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2. The Texts
The most important text for understanding Aristotle’s political philosophy, not surprisingly, is the
Politics. However, it is also important to read Nicomachean Ethics in order to fully understand
Aristotle’s political project. This is because Aristotle believed that ethics and politics were closely
linked, and that in fact the ethical and virtuous life is only available to someone who participates in
politics, while moral education is the main purpose of the political community. As he says in
Nicomachean Ethics at 1099b30, “The end [or goal] of politics is the best of ends; and the main
concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and
disposed to perform noble actions.” Most people living today in Western societies like the United
States, Canada, Germany, or Australia would disagree with both parts of that statement. We are
likely to regard politics (and politicians) as aiming at ignoble, selfish ends, such as wealth and power,
rather than the “best end”, and many people regard the idea that politics is or should be primarily
concerned with creating a particular moral character in citizens as a dangerous intrusion on
individual freedom, in large part because we do not agree about what the “best end” is. In fact, what
people in Western societies generally ask from politics and the government is that they keep each of
us safe from other people (through the provision of police and military forces) so that each of us can
choose and pursue our own ends, whatever they may be. This has been the case in Western political
philosophy at least since John Locke. Development of individual character is left up to the individual,
with help from family, religion, and other non-governmental institutions. More will be said about this
later, but the reader should keep in mind that this is an important way in which our political and
ethical beliefs are not Aristotle’s. The reader is also cautioned against immediately concluding from
this that Ar istotle was wrong and we are right. This may be so, but it is important to understand
why, and the contrast between Aristotle’s beliefs and ours can help to bring the strengths and
weaknesses of our own beliefs into greater clarity.
The reference above to “Nicomachean Ethics at 1099b30″ makes use of what is called Bekker
pagination. This refers to the location of beginning of the cited text in the edition of Aristotle’s works
produced by Immanuel Bekker in Berlin in 1831 (in this case, it begins on page 1099, column b, line
30). Scholars make use of this system for all of Aristotle’s works except the Constitution of Athens
(which was not rediscovered until after 1831) and fragmentary works in order to be able to refer to
the same point in Aristotle’s work regardless of which edition, translation, or language they happen
to be working with. This entry will make use of the Bekker pagination system, and will also follow
tradition and refer to Nicomachean Ethics as simply Ethics. (There is also a Eudemian Ethics which is
almost certainly by Aristotle (and which shares three of the ten books of the Nicomachean Ethics)
and a work on ethics titled Magna Moralia which has been attributed to him but which most scholars
now believe is not his work. Regardless, most scholars believe that the Nicomachean Ethics is
Aristotle’s fullest and most mature expression of his ethical theory). The translation is that of Martin
Ostwald; see the bibliography for full information. In addition to the texts listed above, the student
with an interest in Aristotle’s political theory may also wish to read the Rhetoric, which includes
observations on ethics and politics in the context of teaching the reader how to be a more effective
speaker, and the Constitution of Athens, a work attributed to Aristotle, but which may be by one of
his students, which describes the political history of the city of Athens.
3. Challenges of the Texts
Any honest attempt to summarize and describe Aristotle’s political philosophy must include an
acknowledgment that there is no consensus on many of the most important aspects of that
philosophy. Some of the reasons for this should be mentioned from the outset.
One set of reasons has to do with the text itself and the transmission of the text from Aristotle’s time
to ours. The first thing that can lead to disagreement over Aristotle’s beliefs is the fact that
the Politics andEthics are believed by many scholars to be his lecture notes, for lectures which were
intended to be heard only by his own students. (Aristotle did write for general audiences on these
subjects, probably in dialogue form, but only a few fragments of those writings remain). This is also
one reason why many students have difficulty reading his work: no teacher’s lecture notes ever make
complete sense to anyone else (their meaning can even elude their author at times). Many topics in
the texts are discussed less fully than we would like, and many things are ambiguous which we wish
were more straightforward. But if Aristotle was lecturing from these writings, he could have taken
care of these problems on the fly as he lectured, since presumably he knew what he meant, or he
could have responded to requests for clarification or elaboration from his students.
Secondly, most people who read Aristotle are not reading him in the original Attic Greek but are
instead reading translations. This leads to further disagreement, because different authors translate
Aristotle differently, and the way in which a particular word is translated can be very significant for
the text as a whole. There is no way to definitively settle the question of what Aristotle “really meant
to say” in using a particular word or phrase.
Third, the Aristotelian texts we have are not the originals, but copies, and every time a text gets
copied errors creep in (words, sentences, or paragraphs can get left out, words can be changed into
new words, and so forth). For example, imagine someone writing the sentence “Ronald Reagan was
the lastcompetent president of the United States.” It is copied by hand, and the person making the
copy accidentally writes (or assumes that the author must have written) “Ronald Reagan was
the leastcompetent president of the United States.” If the original is then destroyed, so that only the
copy remains, future generations will read a sentence that means almost exactly the opposite of
what the author intended. It may be clear from the context that a word has been changed, but then
again it may not, and there is always hesitation in changing the text as we have it. In addition,
although nowadays it is unacceptable to modify someone else’s work without clearly denoting the
changes, this is a relatively recent development and there are portions of Aristotle’s texts which
scholars believe were added by later writers. This, too, complicates our understanding of Aristotle.
Finally, there are a number of controversies related to the text of the Politics in particular. These
controversies cannot be discussed here, but should be mentioned. For more detail consult the works
listed in the “Suggestions for further reading” below. First, there is disagreement about whether the
books of the Politics are in the order that Aristotle intended. Carnes Lord and others have argued
based on a variety of textual evidence that books 7 and 8 were intended by Aristotle to follow book
3. Rearranging the text in this way would have the effect of joining the early discussion of the origins
of political life and the city, and the nature of political justice, with the discussion of the ideal city and
the education appropriate for it, while leaving together books 4-6 which are primarily concerned
with existing varieties of regimes and how they are preserved and destroyed and moving them to the
conclusion of the book. Second, some authors, notably Werner Jaeger, have argued that the different
focus and orientation of the different portions of the Politics is a result of Aristotle writing them at
different times, reflecting his changing interests and orientation towards Plato‘s teachings. The
argument is that at first Aristotle stuck very closely to the attitudes and ideas of his teacher Plato,
and only later developed his own more empirical approach. Thus any difficulties that there may be in
integrating the different parts of the Politicsarise from the fact that they were not meant to be
integrated and were written at different times and with different purposes. Third, the Politics as we
have it appears to be incomplete; Book 6 ends in the middle of a sentence and Book 8 in the middle
of a discussion. There are also several places in the Politicswhere Aristotle promises to consider a
topic further later but does not do so in the text as we have i t (for example, at the end of Book II,
Chapter 8). It is possible that Aristotle never finished writing it; more likely there is material missing
as a result of damage to the scrolls on which it was written. The extent and content of any missing
material is a matter of scholarly debate.
Fortunately, the beginning student of Aristotle will not need to concern themselves much with these
problems. It is, however, important to get a quality translation of the text, which provides an
introduction, footnotes, a glossary, and a bibliography, so that the reader is aware of places where,
for example, there seems to be something missing from the text, or a word can have more than one
meaning, or there are other textual issues. These will not always be the cheapest or most widely
available translations, but it is important to get one of them, from a library if need be. Several
suggested editions are listed at the end of this article.
4. Politics and Ethics
In Book Six of the Ethics Aristotle says that all knowledge can be classified into three categories:
theoretical knowledge, practical knowledge, and productive knowledge. Put simply, these kinds of
knowledge are distinguished by their aims: theoretical knowledge aims at contemplation, productive
knowledge aims at creation, and practical knowledge aims at action. Theoretical knowledge involves
the study of truth for its own sake; it is knowledge about things that are unchanging and eternal, and
includes things like the principles of logic, physics, and mathematics (at the end of the Ethics Aristotle
says that the most excellent human life is one lived in pursuit of this type of knowledge, because this
knowledge brings us closest to the divine). The productive and practical sciences, in contrast, address
our daily needs as human beings, and have to do with things that can and do change. Productive
knowledge means, roughly, know-how; the knowledge of how to make a table or a house or a pair of
shoes or how to write a tragedy would be examples of this kind of knowledge. This entry is
concerned with practical knowledge, which is the knowledge of how to live and act. According to
Aristotle, it is the possession and use of practical knowledge that makes it possible to live a good life.
Ethics and politics, which are the practical sciences, deal with human beings as moral agents. Ethics is
primarily about the actions of human beings as individuals, and politics is about the actions of human
beings in communities, although it is important to remember that for Aristotle the two are closely
linked and each influences the other.
The fact that ethics and politics are kinds of practical knowledge has several important
consequences. First, it means that Aristotle believes that mere abstract knowledge of ethics and
politics is worthless. Practical knowledge is only useful if we act on it; we must act appropriately if we
are to be moral. He says at Ethics 1103b25: “The purpose of the present study [of morality] is not, as
it is in other inquiries, the attainment of theoretical knowledge: we are not conducting this inquiry in
order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, else there would be no advantage in
studying it.”
Second, according to Aristotle, only some people can beneficially study politics. Aristotle believes
that women and slaves (or at least those who are slaves by nature) can never benefit from the study
of politics, and also should not be allowed to participate in politics, about which more will be said
later. But there is also a limitation on political study based on age, as a result of the connection
between politics and experience: “A young man is not equipped to be a student of politics; for he has
no experience in the actions which life demands of him, and these actions form the basis and subject
matter of the discussion” (Ethics 1095a2). Aristotle adds that young men will usually act on the basis
of their emotions, rather than according to reason, and since acting on practical knowledge requires
the use of reason, young men are unequipped to study politics for this reason too. So the study of
politics will only be useful to those who have the experience and the mental discipline to benefit
from it, and for Aristotle this would have been a relatively small percentage of the population of a
city. Even in Athens, the most democratic city in Greece, no more than 15 percent of the population
was ever allowed the benefits of citizenship, including political participation. Athenian citizenship
was limited to adult males who were not slaves and who had one parent who was an Athenian
citizen (sometimes citizenship was further restricted to require both parents to be Athenian citizens).
Aristotle does not think this percentage should be increased – if anything, it should be decreased.
Third, Aristotle distinguishes between practical and theoretical knowledge in terms of the level of
precision that can be attained when studying them. Political and moral knowledge does not have the
same degree of precision or certainty as mathematics. Aristotle says at Ethics 1094b14: “Problems of
what is noble and just, which politics examines, present so much variety and irregularity that some
people believe that they exist only by convention and not by nature….Therefore, in a discussion of
such subjects, which has to start with a basis of this kind, we must be satisfied to indicate the truth
with a rough and general sketch: when the subject and the basis of a discussion consist of matters
that hold good only as a general rule, but not always, the conclusions reached must be of the same
order.” Aristotle does not believe that the noble and the just exist only by convention, any more
than, say, the principles of geometry do. However, the principles of geometry are fixed and
unchanging. The definition of a point, or a line, or a plane, can be given precisely, and once this
definition is known, it is fixed and unchanging for everyone. However, the definition of something
like justice can only be known generally; there is no fixed and unchanging definition that will always
be correct. This means that unlike philosophers such as Hobbes and Kant, Aristotle does not and in
fact cannot give us a fixed set of rules to be followed when ethical and political decisions must be
made. Instead he tries to make his students the kind of men who, when confronted with any
particular ethical or political decision, will know the correct thing to do, will understand why it is the
correct choice, and will choose to do it for that reason. Such a man will know the general rules to be
followed, but will also know when and why to deviate from those rules. (I will use “man” and “men”
when referring to citizens so that the reader keeps in mind that Aristotle, and the Greeks generally,
excluded women from political part icipation. In fact it is not until the mid-19th century that
organized attempts to gain the right to vote for women really get underway, and even today in the
21st century there are still many countries which deny women the right to vote or participate in
political life).
5. The Importance of Telos
I have already noted the connection between ethics and politics in Aristotle’s thought. The concept
that most clearly links the two is that which Aristotle called telos. A discussion of this concept and its
importance will help the reader make sense of what follows. Aristotle himself discusses it in Book II,
Chapter 3 of the Physics and Book I, Chapter 3 of the Metaphysics.
The word telos means something like purpose, or goal, or final end. According to Aristotle, everything
has a purpose or final end. If we want to understand what something is, it must be understood in
terms of that end, which we can discover through careful study. It is perhaps easiest to understand
what a telos is by looking first at objects created by human beings. Consider a knife. If you wanted to
describe a knife, you would talk about its size, and its shape, and what it is made out of, among other
things. But Aristotle believes that you would also, as part of your description, have to say that it is
made to cut things. And when you did, you would be describing its telos. The knife’s purpose, or
reason for existing, is to cut things. And Aristotle would say that unless you included that telos in
your description, you wouldn’t really have described – or understood – the knife. This is true not only
of things made by humans, but of plants and animals as well. If you were to fully describe an acorn,
you would include in your description that it will become an oak tree in the natural course of things –
so acorns too have a telos. Suppose you were to describe an animal, like a thoroughbred foal. You
would talk about its size, say it has four legs and hair, and a tail. Eventually you would say that it is
meant to run fast. This is the horse’s telos, or purpose. If nothing thwarts that purpose, the young
horse will indeed become a fast runner.
Here we are not primarily concerned with the telos of a knife or an acorn or a foal. What concerns us
is the telos of a human being. Just like everything else that is alive, human beings have a telos. What
is it that human beings are meant by nature to become in the way that knives are meant to cut,
acorns are meant to become oak trees, and thoroughbred ponies are meant to become race horses?
According to Aristotle, we are meant to become happy. This is nice to hear, although it isn’t all that
useful. After all, people find happiness in many different ways. However, Aristotle says that living
happily requires living a life of virtue. Someone who is not living a life that is virtuous, or morally
good, is also not living a happy life, no matter what they might think. They are like a knife that will
not cut, an oak tree that is diseased and stunted, or a racehorse that cannot run. In fact they are
worse, since they have chosen the life they lead in a way that a knife or an acorn or a horse cannot.
Someone who does live according to virtue, who chooses to do the right thing because it is the right
thing to do, is living a life that flourishes; to borrow a phrase, they are being all that they can be by
using all of their human capacities to their fullest. The most important of these capacities is logos – a
word that means “speech” and also means “reason” (it gives us the English word “logic”). Human
beings alone have the ability to speak, and Aristotle says that we have been given that ability by
nature so that we can speak and reason with each other to discover what is right and wrong, what is
good and bad, and what is just and unjust.
Note that human beings discover these things rather than creating them. We do not get to decide
what is right and wrong, but we do get to decide whether we will do what is right or what is wrong,
and this is the most important decision we make in life. So too is the happy life: we do not get to
decide what really makes us happy, although we do decide whether or not to pursue the happy life.
And this is a …
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