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43 pages 1 hour read

Aristotle

Politics

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Politics by Aristotle is a study of political theories and approaches written in the fourth century BCE. Politics serves as a companion to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In Politics, Aristotle builds a case in response to Plato’s Republic. Aristotle argues that the purpose of a city is to contribute to the common good, creating a framework for individuals to pursue happiness through virtue. The philosopher and scientist gathered data on 158 different cities before writing his political treatise. Comprised of eight books, Politics serves as one of the foundations of modern political philosophy.

This guide uses the 2009 translation published by Oxford University Press. The work is translated by Ernest Barker, a former Professor of Political Science at Cambridge and Principal of King’s College London, and includes an introduction by R. F. Stalley, who studied Classics and Philosophy at Oxford. Although Barker’s translation includes chapter groupings, the Bekker section numbers are most used when referencing the work.

Summary

Politics discusses foundational concepts such as the different types of government, the best form of governing bodies, the qualifications for citizenship, and the principles of education. Aristotle’s approach is built upon three major themes: The Political Nature of Man, Politics as a Pathway for Good and Happiness, and Political Hierarchies as Natural Forms of Subjugation. Throughout the work, Aristotle proposes that political constitutions should reflect and support the aim of the individual life: to promote happiness through virtuous action. The philosopher argues that humans are political by nature and that politics can be harnessed to contribute to the common good. However, his philosophies also reflect the moral attitudes of the fourth century BCE: The philosopher’s determination of who should and should not be allowed at the political table is limited, with nature used as a rationale for excluding certain groups.

In Book 1, Aristotle asserts that humans are political creatures who naturally form governing bodies. He begins by examining the household and moves the lens slowly outward to see how the hierarchies found in cities reflect the hierarchical structure of family. The philosopher suggests that these rankings reflect the hierarchies found in nature. He utilizes this argument to support the subjugation of women, foreigners, and enslaved peoples. Aristotle’s discussions of man as living in pursuit of goodness and happiness, as well as his discussions of citizenship and the necessary components of a constitution, are therefore limited to a specific definition of humanity.

In Book 2, Aristotle advocates for balance when determining the appropriate political constitution. His philosophy in this section closely mirrors his theories on moderation found in Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle challenges Plato’s theories, including the idea that property should be shared by all. Instead, Aristotle suggests that there should be a balance between public and private property, and that a city should share power and provide an exchange to citizens that enhances their well-being. He dismisses common political structures which resemble modern-day communism as impractical.

Citizenship is defined in Book 3. The philosopher bases the definition upon character, wealth, and leisure time. He rejects the idea that farmers and laborers have the time and intelligence necessary to commit to political activities. He defines a constitution as the way political offices are distributed and managed. Monarchies, aristocracies, and polities are presented as correct forms of government which work to advance the common good. Tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy represent the incorrect forms. In Book 4, the philosopher looks more closely at these types and recognizes aristocracy as the best form of government.

The maintenance of an aristocracy or any other form of government requires a dedication to promoting the security and permanence of the constitution. Book 5 outlines various forms of constitutional conflict and argues that legislators must make it a top priority to quell conflict from the start. Tiny arguments can lead to major rifts and destroy governing bodies. The philosopher argues that justice must rule all decisions, and his theories mirror his treatment of justice in his work on ethics.

Book 6 looks once more at democracies. Aristotle suggests that there is no such thing as pure democracy, and that moderation is necessary for that form of government to maintain a livelihood. Stable democracies depend on constitutions which involve elements of oligarchies and aristocracies.

Book 7 considers the grander purpose of a governing institution. He argues that a constitution must contribute to the greater good. Like individuals, cities must aim toward achieving happiness through virtue. Humans engaged in political activity together support one another in right action. Aristotle views politics as an imperative component of living an ethical life.

Aristotle’s final book considers education and the subjects that should be taught to children. He maintains that education should serve the constitution; the characteristics and skills instilled through education should reflect the aim and goals of the city. He finishes his work by emphasizing the importance of music in education. Although music does not serve a practical purpose, it engages the soul and provides a foundation for developing intellectual growth.

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