the organization of facts, is very important. Books III, IV, V of the Politics shows the empirical side of Aristotle’s politics. Again, let me just pose the question. What is this knowledge for? What does Aristotle intend to do with it or want us to do with it? Politics, political science, he tells us in the Ethics again, is not a theoretical subject in the matter of physics or metaphysics or mathematics. That is to say, its purpose is not knowledge for its own sake. However important the study of politics may be, it exists not for the sake of knowledge, but for action, as he tells us, for praxis, is his word for action. Political science exists for the sake of the human good and the opening sentence of the Politics confirms this. He says, we see, everyone does everything for the sake of some apparent good. All action, all human behavior is aimed at achieving some type of good, is all aimed at action. All political action aims at preservation or change. When we act, we seek to preserve or to change. All political action, you might say, is guided by the idea of better or worse. It implies a standard of better and worse and this implies some idea of the good by which we judge.
Who Is a Statesman?
So it follows, at least Aristotle believes so, that the study of politics is not, again, for the sake of knowledge for its own sake, but knowledge that serves the regime. It helps to make it better or prevent it from becoming worse. Its goal is not just to know more, but to know how and this requires not only theoretic acumen, but political judgment and the kind of practical knowledge that Aristotle discusses at length. This quality of practical judgment and reflection is, again, somehow unique to the political art or the political skill Aristotle tells us. It is the ability not only to keep the ship of state afloat, but allows the greatest statesmen to guide the ship, to steer it safely to port, that is to say the kind of knowledge needed by the statesmen. Aristotle’s political science, then, is ultimately the supreme science of statecraft, a term that again we don’t hear much about–statecraft or statesmanship. It’s regarded perhaps by today’s political science as too value laden, too subjective to speak of statesmanship or statecraft. This, too again, is a word that carries distinctive and strong connotations. Who is a statesman? What are the attributes of the statesman? I’ve spoken a little about the attributes that Aristotle believes are essential to the megalopsychos, the greatest of the statesmen. This will be quite different, for example, from the qualities we will see beginning on Friday and next week that Machiavelli and later Hobbes or Locke, believe are necessary for the great founders or statesmen. Plato and Aristotle give their own vision–the philosopher-king, the great-souled man or megalopsychos.
But the statesman, again, to the highest degree is the founder of regimes, laws, and institutions. They provide the constitutional framework within which we, later figures, operate.
The Method of Aristotle’s Political Science
So if Aristotle’s political science is an education for statesmanship, you might say what are its methods? What are its distinctive methods? How do we educate a statesman? How do we educate potential statesmen? What are its methods? This is a question asked, you might say, of every mature science. It is possession of a method that distinguishes a mature science from simply a jumble of facts, hearsay, inspired guesses, or a random collection of insights and observations. Without a distinctive method for obtaining and organizing knowledge, we are all just groping in the dark.
So what is the distinctive method of Aristotle’s Politics? To some degree, Aristotle refuses to play the methodologist’s game. In a well-known passage from the Ethics, he says that our discussion will be adequate if it achieves clarity within the limits of its subject. If it achieves clarity within the limits of its subject. In other words, he seems to be saying it is wrong to demand methodological purity in a subject like politics where there is always great variety and unpredictability. It is the mark, he says, of an educated person, presumably a liberally educated person, not to demand more precision than the subject matter allows. But that formulation seems, in many ways, to be question begging. How much precision does the subject allow? How do we know? There will always, he suggests, appear to be something ad hoc about the methods used in the study of politics. We will have to let the method fit the subject, rather than demanding the subject matter fit a kind of apriori method. To insist on that kind of methodological purity, he implies, would be to impose a false sense of unity, a false sense of certainty or absoluteness on the study of politics, which is variable and contingent and always subject to flux and change.
Even while Aristotle may deny that there is a single method appropriate to the study of politics, he proposes a set of common questions that political scientists have to address. He lays out these questions at the very beginning of the fourth book of the Politics. He lists four such questions. The political scientist, he says, must have a grasp of the best regime, given the most favorable circumstances. Second, he tells us, the political scientist must consider what kind of regime will be best under less than optimal circumstances. Third, the political scientist must have some knowledge of how to render any regime, no matter how imperfect it may be, more stable and coherent. Finally, the political scientist must know something about the techniques of reform and persuasion, what we might call the area of political rhetoric by which existing regimes can be brought closer to the best. Taken together, these four questions are intended to guide inquiry, to shape and direct inquiry. They are not intended to yield sure or certain results, but to guide and inform statesmen and citizens in the business of decision-making.
Bearing in mind that political science is a practical science, a science of judgment, a science aimed at directing action under specific circumstances and situations, it is important, Aristotle finally suggests, that the language of political science express the common sense or ordinary language of political actors. There is virtually no jargon in Aristotle’sPolitics. Aristotle’s political science stays entirely within the orbit of ordinary speech. Such language does not claim to be scientifically purged of ambiguity, but rather adopts standards of proof appropriate to people in debates and assemblies, in courts of law, in council rooms and the like. The language of Aristotelian political science is the language of man, the political animal. You will never hear him speaking in terms of dependent or independent variables. You will never hear him using technical jargon, artificially imported into the science of politics or the study of politics from the outside.
What most distinguishes Aristotle is that his language is addressed emphatically to citizens and statesmen, not to other political scientists or philosophers. It has a public orientation. It is publicly directed. It is public spirited. It is concerned with the common good. Contrast that with today’s political science. Today, it seems, political scientists are more concerned with advancing the abstract truths of science and claims about creating a methodologically rigorous and pure science of politics, where Aristotle is more concerned with the regime. Modern political science, in many ways, claims to stand above or apart from the regime, to be objective, to be disinterested, as if it were viewing human affairs from a distant planet. Aristotle takes his stand from within politics and the regime of which he is a part. Of course, we all know contemporary political scientists are not neutral. They frequently insert their views, values we call them, value judgments we call them. They insert them into their discussions. These values are regarded by them as purely subjective, again, their own value judgment so to speak, and not strictly speaking a part of the science of politics.
But we all know, do we not, that most contemporary political scientists tend to be liberals. Their values are liberal values. This raises a question. Whether the relation between contemporary political science and liberalism is merely accidental or whether there is some intrinsic, some necessary connection between them. One might do well to ponder which political science is really more scientific–Aristotle’s, which is explicitly and necessarily evaluative and that offers advice and exhortation to the statesmen and citizens about how to care for their regime, or contemporary political science that claims to be neutral and nonpartisan, but which smuggles its values and preferences in always through the back door. On this very partisan note I conclude.