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The Politics | Context

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What Is Politics?

The word political comes from the Greek politikos, which means "of, or pertaining to, the polis," the term for the Greek city-state or community. Aristotle uses the word politikê, short for politikê epistêmê or "political science." Classical Greek thinkers divided science into three branches: contemplative science, focused on truth or knowledge; practical science, focused on virtue; and productive science, focused on creating useful or beautiful things.

Aristotle sees politics as a practical science, focused on virtue. Politicians should act honorably to promote citizens' happiness. He sees politics as a system of rules and methods to be practically implemented, not as simply a way to describe or theorize about actions or behaviors. Abstract knowledge of politics (and ethics) is worthless if not put to use; the same is true of practical knowledge.

Political science examines the role of politicians—politikos. In other words, political science is the knowledge politicians will use in their profession. Among politicians' central tasks is acting as nomothetês, or lawgivers: making laws, customs, and institutions for citizens, usually through a constitution; this constitution is an organizing principle rather than a written document—although it can be that too—and represents a community's soul. When a community changes its constitution, the community itself changes.

After a constitution's framework is in place, politicians are responsible for maintaining and reforming it, as necessary, to prevent situations that might undermine the political system. This crucial process of maintenance and reform is known as legislative science.

In Politics Aristotle addresses the city, which he considers a natural community. Aristotle believes the city, or politics, comes before family and even individuals. Its utmost goal is to promote virtue, both through laws and through education.

Forms of Government

Aristotle identifies six forms of government (or cities) in his contemporary culture―three positive and three negative:

  • aristocracy (positive): rule by the wealthy elites
  • monarchy (positive): rule by an individual
  • polity (positive): a mix of democracy and oligarchy
  • democracy (corrupt): rule by all
  • oligarchy (corrupt): rule by the few
  • tyranny (corrupt): single, oppressive ruler

Politics in Ancient Greece

Aristotle spent most of his adult life in Athens, generally considered the greatest of all Greek poleis, or small city-states with their own governments. (The singular is polis.) At the time, Greece was made up of such poleis. Each polis included citizens, women, children, slaves, laborers, and immigrants. Only adult males could be citizens. Citizens participated in the city government; women, slaves, and laborers worked to provide food, shelter, and other necessities. Thanks to this dynamic, citizens enjoyed a life of considerable comfort and freedom, and they prized their status.

Interestingly, Aristotle was not a citizen in Athens, where he lived most of his life; he was Macedonian. Therefore he couldn't directly participate in Athenian politics.

Politics analyzes the varieties of political communities in Aristotle's time; while it shows his admiration for the Greek polis, which he calls the highest form of human association, it also shows how various Greek regimes fall short.

Politics makes frequent reference to events in cities Aristotle and his students researched as he sought answers to questions about power and rule. Although some of Aristotle's recommendations apply only to his own political landscape, many of his observations remain relevant.

In Aristotle's time, city-states were fairly small. This means that in a democracy, many citizens could have a direct say in government by participating in open councils, as opposed to the modern Western system of representative democracy, in which citizens elect someone to speak for them. In modern Western societies, many people hold democracy in high regard, but Aristotle finds many flaws with it.

Connection to Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle intended his work Nicomachean Ethics (c. 335–325 BCE) to be a companion to Politics. Nicomachean Ethics consists of 10 books, and historians believe it is based on Aristotle's lectures at the Lyceum. The title is often assumed to refer to his son, the philosopher Nicomachus, or it may refer to the other Nicomachus in his life—his father. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that, when considering controversial subjects as ethics or politics, it's best to examine what people of good upbringing and experience believe and then work toward a higher understanding. Thus he begins by noting the goal of all human practical thinking is eudaemonia, which means happiness or well-being. An excellent human lives life well, with beauty, enjoyment, and virtue; such a person must also use reason in thought and speech.

Aristotle says virtuous character (ethikē aretē) is essential for happiness. He explains that virtue can be achieved through righteous action, often performed under a teacher's influence. Righteous action leads to a good and stable character. Aristotle believes real character—unlike habit—involves conscious choice. Character is a hexis, a stable disposition, such as a person's health or knowledge; it requires effort to maintain.

In the tradition of the philosopher Socrates (470–399 BCE), who was Plato's teacher, and Plato, who was Aristotle's teacher, Aristotle says the highest good for man involves both practical and theoretical elements. Nicomachean Ethics introduces the importance of studying legislation; Aristotle believes people should not only know about virtue but also put that knowledge to use.

Whereas Politics describes the role politics must play in cultivating virtuous life in the citizenry, Nicomachean Ethics describes the happiness people will naturally attain if they live in accordance with their virtues. Aristotle considered both Politics and Nicomachean Ethics works of political science; they encompass the two fields modern philosophers now distinguish as political philosophy and ethics. Aristotle claims political science is the most authoritative science because it dictates which sciences should be studied in the city-state.

In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes, "Even if the end is the same for an individual and for a city-state, that of the city-state seems at any rate greater and more complete to attain and preserve. For although it is worthy to attain it for only an individual, it is nobler and more divine to do so for a nation or city-state." In other words, Nicomachean Ethics considers the best way for individuals and the larger community to live. This connects the book to Politics, which similarly aims at instructing people on how to be good and focuses on practical application.

Impact of Politics

While in some ways modern societies have moved beyond Aristotle's ideas about politics—for example, his endorsement of slavery—much about Aristotle's philosophy remains relevant. Particularly enduring are his views on the interdependence of a political regime and its citizens: either both or neither will thrive; and the idea that the happiest and most virtuous citizens are those who actively participate in politics. His analysis of what causes revolution and what can prevent it also has inspired many contemporary thinkers, particularly those who argue with the liberal political philosophy of thinkers such as English philosophers John Locke (1632–1704) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). Italian philosopher and priest Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) referred to Aristotle simply as "The Philosopher"; he felt there was no need for another. In his epic 14th-century poem The Divine Comedy, Italian writer Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) refers to Aristotle as "The Master."

Because his methods can lead to divergent interpretations, Aristotle has influenced contemporary thinkers across the political spectrum—conservatives, communitarians, liberals, libertarians, and democratic theorists. Moreover, Aristotle tends to consider opposing arguments in a nuanced manner and often concludes that both sides have some validity.

Most Aristotle scholars do not attempt to align him with contemporary ideology but admire his synthesis of ideals and practicality in political philosophy. Modern political scientists continue to study and cite Aristotle's ideas on many issues, including the role of human nature in politics, the relationship between regimes and individuals, morality's role in politics, justice, constitutions, political change, and the importance of moral education for citizens.

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