Aristotle`s Theory of the Ideal State, Essay Example
Aristotle’s political thought has exerted a seminal, precipitous impact on Western philosophical discourses down the ages. In the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, Aristotle effectively founded the discipline of political science. Fundamental to both of these works is a concern for the chief end of human beings: eudaimonia, the good life, the highest good. A concern for eudaimonia pervades both works: what it consists of, the character and disposition of individuals who have it, how to achieve it, and so on. Where the Nicomachean Ethics contains Aristotle’s ethics, the Politics contains the essential plan for their implementation in a civil society.
There is a concept that is absolutely seminal to Aristotle’s ethical and political thought, so seminal that it forms much of the essential backbone of his arguments: eudaimonia (eudemonia), which can be translated as “happiness” or “flourishing” or, better yet, “living well”—the good life (Bailey et al., 2008, p. 126). In fact, this concept essentially links Aristotle’s ethical thought with his political thought: the two cannot be separated from each entirely, inasmuch as both are concerned with this concept of promoting eudaimonia (p. 126). A crucial point here, however, is that Aristotle’s understanding of eudaimonia is that it is not simply defined in terms of things that supply some good, but rather in terms of the attributes of goodness itself (p. 126). Thus, to a considerable extent, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics pave the way for his Politics: where the Nicomachean Ethics are concerned with the virtues and their applications, the concern of Politics is how to construct an ideal polity that will be capable of best safeguarding the cultivation and transmission of these virtues in pursuit of eudaimonia (Bailey et al., 2008, p. 127). Aristotle apparently believed that the life devoted to intellectual pursuits was the best, although a life dedicated to political pursuits ranked as no mean second (p. 127).
The Nicomachean Ethics is a good place to begin to examine Aristotle’s concern with eudaimonia, particularly with regard to how it is relevant to the political life. In that work, Aristotle explained that the chief good is an end in itself (NE, bk. 1, ch. 2, p. 3). As such, this chief good should be sought above all other goods, above everything else, precisely because it can be expected to have a great impact on the way that one lives one’s life (p. 3).
An excellent articulation of this relation between the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics is that by Shields (2007). As Shields explained, the concern of the Nicomachean Ethics is to describe eudaimonia for the individual, for human life; the concern of the Politics is implementing it (p. 350). Put another way, the Nicomachean Ethics describes the destination, while the Politics provides the road map and travel guide. The realization of the human good is the concern that pervades all of the Politics, but again, this builds off of the Nicomachean Ethics (p. 350).
An absolutely vital point to understand here concerns the fact that the Politics is concerned with states, and thus with the social order. As will shortly be seen in greater detail, Aristotle held the state to be wholly natural, a logical outgrowth of the human condition. However, the point concerns why, precisely, the roadmap for achieving eudaimonia should involve politics and the social order, rather than a merely personal quest or philosophy. Again, the key insight comes from Shields (2007), and it concerns how Aristotle would have reacted to any suggestions that humans ever lived in a “state of nature.” As Shields explained, a wide variety of philosophies in the West, long after Aristotle’s time, averred that humans derived from some sort of “state of nature”, whether by providence of God or due to nature alone (p. 351). From there, these various philosophies have held, from this primeval human state of nature, has come every civilization and social order—but only the state of nature was truly “pure”, and it is this state that is most representative of human nature at its best.
The contrast with Aristotle is significant, but it must be appreciated in full: Aristotle does not say that the state came first; indeed, he recognizes that it evolved from earlier forms. What he does hold is that the state is part and parcel of human nature (Shields, 2007, p. 351). Aristotle recognized that humans are social creatures, but he also believed that the state was essential for achieving a fully actualized human nature (p. 351). For the “state of nature” thinkers, such as Locke and Rousseau and so many others, humans left the state of nature to become members of state formations. For Aristotle, state formations, and their attendant civil societies, refined and proved the end of human nature (p. 351). Thus, rather than viewing stateless peoples, such as the so-called “barbarians” to the north of Greece, as living in or nearer to the state of nature, Aristotle viewed them as “barely—or not at all—human” (p. 351).
In the Politics, Aristotle claims that there is already an agreement on the nature of eudaimonia (Chuska, 2000, p. 11). In such a state, an individual should have access to a number of goods, including bodily goods, social goods, and internal goods for the soul (p. 11). Bodily goods ought to include “good size, strength, athletic ability, a good old age, health, and beauty,” while external or social goods ought to include “good birth, children, wealth, honor, friends, and good luck” (pp. 11-12). However, more important by far are the goods of the soul, for without these one simply could not be called blessed. They include “courage, self-control, justice,” and prudence (p. 12).
All of these things are good, but the virtues of the soul are most important, more important by far than wealth and power (Chuska, 2000, pp. 12-13). This is of import to political life, because the concern of political life is rightly to establish the good society—and the good society should be amenable to the sorts of pursuits that the truly blessed engage in and aspire to achieve (p. 13). More specifically, Aristotle claims that the study of eudaimonia is the enterprise, the end of politics. His reasoning here is quite interesting, actually: politics is the science that is devoted to eudaimonia because it is the study, the science, that determines what other subjects will be studied in any given polity, and importantly, by whom (NE, bk. 1, ch. 2, p. 3).
Thus, politics determines what studies, what arts will be pursued in any given society. What Aristotle is talking about is political science. In his own words: “now, since politics, uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man” (NE, bk. 1, ch. 2, p. 3). So far, so good. And here, a key point is that for Aristotle, politics is utterly natural, much like family life (Bailey et al., 2008, p. 127).
Aristotle seems to believe that the city-state, the polis, is just as natural as family life: just as individuals found households and have families, and—according to the customs of his time—just as masters and slaves “profit from the master’s intellect and the slave’s labor”, so too do city-states arise organically, as it were, as natural partnerships between individuals in larger groups (Bailey et al., 2008, p. 127). The polis, the Greek city-state, is altogether natural because only this form of polity can serve as the vehicle for achieving the full range of human potential: moral virtues as well as intellectual virtues (Shields, 2007, p. 353). Just as human beings seek to be happy, so too, as social creatures, do they tend to form associations towards this end (p. 353). Thus, Aristotle reasoned, humans “have both a natural capacity and a natural impulse to form a polis” (p. 353).
Aristotle’s view of the polis as wholly natural will have profound and significant ramifications for his views regarding the ideal state, the ideal polity, as will be seen. For Aristotle, the polis is a kind of social super-organism, and just as any association aims for some end, some good, so the polis aims for “the most authoritative or highest good” (Nichols, 1992, p. 14). Through political activity, individuals can exercise their virtues and cultivate them, and these virtues will in turn lead them to happiness, to eudaimonia (p. 14). Again, there is an essential continuity here between the virtues of the blessed life, eudaimonia, and the exercise of politics towards the end of reinforcing and protecting the citizen’s ability to enjoy eudaimonia (p. 14). Politics involves the use of such natural human capacities as reason (logos) and speech, capacities utilized toward the greatest and best end (p. 15).
In Politics, Aristotle begins his search for the ideal regime with a consideration of the household. Specifically, Aristotle explains, one should start with a consideration of how households are managed before considering how states are managed, since, after all, states are composed of households (Politics, bk. I, ch. 3, p. 4). He examines three institutions: “master and slave, husband and wife, father and children” (p. 4). And, of course, Aristotle is also concerned with how households go about the business of acquiring wealth (p. 4). All of these institutions are seminal to Aristotle’s thinking about the ideal state.
Of profound importance, perhaps the greatest for our purposes here, Aristotle examines the institution of slavery, which was common enough in the society of his times (4th-century BCE Greece and Macedon). Aristotle notes that there is a certain division of opinion here: for some, ownership of slaves and the management of their labor is entirely natural, and thus there is nothing wrong with it as such (Politics, bk. I, ch. 3, p. 4). Aristotle himself is part of this first camp. The second camp argue that slavery is “contrary to nature, and that the distinction between slave and freeman exists by law only, and not by nature; and being an interference with nature is therefore unjust” (p. 4).
For modern sensibilities, which fall overwhelmingly in the first camp, it may well be difficult indeed to understand Aristotle’s reasoning here. However, it is important that we try, inasmuch as it is so foundational to his political science, indeed, all of the major ideas he articulates in the Politics. Aristotle first reasons that property is important: some amount of wealth is vital for maintaining life (Politics, bk. I, ch. IV, p. 5). Next, Aristotle makes an analogy: just as in other enterprises, other arts, the management of the household requires its instruments. These “instruments” vary greatly, depending on the function that they are called to perform: in a sense, to use one of his analogies, both the rudder and the look-out man are “instruments” on the ship, which help the pilot (p. 5). The first is an inanimate object, the second is a living human being, but both serve their purpose.
Now, Aristotle says, so too it is with slaves: like the rudder, like the look-out man, the slave is a living possession, an instrument for the use of their master (Politics, bk. I, ch. IV, p. 5). Aristotle also distinguishes between instruments of production, such as the weaving-shuttle and the plectrum, both of which make something (cloth and music, respectively), and instruments of action—such as slaves (p. 5). Aristotle also argues that slaves are slaves by nature: that is, slaves are born, not made (bk. 1, ch. V, p. 5). Aristotle believes, quite literally, that “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule” (p. 6).
Here, the analogy is with tame animals: much as tame animals are used by their owners to tend to the owners’ own needs, so it is with slaves (Politics, bk. 1, ch. V, pp. 6-7). In fact, the distinction is like that between soul and body, since (as Aristotle presumes) a slave really has nothing to offer but their body (p. 6). Such individuals “are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master” (pp. 6-7). A slave is, by nature, the possession of another, a conclusion which, though repugnant to modern eyes, is nonetheless an important one for Aristotle, as will be seen (p. 5). In fact, this is a very important principle, because it speaks to Aristotle’s preoccupations with analogies between household life and political life.
At this juncture, however, it is well worth it to stop and take stock. How, those of modern sentiments might well ask, could Aristotle have defended so repugnant and degrading an institution? (Kraut, 2002, p. 277). As Kraut indeed explained, it is not that Aristotle had never even heard of the idea of abolition, because as seen, his defense of slavery is a reply to some unnamed individuals who have argued against it as unjust, by virtue of being unnatural and dependent solely upon coercion and force to function (pp. 277-278). As Kraut (2002) explained, however, Aristotle’s chief conception—indeed, misconception—might well be that he believed slaves to not possess full rationality (p. 283).
For Aristotle, the human soul was bifurcated, dichotomized between a reasoning part and a part that listens but does not reason, the latter being capable only of “listening to and being persuaded by reasoning” (Kraut, 2002, p. 283). Aristotle explains the distinction by giving an example: at some times, someone might wish to do something rational, only for one’s other mind or other part of the soul, as it were, to urge throwing caution to the winds (p. 283). This is the distinction between reason on the one hand, and passion and the impulses on the other (p. 283). Again, though, this part of the human soul or mind can share in reasoning, in that it can be persuaded by reason: it can listen to reason, but it cannot come up with sound reasoning on its own (p. 283).
But Aristotle’s reasoning is not so simple as to suggest merely that the slave is deserving of slavery because they lack the capacity to reason, the reasoning part of the soul (Kraut, 2002, pp. 283-285). Aristotle does believe that slaves are more capable than that, but the aforementioned distinction between the two different parts of the soul is still relevant, because Aristotle seems to be arguing that slaves lack bouleutikon, the faculty of deliberation (p. 285). Those with bouleutikon have greater reasoning faculties, and therefore, Aristotle seems to be saying, are natural masters (p. 288). Those who lack it benefit from the direction of one who possesses this faculty, and thus are natural slaves (p. 288). Kenny (2007) summarized Aristotle’s views on slavery in terms of a rejection of the idea that it is just to enslave the hapless inhabitants of a defeated polity after an unjust war (p. 85). However, Aristotle believed that it was actually better for those who were sufficiently “inferior and brutish… to be under the rule of a kindly master than to be left to their own devices” (p. 85).
As with the household, so with the city. For Aristotle, the master-slave relationship was a necessary one, one that was born out of the survival imperative: as seen, the master benefits from the slave’s labor, while the slave benefits (according to Aristotle) from the master’s good sense and direction (Nichols, 1992, p. 15). Similarly, households are formed by men and women, who come together in order to reproduce and raise their children (p. 15). This in turn begets the third significant relationship in the household, that between a father and his children (p. 15).
All of this is natural, in Aristotle’s view, and all of it suggests that the polis is just as natural, because the polis originated from an agglomeration of households (Nichols, 1992, p. 15). The agglomeration of several families, Aristotle explains, is the village, which is essentially an extension of the basic form of the family household, albeit scaled up (Politics, bk. I, ch. 2, p. 2). This, Aristotle argues, is what explains kings: kings came about because the eldest (male) always heads the family household (p. 2). Thus, the early Greek poleis were ruled by kings, and of course, “the barbarians still are” (p. 2).
Beyond the village comes the state itself, which is constituted of several villages (Aristotle, Politics, bk. I, ch. 2, p. 3). The several villages are effectively knit together, becoming a singular community. As before, just as with the family household and the small village, the city-state or polis exists for the purpose of guaranteeing its residents eudaimonia, a good life (p. 3). A seminal part of this is the function of the city-state to serve as a guarantor of order: the polis passes and enforces laws, which serve to constrain ruffians and troublemakers of all sorts (Nichols, 1992, p. 17). The function of the state, then, is to secure eudaimonia by passing laws that protect its inhabitants from troublemakers who might harm them.
Having delineated what a state is supposed to do, Aristotle also takes it upon himself to evaluate three particular regimes of his own time: Sparta, Crete, and Carthage (Nichols, 1992, p. 36). In examining these regimes, one of Aristotle’s biggest concerns is to ascertain “what should be common to citizens”, in Nichols’s words (p. 36). He delineates three alternatives: the citizens have (or hold) nothing in common with each other; the citizens have everything in common, and the citizens have some things in common, but other things not (Politics, bk. II, ch. 1, p. 20). Aristotle’s own answer is the third option, and in his examination of the three regimes he will touch on this basic concept on more than one occasion. Here, Aristotle’s argument is that states are not made up all of the same kind of men, but rather of different kinds—again, shades of the master-slave argument here (bk. II, ch. 2, pp. 20-21).
Aristotle argues, and it is difficult indeed to deny him his point, that without some commonalities between citizens one cannot have a functional state (Politics, bk. II, ch. 2, p. 21). On the other hand, if the citizens had all things in common this would create many difficulties: first of all, it would undermine self-sufficiency, because it would become too much like a single individual (p. 21). Moreover, holding wives and offspring in common, as Socrates indeed suggested in Plato’s Republic, is impracticable: it would undermine the incentive of parents (or fathers, at any rate) to invest in their offspring, and it would manifestly undermine family ties and affections (ch. 3, pp. 21-22). Clearly, the only outcome that makes any sense at all is for families to be discrete and separate, rather than held in common—and yet, families can still participate in community life (p. 22). Thus, there is a distinction between public and private, and it is an important one in Aristotle’s thought.
Concerning property, Aristotle wisely distinguishes between this question and that of families. As he explains, there are three options: firstly, “the soil may be appropriated, but the produce may be thrown for consumption into the common stock; and this is the practice of some nations” (Politics, bk. II, ch. 5, p. 24). Secondly, Aristotle suggests, “the soil may be common, and may be cultivated in common, but the produce divided among individuals for their private use”, and this practice, Aristotle proclaims, is held amongst some “barbarian” nations (p. 24). Finally, “the soil and the produce may be alike common” (p. 24).
Again, Aristotle chooses a relatively well-considered and sensible option: it will not do for the consumption to be common, in essence, for there to be communism, because “those who labor much and get little will necessarily complain of those who labor little and receive or consume much” (Politics, bk. II, ch. 5, p. 25). Aristotle argues that property should be common to a certain degree, but generally private: generally private, in order to motivate all men to work for themselves, and yet, some things may be shared amongst friends (p. 25). Here, Aristotle notes the custom of the Lacedaemonians (Spartans), who often use the slaves, horses, and dogs owned by their countrymen—an example of private property with common use (p. 25).
Remarking that governments tend to be a mix between democracy and oligarchy, Aristotle observes that the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) constitutional form is a much-praised blend of “oligarchy, monarchy, and democracy” (Politics, bk. II, ch. 6, p. 30). A key sticking-point here is whether the Ephoralty, the institution of the Ephors, five magistrates from the people, constitutes a tyranny or an example of democracy (p. 30). Aristotle argues that the best constitutions are a mix of the various elements: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy (p. 30). Indeed, Aristotle’s contention throughout is that the best regime has at least some elements of kingship or aristocracy (Simpson, 1998, p. 203).
In evaluating the character of any given regime, Aristotle explains, it is necessary to consider two things: firstly, the merits or demerits of a particular law vis-à-vis the character of the perfect state, and secondly, the consistency or lack of consistency of the law with the character of the law as presented by the lawgiver (Politics, bk. II, ch. 9, p. 37). And now his long discussions about the character of the master-slave relationship and the management of households are revealed in their full import, for although the citizens might wish to have their fill of leisure, the cardinal problem with this is that such leisure rests on the backs of slaves, and slaves have a tendency to rebel (pp. 37-38). After commenting on the slave uprisings in Thessaly and Sparta, Aristotle notes that Crete has not been so troubled, and the reason for this would appear to be that their neighbors have avoided giving any kind of encouragement to rebellious slaves in Crete, since they have their own large slave populations (p. 38).
Another consideration concerns the temperament and character of the citizens themselves. If they are wise, they will learn how to manage their subject populations; however, Aristotle claims that they must also learn how to govern themselves—the women, in particular (Politics, bk. II, ch. 9, p. 38). Aristotle argues that the Lacedaemonian women are licentious, and that their license has, in effect, defeated “the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state” (p. 38). And what have the Lacedaemonian women done that is so grievous? They live, Aristotle explains, in “every sort of intemperance and luxury” (p. 38). Luxury and intemperance, then, are corrosive and anathema to the cultivation of the good life. States with such an indolent and luxury-loving citizenry will suffer as a result.
Curiously enough in light of his other, rather sexist views, Aristotle does not seem to believe that it is problematic or harmful for women to hold power in principle. Indeed, if they are skillful, then the polity can benefit as a result. In fact, Aristotle explains, during Sparta’s heyday, “many things were managed by their women” (Politics, bk. II, ch. 9, p. 38). By contrast, Aristotle avers, their daughters of a later generation played no insignificant role in Sparta’s defeat by Thebes, which cost the city much the bulk of its helot population (pp. 38-39). What is needed, Aristotle is saying, is for men and women to be temperate, restrained, and to know how to govern themselves. And—crucially—they must also know how to accede to the government of the state as a whole, because if they do not yield to the laws then there will be, in effect, nothing short of anarchy (p. 39).
Another criticism of the Spartans from Aristotle concerns land distribution. Most of the land is held in the hands of a few, an inequity Aristotle attributes principally to inheritance laws which allow women to inherit, and to the fact that land is often given in large dowries (Politics, bk. II, ch. 9, p. 39). This inequity, Aristotle contends, is not merely problematic in principle—again, his own views of social relations are rather chauvinistic and elitist by the standards of modern sensibilities—it is problematic because it has deprived the Spartans of citizens (p. 39). The reason for this is that in Sparta, as in many other ancient city-states (including Rome), citizenship was tied to land ownership: thus, fewer land-owners meant fewer Spartan citizens. This in turn led to Sparta’s downfall, after their ruinous defeat by Thebes. If the Spartans had simply redistributed their lands, Aristotle contends, they would have prevented themselves from falling into such ignominy (p. 39).
Aristotle next turns to the Ephoralty, Sparta’s premier democratic institution, and one that leaves much to be desired in Aristotle’s own opinion. First and foremost, Aristotle diagnoses the basic problem as one of the ephors being given far too much power, despite the fact that they are chosen democratically (Politics, bk. II, ch. 9, p. 40). The consequence of this is that the ephors are often “very poor men, who, being badly off, are open to bribes” (p. 40). The effects, Aristotle argues, have been simply ruinous: ephors have been perfectly willing to exercise their power towards the ruin of the Spartan state, all in the service of those who have bribed them. Not even the kings are immune from having to curry favor with them, and the result has been a degradation (from Aristotle’s point of view) of the Spartan constitution from an aristocracy into a democracy (p. 40).
Having criticized Sparta’s constitution, Aristotle offered his own suggestions for improving upon it greatly. Somewhat surprisingly, he affirmed that the selection of the ephors “out of the whole people” was perfectly acceptable, though it should be done with more prudence and care (Politics, bk. II, ch. 9, p. 40). Secondly, Aristotle recommends a written law code, which should guide the decisions of the ephors. Thirdly, the ephors have “a deal too much license”, which has corrupted them; by comparison, the other citizens react to the harsh strictures of Spartan laws, customs, and mores by secretly indulging in sensual pleasures (p. 40).
The Spartans’ council of the elders, too, was not without defect in Aristotle’s view: though the institution itself was sound and advantageous, Aristotle explains, the fact that the elders serve for life is questionable and probably unwise (Politics, bk. II, ch. 9, p. 40). And as with the ephors, Aristotle alleges, the elders have been guilty of taking bribes and exercising partiality in the disposition of their high offices (pp. 40-41). Aristotle repeats the contention that the way in which the Spartans hold their elections is childish: rather than a candidate canvassing for office, “the worthiest should be appointed, whether he chooses or not” (p. 41). And in this vein, Aristotle makes an interesting suggestion about the selection of kings, of which Sparta had two: they should be chosen, like the elders, based on ability rather than lineage (p. 41).
Having critiqued the Spartan, or Lacedaemonian constitution, Aristotle turns to the Cretan, which he suggests may have served as the prototype of the Spartan (Politics, bk. II, ch. 10, p. 42). The Spartans have their five ephors, and the Cretans have their ten Cosmi (p. 43). Unlike the Spartans, however, the Cretans have abolished their monarchy, and now it is the duty of the Cosmi to lead them into war (p. 43). There is also a council of elders, much as in Sparta. Finally, they have an underclass, the Perioeci (p. 43).
And yet, despite these similarities, the deficiencies of the Cretan constitution far exceed those of the Spartan. For one thing, the Cosmi are a far worse institution than the Spartan ephors: they are elected only out of certain families, rather than all the people as at Sparta, and the council of elders are elected from former Cosmi (Politics, bk. II, ch. 10, p. 43). Like the Spartan elders, the Cretan elders are irresponsible, serve for life, and exercise far too much arbitrary power: they are given far too much leeway to act according to their own judgment, rather than established and written laws (p. 43). Even worse, the Cosmi “are often expelled by a conspiracy of their own colleagues, or of private individuals” (p. 44). Thus, their power is limited, but in a way that tends to make for instability, rather than accountability and moderation in governance. This is the reason Aristotle cannot stand the Cretan constitution: it is far too arbitrary, and it alternates the accumulation of too much power by the wrong individuals and/or the wrong means with checks and balances based on nothing more than caprice (p. 44).
Of the three regimes Aristotle examines, that of Carthage, the great Phoenician trading city in North Africa, receives the greatest praise. The Carthaginians have quite a few institutions that are nothing short of excellent, Aristotle explains, and the combination of a loyal populace and a history free from any sort of tyranny attests to the superiority of Carthage’s constitution (Politics, bk. II, ch. 11, p. 44). The Carthaginian 104 Judges, or magistracy of the 104, Aristotle likens to the ephors of Sparta, save for the fact that Carthage chose the 104 magistrates by merit, rather than by means of any other qualification (p. 45). Like Sparta, Aristotle claims, the Carthaginians have kings and a gerusia, a council of elders. However, the kings “are not always of the same family, nor than an ordinary one, but if there is some distinguished family they are selected out of it and not appointed by seniority” (p. 45).
To be sure, Aristotle sees some flaws with the Carthaginian constitution, but no more—and indeed, far fewer—than with the Lacedaemonian and Cretan constitutions Politics, bk. II, ch. 11, p. 45). However, Carthage earns especially high marks in Aristotle’s esteem in that of the features of its constitution of which he does not approve, some tend towards democracy and others toward oligarchy. By way of example, if the kings and elders are unanimous in so doing, they “may determine whether they will or will not bring a matter before the people” (p. 45). Whenever they are not unanimous, it is left to the people (p. 45). Measures brought to the people by the kings and the elders may also be opposed by them, a feature that is more democratic than those of either Sparta or Crete. The supreme council of 100 is a decidedly aristocratic institution with some characteristics of oligarchy; overall, the Carthaginian constitution is included more towards oligarchy than to aristocracy (p. 45).
In Aristotle’s thought, the main problem with Carthage’s deviation from aristocracy to oligarchy is that the true aristocrat is innately more virtuous (Politics, bk. II, ch. 11, p. 46). The problem with emphasizing the oligarchic features is that the political life tends to become too dominated by wealth, particularly the exercise of wealth to buy political offices (p. 46). Again, this speaks to a very persistent strain in Aristotle’s thought: different people have different dispositions and characters, and some people are, by their very nature, better and of higher character than others. He finds much to praise in the Carthaginian political system, and he clearly esteems it above the Spartan and the Cretan as being far more rational and overall superior, inasmuch as it is better able to promote and safeguard the good life.
However, he does note that the Carthaginians have found a work-around, a practice that allows them to essentially preempt or deflect the problems that, to Aristotle’s mind, come with oligarchy. Carthage had a considerable colonial empire, including parts of Sicily as well as Sardinia, Corsica, and parts of southern Spain; according to Aristotle, they used these considerable colonial holdings as the means of “enriching one portion of the people after another” (Politics, bk. II, ch. 11, p. 46). This is a considerable source of strength for them, of course, but that it is also a glaring defect is relatively obvious: it is dependent upon the colonies functioning as wealth-generating imperial possessions, which would leave Carthage vulnerable in the event of a mass revolt (p. 46).
As Kenny (2007) explained, again, Aristotle’s view of which kinds of governments were best proceeded directly from his view of what the state is for (p. 84). Because the purpose of the state is eudaimonia, “a good and happy life for its citizens”, then the form of government it adopts is better or worse to the degree that it either does, or does not, facilitate this end (p. 84). To give a very specific example, if the state has a single individual, or perhaps some great family, who possess a surfeit of virtue and excellence, then it is altogether logical and reasonable that this state adopt a monarchical form of government (pp. 84-85).
In practice, Aristotle recognizes, such an event is very rare: usually it is not possible to guarantee that the office will not be abused and corrupted (Kenny, 2007, p. 85). A corrupted monarchy becomes a tyranny, the very worst sort of government (p. 85). Failing monarchy, in principle, in theory, aristocracy should be preferred as the basis of the state’s constitution, because this constitutes rule by a number of individuals of outstanding character. Again, it would be ideal if the state had just one individual with outstanding character who could serve in this role as a king, but if one individual of supreme virtue cannot be found, as in most cases, then an aristocracy is really the next best thing (p. 85).
However, theory and practice are often worlds apart, and Aristotle was intelligent and insightful enough to realize this (Kenny, 2007, p. 86). In practice, what Aristotle actually favored was a kind of mixed regime, wherein “rich and poor respect each others’ rights, and in which the best-qualified citizens rule with the consent of all the citizens” (p. 86). When such a regime deteriorates into anarchic mob rule, it becomes what Aristotle referred to as “democracy” (p. 86). Thus, despite his seemingly anti-democratic views, Aristotle actually did favor a kind of democracy, albeit a much more limited one, with plenty of meritocracy and aristocracy (p. 85). As with so many aspects of his thinking, Aristotle is nuanced, complex, and multi-tiered. Parsing through the various layers takes persistence and diligence.
In book seven, Aristotle begins the thought-experiment of constructing an ideal state. Treating of population, a defensible location, and access to the sea, he proceeds to discuss the character of the citizenry. Again, this reflects his entire approach: the character of the citizenry must, of necessity, impact the character of the regime and how effective it will be in securing eudaimonia, for the simple reason that state-level civil societies are made up of people, and respond to them. Aristotle compares the “barbarian” peoples of Europe, whom he claims are “full of spirit, but wanting in intelligence and skill”, with the peoples of Asia, who “are intelligent and inventive… but wanting in spirit” (bk. VII, ch. 7, p. 162). Where the European barbarians are relatively free but without any effective political organization (to Aristotle’s eye), the peoples of Asia, though intelligent and inventive, “are always in a state of subjection and slavery” (p. 162). Unsurprisingly, Aristotle finds his happy mean in Hellas, with the “Hellenic race” and its intermediate character, “being high-spirited and also intelligent” (p. 162).
As with real-world state-level societies, Aristotle’s projected ideal society is highly specialized by occupation. The ideal state, as with real-world state formations, should include food producers, artisans, weapons and those to wield them, public revenue, religious specialists, and, of course, a government (Politics, bk. VII, ch. 8, p. 164). And specialization is to be the rule: as with Socrates in Plato’s Republic, Aristotle defends the idea that there should be not only occupational specialists, but also a ruling class (ch. 9, p. 164). The military, Aristotle argues, ought to be citizens, that is to say, property-owners and members of the body politic (ch. 9, pp. 164-165).
Aristotle spends a fair amount of time detailing the kind of social and civic life that his ideal polity should have. Common meals should be the order of the day; indeed, Aristotle praises this institution where it exists amongst the polities of his day (Politics, bk. VII, ch. 10, p. 166). The mature citizenry ought to have access to the leisure square, and to be able to engage in the gymnastic arts (Chuska, 2000, p. 173). Music, too, should be accessible to all citizens, as an important part of the cultural life of the polity. And philosophy, of course: the citizens should also be able to hear the philosophy in the city square (p. 173).
The significance of all of these things is not hard to appreciate. What Aristotle is proposing is a civil society with social, community-building pursuits and functions. The society should have these cultural arts for the enjoyment and edification of the citizens, as well as to bring them together. And, of course, all of these arts quite logically contribute towards eudaimonia, and thus are an integral part of the recipe for the good life.
However, as Chuska (2000) pointed out, it is striking indeed that in books VII-VIII of the Politics, Aristotle does not delineate the kind of government that the ideal polity ought to have (p. 173). In a way, this is not surprising: Aristotle has spent the vast part of the compilation already talking about the merits and demerits of three various regimes, and a number of governing principles in society. In all probability, he did not believe it was necessary to further elaborate on the essential principles—and the detailed specifics of the day-to-day running of the polity were clearly not his concern in any event.
Indeed, the chief aim of the Politics is to envision the kind of state-level civil society that would be most conducive to eudaimonia. To be sure, Aristotle gives his readership many considered opinions on the advisability or inadvisability of monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy—but the goal is always the polity that can best realize eudaimonia for its citizenry. Thus, Aristotle can concern himself with the composition of the ruling class—land-owning, citizens, also the soldiering class—and the education of the youth, all without detailing elaborately the kind of regime he found most ideal for his ideal polity.
In fact, Aristotle reflected that “each government has a peculiar character which originally formed and which continues to preserve it” (Politics, bk. VIII, ch. 1, p. 181). Thus, Aristotle contends, the kind of education favored by a city should be in accordance with the kind of government that it has. What is particularly important, however, is for all citizens to understand that they are not their own: rather, every citizen belongs to the state, because they are each a part of it (p. 181).
Consequently, Aristotle’s thoughts on education are important for contextualizing his aims and his understanding of the ideal polity. He noted that the custom of his own time was to teach four branches of education: “(1) reading and writing, (2) gymnastic exercises, (3) music,” and sometimes a fourth, drawing (Politics, bk. VIII, ch. 3, p. 182). Aristotle’s approach considers the proper use of leisure as well as of work. From this comes a very interesting approach, one decidedly oriented towards eudaimonia: education is not simply an end, but rather a means to an end. Thus, reading and writing are useful in and of themselves, and “many other sorts of knowledge are acquired through them” (Politics, bk. VIII, ch. 3, pp. 183-184). Because of all of this, they most certainly should be taught. Gymnastics should also be taught, in order to teach courage and promote fitness; however, the emphasis is on cultivating a noble habit, not a brutal one (Politics, bk. VIII, chs. 3-4, p. 184).
The logical outcome of these views, at least in Aristotle’s mind, was that education should be the concern of the state rather than of the family, as it was in his time: in other words, education should be a public enterprise rather than a private one (Simpson, 1998, pp. 252-253). Again, education is not only important for gaining knowledge and virtues such as courage and nobility, but also for cultivating a certain civic-minded virtue. In Aristotle’s view, the way to achieve this is for the young to be educated by the state, in order for their character to be molded into the form that is appropriate for maintaining and upholding the regime in its established character (p. 252). And, importantly, Aristotle believed that if the regime failed to do this, it would run the very considerable risk of allowing its citizenry to, in Simpson’s words, “develop some other character opposed to the regime,” which could only be to the detriment of the polis (pp. 252-253).
If the above sounds artificial, like a grand experiment in social engineering, then it is important to note that in Aristotle’s mind it was not. Again, as seen throughout this work, Aristotle viewed politics as natural, and the proper end of the state as the pursuit of eudaimonia for its citizens (Roberts & Sutch, 2004, pp. 48-49). Because the individual’s pursuit of eudaimonia is entirely contingent on, and realized through, citizenship in the polis, it therefore followed quite naturally that the younger generation needed to be brought up properly, in order to develop the right kind of character to maintain the character of the political regime (Roberts & Sutch, 2004, p. 49; Simpson, 1998, pp. 252-253).
Though the Politics contain Aristotle’s articulation of the concept of an ideal state, it superficially appears striking that he does not delineate more thoroughly the character of an ideal regime. However, this apparent aporia dissipates when one considers that the true character of Aristotle’s project with the work is to consider how to implement the kind of society that will support the pursuit of eudaimonia. Again, the basic template is with the household: different individuals have different roles to play in accordance with their dispositions and characteristics, leading to an end result that secures eudaimonia for all concerned. While it is easy enough to deplore Aristotle’s sexism and his defense of slavery, this aside his argument is concerned with the best and most virtue-promoting regime. In principle, Aristotle held that monarchy could be the best type of regime, if a sufficiently virtuous king were at hand; failing that, an aristocracy was preferable. The excesses of tyranny, plutocratic oligarchy, and anarchic democracy should all be avoided. And the way to secure all of this, the best and most ideal regime, was through education. Only through education could the character of the younger generations be molded into a form that would serve to uphold the regime, thereby ensuring that this best and most eudaimonia-promoting polis would continue.
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