Aristotle  384 - 322 BC (pp3)


                                                Links:          Imagining Other Index Page




                                                          Augustine and Aquinas




1. Aristotle’s Life

2. His Importance/originality

3. Aristotle’s method

4. Aristotle’s theory of knowledge

5. An important digression: Aristotle on eudaimonia

6. Aristotle’s Politics – outline of its contents

7. Conclusion and appraisal

8. A footnote on Aristotle’s ethics


Main Sources Used:

M = McClelland, J.S. – A History of Western Political Thought – Routledge 1966 – 0-415-11962-6

S = Sabine, G.H.  & Thorsen, T.L. – History of Political Theory – 4th edn. Holt, Reinhart & Winston/Dryden Press 1973 - 0-03-910283

TI:  Irwin, T: History of Western Philosophy 1. Classical Thought OUP 1989 (Opus) 1989 – 0-19-2891774-4


See also: D Ross, Aristotle, Routledge 1995 (6th edn)




1. Aristotle’s Life

Aristotle was born in a Greek colony in Macedonia (Stageira), so he was not an Athenian citizen… - this may help to explain his preoccupation with the question of citizenship.


In 367, age 17, he went to Athens to study with Plato at the Academy, where he stayed for 20 years, until the death of Plato in 347. He developed Plato’s thinking, but eventually broke with it. As McLellan says, this must have been difficult for Aristotle). Aristotle avoids the extreme ideas that Plato put forward – his concerns with citizenship and a ‘moderate’ approach in politics are closer to our own way of thinking.



Then in 343 he became tutor to Alexander of Macedonia, who was then aged only 13, but who was later to become Alexander the Great – an imperial ruler. This is somewhat paradoxical, since Aristotle’s ideas were all based on the city-state, a form of political organisation that was disappearing (to be replaced by empires).


In 334, Aristotle went back to Athens and founded the Lyceum: here students and teachers often walked together down the "peripatos" – hence our word ‘peripatetic’. Although Aristotle wasn't a citizen, and couldn’t own any buildings, he was able lease the property.


In 323, at the death of Alexander, anti-Macedonian feelings arose and Aristotle (regarded as pro-Macedonian) left Athens – he died in Euboea in 322, at the age of 62.


2. His Importance/originality:


Aristotle’s writing is less "literary" than Plato, and his political philosophy is less "radical" or "visionary". His strength lay in his use of logic, and in the sheer breadth of his writings (he wrote about what we now would call the life sciences, - botany, biology, zoology – as well as astronomy, mathematics, ethics and politics: in those times intellectual study was not divided into separate ‘disciplines’). 


Aristotle was highly influential, though not on his immediate successors (the stoics and epicureans, who were more materialist; after these, Plato was popular: the neo-Platonists). His influence became stronger in the Middle Ages, where some of his ideas (especially his ‘teleological’ approach – perhaps also his unfortunate ideas on the differences between men and women) were adopted by Christianity.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, with the reaction against religion, Aristotle again fell out of favour, but he has more recently been given a more sympathetic treatment. (TI p 144)


3. Aristotle’s method.


To understand Aristotle, it is helpful if we start with his method: his work was based on observations of "phainomena" i.e. phenomena – things and events that can be observed. (M calls this "naturalistic"), and, unlike Plato, he was not sceptical about the real world. He stressed:



(a) the variety of existing things – for example he collected the details of 158 constitutions of city-states.


(b) (TI p 122) that there were common features to living things and social/political organisations: in particular, he observed that both exhibited growth and change (which perhaps he saw as dialectical?). He argued (as we shall see below) that it was in the nature of living things to grow towards fulfilment: if we understand the ‘end’ (telos) towards which something is growing, we understand its nature. (Hence the description ‘teleological’)


(c) we can break down complex things into simpler parts to help us to understand them (see Extracts)


(d) common sense beliefs; if there were contradictions in an argument, dialectic can remove them. (TI)


(e) Aristotle is ‘naturalistic’ in his use of description and observation, but in stressing the importance of telos he adds a prescriptive element, since it follows from his approach, for example, that once we have identified the ‘natural end’ of human life we can also identify (and remove?) what is unnatural…


          [Many modern thinkers are suspicious of this kind of argument: that we can identify what is ‘natural’. It has had too many unfortunate consequences for anyone who behaves in a way other than what has been accepted.


4. Aristotle’s theory of knowledge.


We now call the study of ‘how we know’: epistemology. Again, it is helpful, I believe, in understanding Aristotle’s political ideas, if we deal with this first.


Aristotle identified and distinguished between three kinds of knowledge:



(i) theoretical knowledge (knowledge he believed was truly philosophical or scientific, e.g. theology, astronomy, mathematics, biology, botany); here knowledge is most certain, universal, “necessary”, provable etc.


(ii) practical knowledge: ethics, rhetoric, politics, i.e. where the data on which the knowledge is based arises from human activity, and it is therefore less stable (Skinner), less certain, universal, provable. This is a very important argument when it comes to ethics: for Aristotle ethical judgements apply only "for the most part" (is it always wrong to lie?). This kind of knowledge is a matter of “judgement” (based on “experience”?) – in contrast to Plato’s “philosophers” whose knowledge is theoretical and not necessarily suitable for practical affairs (Foster)…


Similarly, Aristotle is saying (in contrast to Plato) that there is no one best political system; rather, we need to take into account particular circumstances.


          [This will probably strike most of us as common sense – though if we examine the current dominant belief that ‘democracy’ can and must be applied everywhere, then it becomes perhaps less obvious that common sense is right?

          [It would be wrong, I believe, to argue that Aristotle’s position leads to ‘relativism’ – that there is no way of differentiating between good and bad political systems etc. We shall see below that his recognition of differences is accompanied by a strong sense of what would be right or wrong.


(ii) for me there is a problem with Aristotle’s view that productive knowledge – how to make things – was the lowest kind of knowledge. I need hardly say that this belief has persisted to modern times…


So, whereas Plato distinguished between, and contrasted, ‘particulars’ (real things) and ‘universals’ (ideas or forms) – Aristotle distinguished between ‘substance’ or ‘immanence’ and ‘end’ or ‘purpose’ (= telos), and for Aristotle both are real. (TI p 124, 5)


The idea that living things grow towards the fulfilment of their nature is perhaps Aristotle’s most important idea. For humans, this end or purpose is ‘eudaimonia’ (roughly = happiness, well-being - TI p 133). The telos also has a priority in logic, since we cannot tell what something really is until it has grown fully (M).


So, Aristotle and Plato both believed that ‘the good’ is knowable, and the aim of the city and the citizen is the knowledge of goodness/truth (synderesis...?). However, whilst for Plato this knowledge was, in a very real sense, ‘ideal knowledge’ and as we saw, only philosopher-rulers could reach it, for Aristotle it is in our very nature to pursue ‘the good’ for us. This will lead us to eudaimonia. 






5. An important digression: Aristotle on eudaimonia.


In his Ethics, Book 1, Aristotle says:


"Our task is to become good men, or to achieve the highest good.  That good is happiness (eudaimonia); and happiness is an activity (energia) of the soul… in accordance with (perfect) virtue." 


Note that ‘happiness’ is not a "capacity or faculty" (hexis)  nor a state of mind... Happiness means something like "living well, or acting well".  To live well is also to be of ‘good character’ – in fact the Greek word ethika (roughly) means ‘character’... Mere morally good behaviour is second-best to the rational pursuit, by those who understand the basic principles of life, of what it is to live most fully as human beings... (S). It is also important to stress that this view is not the same as our individualistic view of ‘the pursuit of happiness’ – though it does perhaps contain the seed of this...


          [there are brief further notes on Aristotle’s ethics at the end


6. Aristotle’s Politics – outline of its contents.


Note the disordered arrangement: the text we have seems to be lecture-notes, which may have been assembled by Aristotle’s students. There also seem to be two sections, one on existing states, and one on ideal states, but the chapters containing these ideas are interwoven (S).


Book I:

1. every association has an end (its "goodness"), the state is an association, its end is the highest good (i)


2. we need to undertake an examination of the relationships that are the basis of an association - because analysing the parts and their relationships will enable us to understand the whole (ii)


          [we might recognise ideas from ecology here?


- we also need to identify the origins of the state, and how it has grown (see 3 below)

- on ‘relationships’ Aristotle notes that some things cannot exist without others e.g. male/female, ruler/ruled; but the relationships of: statesman, king, household manager, slave master, to their counterparts are not all the same (see 5 below)



3. the origins of community or association lie in the fact that people are not self-sufficient: the individual’s needs therefore lead to (are fulfilled in) the family; a family will still not be self-sufficient, so families group together to form a village, and villages group together to form a state – the end or purpose is self-sufficiency (TI: = completeness?) which is a better or higher condition that depending on something outside ourselves.


          [we might find notions of ‘sustainability’ here?


4. man also differs from animals in the ability to (speak and to) tell right from wrong, good from bad; this shared perception also leads to the formation of the state i.e. an agreement over what is "just" (political virtue or areté = adherence to the law of the community).


So, while the origins of the state are to secure life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life – the state therefore exists by nature, (physis: natural, ct. nomos: man-made), and "man is a political animal" (i.e. cannot live without a community...pp 59 & 61)


5. In making further comparisons between different kinds of relationships, Aristotle argues that the rule of a master over a slave differs from political rule because citizens are free (vii) (and equal to ruler M p 74).


6. in a section dealing with what we would now call economics, Aristotle defines household-management as to do with acquiring goods; this is a natural process - animals etc are there to be taken by humans for their use; acquisition is natural if it is for the purpose of, or the good of the household or state (ix).


- but acquiring goods for exchange, also charging interest, are disapproved of (cf. Marx) (x)


7. We must remember that Aristotle, in common with Plato, took slavery for granted – as ‘natural’ in fact; here he argues that there is a crucial difference between slavery and citizenship: citizens have a "deliberative faculty" (ability to reason), which slaves do not. We would find this offensive of course, as we would find the associated points: women possess the deliberative faculty only imperfectly, and children have not yet developed it. (xiii)


Book II:


1. Here Aristotle makes several criticisms of Plato's and others' constitutions: he rejects what he calls the "unity" of Plato's state, since "reciprocal equivalence" is what is needed to keep a state going (ii). That is, for Aristotle there is not the extreme hierarchical division between philosopher-rulers and the rest of the members of the state: citizens, as he later state, must know ‘how to rule and how to be ruled’.


2. He also rejects P's "communism", since private property is natural (but mustn't be in excess) (v). Moreover, we should be generous and give to good causes, but we cannot do this if we have no property.


3. Also against Plato, he argues that if the same people rule all the time there will be "faction", and if only the rulers are happy (by ruling) they cannot make the state happy - this can only happen if all citizens rule (because all must be free and equal) (v) and because co-operation is for every individual's good. As I have stated, this sounds more like our version of democracy – but there are important qualifications (see also below on workers).


4. Aristotle stresses the importance of moderation (vi) (see also Book III (xi) and IV (xii)…)


          [On the face of it an uncontroversial standpoint, but is it that simple?


Book III:

1. Aristotle makes his clearest definition of a citizen – a citizen is defined by their participation (i)


2. Drawing on his observations, but making a very important point about ‘difference’ as well (see above): different constitutions produce different kinds of citizen (ii)


3. In Aristotle’s mind a state seems to be synonymous with its constitution: constitutions change, therefore states change (iii)


4. A good citizen will also vary according to the constitution: a good ruler and a good citizen are not the same, since the latter should be able to rule and be ruled (iv)


5. Workers, however, since they are not free i.e. they don't have free time, which is necessary to develop good a citizen, cannot be citizens (v). Women and slaves are also excluded.

6. If in a state only the rulers benefit, this is like a master-slave relationship and this is not just – the state is an association of free men (vi) p 188.


7. Rulers should therefore rule for the benefit of the citizens, and if they don't, the state deteriorates. In a passage which shows how much we owe to the ancient Greeks when it comes to describing different kinds of political system, Aristotle argues that various ‘right’ constitutions can become deviations (vii) when the rulers act only in their own interests. Thus:


Rule by one person, in the interests of all is called a monarchy.

Rule by one person in the interests of that one person is a tyranny.


Rule by a few for the good of the people is an aristocracy.

Otherwise (when ruled for the benefit of the ruling few) it is an oligarchy.


Rule by all citizens, (the many – but note that this also means the less well-off, see viii) for the good of all is what Aristotle calls a polity. 

Rule by the citizens for their own interests – is a democracy.


It may be clear from this that Aristotle did not prefer democracy – his ideal was probably an aristocracy, though seeing the dangers of this becoming an oligarchy, he settled on a polity as the best practicable form of state.


He also notes that there are different ‘virtues’ associated with each type of constitution:


A monarchy is characterised by education, good government, virtue, honours.

Aristocracy is characterised by wealth, since the wealthy are few (see viii).

Polity is characterised by freedom.


8. Aristotle distinguishes between justice and equality - they are not the same thing (ix). He examines different groups who might hold power, in terms of the justice of the system, and rejects them all, because they would be partial (looking after their own interests). The criterion for ruling should be the good of state.


Thus, whilst considering the question of justice, he opposes oligarchy, because

it would mean justice for the unequal few; and he opposes democracy as it

would mean equality for all, which is not the same thing as justice. The state is

concerned with living well, or with ‘virtue’.  See 8: a note on Aristotle’s Ethics.





9. For Aristotle, collective judgement is the ideal, and the law may be biased (x and xi), but again, in identifying what is most practicable, he supports the sovereignty of law (what we would call the rule of law).


10. He (logically!) recognises the possibility that a perfectly good individual could rule, as their aim would be the good of the state...


Book IV:


1. As we have seen, Aristotle makes a distinction between identifying the "ideal" and identifying the "best in the circumstances." The latter necessitates "making do with what [we] have" and a "constitution that would suit pretty well all states" (ii - x) [i.e. both the "best" and "what is possible"


2. (xi, xii) here there is further consideration of the different possible forms of constitution, and he discusses the merits of the "middle" or "mixed" constitution. This (in terms of the characteristics of each discussed above) would combine virtue and wealth and freedom. He believes that the "middle" classes would be moderate in their outlook (the wealthy and the poor both seek their own interests at the expense of the good of the whole state) He describes a polity as a mixture of oligarchy and democracy.


3. In another passage that contains ideas that are now at the core of thinking about politics, Aristotle divides the constitution into several ‘elements’ (we call this the ‘separation of powers’): the deliberative, the executive, and the judicial.


Book V: concerns change in constitutions


Book VI:  deals with preserving democracy etc


Book VII: 


This book brings in an idea which Sabine says begins to undermine the whole basis of Aristotle’s thought: he discusses the ideal of the ‘philosophic life’, which would be based on contemplation. Sabine’s point is that contemplation is something that an individual does, and this is no longer a ‘collectivist’ outlook.


Aristotle also defines happiness as ‘an activity of the soul according to perfect virtue.’ He disagrees with those who argue that happiness (in the state) comes from national aggrandisement, power-seeking or war.


7. Conclusion and appraisal.


As suggested, modern readers will probably find Aristotle more sympathetic than Plato – he has more time for democracy and stresses the participation of the citizen – together with an emphasis on ‘moderation’ that can appeal.


However, some aspects of Aristotle’s thought are clearly contrary to our own (his views on women and on slavery). Some critics have said he is too ‘aristocratic’... others that he is too collectivist... Another criticism that is made is that his emphasis on contemplation is odd: it seems to be separate from the actions of rulers (or citizens) – unlike for Plato, who at least argued that it is the rulers’ ability to reason well that makes them best suited for the job! Perhaps this apparent tension in Aristotle marks the beginning of a way of thinking that was essential to Christianity: philosophy, in the sense of the pursuit of the truth, is not a practical pursuit after all – like the word of God it is beyond our understanding, and too perfect for mere mortals to use in building their political institutions (a debate we will cover in the next few weeks!).


8. A footnote on Aristotle’s ethics:


He identifies four virtues (which are guided by rational desires): courage, temperance (i.e. not to excess...), wisdom, and justice. 


In Ethics he looks for general principles/generalisations, subject to their being found inappropriate in particular circumstances - e.g. "doctrine of the golden mean": avoiding extremes, for moderation; e.g. courage is between cowardice and foolhardiness, generosity is between profligacy and meanness. Note also that Aristotle’s definition of justice is that it involves moderation and compromise.