Imagining Other:

Political Philosophy Part 1

Week 3: Aristotle - extracts


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Notes on Aristotle


Aristotle: ‘Politics’ – extracts.


(i) Book 1 chapter 1:

Observation tells us that every state is an association, and that every association is formed with a view to some good purpose. I say ‘good’ because in all their actions all men do in fact aim at what they think good. Clearly then, as all associations aim at some good, that association which is the most sovereign [‘highest’?] among them all and embraces all others will aim highest, i.e. at the most sovereign of all goods. This is the association which we call the state, the association which is ‘political’.


[Aristotle goes on to argue that it is not true that the role of a household-manager or a master of slaves is the same as that of a statesman – there is a qualitative difference, and not just a difference in numbers:] this will be quite evident if we examine the matter according to our established method. We have to analyse other composite things till they can be subdivided no further; let us in the same way examine the components of the state...


(ii) Book 1 chapter 2:

We shall, I think, in this as in other subjects, get the best view of the matter if we look at the natural growth of things from the beginning. The first point is that those which are incapable of existing without each other must be united as a pair. [e.g. male and female – but also ruler and ruled, or master and slave, since] the element that can use its intelligence to look ahead is by nature ruler and by nature master, while that which has the bodily strength to do the actual work is by nature a slave, [or] one of those who are ruled...


Thus it was out of the association formed by men with... women and slaves, that a household was first formed... This association of persons, established according to nature for the satisfaction of daily needs, is the household....

The next stage is the village, the first association of a number of houses for the satisfaction of something more than daily needs.


The final association, formed of several villages, is the state. For all practical purposes the process is now complete: self-sufficiency has been reached, and while the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life.  Therefore every state exists by nature, as the earlier associations too were natural. This association is the end of those others, and nature is itself an end: for whatever is the end-product of the coming into existence of any object, that is what we call its nature... The aim and end is perfection; and self-sufficiency is both end and perfection.


It follows that... man is by nature a political animal. [In this they are different from animals]...


 Furthermore, the state has priority over the household and over any individual among us. For the whole must be prior to the part. [A hand is not a hand without a body]


(iii) Chapter 4:

[This chapter compares a ‘good man’ with a ‘good citizen’ – Aristotle seems to me to be saying that the ‘virtue’ – areté – of a good man is a specific kind of virtue, whilst...] the virtue of a citizen of repute seems to be... to be able to rule and to be ruled well... [likewise a good ruler has to know how to be ruled. I think what he is saying is that they both need a view of the whole. However, there are some other important points made along the way:]


So then: we say a citizen is a member of an association, just as a sailor is: and each member of the crew has his different function [virtue]... rower, helmsman... and the rest... [Each individual has] a special description of his virtue; but equally there will also be a general description that will fit them all, because there is a task in which they all play a part – the safe conduct of the voyage; for each member of the crew aims at securing that. Similarly the task of all the citizens, however different they may be, is the stability of the association, that is, the constitution...


[A master has no need of knowing how to carry out the labour of his slaves, he only needs to know how to direct them.] But there is another kind of rule – that exercised over men who are free, and similar in birth. This we call rule by a statesman. It is this that a ruler must first learn through being ruled...  Not that good ruling and good obedience are the same virtue – only that the good citizen must have the knowledge and ability both to rule and be ruled. That is what we meant by the virtue of a citizen – understanding the governing of free men from both points of view... 


But the only virtue special to a ruler is practical wisdom; all the other must be possessed, so it seems, both by rulers and ruled. The virtue of a person being ruled is not practical wisdom but correct opinion; he is rather like a person who makes the pipes, while the ruler is the one who can play them.