Aristotle’s Politics is sometimes classified as “communitarian,” because it places the well-being of the community as a whole above the well-being of the individual. Aristotle calls humans “political animals” because we cannot be fully human without active participation in a city-state, and his recommendations regarding justice and education bear in mind only what will make for the strongest state. Absent entirely is the concern of modern liberalism with individual freedoms and the protection of a citizen’s private life from the public eye. Aristotle does not fail to discuss the tension between individual liberty and the demands of the state so much as he does not live in a world where this tension exists. The idea of a private life would seem absurd in a Greek city-state. All the highest aims in life, from political debate to physical exercise, take place in the public sphere, and there is no conception of a “private persona,” which differs from the face people present in public. Consequently, the interests of the individual and the interests of the state are equivalent in Aristotle’s view. His prioritizing of the community above the individual, as well as his warnings about the dangers of unrestrained capitalism, had a strong influence on the work of Karl Marx.
While Aristotle’s conception of distributive justice gives a clear indication of his own aristocratic leanings, much of Aristotle’s discussion of justice remains relevant to this day. Distributive justice is the idea that honors and wealth should be distributed according to merit, so that the best people get the highest rewards. Though Aristotle insists that “best” is a matter of merit, he seems unconcerned that the rich have much greater opportunities for achieving merit and that noncitizens, women, and slaves have no opportunity at all. Effectively, he condemns them to the lowest rung of the social ladder by insisting that benefits be accorded to those with merit and defining merit in terms of qualities that their low status bars them from. Despite these aristocratic leanings, however, Aristotle has a keen sense of the dangers of power abused. In book III, he discusses at length the difficulties of ensuring that all citizens are accountable. He is not the first to recommend that the written law have greater authority than the ruling class, but he makes the argument forcefully and it is largely thanks to his influence that we take the primacy of the law as a given in the modern world.
One of the less attractive features of the Politics is Aristotle’s endorsement of slavery, which, not surprisingly, rings hollow. His argument rests on the claim that everyone needs to be ruled and those who lack the rationality to rule themselves need to be ruled by others. Aristotle opposes the enslavement of other Greeks because he believes that all Greeks are at least somewhat rational beings and so their enslavement would be unjust. However, in typical Greek fashion, Aristotle regards all non-Greeks as inferior barbarians, many of whom can only live productively in a state of slavery. However, he also argues that slaves need sufficient rationality to understand and carry out the orders of their masters. This argument contradicts the argument that slaves deserve their lot because they lack rationality entirely. If we follow Aristotle’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, we can argue that slavery is always wrong because those who make capable slaves necessarily have a level of rationality that renders their enslavement unjust. Unfortunately, Aristotle himself was too caught up in the prejudices of his own time to recognize that his argument refutes itself.