“Man is a political animal”
As its most famous line suggests, Aristotle’s Politics focuses on the relationship between political systems and the people who define them. Although in many ways a glorification of the city based polis system of Ancient Greece, Aristotle’s work also provides valuable insights into the working of political systems in general.
Born in 384 BCE in what is now Macedonia, Aristotle was the son of the court physician to the royal household of Amyntas III of Macedon. Much of Aristotle’s life was spent in Athens, the centre of Hellenic civilisation, where he studied at Plato’s academy. Aristotle dedicated himself to the life of a scholar and like many Ancient Greek philosophers, was something of a polymath, having produced writings on biology, physics, poetry, meteorology, logic and poetry that remained crucial texts for thousands of years after his death.
Like Plato, Aristotle’s works came from first hand experience and involvement in politics. From a young age he had been familiar with the court of Macedon, as a result of his father’s work. Aristotle also knew Phillip of Macedon and is traditionally believed to have tutored his son – Alexander the Great. It is generally assumed that Aristotle had very little influence on Alexander however, as his life of empire building and conquest was in opposition to the ideas of contemplation and intellectualism advocated in Politics. Indeed, Alexander’s Empire stretching from Greece to India effectively brought to an end the system of city states with autonomous governments that Politics celebrates.
Key to understanding Politics is an awareness of the political system of Hellenic civilisation at the time. Each Polis (city state) consisted of a population of citizens, slaves, labourers, children, women and immigrants, with each section of the population serving specific functions and roles. At the top were the citizens, who were expected to govern the city. Because the burden of operating and maintaining the polis was taken by the other sections of society, citizens enjoyed a life of considerable freedom which could be devoted to academic and cultural pursuits. All citizens were expected to take public office, and the cities were governed by large judicial assemblies.
Aristotle concludes that the polis is the ideal system of government. The methods he took to reach this conclusion are quite remarkable. He had his students gather firsthand information on 158 different city states to determine the effectiveness of different political systems. From this research he concluded there were six kinds of cities, three of which were good and three of which were bad. The definitions he made are still relevant today for understanding political institutions, even if the conclusions he reached seem disagreeable. In Politics Aristotle argues that government, aristocracy and kingship are the best forms of government (although not perfect), while democracy, oligarchy and tyranny are the worst.
Many of Aristotle’s conclusions seem controversial or even immoral by today’s standards. Politics focuses heavily on the needs of the citizenship, and how they can live the best possible life. Other social groups are ignored, to the extent that Aristotle justifies slavery as necessary to society. Elsewhere he condemns capitalism, while the denunciation of democracy will be difficult to empathise with for many readers.
The strengths of the book are in the reasoning and methods Aristotle employed and the nature of his arguments. Many of the conclusions he reached can seem disagreeable, potentially even dangerous. The observations made on the nature of government however, remain deeply provocative.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons user: Saverio Autellitano