7. The Mixed Regime and the Rule of Law: Aristotle’s Politics, I, III
Professor Steven Smith:
I’ve always been told that any serious introduction to
political philosophy has to start with a big piece of Plato.
We’ve made some effort to do that.
Now, we have to move on. So we move to Plato’s son,
his adopted son, in a manner of speaking,
Aristotle. There’s a story about the life
of Aristotle. It goes something like this.
Aristotle was born. He spent his life thinking and
then he died. There is, obviously,
more to his life than that. But, to some degree,
this captures some of the way in which Aristotle has been
perceived over the centuries. That is to say,
the ultimate philosopher. Aristotle was born in the year
384,15 years after the trial of Socrates.
He was born in the northern part of Greece,
in a city called Stagira, which is part of what is now
called Macedonia. It was called that then.
When he was about your age, when he was 17 or thereabouts,
maybe slightly younger than many of you,
he was sent by his father to do what you are doing.
He was sent by his father to go to college.
He was sent to Athens to study at The Academy,
the first university, spoke about and established by
Plato. Unlike most of you,
Aristotle did not spend four years at the Platonic Academy.
He remained attached to it for the next 20, until the death of
Plato. After the death of Plato,
perhaps because of the choice of successors to The Academy,
Aristotle left Athens, first for Asia Minor and then
to return to his home in Macedonia where he had been
summoned by King Phillip to establish a school for the
children of the Macedonian ruling class.
It was here that Aristotle met and taught Phillip’s son.
Who was Phillip of Macedonia’s son?
Student: Alexander. Professor Steven Smith:
Alexander. You all remember the recent
movie of a year or two ago about Troy with Colin Farrell about
Alexander. Who played Aristotle in that
film, do you remember? Student: Anthony Hopkins.
Professor Steven Smith: Anthony Hopkins,
excellent. Was it Anthony Hopkins?
I have in my notes here it was Christopher Plummer.
I’ll have to check. I’ll have to Google that when I
go home. Maybe you’re right.
I have a feeling it was Anthony Hopkins.
Whoever, he was an excellent Aristotle, didn’t have a large
enough part in the film. In any case,
Aristotle returned to Athens later on and established a
school of his own, a rival to the Platonic Academy
that he called the Lyceum. There is a story that near the
end of his life, Aristotle was himself brought
up on capital charges, as was Socrates,
due to another wave of hostility to philosophy.
But rather unlike Socrates, rather in staying to drink the
hemlock, Aristotle left Athens and was reported to have said he
did not wish to see the Athenians sin against philosophy
for a second time. I’ll go back to that story in a
minute, because I think it’s very revealing about Aristotle.
In any way, this story helps to underscore some important
differences between Plato and Aristotle.
At one level, you might say there is an
important difference in style that you will see almost
immediately. Unlike his intellectual
godfather, Socrates, who wrote nothing but conversed
endlessly, and unlike his own teacher,
Plato, who wrote imitations of those endless Socratic
conversations, Aristotle wrote disciplined and
thematic treatises on virtually every topic,
from biology to ethics to metaphysics to literary
criticism and politics. One can assume safely that
Aristotle would have received tenure in any number of
departments at Yale, whereas Socrates could not have
applied to have been a teaching assistant.
These differences conceal others.
For Plato, it would seem, the study of politics was
always bound up with deeply philosophical and speculative
questions, questions of metaphysics,
questions of the structure of the cosmos.
What is the soul? What is the soul about?
Aristotle appears from the beginning to look more like what
we would think of as a political scientist.
He collected constitutions, 158 of them in all,
from throughout the ancient world.
He was the first to give some kind of conceptual rigor to the
vocabulary of political life. Above all, Aristotle’s works,
like the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics,
were explicitly intended as works of political instruction,
political education. They seem to be designed less
to recruit philosophers and potential philosophers than to
shape and educate citizens and future statesmen.
His works seem less theoretical in the sense of constructing
abstract models of political life than advice-giving,
in the sense of serving as a sort of civic-minded arbiter of
public disputes. Unlike Socrates,
who famously in his image in Book VII of the Republic,
compared political life to a cave, and unlike the
Apology where Socrates tells his fellow citizens that
their lives, because unexamined,
are not worth living, Aristotle takes seriously the
dignity of the city and showed the way that philosophy might be
useful to citizens and statesmen. Yet, for all of this,
one might say there is still a profound enigma surrounding
Aristotle’s political works. To put it simply,
one could simply ask, what were the politics of
Aristotle’s Politics? What were Aristotle’s own
political beliefs? Aristotle lived at the virtual
cusp of the world of the autonomous city-state of the
Greek polis. Within his own lifetime,
Aristotle would see Athens, Sparta, and the other great
cities of Greece swallowed up by the great Macedonian Empire to
the north. What we think of as the golden
age of Greece was virtually at an end during the lifetime of
Aristotle. Other Greek thinkers of his
time, notably a man named Demosthenes, wrote a series of
speeches called Philippics,
anti-Phillip, to the north to warn his
contemporaries about the dangers posed to Athens from the
imperial ambitions of Macedon. But Phillip’s warnings came too
late. Again, the autonomous Greek
polis that Plato and Glaucon, Adeimantus and others
would have known came to an end. What did Aristotle think of
these changes? What did he think was going on?
He is silent. Aristotle’s extreme reluctance,
his hesitance to speak to the issues of his time,
are perhaps the result of his foreignness to Athens.
He was not an Athenian. Therefore, he lacked the
protection of Athenian citizenship.
At the same time, you might think his reticence,
his reluctance to speak in his own voice may have also been a
response to the fate of Socrates and the politically endangered
situation of philosophy. Yet, for a man as notoriously
secretive and reluctant as Aristotle, his works acquired
over the centuries virtual canonical status.
He became an authority, really one could say the
authority on virtually everything.
For Thomas Aquinas, who wrote in the thirteenth
century, Aristotle was referred to, by Aquinas,
simply as “the philosopher.” There was no reason even to say
his name. He was simply The Philosopher.
For the great Jewish medieval philosopher, Moses Maimonides,
Aristotle was called by him “the Master of those who know.”
Think of that, “the master of those who know.”
For centuries, Aristotle’s authority seemed to
go virtually unchallenged. Are you with me?
Yet, the authority of Aristotle obviously no longer has quite
the power that it once did. The attack began not all that
long ago, really only as late as the seventeenth century.
A man, who we will read later this semester,
named Thomas Hobbes, was one who led the pack,
led the charge. In the forty-sixth chapter of
Leviathan, a chapter we will read later,
Hobbes wrote, “I believe that scarce anything
can be more repugnant to government than much of what
Aristotle has said in his Politics,
nor more ignorantly than a great part of his
Ethics.” Think of that – “nothing more
repugnant to government than what Aristotle wrote in his
Politics.” Naturally, all thinkers,
to some degree, have read Aristotle through
their own lenses. Aquinas read Aristotle as a
defender of monarchy. Dante, in his book,
De Monarchia on monarchy, saw Aristotle as
giving credence to the idea of a universal monarchy under the
leadership of a Christian prince.
But Hobbes saw Aristotle quite differently.
For Hobbes, Aristotle taught the dangerous doctrine of
republican government that was seen to be practiced
particularly during the Cromwellian Period in England,
during the civil war. Aristotle’s doctrine that man
is a political animal, Hobbes believed,
could only result and did result, in fact,
in regicide, the murder of kings.
There are certainly echoes of this reading of Aristotle as a
teacher of participatory republican government in the
later writings of democratic thinkers from Tocqueville to
Hannah Arendt. Anyway, this returns us to the
enigma of Aristotle. Who was this strange and
elusive man whose writings seem to have been enlisted both for
the support of monarchy and for republics,
even for a universal monarchy and a smaller participatory
democratic kind of government? Who was this man and how to
understand his writings? The best place to start is,
of course, with his views stated in the opening pages of
the Politics on the naturalness of the city. His claim that man is,
by nature, the political animal.
That’s his famous claim. What does that mean–we are the
political animal. Aristotle states his reasons
succinctly, maybe too succinctly.
On the third page of the Politics where he remarks
that every city or every polis exists by nature,
and he goes on to infer from this that man is what he calls
the zoon politikon, the political animal,
the polis animal. His reasoning here,
brief as it is, is worth following.
Let me just quote him. “That man” he says “is much
more a political animal than any kind of bee or herd animal is
clear.” Why is it clear?
“For we assert,” he says, “nature does nothing in vain
and man alone among the animals has speech. While other species,” he notes,
“may have voice, may have sounds and be able to
distinguish pleasure and pain, speech”–logos is his
word for it. Man has logos–reason or
speech. The word can mean either.– “is
more than the ability simply to distinguish pleasure and pain.”
He goes on. “But logos,” he writes,
“serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful.
And hence,” he writes, “the just and the unjust.
For it is peculiar to man as compared to other animals that
he alone has a perception of good and bad,
just and unjust and other things.”
In other words, he seems to be saying that it
is speech or reason, logos,
that is able to both distinguish and create certain
moral categories, certain important moral
categories that we live by–the advantageous,
the harmful, the just and unjust,
and things of this sort that constitute, as he says,
a family and a polis. But that’s Aristotle.
In what sense, we could ask ourselves and I
think you probably will be asking in your sections,
in what sense is the city by nature?
In what sense are we political animals by nature?
Aristotle appears to give two different accounts in the
opening pages of the book that you might pay attention to.
In the literal opening, he gives what looks like a kind
of natural history of the polis.
He seems there to be a kind of anthropologist writing a natural
history. The polis is natural in
the sense that it has grown out of smaller and lesser forms of
human association. First comes the family,
then an association of families in a tribe, then a further
association in a village, and then you might say an
association of villages that create a polis or a city.
The polis is natural in the sense that it is an
outgrowth, the most developed form of human association,
in the way that one used to see in natural history museums,
these kind of biological charts of human development from these
lesser forms of life all the way up to civilization in some way.
That is part of Aristotle’s argument.
But there is a second sense for him and, in some ways,
a more important sense in which he says the polis is by
nature. It is natural.
The city is natural in that it allows human beings to achieve
and perfect what he calls their telos.
That is to say their end, their purpose.
We are political animals, he says, because participation
in the life of the city is necessary for the achievement of
human excellence, for the achievement of our
well-being. A person who is without a city,
he says, who is apolis–without a
city–must either be a beast or a god.
That is to say, below humanity or above it.
Our political nature is our essential characteristic.
Because only by participating in political life do we achieve,
can we acquire the excellences or the virtues,
as he says, that make us what we are, that fulfill our
telos or fulfill our perfection. When Aristotle says that man is
a political animal by nature, he is doing more than simply
asserting just a truism or just some platitude.
In many ways he is advancing a philosophic postulate of great
scope and power, although the full development
of the thesis is only left deeply embedded.
He doesn’t fully develop it in this work or in saying.
He isn’t saying that man is political by nature.
Note that he is not saying, although he is sometimes taken
to be saying this, that he is not saying that
there is some kind of biologically implanted desire or
impulse that we have or share that leads us to engage in
political life. That is to say we do not,
he wants to say, engage in politics.
To say it’s natural for us to do so is not to say we engage in
political life spontaneously and avidly,
as you might say spiders spin webs or ants build anthills.
He is not a kind of socio-biologist of politics,
although he sometimes appears this way when he says that man
is a political animal. In some ways, to the contrary.
He says man is political not because we have some biological
impulse or instinct that drives us to participate in politics,
but, he says, because we are possessed of the
power of speech. It is speech that makes us
political. Speech or reason in many was
far from determining our behavior in some kind of
deterministic biological sense, speech or reason gives us a
kind of freedom, latitude, an area of discretion
in our behavior not available to other species.
It is a reason or speech, not instinct,
that makes us political. But then the question is,
for Aristotle, the question he poses for us
is: What is the connection between logos,
the capacity for speech of rationality, and politics?
How are these two combined? Why does one lead to or entail
the other? In many ways,
he’s not making a causal claim so much.
He’s not saying that it is because we are rational
creatures possessed of the power of speech that causes us to
engage in politics. He has more of an argument of
the kind that this attribute of logos actually entails
political life. He makes his argument,
I think, because logos entails two fundamentally human
attributes. First, the power to know,
you could say. The power to know is our
ability to recognize, by sight, members of the same
polis or city. It is, above all,
speech that in a way, ties us to others of our kind.
That we share not just the capacity for language in the way
a linguist might assert, but that we share a certain
common moral language. It is this sharing of certain
common conceptions of the just and unjust that make a city.
It is the capacity to know and to recognize others who share
this language with us that is the first sense in which
logos entails politics. But reason or logos
entails more than this capacity. It also entails for Aristotle,
interestingly, the power of love.
We love those with whom we are most intimately related and who
are most immediately present and visible to us.
In many ways, Aristotle believes our social
and political nature is not the result of calculation,
as we will see in Hobbes, Locke, and other social
contract theorists, but such things as love,
affection, friendship, and sympathy are the grounds of
political life and are rooted in our logos.
It is speech that allows a sharing in these qualities that
make us fully human. But to say, of course,
that man is political by nature is not just to say that we
become fully human by participating with others in a
city. It means more than this. The form of association that
leads to our perfection is necessarily something
particularistic. The city is always a particular
city. It is always this or that
particular city. The polis,
as Aristotle as well as Plato clearly understand,
is a small society, what could be called today a
closed society. A society that leads to our
perfection that leads us to complete and perfect our
telos must be held together by bonds of trust,
of friendship, of camaraderie. A society based simply on the
mutual calculation of interests could not be a real political
society for Aristotle. We cannot trust all people,
Aristotle seems to say. Trust can only be extended to a
fairly small circle of friends and fellow citizens.
Only a small city, small enough to be governed by
relations of trust, can be political,
in Aristotle’s sense of the term.
The alternative to the city, the empire, can only be ruled
despotically. There can be no relations of
trust in a large, imperial despotism.
It follows, in one sense, that when Aristotle says that
man is by nature a political animal and the city is by
nature, the city can never be a
universal state. It can never be something that
incorporates all of humankind. It can never be a kind of
cosmopolis, a world state or even a league
of states or nations. The universal state will never
allow for or does not allow for the kind of self-perfection that
a small, self-governing polis will have.
The city, as Aristotle understands, will always exist
in a world with other cities or other states,
based on different principles that might be hostile to one’s
own. That is to say not even the
best city on Aristotle’s account can afford to be without a
foreign policy. A good citizen of a democracy
will not be the good citizen of another kind of regime.
Partisanship and loyalty to one’s own way of life are
required by a healthy city. To put the argument in terms
that Polemarchus, from Plato’s Republic
would have known, friend and enemy are natural
and ineradicable categories of political life.
Just as we cannot be friends with all persons,
so the city cannot be friends with all other cities or the
state with all other states. War and the virtues necessary
for war are as natural to the city as are the virtues of
friendship, trust, and camaraderie that are also
necessary. Note that in the opening pages
of the book, Aristotle doesn’t say anything yet about what kind
of city or regime is best. All he tells us is that we are
the polis animal by nature and that to achieve our
ends, it will be necessary to live in a polis.
But what kind of polis? How should it be governed?
By the one, the few, the many, or some combination
of these three categories? At this point we know only the
most general features of what a polis is.
It must be small enough to be governed by a common language of
justice. It is not enough merely to
speak the same words, but in a sense,
citizens must have certain common experiences,
certain common memory and experience that shape a city and
the people. The large polyglot,
multiethnic communities of today would not,
on Aristotle’s account, allow for sufficient mutual
trust and friendship to count as a healthy political community.
So Aristotle seems to be offering, in some respects,
a kind of criticism of the kind of states with which we are most
familiar. Think about that when you have
your sections or when you talk about this text with your
friends. What is Aristotle saying about
us? The citizens of such a city can
only reach their telos or perfection through participating
in the offices, in the ruling offices of a
city. Again, a large cosmopolitan
state may allow each individual the freedom to live as he or she
likes, but this is not freedom as
Aristotle understands it. Freedom only comes through the
exercise of political responsibility,
which means responsibility for and oversight of one’s fellow
citizens and the common good. It follows, for him,
that freedom does not mean living as we like,
but freedom is informed by a certain sense of restraint and
awareness that not all things are permitted,
that the good society will be one that promotes a sense of
moderation, restraint and self-control,
self-governance, as Adeimantus says,
that are inseparable from the experience of freedom. In many ways Aristotle there
offers, as does Plato, a certain kind of critique of
the modern or even the ancient democratic theory of freedom,
which is living as one likes. You can see these opening pages
of the book, dense argument being condensed in very deep
ways, carry a great deal of freight.
There’s a lot in there that needs to be unpacked.
I’ve only tried to do a little of that here with you today,
to go over what Aristotle is suggesting in this idea of man,
the polis animal. Whatever we may think about
this view, whether we like it or don’t like it or whatever your
view might be, you must also confront another
famous, more like infamous, doctrine that is also very much
a part of Book I. I refer to his arguments for
the naturalness of slavery. Aristotle tells us that slavery
is natural. The naturalness of slavery is
said to follow from the belief that inequality,
inequality is the basic rule between human beings.
Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson seem to disagree over the basic
fact of human experience, whether it’s equality or
inequality. If this is true,
Aristotle’s Politics seems to stand condemned as the most
antidemocratic book ever written.
Is that true? Aristotle’s claim about
naturalness seems to require, as he told us,
slavery, the categorical distinction of humanity into
masters and slaves. How to understand that?
Again, Aristotle’s argument is deeply compact and will be
easily misunderstood if you only read it once.
It will just as likely be misunderstood if you read it
three, four, five, or ten times,
if you are not attentive to what he’s saying.
You must learn to read closely. What was Aristotle saying?
In the first place, it’s important that we avoid,
I think, two equally unhelpful ways of responding to this.
The first, which one finds among many modern-day
commentators, many kind of neo-Aristotelians,
we might call them, is to simply avert our eyes
from the harsh, unappealing aspects of
Aristotle’s thought and proceed as if he never actually said or
meant such things. We need to avoid the
temptation, in many ways understandable as it might be,
to airbrush or sanitize Aristotle, to make him seem more
politically correct for modern readers.
Yet, we should also avoid the second, equally powerful
temptation, which is to reject Aristotle out of hand,
because his views do not correspond with our own.
The question is what did Aristotle mean by slavery?
Who or what did he think was the slave by nature?
Until we understand what he meant, we have no reason to
either accept or reject his argument. The first point worth noting
about this, is that Aristotle did not simply assume slavery
was natural, because it was practiced
virtually everywhere in the ancient world.
You will notice that he frames his analysis in the form of a
debate. He says at the outset of his
argument, “There are some,” he says, indicating this is an
opinion held by many people. “There are some who believe
that slavery is natural, because ruling and being ruled
is a pervasive distinction that one sees all societies
practice.” But he says,
“Others believe that the distinction between master and
slave is not natural, but is based on force or
coercion.” Even in Aristotle’s time,
it appears slavery was a controversial institution and
elicited very different kinds of opinions and responses.
Here is one of those moments when Aristotle,
as I indicated earlier, seems most maddeningly
open-minded. He’s willing to entertain
arguments, both for and against the debate.
Aristotle agrees with those who deny that slavery is justified
by war or conquest. Wars, he remarks,
are not always just. So, those who are captured in
war, cannot be assumed to be justly or naturally enslaved.
Similarly, he denies that slavery is always or only
appropriate for non-Greeks. There are no,
he is saying, racial or ethnic
characteristics that distinguish the natural slave from the
natural master. In a stunning admission,
he says–listen to this–that “while nature may intend to
distinguish the free man from the slave,”
he says, “the opposite often results.
Nature often misses the mark,” he says.
Now we seem to be completely confused.
If slavery is natural, and if nature intends to
distinguish the slave from the free, the free from the unfree,
how can nature miss the mark? How can the opposite often
result? I mention this because such
complications should alert the careful reader.
We’re trying to read carefully. What is Aristotle doing in
making this seem so complicated? At the same time,
Aristotle agrees with those who defend the thesis of natural
slavery. His defense seems to run
something like this. Slavery is natural because we
cannot rule ourselves without the restraint of the passions.
Self-rule means self-restraint. Restraint or self-control is
necessary for freedom or self-government.
What is true, he seems to suggest,
about the restraint over one’s passions and desires is true of
restraint and control over others,
just as he appears to be saying there is a kind of hierarchy
within the soul, restraint of the passion.
So does that psychological hierarchy translate itself into
a kind of social hierarchy between different kinds of
people? The natural hierarchy,
then, seems to be a sort of hierarchy of intelligence or at
least a hierarchy of the rational.
“How did this come to be?” Aristotle asks.
How is it that some people came to acquire this capacity for
rational self-control that is necessary for freedom and others
seem to lack it? How did that come to be?
Is this hierarchy, again, a genetic quality?
Is it something we’re born with? Is it something that is
implanted in us by nature in that sense, or is that
distinction something that is created by nurture and
education, what we would call today maybe
socialization? If the latter,
if this hierarchy of intelligence or this hierarchy
of the rational is the result of upbringing,
then how can slavery be defended as natural?
Doesn’t Aristotle call man the rational animal,
the being with logos, suggesting that all human
beings have a desire for knowledge and the desire to
cultivate their minds and live as free persons.
Isn’t there a kind of egalitarianism,
so to speak, built in to the conception of
rational animal and political animal?
He begins his Metaphysics,
his great book the Metaphysics,
with the famous opening statement, “All men have a
desire to know.” If we all have a desire to
know, doesn’t this connote something universal,
that all should be free, that all should participate in
ruling and being ruled as citizens of a city?
Yet, at the same time, Aristotle seems to regard
education as the preserve of the few.
The kind of discipline and self-restraint necessary for an
educated mind appears, for him, to be unequally
divided among human beings. It follows, I think,
that the regime according to nature, that is to say the best
regime, would be what we might think of
as an aristocracy of the educated, an aristocracy of
education and training, an aristocratic republic of
some sort where an educated elite governs for the good of
all. Aristotle’s republic,
and I use that term to remind you of Plato as well,
is devoted to cultivating a high level of citizen virtue
where this means those qualities of mind and heart necessary for
self-government. These qualities,
he believes, are the preserve of the few,
of a minority capable of sharing in the administration of
justice and in the offices of a city. It seems to be a very elite
teaching. Would you agree?
Unappealing to us, perhaps, for that reason,
very contrary to our intuitions and the way we have been brought
You’ll agree with me. But before we dismiss
Aristotle’s account as insufferably inegalitarian and
elitist, we have to ask a difficult
question, not just of Aristotle, but more importantly of
ourselves. What else is Yale,
but an elite institution intended to educate,
morally and intellectually, potential members of a
leadership class? Think about that.
Can anyone get into Yale? Do we have an open admissions
policy for all who want to come here?
Hardly. Does it not require those
qualities of self-control, discipline, and restraint
necessary to achieve success here?
I will leave aside, for the moment,
what happens on Friday and Saturday nights. Is it any coincidence that
graduates from this university and a handful of others not
unlike it find themselves in high positions of government,
of business, of law, and the academy?
Is it unfair or unreasonable to describe this class,
as Aristotle might, as a natural aristocracy?
I leave you with this question to think about.
Before we reject Aristotle as an antidemocratic elitist,
take a look at yourselves. So are you, or you wouldn’t be
sitting here today. Think about that and I’ll see
you next week.