Skip over navigation

Politics

Aristotle

Book I

Important Terms

Book II

Summary

Aristotle defines the polis, or city, as a koinonia, or political association, and he asserts that all such associations, like all deliberate human acts, are formed with the aim of achieving some good. He adds that political association is the most sovereign form of association since it incorporates all other forms of association and aims at the highest good.

The different kinds of associations that exist are founded on different kinds of relationships. The basic unit of association is the household, the next is the village, and the ultimate association is the city, toward which end humans, seeking to attain the highest quality of life, naturally move. Aristotle concludes, "man is by nature a political animal." Only as part of a city can people fully realize their nature; separated from the city, they are worse than animals.

Aristotle identifies the three kinds of relationships that make up the household: master-slave; husband-wife; and parent-child. He also identifies a fourth element of the household, which he calls the "art of acquisition."

Aristotle views slaves as the means by which the master secures his livelihood. He defends slavery by noting that nature generally consists of ruling and ruled elements: some people are slaves by nature, while others are masters by nature. It is thus unjust to enslave, through war or other means, those who are not slaves by nature. Though being suited to mastery or slavery is generally inherited, slavery is just only when the rule of master over slave is beneficial for both parties.

Aristotle likens the relationship between master and slave to that between soul and body: the master possesses rational, commanding powers, while the slave, lacking these, is fit only to carry out menial duties. He also likens the relationship between master and slave to that between a monarch and his people and that between a statesman and free citizens.

Aristotle examines the art of acquisition, which pertains to the satisfaction of basic needs, distinguishing between natural and unnatural acquisition. Different people go about satisfying these needs in different ways, depending on their mode of life: some are farmers, some hunter-gatherers, and some pirates or freebooters, etc. This securing of food, shelter, and other necessities is called natural acquisition because it is an indispensable part of the management of a household.

Unnatural acquisition, on the other hand, consists of accumulating money for its own sake. Aristotle observes that goods such as food and clothing have not only a use-value, but also an exchange-value. In societies where trade is common, a monetary currency naturally arises as a facilitator of exchange. The aim of exchange is the accumulation of such currency—i.e., the production of monetary wealth rather than the natural acquisition of goods. Aristotle further dislikes this accumulation of currency because there is no limit to the amount of currency one can accumulate, leading people to indulge in an excess of enjoyment.

Aristotle addresses the household relationships of husband-and-wife and father- and-child. The former relationship resembles that of the statesman to his people in that the husband and wife share the same free (i.e., not slave) nature; that the male, by his nature, is more fit than the female to command, justifies the fact that it is the husband, not the wife, who rules the household. The latter relationship resembles that of the king to his subjects, as the father rules by virtue of his children's love for him and their respect of his age. The respective virtues of master, wife, child, and slave vary in aim and measure according to the different roles these individuals fulfill.

Analysis

Much of Aristotle's political philosophy is based on the idea of teleology—that everything in nature exists for a specific purpose. His ##Nicomachean Ethics##, which in many ways parallels the Politics, argues that the end goal of human existence is happiness and that this happiness involves the human faculty of reason. The Politics is largely an attempt to determine what kind of political association is best suited for securing happiness for its citizens.

Ancient Greece was divided into small city-states, and these poleis meant much more to their inhabitants than modern cities do to theirs. The interests of a polis and those of its citizens were seen as identical, since both city and man aimed for happiness. Thus, the concept of an opposition between individual rights or freedoms and the laws of city or state did not exist in ancient Greece.

Aristotle's belief that man can only become fully human when he engages in the political association of the city is a strongly communitarian view that would meet with heavy opposition from libertarian thinkers. By asserting that man fails to fulfill his ultimate purpose when he is disconnected from the state, Aristotle is not simply arguing that the laws of the state should restrict man's freedom; he is arguing also that life has no value outside the confines of the state.

The polis that Aristotle so admires could only exist with the heavy exploitation of slave labor, so Aristotle's defense of the institution of slavery is not surprising. His arguments in support of slavery are a bit confused and sometimes even contradictory, as he seems to attribute some amount of rationality to slaves while simultaneously denying that they possess any. His argument rests on the idea that there exist "natural slaves," people who lack rationality and so cannot properly exercise their own freedom; it is beneficial for such individuals to be enslaved, since their master can supply the rationality that they lack. The problem with this argument, however, is that slaves must necessarily have some kind of rationality if they are to follow orders and respond to commands. Aristotle almost admits as much at, though he doesn't seem to recognize the full implications of this concession: if slaves have rational minds, then they are not "natural slaves" and thus, according to Aristotle, should not be enslaved.

Aristotle's discussion of acquisition is particularly interesting from a capitalist viewpoint. The modern global economy revolves entirely around the accumulation and exchange of currency, practices which Aristotle abhors, and the single-minded pursuit of money has come to be perceived as a fundamental element of much of western society. ##Karl Marx## claimed to have found similarities between Aristotle's discussion of acquisition and his own theories, and the communitarian nature of Marx's thought seems to draw from Aristotelian political philosophy.

More Help

Previous Next
The Mere Acquisition of Coin

by readingthegreat, July 25, 2013

Early in book one, Aristotle states, “for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.” The wording of “they think” in his statement implies that humankind seeks “good” based on their subjective definition of the term. If humankind seeks what they think is good, it naturally falls that individuals will seek what they believe to be good for themselves, which then seems to lead naturally to the accumulation of coin because of its ability to bring material comforts.

I want to believe that money does not b... Read more

0 Comments

25 out of 34 people found this helpful

Follow Us