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
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
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.
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. Book 2
Before proposing his own theory of government, Aristotle examines other theories of government and
reviews existing constitutions of well-governed states. He begins with an extended criticism of Plato's
##Republic##, interpreting its main thrust to be that citizens should share in common as much as
possible, including wives, children, and property. The goal of this community is to achieve as much unity
in the city as possible, but Aristotle counters that the city involves an essential plurality: different people
must make different contributions, fulfill different roles, and fit into distinct social classes. Otherwise, a
city will not be able to perform the many functions necessary for it to remain self- sufficient.
Aristotle disapproves of Plato's suggestion that men share the women of the city and that children be
taken from their mothers at birth and raised collectively in state nurseries. By this proposal, no child
would receive proper parental care, and the lack of family ties would render citizens less capable of
showing friendship and love. Aristotle also notes that Plato does not explain how children can be
transferred between social classes without great discord.
Aristotle also attacks Plato's remarks on the community of property, stating that the practice of
generosity, an important virtue, requires individual ownership of property. The problems people often
associate with ownership of private property arise not from privatization but from human wickedness.
The solution is to share education, not property. Aristotle also points out that Plato is not clear on
exactly what kind of ownership the farming class should have over its property. In any case, Aristotle
finds none of the possible kinds of ownership satisfying.
In a final comment on Plato's republic, Aristotle notes that it is dangerous to leave the governance of the
city entirely in the hands of one class. Besides, Plato's system seems to deprive the guardian class, and
by extension the whole republic, of happiness, thus defeating the purpose of association.
Aristotle then details the faults he has found with Plato's Laws: (1) Plato's proposed city requires a vast
territory but makes no provision for safe relations with neighbors; (2) generosity, like temperance,
should be a guiding principle regarding wealth; (3) Plato says that land should be divided into even lots
and distributed evenly between citizens but makes no allowance for fluctuations in population; and (4)
Plato seems to want a politeia, or balanced constitutional government but ends up with an oligarchy.
Aristotle then criticizes the theories proposed by Phaleas of Chalcedon and Hippodamus of Miletus.
Phaleas's primary concern is the equalization of property, but he does not realize that material equality
alone cannot make people good; rather, happiness arises out of moderation and education.
Hippodamus's class distinctions are confused, his legal reforms unsavory, and his system of rewards
Having dealt with these theoretical systems, Aristotle turns his attention to existing constitutions and
finds none that is wholly satisfactory. He finds a number of problems with the much-admired Spartans'
government: (1) the system of serfdom leaves the ever-present danger of revolution; (2) the undue
freedom given to women presents many hazards, the worst of which is a dowry system that hurts the
economy and the military; (3) the Ephors, or overseers, are elected almost at random from the general
populace; (4) both Ephors and councilors are susceptible to bribes; and (5) the state's two kings are not
elected on the basis of merit. Aristotle is dissatisfied also with Crete and Carthage. The Cretan system is elitist, susceptible to feuds,
and has only remained safe thanks to its isolation from other states. While Carthage is superior to both
Sparta and Crete, it rewards the rich too much, which encourages greediness.
Aristotle's goal in Book II is to demonstrate the need for a new theory of government, since neither a
perfect theory nor a perfect government exists. As a result, this book reads more like a polemic than a
balanced discussion. Aristotle makes concessions here and there, but on the whole he is not interested
in the merits of the theories and constitutions that he is discussing. The more flawed he can make these
examples appear, the more responsive his audience will be to his own theory. Rather than engage in a
balanced critique, Aristotle seems for the most part to isolate individual points out of context and
portray them in the worst possible light.
Aristotle's discussion of Plato's ideal republic had the potential to be one of the greatest intellectual
encounters of all time but is instead painfully unsatisfying. Aristotle seems to be misreading Plato almost
intentionally, and he rarely levels criticism of any value. One might defend Plato on a number of counts:
(1) Aristotle's claim that Plato's desire for as much unity as possible disregards the essential nature of
the city is nonsensical, since Plato's ideal republic is strictly divided into three distinct social classes; (2)
Plato proposes only that wives and children should be shared in common by the ruling guardian class, so
that children who grow up to be guardians are loyal to the state first and are not distracted by family
ties. He makes no suggestion of eliminating family ties within the other classes; (3) Only the guardian
class is supposed to do without private property; and (4) Plato's arguments for the happiness of the city
are meant to ensure the happiness of the individuals within the city.
Aristotle's attack on the Laws is even farther off the mark, and commentators have suggested that
perhaps Aristotle was referring to a version of the Laws different from the one available to the modern
reader. The criticisms of the constitution of Sparta are more valid, though Aristotle makes no reference
to the many virtues of the respected Spartan constitution. Little beyond what is stated in the Politics is
known about Phaleas, about Hippodamus, or about the constitution of Carthage. It is interesting that
Aristotle reviewed Carthage—and with a relative amount of favor at that—since it was a city in North
Africa and thus outside the pinnacle of civilization that was ancient Greece.
In spite of the weakness of Aristotle's attacks, Book II is not without merit. Most significantly, Aristotle
sustains a defense of private property. Most of the theorists he attacks that seek to abolish private
property do so with the intention of abolishing the greed and selfishness that accompany private
property. Aristotle argues that these vices result from human wickedness, not from the mere existence
of private property. Consequently, abolishing private property is neither a necessary nor a sufficient
condition for eliminating vice. If people were equal and equally wealthy, for example, they would
become lazy in their luxury. If people were equal and equally poor, they would quickly become
discontented. The history of communism in the twentieth century has done a great deal to support
Aristotle's claim that the abolition of private property is not enough to make people happy or virtuous. Book 3
Book III, Chapters 1–8
Book III is ultimately concerned with the nature of different constitutions, but in order to understand
cities and the constitutions on which they are founded, Aristotle begins with an inquiry into the nature
of citizenship. It is not enough to say a citizen is someone who lives in the city or has access to the courts
of law, since these rights are open to resident aliens and even slaves. Rather, Aristotle suggests that a
citizen is someone who shares in the administration of justice and the holding of public office. Aristotle
then broadens this definition, which is limited to individuals in democracies, by stating that a citizen is
anyone who is entitled to share in deliberative or judicial office.
Aristotle points out that though citizenship is often reserved for those who are born to citizen parents,
this hereditary status becomes irrelevant in times of revolution or constitutional change, during which
the body of citizens alters. This raises the question: to whom may citizenship be justly granted, and can
the city be held accountable for decisions made by governing individuals if these individuals have not
been justly granted citizenship? Further, if the city is not identical to its government, what defines a city,
and at what point does a city lose its identity? Aristotle suggests that a city is defined by its constitution,
so that a change in constitution signifies a change in the city. He does not, however, resolve the
question of whether a city should honor debts and obligations made under a previous constitution.
Aristotle next compares the criteria for being a good citizen and those for being a good man. One is a
good citizen to the extent to which one upholds and honors the constitution. Because there are
different kinds of constitutions there are also different kinds of good citizens. Perfect virtue, however, is
the only standard for being a good man, so it is possible to be a good citizen without being a good man.
Aristotle suggests that a good ruler who possesses practical wisdom can be both a good citizen and a
There is the further question of whether manual laborers can be citizens. Aristotle acknowledges that
they are necessary to a city but states that not everyone who is necessary to the city can be a citizen:
good citizenship requires that the citizen be free from the necessary tasks of life. Still, in oligarchies, in
which citizenship is determined by wealth, a rich manual laborer may qualify for citizenship.
Next, Aristotle details the different kinds of constitutions that exist. There are just constitutions geared
toward bringing about well-being for all of their respective citizens, and unjust constitutions geared
toward the benefit of those in power. Constitutions vary also in the size of the governing body: a single
person; a small, elite group; or the masses. Thus, there are six kinds of government: three just and three
unjust. Just government by a single person is kingship, by a small group is aristocracy, and by the masses
is politeia, or constitutional government, participation in which is reserved for those who possess arms.
The three forms of unjust government are perversions of the corresponding forms of just government: a
kingship directed toward the sole interest of the ruler is a tyranny; an aristocracy directed toward the
sole interest of the wealthy is an oligarchy; and a constitutional government directed toward the sole
interest of the poor is a democracy. Analysis
Aristotle's suggestion that a citizen is someone who shares in the deliberative or judicial offices of a city
may seem odd to the modern reader, as very few people in the twentieth century would count as
citizens by this definition. In the polis, on the other hand, involvement in the affairs of the city defined
one's identity to a large extent. Though there were certain leaders concerned exclusively with the
government of the city, all citizens were required to contribute in some way. Assemblies of citizens
made decisions in bodies whose modern equivalents are law courts and city councils, and these
assemblies would rotate membership so that every citizen served a specific term. The only aspect of this
system that remains in modern times is jury duty.
According to Aristotle, everything is made up of form—the essence of a thing—and matter—the actual
physical composition of a thing. Just as a bronze statue of Socrates has the form of Socrates and the
matter of bronze, a city has a constitution as its form and a citizenry as its matter. A city whose
constitution has changed is no longer the same city, much as a bronze statue that has been melted
down is no longer the same statue. While the citizenry actualizes the concept of a city, it is a constitution
that supplies this fundamental concept. Aristotle thus views the city as an entity much greater than the
simple sum of its citizens.
It is important to note that Aristotle's conception of citizenship is elitist. He draws a sharp distinction
between those who perform the necessary tasks to keep the city running smoothly and those who
govern these laborers and benefit from their toil. Citizens must participate in the government of city and
household, but they do not do any other work; the leisure they enjoy is made possible only by the
continuing toil of those beneath them. Aristotle further reinforces class hierarchy by arguing that
manual laborers should not be granted citizenship because they are too busy with their work to devote
enough time to education and self-improvement. Why non-citizens should consider it worth their while
to accept this system is one of the unresolved tensions in the Politics.
Aristotle will ultimately argue that just government works best when the masses are allowed to
participate. That he believes possession of arms should be a condition for citizenship in such a
constitutional government, however, further demonstrates his elitism. While this requirement ensures
that citizens will take part in defending the city, it also serves as a minimum wealth requirement.
Political power is reserved for the wealthy, while those who cannot afford weaponry have no say. Even
in Aristotle's government by the masses the very poor and their interests are ignored.
Book V, Chapters 1–7
The general topic of Book V is constitutional change: what causes constitutions to change; the ways in
which different constitutions are susceptible to change; and how constitutions can be preserved.
Aristotle argues that the root cause of constitutional change is that different groups have different
conceptions of justice and equality. While democrats believe that all freeborn people are absolutely
equal, oligarchs believe that inequality in wealth implies inequality on an absolute scale. The wealthy
and the poor are thus liable to form separate factions, each trying to alter the constitution to its
advantage. Some argue that justice should be in proportion to merit or birth, but because these individuals of great merit or high birth are so few in number, they never form powerful factions.
Absolute democracy and absolute oligarchy are not very durable, as some compromise between the two
is usually necessary. However, Aristotle suggests, democracy is less susceptible than oligarchy to
Aristotle identifies three aspects of the cause of factional conflict: (1) the state of mind that leads
someone to form a faction; (2) what can be gained or lost in forming a faction; and (3) the causes of
political disputes that may lead to factions. Aristotle then identifies eleven potential causes of
constitutional change: (1) arrogant behavior or hubris on the part of a ruler upsets his subjects; (2) a
faction realizes how rebelling might profit it; (3) people act to avoid disgrace or to win greater honor for
themselves; (4) a ruling oligarchy or monarchy is too powerful; (5) people fear punishment at the hands
of those in power; (6) those who are not in power despise the poor government of those in power; (7)
one class grows disproportionately larg