Summarizing the First Two Books of Aristotle’s “Politics”

The first two books of Aristotle’s Politics have been a bit of a dog’s breakfast. They strike me as incomplete and only sporadically systematic. I have to read between the lines to figure out what Aristotle is trying to accomplish.

Aristotle

This is an artifact of how the book was assembled: it’s not a complete book as Aristotle would have intended it, but the surviving fragments of works on political topics assembled into a semi-coherent whole, with probable interpolations and margin notes all tossed together. I understand things are about to improve as we enter book three.

But first I thought I’d try to recap what we learned in books one and two.

Aristotle is teaching political scientists, or maybe political engineers — experts who might be called upon to construct or repair a the constitution of a polis. In these opening chapters he reviews some of the theoretical proposals and practical experiments with such constitutions. Unspoken, in the background, is the ongoing subordination of the Greek polis to the Macedonian empire.

The best polis, Aristotle told us in his prequel, the Nicomachean Ethics, will be one that uses the tools of education and punishment to train people in the practice of the virtues, which in turn will help them live a flourishing life, one of eudaimonia.

A polis is best understood as an association of people. To understand how to create a polis well, you need to understand the raw material you are working with. Man is a political animal, which is to say, his natural habitat is the polis. Man naturally assembles into households, and households into villages. The polis is the culmination of this movement of association: it allows people to achieve autarkeia and is the medium in which they can establish and practice justice.

The household is built up from three varieties of relationship: master/slave, husband/wife, and father/child. A patriarchal model, in which the father is in charge of slaves, wife, and children, is assumed (more than argued for or defended). Slaves, women, and children have a different set of virtues than free men, but do have virtues of their own. It’s important for a state to legislate to promote such virtues, and healthy household relationships in general.

Slavery is natural: some people are meant to be slaves, and others are meant to be masters, and it is mutually-advantageous that they should come together in a master/slave relationship that plays to their strengths. That said, slavery as it is practiced in the real world doesn’t seem to meet this theoretical model: people become slaves not because of their natures but because of arbitrary accidents, and the slave/master relationship is not always one of mutual benefit.

Aristotle defines a slave as someone who is used as a tool by someone else. Employees, he says, are a sort of temporary-slave.

An important aspect of a successful political system is that it secures leisure for the ruling class while making sure the working class does not get restive.

Economic behavior like production, raiding, and (some) trade is natural, but living by means of commerce, usury, or accumulation of currency are all unnatural and tend to interfere with eudaimonia. Nonetheless, promoting and regulating the wealth of the state requires understanding such things.

Existing and theoretical political arrangements all have their flaws. Plato’s plans, with their communal property and dissolving of family ties, demand impractical alterations in human nature. Communal use of property is great when it’s accomplished by the private property owner acting out the virtue of liberality; but when enforced by law, it’s harmful. Phaleas’s economic leveling schemes are not well-thought-out, and the leveling goal is not the panacea Phaleas thinks it is. Hippodamus has a number of impractical ideas, and builds instability into his system by rewarding innovators and reformers: instead it’s better to get the political scheme right the first time and then err on the side of conservatism from there on out.

In the course of reviewing the constitutions of Sparta, Crete, and Carthage, Aristotle gives this advice:

  • Strike a balance in governing bodies so that the oligarchy, aristocracy, and general populace all have some measure of political power. This promotes stability.
  • Avoid making wealth a proxy for virtue in selecting leaders, or promoting wealth-making as an honored goal of citizens.
  • Similarly, make sure political offices are not “for sale,” or ways for office-holders to make a profit.
  • But make sure not to staff them with poor people who will be susceptible to bribery; make sure office-holders are financially secure, at least during their tenure.
  • Beware of too much democracy or oligarchy, even if you do have to throw the people and the oligarchs a political bone now and then to keep them quiet.
  • Avoid great economic inequality.
  • Instill the complete virtues in the citizenry (not just the military virtues, as Sparta does).
  • And do not neglect the nurturing of virtues in women.
  • Have a constitution that provides legal means for doing what needs done, so that people don’t feel the need to circumvent it with factions and conspiracies.
Index to Aristotle’s Politics
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