The texts that have come down to us from Antiquity were written for a time and place very different from our own. Their very origins are often mysterious, and yet, their concerns often speak to us very directly. We do not even know how Aristotle’s Politics, his main political treatise, were edited. They appear to be the philosopher’s fossilized lecture notes, which he would have used when teaching in his Lyceum, or were perhaps drafted to enable students not present to read them privately.
By their nature, the Politics are an excellent introduction to ancient Greek political practice and philosophy, and one which can be fruitfully read even by young minds. Aristotle’s pedagogical method, presenting the apparent data (phainomena) and various opinions of learned men (endoxa) is particularly helpful: he provides an almost encyclopedic overview of the opposing viewpoints which were prevalent and of the practices of the various ancient city-states. We get a strong sense of the issues and debates which were already agitating our people. Aristotle’s insights concerning the nature of responsible citizenship and the dangers of excessive egalitarianism and diversity remain relevant to this day.
Aristotle’s political thought — at least in the surviving works — does not soar to the eugenic and spiritual heights of Plato. However, Aristotle’s moderate and pragmatic brand of politics is much more palatable to someone raised in modern liberalism, while at the same time being a better introduction to the communitarian and aristocratic political ethics of the ancient Greeks. What was really unique about the Greek experiment of the city-states was the practice of citizenship. Never before and rarely since, even within the Western world, has a substantial body of the people been so involved in their own collective self-government. We would be mistaken however in equating citizenship in the ancient polis with that of the republicanism of the Enlightenment, let alone of the postwar liberal democracies.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, a companion piece to the Politics dedicated to his son Nicomachus, Aristotle argues that we should have as much respect for unreflective views won from practical experience as for abstract arguments: “we ought to attend to the undemonstrated sayings and opinions of experienced and older people or of people of practical wisdom not less than to demonstrations; for experience has given them an eye they see aright” (6.11). Aristotle’s politics can in fact be considered somewhat conventional for an upper-class Greek — arguing for a moderate regime based on law and a sizable middle-class of citizen-soldiers. However, as we shall see, he also rationalizes traditional Greek politics in biological terms with novel scientific foundations and philosophical ends.
Aristotle embraced the ethnocentric, communitarian, and virile traditions of the Greek polis. For the Greeks, the ideal of citizenship did not mean guaranteeing a set of arbitrary “inalienable rights” as ends in themselves or the privilege of simply doing as one pleased. Rather, they believed that the good of the individual necessarily depended upon the good of the whole, to which all had to sacrifice when necessary. Citizenship meant not rights, but participation in the setting and enforcement of duties. As Aristotle eloquently puts it, citizenship is “to rule and be ruled in turn.” In the Greek city-state, this meant varying degrees of participation in the Assembly, the courts, and political and military offices. For Aristotle, as for the Greeks in general, citizenship was incompatible with egalitarian excess, decadence, and effeminacy.
In considering the possible structures of government discussed by Aristotle, we ought to bear in mind the sheer diversity of Greek polities scattered around the Mediterranean: the commercial-democratic imperial metropolis of Athens, the agrarian and austere military aristocracy of Sparta, the multiethnic tyranny of Syracuse, traditional monarchies, the democratic federations of Boeotia and Arcadia, tribal confederacies . . . the Ancients were certainly far more tolerant of diversity in forms of government than postwar Moderns are.
The Greek city-state could indeed be extremely intrusive. By modern liberal standards, it was not just authoritarian but “totalitarian” — not recognizing a private life wholly free from politics and seeing the state as having a decisive role in the formation of culture. Aristotle himself recognized that law and culture were thoroughly intertwined, as “laws resting on unwritten custom are even more sovereign, and concerned with issues of still more sovereign importance, than written laws” (1287a32). The state’s role included the definition and enforcement of positive cultural norms and customs. Economic, family, and religious life could be sharply regulated, so that all would acquire healthy habits promoting the common good. The polis’s unique system of government was possible because of the smallness and familiarity of the city — generally not numbering more than 50,000 people, with far less citizens. The citizens were bound together by ties of kinship, personally knew the leading politicians directly, and participated on a day-to-day basis in civic life, whether as jurors, assemblymen, or soldiers. For Aristotle, therefore, citizenship would not be possible if the whole Peloponnesian peninsula were a single state or indeed if the supercity of Babylon were a republic.
In practice, ancient Greek politics was defined by choosing office-holders, deciding on policies, and holding trials, as well as the more-or-less amicable debates surrounding these. Depending on the kind of regime, hereditary kings, elected councils, or even the entire citizenry gathered in assembly would decide on such matters. In domestic affairs, the state would regulate and supervise the marketplace, countryside, and marriages, as well as expenditures on public works, the organization of military forces on land and sea, and immigration policy. They would also define the legally-recognized classes of citizens, and censor or promote various forms of culture. The more ambitious cities, such as Sparta, would seek to regulate reproduction, systematically educate the youth, and organize the citizens’ common meals, gymnastics, and military training.
In foreign affairs, the state would decide on war and peace, the formation of alliances or confederations, economic embargoes, whether to subsidize allies, how to treat conquered enemies (enslavement or extermination), the establishment of puppet regimes, and overseas colonization. The stakes were high: failure to maintain goodwill among citizens often led to gruesome civil wars and conquest by invaders, including fellow Greeks, who could be as cruel as they pleased. The polis as a system of government was a demanding one which was eventually surpassed by the great universal empires. Nonetheless, the polis served the Greeks well for centuries, enabling their expansion across the Mediterranean; it was an unprecedented experiment in self-government. The polis allowed for an astonishing diversity of forms of governments and corresponding achievements, from the martial prowess and stability of Sparta to the economic, political, and cultural dynamism of Athens.
Aristotle’s Biopolitical Foundations
It is an acorn’s nature to become an oak: Aristotle was a keen biological observer.
If Aristotle’s politics then appears broadly conventional, his justification for the polis is novel and sophisticated: he grounds the polis on a solid foundation — nature, but with the goal of promoting rational ends based on human reason. For Aristotle, as for the ancient philosophers in general, ethics is founded upon the recognition of the inequality, unity, and nature of things. In brief: the better should lead the worse, all should recognize their role in society as a whole, and people must respect the real nature of each thing — nature as it is rather than what one might want it to be.
Uniquely, Aristotle’s politics is, to a surprisingly “modern” degree, grounded in biology. For if Aristotle was not a spiritual leader in the mold of Plato, he was an outstanding scientist, and indeed the first scientist to leave us a massive corpus of empirical data, analysis, and theory, notably in the field of biology. As D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson observed:
The influence . . . of scientific study, and in particular of Biology, is not far to seek in Aristotle’s case. It has ever since been a commonplace to compare the state, the body politic, with an organism, but was Aristotle who first employed the metaphor. . . . Just as in order to understand fishes, he gathered all kinds together, recording their forms, their structure, and their habits, so he did with the Constitutions of cities and states. . . . But whatever else Aristotle is, he is the great Vitalist, the student of the Body with the Life thereof, the historian of the Soul.
Aristotle had a teleological view of nature and biology: every species is naturally fitted for a particular end, fulfilling a particular role in the cosmic order. What is ‘natural’ to an organism is that which allows it to actualize that species’ potential and final end. One’s nature is both one’s existing condition and one’s end: the nature of a flourishing acorn is to become a mighty oak.
Aristotle’s ethics and politics aimed at human eudaimonia, meaning “happiness,” or rather “flourishing” and “well-being” in this very specific sense: that human beings fulfil their potential as a rational and social species. As different species differ in character and purpose, it follows for Aristotle that there is “a different philosophic wisdom about the good of each species” (NE, 6.7). For Aristotle, to respect one’s nature, in fact meaning our biological nature, is to realize that an organism does not prosper in every circumstance: just as an oak tree does not thrive in every soil or climate, so humans do not flourish under just any set of laws. Aristotle accepts the conventional pagan conception of human happiness:
Gentle [i.e. aristocratic] birth, a wide circle of friends, a virtuous circle of friends, wealth, creditable offspring, extensive offspring, and a comfortable old age; also the physical virtues (e.g. health, beauty, strength, size, and competitive prowess), reputation, status, good luck, and virtue. (Rhetoric, 1.5)
Aristotle had a remarkably holistic and biological view of human flourishing. There is that naïvely pagan and aristocratic assumption that happiness would indeed mean that we would wish ourselves and our posterity to be as beautiful and healthy as possible. Aristotle’s unabashed ethics are typically Hellenic: there is no egalitarian consolation for the ugly and the misbegotten, there is no pretense that all human beings can be happy and actualized. Rather, Aristotle, like the Greeks in general, celebrates excellence.
Aristotle uncontroversially claims that what makes humans unique relative to other animals is our capacity for reason, that highest part of us. The upshot is that, for Aristotle, human societies should not be organized for “individual happiness” but rather must be organized so as to achieve collective excellence. As individuals, we must “so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us” (NE, 10.7). As a society, the pursuit of excellence is understood as creating the conditions for man to exercise his reason, both in terms of rational civic self-government and of philosophical and scientific inquiry. This vision is in fact unabashedly communitarian and aristocratic: Firstly, the human species cannot flourish and fulfill its natural role unless it survives and reproduces itself in the right conditions; secondly, the society must be organized so as to grant the intellectually-gifted and culturally-educated minority the leisure to exercise their reason.
The state’s purpose is then to fulfill our nature, not merely by securing the existence of the community, but enabling the gifted minority to engage in rational activity. Aristotle famously said that “man is by nature a political animal” (1253A2), by which he meant that he can neither lead a civilized life outside of a community, nor fulfill his nature as a rational being outside of a polis. As politics is humanity’s ultimate exercise in the self-determination of its destiny, Aristotle considered it to be the highest branch of ethics and indeed “most truly the master art” (NE, 1.2). Politics was then for Aristotle a noble undertaking grounded in human biology: the polis is at once “a certain number of citizens” (1274b38), “the most sovereign of all [human associations],” and, therefore, “directed to the most sovereign of goods” (1252a1), and “the final and perfect association” (1252b27).
Aristotle’s premises about inequality, unity, and nature have profound implications for his biopolitics. They demand that the city be rationally and hierarchically organized, individual interests giving way to the collective interests of the community as an organic whole, including regulation of reproduction and education. The implications are perhaps made clearest by the philosopher’s biological analogies:
[I]t is clearly natural and beneficial to the body that it should be ruled by the soul, and again it is natural and beneficial to the affective part of the soul that it should be ruled by the reason and the rational part; whereas the equality of the two elements, or their reverse relation, is always detrimental. (1254b2)
[T]here must necessarily be a union or pairing of those who cannot exist without one another. Male and female must unite for the reproduction of the species — not from deliberate intention, but from the natural impulse, which exists in animals generally as it also exists in plants, to leave behind them something of the same nature as themselves. Next, there must necessarily be a union of the naturally ruling element with the element which is naturally ruled, for the preservation of both. The element which is able, by virtue of its intelligence, to exercise forethought, is naturally a ruling and master element; the element which is able, by virtue of its bodily power, to do the physical work, is a ruled element, which is naturally in a state of slavery, and master and slave have accordingly a common interest. (1252a24)
If politics is aimed at the good of the city, then this means policy should seek to improve the citizenry, which Aristotle understands in both a biological and cultural sense. Again, “a city is a certain number of citizens.” Hence, Aristotle considers education and population policies to be of fundamental importance and as practically the first duties of the state. Aristotle’s communitarian ethos is made particularly clear in his comments on education. He writes: “All would agree that the legislator should make the education of the young his chief and foremost concern” (1337a11). Furthermore:
The city as a whole has a single end. Evidently, therefore, the system of education must also be one and the same for all, and the provision of this system must be a matter of public action. It cannot be left, as at present, to private enterprise, with each parent making provision privately for his own children, and having them privately instructed as he himself thinks fit. Training for an end which is common should also itself be common. We must not regard a citizen as belonging just to himself: we must rather regard every citizen as belonging to the city, since each is a part of the city, and the provision made for each part will naturally be adjusted to the provision made for the whole. (1337a21)
End of Part 1.