Aristotle Writes the

In writing the Politics, Aristotle established a classic body of political concepts capable of being applied by later generations of Western political analysts.

Summary of Event

Aristotle’s Politica (Politics, 1598) is but one of a number of treatises compiled in the Lyceum from school discussions of the philosopher on every conceivable realm of phenomena that was of interest to the Greek mind. In his discussion of politics, Aristotle did not seek, as the philosopher Plato had done, to lay foundations for a moral reconstruction of human community existence; instead, he sought to understand the distinctive form of Greek community life, the polis. Aristotle

Characteristic of Aristotle’s organismic perspective on the whole spectrum of phenomena is his concept of the city-state as a natural entity developing in response to inherent needs and drives in humans. Humans have a natural place in a hierarchy of life in which each genus and species of creature has its own distinctive inherent possibilities of development and modes of formal self-realization. At their own level in this hierarchy, human beings not only enjoy and participate in the plant and animal forms of development and realization but, as creatures uniquely endowed with reason, also build on the foundation of these nonhuman life activities a distinctively human mode of development and formal perfection.

Because they have the power of reason, humans are able not only to experience pain and pleasure like nonhuman animals but also to discriminate between good and evil, justice and injustice, and to share with others of their kind a community of values. For this reason, human beings, more than any other animal, fulfill themselves naturally in forms of shared existence. The forms of community are themselves derived from a natural complementarity of the differing natures of human beings participating in a community. At the most primitive level, the household reaps the advantages of the association of man and woman for procreation and of ruler and ruled for mutual security. In those suited by nature for rule, the power of reason is sufficiently developed to discern what is advantageous for the common welfare, while in those who are by nature servile resides the physical power to effect such policy and sufficient reason to recognize the advantage of obedience to their wiser master.

Beyond the primitive community of the household is the village, a community of households established in order to secure, on a more permanent basis, the advantages of shared existence. Beyond the village-community stands the natural form of fully realized community life—the association of villages, or polis. Although the polis came into existence, according to Aristotle, to sustain human life in a fully self-sufficient form, it continues to exist to achieve the optimal state of human existence.

It should be noted that in designating the polis as the natural form of fully realized human community, Aristotle was thinking not of the large nation-state or of the industrial state or other historical times and places but specifically of the relatively small Greek city-states, whose members could be reasonably familiar with one another. Once these circumstances are understood, the meaning of Aristotle’s dictum “Man is by nature a polis-animal” can be appreciated in its uniquely Greek and Aristotelian context.

Polis communities may differ widely from one another, but the factor determining the distinctive form of each is its politeia, or constitution, which defines who the citizens of the polis are and in what category of citizens the primary authority for judicial and policy decisions resides. According to Aristotle, the citizen is that individual who participates in dispensing justice and determining policy. Although a constitution may confer supreme authority on one man, a few, or all freeborn members of the polis, Aristotle viewed a legitimate constitution to be one in which the authoritative body in the polis dispenses justice and formulates policy with a view to the well-being of all freeborn citizens and not the well-being of the authoritative body itself alone. In the latter case, the constitution would not be a legitimate form but a perversion. On this basis, Aristotle distinguished between three legitimate forms, which he terms monarchy, aristocracy, and politeia (in a distinctive sense that could be translated as “republic” or “constitutional democracy”), and three corresponding perversions, which he called tyranny, oligarchy, and demokratia (which might perhaps be translated as “rule of the proletariat”).

A survey of the functions necessary to a fully self-sufficient polis that maximizes the potentials of human well-being and of Aristotle’s distribution of status among those who perform these functions makes fully clear to the modern mind that Aristotle’s political theory was not so much a universally applicable conceptual scheme as it was a distillation of distinctively Greek aristocratic notions of what constituted optimal human well-being in a polis community. These necessary functions included food production, provision of essential goods and services, maintenance of internal order and defense against enemies, accumulation of surplus wealth to sustain private expenditures and security forces, cultic functions of polis religion, and policymaking and dispensation of justice. In Aristotle’s view, the farmers and laborers who performed the first two of these functions, while essential to the self-sufficiency and well-being of the polis, could not be citizens. Lacking the higher uses of reason necessary to participate in judicial and policymaking decisions, farmers and laborers were servants sustaining the plant and animal functions of a corporate body, of which only the true citizens could achieve full realization of the well-being possible to humans. The last three of the necessary functions were performed by the true citizens at the ages at which they were best suited by nature to discharge them, and surplus wealth would also be in the possession of the citizens proper.

Several ideas emerge from a reading of Aristotle’s Politics. First, the state has a natural history, and part of its meaning must be sought in its development. Second, the state has a natural basis in economics, family structure, and ethics. Third, there are basic state forms into which political activity falls, and the art of politics lies in the choice among those forms and their combinations. Fourth, the art of government is the art of finding a proper equilibrium for the forces in the state. Aristotle was interested in the rise and fall of political systems, but he did not make the mistake of tracing that rise and fall to autonomous factors within politics. Like Plato, he believed that much in politics depended on the image that was stamped on the young by birth, education, nature, and habit. Above all, Aristotle was interested in what constituted the strength and weakness of the political community. He saw that the strength of the state depends not so much on the machinery of government as on the moral sense of the community.

Aristotle said “man is by nature a political animal” and “he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity or below it.” By this, he meant that in their origin and impulses, in terms of the end toward which their development tends, human beings must be part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Except as a member of a collectivity, a person ceases to be a person and becomes either something greater or something less. The most important element of strength in a community is the sense of greatness that it can generate. The most important political emotion in human beings is the thirst for greatness, which, under pressure, stretches them beyond their everyday selves so that they reach the full outline of their human personality.


In creating the Politics, Aristotle established a classic body of normative political concepts capable of being applied by later generations of Western political analysts.

Further Reading

  • Chuska, Jeff. Aristotle’s Best Regime: A Reading of Aristotle’s “Politics.” Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000. A look at Politics and Aristotle’s views on political science.
  • Davis, Michael. The Politics of Philosophy: A Commentary on Aristotle’s “Politics.” Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996. This work provides a sound discussion of Aristotle’s contributions to political science.
  • Johnson, Curtis N. Aristotle’s Theory of the State. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Johnson discusses Aristotle’s conception of the polis as a natural entity fulfilling a human impulse toward perfection.
  • Loizou, Andros, and Harry Lesser, eds. Polis and Politics: Essays in Greek Moral and Political Philosophy. Brookfield, Vt.: Avebury Press, 1990. A series of papers that concentrate on Greek political thought.
  • Miller, Fred Dycus. Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s “Politics.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. Focusing on Aristotle’s concept of natural law and justice, Miller provides a good analysis of Aristotle’s contributions not only to law but also to political science.
  • Nichols, Mary P. Citizens and Statesmen: A Study of Aristotle’s “Politics.” Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992. Contains useful insights into Aristotle’s view of the polis and how he has contributed to modern ideas of political science.
  • Simon, Peter. A Philosophical Commentary on the “Politics” of Aristotle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. An examination of the philosophical views of Aristotle as expressed in Politics.

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