The Greek world of Aristotle's time was made up of poleis (the singular of which is polis), or small city-states, each with its own autonomous government. The polis consisted of citizens, slaves, non- citizen manual laborers (called "mechanicals"), children, women, and immigrants. The citizens were adult males generally born to citizen parents. The citizens governed the city, while the slaves, mechanicals, and women did all the work to provide the necessary food, shelter, and equipment for society. Because daily tasks were accomplished by others, citizens enjoyed a great deal of freedom and luxury. The leisure they enjoyed was highly valued, and it made possible one of the greatest periods of intellectual energy in human history. That this system was exploitative is hardly debatable, but it also produced an incredible array of philosophy, drama, art, and architecture.
The Greeks were fiercely proud of their accomplishments, and they coined the derogatory term "barbarian" to describe anyone who was not Greek. Citizenship was considered an essential part of personal identity, and thus exile from one's polis was considered a fate worse than death. There were few enough citizens in a given city that each would at least recognize, if not know, the all other citizens, and all citizens were expected to take part in public office. Unlike the modern Western system of representative democracy, in which a populace elects someone to speak for it, the polis called for all Greek citizens to voice their own opinions in large deliberative and judicial assemblies. There was a strong bond of kinship created in citizenship, as they all lived together, governed together, served in the army together, and enjoyed leisure time together.
Aristotle (384 B.C.–322 B.C.) was born in Stagira, a northern Greek city in the Kingdom of Macedonia, but he lived most of his life in Athens, generally considered the greatest of all Greek poleis. From 367 B.C. to 347 B.C., he was a student in Plato's Academy in Athens, and after twelve years abroad he ran his own school on the steps of the Lyceum in Athens from 335 B.C. until a year before his death. His admiration for the Greek polis shows itself very clearly in the Politics. He argues that the polis is the highest form of human association, and all of his discussions of political theory are based on the assumption that the polis is the best and only sensible political system.
Ironically, Aristotle was closely affiliated with the force that brought the system of independent and self-sufficient poleis to an end. In his years away from Athens, he served as a tutor for the young Alexander the Great. Within Aristotle's lifetime, Alexander unified all of Greece and assimilated it into his empire, thus effectively rendering the independent poleis extinct.
While a great many of Aristotle's recommendations are only applicable in the context of the polis, there is still a great deal that one can learn from his works. His remarks on the nature of justice, the goal of political association, and the relationship between individual and state are as relevant now as they were in his time.
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