Book VII marks Aristotle's attempt to envision an ideal city. He distinguishes between three kinds of goods: external goods (wealth, reputation, etc.); goods of the body (health, sensual pleasure, etc.); and goods of the soul (wisdom, virtue, etc.). Aristotle gives preeminence to goods of the soul, since they are ends in themselves, whereas the other two kinds of goods are merely means to this end. Goods of the soul depend ultimately on each individual's nature, not on luck. A city, like a person, needs internal goodness and wisdom in order to be happy.
Aristotle confronts a dilemma: is the ideal civic life an external life of political action, or an internal life of philosophical speculation? Dismissing the militaristic life as focusing exclusively on what should only be a measure of security, Aristotle compares statesmanship and solitary contemplation. On one hand, governing in a city of freeborn men is a high-minded activity, and an active life of politics is preferable to an inactive life, since happiness is a state of action, not inaction. On the other hand, governing others full-time is not fulfilling, and a life of philosophical contemplation is far from inactivity. One's thoughts are the authors of one's deeds, so thought is intimately linked with action.
Aristotle believes that the population of a city should be neither too large nor too small. Small cities are not self-sufficient, while large cities are difficult to govern. The judicial and electoral functions of the city require that the citizens know one another and be able to judge one another's character. Aristotle thus advises that the population of a city be "the greatest surveyable number required for achieving a life of self-sufficiency."
Similarly, the territory should be large enough to ensure self-sufficiency and leisure but small enough to be surveyable (readily taken in by the eye), for purposes of defense and facilitation of commerce. Aristotle advocates living by the sea and building a seaport, though he warns of the danger of having unwanted aliens crowd the city. Living by the sea allows for easier commerce, though such commerce should be conducted in a spirit of temperance rather than greed. Aristotle also recommends building up a navy, but putting it in the command of farmers and serfs, rather than citizens.
Aristotle believes that Greeks make ideal citizens as they fit a perfect compromise between high spirit and skill and intelligence. He also believes that Europeans to the north are full of spirit but lack the skill and intelligence for political organization, whereas Asians have skill and intelligence but lack spirit and are easily subjected and enslaved.
Concerning social structure, Aristotle makes a sharp distinction between those elements that are necessary parts to the city (such as slaves) and those that are integral parts of the city. Slaves are like property: no city can exist without them, but they themselves are not the city. Aristotle identifies six components of a city: food, crafts, arms, property, worship, and government. The first two must be left to non-citizen farmers and laborers since they require a great deal of work and cannot be combined with the citizen's life of leisure. The citizens themselves should undertake the rest: the young should serve in the military; the middle-aged should govern; and the old should serve in the cult of the gods. The citizens, furthermore, should own all property, some publicly and some privately.
Aristotle adds that the city should be built with fortifying walls and access to fresh water. It should also be pleasant and amenable to a healthy political life.
Aristotle draws a sharp and important distinction between ends and means. Happiness and rational activity are ends in themselves: man pursues them solely for their own sake. Wealth and health are merely means to these ends; they are necessary to happiness not because they themselves are intrinsically good, but because it is difficult to achieve happiness without them.
Aristotle is also very firmly anti-militaristic, arguing that military might is not, as some warmongers may think, an end in itself, but rather merely another means. War is sometimes necessary and a strong military always so, but only because it is difficult for a city to achieve its true goal of happiness without maintaining security.
Aristotle's application of this reasoning to the city yields a social dichotomy that seems perverse to the modern reader because it makes privilege contingent on the arbitrariness of birth. The goal of the city is to create a life of leisure for its citizens that will allow them to achieve happiness through rationality. A citizen is thus an end in himself, while non-citizens, such as slaves, women, and serfs, are simply means to this end. Their work is necessary for creating enough leisure time for the citizens to enjoy happiness, but they themselves do not merit a share of this happiness. This separation of the population runs counter to modern Western conceptions of the individual as an entity deserving respect, which owes a great deal to Kant's belief that it is inherently wrong to treat people as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves.
Aristotle justifies this inequality of benefits by means of his teleological view of nature. It was taken as a matter of fact in his world that Greeks were better than non-Greeks, men better than women, and those of noble birth better than those of low birth. As a result, noble Greek men were considered the best- suited individuals for the life of good quality, and it was understood that everyone else should slave away to help them secure this end.
The compromise between the life of political action and the life of speculative philosophy is one of the central tensions of the Politics. Aristotle's remarks that all citizens should know one another and that the population be "surveyable" reinforce the intimate nature of the polis and the fact that the political life is necessarily social. The contemplative life, on the other hand, requires a great deal of solitude. Though citizens must engage in political life in order to govern the city, Aristotle ultimately concludes that political life is merely a means to the end of philosophical speculation, as it helps maintain the conditions that make the speculative life possible.
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.
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