POL B70: Classic Texts of Political Theory I: Professor Lee
Lecture 4: Aristotle
Readings for this lecture: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Book I: Chapters1–2 and 7
Book VI: Chapters 5, and 7 – 8 Book X: Chapter 9
Aristotle, Politics Book I: Chapters1–7and12–13 Book II:
Chapters 1 – 5 Book III: All chapters
Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.)
Who was Aristotle: (1) a student of Plato, founded the Lyceum whose followers later
were called ‘Peripatetic’ (from Gr. Peripatos – ‘walking around’ – because they
supposedly walked when they did philosophy) against the Platonist ‘Academics’
(members of Plato’s Academy); (2) a foreigner in Athens, (3) tutor to the young
Alexander the Great, (4) generally regarded the first ‘political scientist’ but he was not
primarily a political thinker, but a systematic philosopher concerned with all sciences;
‘politics’ forms only a small part of his system of thought, alongside rhetoric, literary
theory, botany, biology, physics.
Why read the Politics today? (1) enormous influence on political theory, both in the
classical world and in medieval and modern political thought; (2) legal theory—
foundations of the theory of ‘natural law’ [jus naturale], (3) a theory of ‘constitutional
engineering’ and forces of political change; (4) close study of the different constituent
parts of the state; (4) the mixed ‘political’ constitution [politeia], (5) excellent examples
of Aristotelian political analysis
How is Aristotle different from Plato? Some basic observations: (1) Aristotle’s style of
writing is completely different from Plato – not in dialogues, what we have are
incomplete lecture notes in outline. (2) Plato favors grand theorizing, but Aristotle is
more concerned with particular details of each case that he studies. (3) Aristotle is deeply
concerned with proper method of analysis – causation, substance, classification – not just
for politics, but in all sciences.
Politics as a subset of Ethics
Politics is regarded a subset of ethics, the branch of philosophy concerned with human
values and moral conduct – or, as Aristotle put it, ‘the philosophy of human nature.’ So,
to understand politics, Aristotle suggests we must first get a better understanding of what
humans value and why we value them.
This is the aim of Aristotle’s major work on the topic of ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics
(so named because it was dedicated to Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus). Politics cannot be
separated from ethical questions of value, which is why Politics is framed as the sequel to
the Nicomachean Ethics. Let’s begin then by looking a little bit at some of the central
points of Aristotle’s ethical thought and see how this frames his political theory.
1 Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Good
Aristotle thinks one of the ways humans are distinctive is in the way that we live our lives
according to a plan. Unlike animals, humans can deliberate about their actions and the
desired goal those actions are intended to reach.
All human actions are purposive – meaning that, everything we do has some purpose or
end [Gr. telos] connected to it.
N.E. 1.1: ‘Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is
thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been
declared to be that at which all things aim.’
But not all ends and arts are equally valuable; some arts are more important than others
because the ends they produce are more valuable and of a wider scope of impact.
N.E. 1.1: ‘The ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends;
for it is for the sake of the former [i.e., ends of the master arts] that the
latter [i.e., subordinate ends] are pursued.’
Aristotle speculates that there must, in theory, be some ultimate good which we desire for
its own sake, and not because it leads to some other good (otherwise, ‘the process would
go on to infinity’). There has to be, Aristotle thinks, some final purpose why we do the
things we do, something we desire not because it leads to something else, but because it
is valuable only for its own sake – a ‘supreme good’ (Latin translations of Aristotle
render this term as summum bonum)
This ‘supreme good’ is, in Greek, called eudaimonia – v. difficult to translate, although
some simply call it happiness. But it is better expressed as the condition of ‘living-well.’
A person who enjoys eudaimonia is one who is fully human, one who is flourishing and
living a wholly complete and good life. Aristotle’s point is that, whatever we want out of
life, one of the things we all want is this supreme good of eudaimonia. It is supremely
valuable in itself:
N.E. 1.7:‘Eudaimonia, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action’
It is an ‘activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.’ It is a distinctively human good
and can only be achieved when we are doing things, engaged in purposeful human
Why is this important for the study of politics?
Aristotle thinks eudaimonia can never be achieved in isolation. Humans can only be
fully happy and complete when they live together with others and do things together and
share things together in a community. You might say that eudaimonia is an essentially
E.g., Friendship – having a real friendship with someone is something you can’t
enjoy by yourself; you have to have another person involved.
2 The supreme good is impossible without politics
But which art or activity can bring about this ‘supreme good’?
N.E. 1.2: ‘[The supreme good] would seem to belong to the most authoritative art
and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of
this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be
studied in a state.’
‘…[Politics] legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain
from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this
end must be the good for man.’
Aristotle recognizes (N.E. 10.9) that it is very difficult to encourage people to live a
virtuous life, but it is something that must be dealt with through proper legislation.
N.E. 10.9: ‘He who wants to make men, whether many or few, better by his care
must try to become capable of legislating, if it is through laws that we can
For this reason, we must study ‘politics’ – the craft or art of producing good laws
practiced by the ‘politicians’ (in Greek, politikos). But learning about politics is not the
sort of theoretical knowledge you can get by reading a textbook (cp. Plato). Political skill
requires, above all, something Aristotle calls ‘practical wisdom’ – in Greek, phronesis. It
is the ability to calculate and deliberate well about the actions that can best bring about
the good happy life.
N.E. 6.5: ‘it is a true and reasoned state of capacity to act with regard to the things
that are good or bad for man…Pericles and men like him [i.e. politicians]
have practical wisdom, namely because they can see what is good for
themselves and what is good for men in general; we consider that those
can do this who are good at managing households or states (keep the
underlined in mind for later).’
This practical wisdom is essential to the skills necessary in governing a state well (N.E.
6.8) – v. different from Plato who saw philosophical wisdom as central to proper
Yet, Aristotle also claims that this political science of legislation has never before been
studied, so he turns to the systematic study of politics.
The basics of Aristotle’s political theory
Pol. 1.1 – 1.2: Some of the most important and most-commented-upon passages in the
history of political thought. Here, Aristotle introduces several foundational claims for the
study of politics.
Let’s look more closely at four statements appearing in Pol. 1.1
Pol. 1.1: ‘Every state [polis] is an association [koinonia].’
3 Notice that the converse is not true: Not every association is a state – the private
family household, for example, is certainly a kind of association, but it is not a
polis. Much of Book I of the Politics is to explain the ways in which the polis is
different from the household.
Pol. 1.1: ‘Every association is formed with a view to some good purpose’ [telos];
Merely an extension of the ethical principle explored earlier in the Nich. Ethics.
Our actions are purposive, so similarly our reasons for joining and forming
associations must similarly be purposive, leading to some distinctive end or goal.
Pol. 1.1: ‘That association which is sovereign among them all [i.e., all other forms of
association] and embrace all others will aim highest…This is the association which
we call the state, the association which is political.’
This is one of Aristotle’s distinctive political doctrines, that there is a hierarchy of
associations, where the lesser ones are ‘nested’ in the larger ‘political association’
of the state. The polis isn’t just one among other equal associations, but it is the
‘umbrella’ association that carries and holds all others together.
Pol. 1.1: ‘It is an error to suppose…that the roles of a statesman (or ‘politician’
politikos), of a king, of a household-manager, and of a master of slaves are the
same…as if there were no differences between a large household and a small state.’
This introduces the major theme of Book I where Aristotle tries to show the differences.
Recall also Nich.Ethics Book 6 that household-managers and statesmen both exercise
phronesis, but in different ways. The purpose now of the Politics is to get clear on what
is distinctive about the statesman (politikos).
Pol. 1.2 develops further these ideas by explaining how the polis comes into existence.
His most important claim is the idea that the polis exists by nature – and so, Aristotle
suggests there must be a natural origin for the polis – ‘natural’ meaning that it is not by
voluntary choice, but by a natural force or urge that the state is created. (later challenged
by modern thinkers who think politics is ‘artificial’ – Hobbes)
We can’t survive naturally on our own, so we naturally form associations with others:
(1) the union of male and female for reproduction; (2) the relationship of the ruler and
the ruled. Notice that Aristotle thinks these relationships exist naturally, and are not
governed by any social convention.
To secure goods of life, humans form even more complex associations in the following
Private household à Villages (formed of many households) à Polis (formed of
This is an example of what is called a teleological argument, because it tries to analyze
the polis in terms of its purpose or end (telos). The sequence finally stops at the polis
4 because, unlike all the lesser associations, the polis is fully self-sufficient and
independent (autarkeia; ‘autarky’). Only in the polis is it possible to live the good life,
the life of eudaimonia.
A common theme that comes up throughout the Politics – for example:
3.6: ‘The good life is indeed their chief end’
3.9: ‘A state [polis] must concern itself with virtue [arête]. Otherwise the
association is a mere military alliance…A state [polis] is an association
intended to enable its members…to live well: its purpose is a perfect and
* State exists not just for basic protection and survival, but chiefly for ethical
reasons – to make people more virtuous.
-Notice that the ‘building-blocks’ of the polis are not individuals, but lesser associations.
The polis, you might say, is an ‘association of associations’ – another distinctive aspect
of Aristotelian political thought.
-Notice also that he stops at the polis. He doesn’t go beyond to larger forms of
association. Aristotle was definitely aware of great ancient empires (Persia, Macedonia),
but thinks these cannot sustain a good life – they were too big (assumes that the polis
should have face-to-face interaction between citizens)
Aristotle’s key doctrine is that political life is natural, not artificial.
Pol. 1.2: ‘Every state (polis) exists by nature’
If you can live without a state, then you must be ‘either subhuman or superhuman.’
For this reason, Aristotle makes the very famous claim that,
Pol. 1.2: ‘Man is by nature a political animal (zoon politikon).’
But what is the key distinctive human power that separates humans from other
‘gregarious animals’ (like bees or ants or birds)? The power of speech (logos):
Pol. 1.2: ‘Speech…serves to indicate what is useful and what is harmful,
and so also what is just and what is unjust.’
Enables humans to have deliberative judgment (prohairesis)
Pol. 1.2: ‘The state has a natural priority over the household and over any
individual among us. For the whole must be prior to the pa