Literature Study GuidesPoliticsBook 2 Chapters 1 12 Summary

Politics | Study Guide

Aristotle

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Politics | Book 2, Chapters 1–12 | Summary

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Summary

Book 2, Chapter 1

Throughout the book, Aristotle seeks a model for the best government; to find this, he studies existing regimes. Citizens form the basis for any city; they must share some commonality, such as location. Cities are made up of groups of people living in a particular place. Socrates said children, women, and property should be held in common—they are not individual property. This contrasts with Aristotle's view on households. Aristotle believes private property is important for a well-functioning society.

Book 2, Chapter 2

Aristotle discusses the difficulty of holding women collectively, which Socrates encouraged. Socrates believed the city should be as collective as possible because this encourages moral actions. Aristotle believes the concept of a city is destroyed if too much is held collectively. For Aristotle, a city is a conglomeration of individuals of varying skills and economic conditions. Diversity is essential, but rule should remain consistent. If the city is not naturally a conglomerate, people should not try too hard to unify it: "Obviously a state which becomes progressively more and more of a unity will cease to be a state at all. Plurality of numbers is natural in a state; and the farther it moves away from plurality toward unity, the less of a state it becomes and the more a household, and the household in turn an individual." Political leadership should provide sufficient unification.

Book 2, Chapter 3

Aristotle notes no two citizens are alike, so citizens cannot form a cohesive group, and the statement "all say the same thing" is a fallacy. He considers complete collectivity harmful; he believes what is held by the collective is the least cared for. Even if families form collectives, Aristotle believes children will seek relationships with their biological parents.

Book 2, Chapter 4

Aristotle says if citizens are part of a pure collective, involuntary homicides, assaults, and verbal abuse will increase. He believes the family unit reduces the chance of such occurrences. He notes a collective would have to ban sexual intercourse for love; it would complicate things too much. Socrates's argument for collective relations begins to unravel when examined closely; when many people become as one, the power of relationships is diluted and becomes difficult to value. The matter of children is also complicated; they would have to be transferred from their birth family to the collective life. Aristotle believes the family unit based on heterosexual coupling is the foundation of a positive society.

Book 2, Chapter 5

Governments must carefully consider property, determining what is held privately and what is held collectively. For instance, perhaps an individual can hold a piece of land, but crops from the land are owned collectively. Or both crops and land can be held collectively. Aristotle believes sharing crops would lead to resentments; some growers inevitably will think they are doing more work in the field than others. It is difficult to live together and share resources. Sharing must be among those who have good character. In well-functioning cities, people have individual property but assist friends or loved ones in need. In the Greek city of Sparta, people often share slaves. Aristotle believes it is best for property to be private but shared with others. There is pleasure in private ownership. There is the potential for greed, but most people derive pleasure from sharing with relatives and friends. Aristotle believes owning things collectively can increase strife because collectivism doesn't diminish people's selfish instincts. Aristotle thinks education is the best way to unify citizens. Education introduces commonalities. Aristotle says Socrates's ideas on sharing property are insufficiently fleshed out; Socrates did not provide the rules and ordinances necessary to make his ideas work.

Book 2, Chapter 6

Aristotle discusses the pros and cons of some of Plato's arguments. In the book Laws, Plato writes about necessary laws but does not focus on methods of political rule. Aristotle says legislators should focus on two things: the territory and the people who inhabit it. He believes it is also important to consider neighboring territories when making laws. Plato says a territory should include only as much land as is needed to allow people to live moderately. Aristotle, on the other hand, says if all property is shared, the population must be controlled. He thinks private property helps control the population because people will have only as many offspring as they can afford. Plato's theory also fails to address what sets rulers apart from the ruled.

Book 2, Chapter 7

In Laws Plato indicates no one should own more than five times as much as any other citizen. Aristotle agrees with this basic idea but says it should be adjusted to account for the number of children people have. He also notes that such limits will not prevent people from becoming envious of others' nonmonetary awards and honors. In his opinion, the greatest injustices are caused by excess. Aristotle says individuals can be allowed a certain amount of excess, but not enough to enable others to gain by going to war with them. He notes that human wickedness is insatiable. Aristotle feels Plato errs by equalizing land but not other valuables. He thinks Plato's political philosophies can work only in smaller cities.

Book 2, Chapter 8

Urban planner Hippodamus (498–408 BCE), who invented the division of cities, also laid out hypothetical plans for what he believed is the best city. To his mind each city should contain 10,000 men, divided equally among artisans, farmers, and the military (those given arms). Territory should be divided into three parts: sacred land, public land, and private land. Hippodamus recommended a court system in which citizens could make decisions by voting. Rulers would come from all three parts of the city and would be chosen by the people's vote. Aristotle believes Hippodamus's plan is problematic: the military would end up ruling the city, and the artisans would be too weak, possessing neither land—like the farmers—nor weapons—like the military. Aristotle also finds flaws in Hippodamus's proposed court system because the judges and jurors do not confer with one another before submitting their ballots.

Book 2, Chapter 9

Aristotle says it is helpful to consider a regime's neighboring cities. During the Spartans' imperial rule, women administered many matters. In governments Aristotle has studied, he has found instances of rule by women. Aristotle believes women have political potential, but he still believes in limiting their rights. Aristotle doesn't believe women should be able to gain wealth and says dowries should remain small. The Spartan government made laws to encourage procreation, but Aristotle believes this will result in increased poverty because households will not have the resources to provide for their offspring. He also says those making judicial choices should be educated and of advanced age. Additionally, rulership should not necessarily be hereditary; leaders should be those who have the best temperament for the job.

Book 2, Chapter 10

Sparta has imitated the Greek city-state of Crete in many respects. Cretans have some shared funds they call "friends messes." This collective money is available for those in need. In Crete, rulers are elected from certain elite families. The government may become somewhat chaotic because rulers may quit or be expelled in the middle of their terms. Since leaders are chosen from popular elites, the ruling families often create something like a monarchy. Crete generally manages to remain safe from foreign invasion because of its island location. But one successful invasion laid bare some weaknesses in the city-state's laws. If not for its isolated location, Crete probably would not be considered a successful model of governance.

Book 2, Chapter 11

The political rules in Carthage, located in the Carthaginian Empire, are similar to those of the Cretans and Spartans. However, in Carthage the king is not elected from a specific family; instead he can come from any wellborn family. The kings and the senators can decide whether to put matters up to a vote of the people. Average citizens can propose changes to senators and kings. Carthaginian rulers are not paid, so they must come from wealth. Wealth, therefore, is highly valued in Carthage society; it ranks above virtue. After rulers take office, they often try to profit from it, and the regime turns into an oligarchy.

Book 2, Chapter 12

Sparta has undergone various changes. Government official and writer Solon (638–558 BCE) influenced the government to make the courts more important. Solon ensured that power was concentrated among the wealthy. Spartans made new laws to enforce morality, such as harshly punishing those who commit offenses while intoxicated.

Analysis

Property is at the heart of arguments for or against certain governments. In ancient Greece, people could hold private property. In many other societies and cultures before the time of feudal Europe, the commons remained important. Citizens' relationship to property was fervently debated, as evidenced by Aristotle's reference to diverse philosophical thinking by Plato and Hippodamus. Democratic governments reliant on individuals' independence began to adopt Aristotle's argument.

Some of Aristotle's notions about the ideal government are unlikely to appeal to modern readers. For one, he doesn't think women should hold power; like children, they should be controlled by the male head of the household. He also believes free labor from slaves is essential to keeping households, and thus cities, functioning well.

Aristotle argues for a weakening of military power so military forces do not overtake the city. He does not believe everyone in a city should have the right to bear arms; this would make it easier to overthrow the regime. The military is one of the strongest parts of the city—stronger than workers and farmers—because of its equipment and knowledge of battle techniques. Thus there is always the chance the military will take over the regime. Aristotle notes that ancient Sparta spent all its resources on its military; it could survive only if it experienced military success. Aristotle views this as a dangerous practice.

Crete, Aristotle notes, was a weak city-state because there was constant infighting between elite citizens. The government never fully stabilized, so it collapsed. The example of Crete taught Aristotle a lesson about the importance of peace between elites. In contrast to Crete, Carthage was an emblem of stability.

Aristotle believes any law or regime changes should occur slowly to prevent chaos. People who are not free men—that is, women, children, and slaves—should have less power to ensure the government will work optimally. This is why, for example, Aristotle says women should not gain money from dowries. He also argues for private property as opposed to common property. Aristotle believes people will share because they are generally moral and will be inclined to take care of others.

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