A Map of the Politics


political thought

Perhaps the best way to approach the Politics is through a kind of traveller’s guide to the text as we have it because nobody is very likely to read the book in the order that Jaeger suggests it was composed. This can be done in a fairly schematic way, though how the various themes relate to each other is more of a problem.

Book 1 contains:

  1.  Aristotle’s defence of the polis against the Sophist view that the polis exists through convention only. Aristotle distinguishes the polis from other forms of human community because its ‘end’ is different. Everything in nature has one of these ends, so the polis must have one too. There is a distinction to be made between the cause of something and the end to which it naturally develops. The causes which make a polis come into being may be economic (only a polis can be economically self-supporting, for instance), but the end to which it strives is moral (only in a polis can men live what Aristotle calls ‘the good life’).
  2.  A justification of slavery as part of a well-managed household, and therefore natural.
  3. A discussion of the relationship between the acquisition of wealth and the management of a household (the original meaning of ‘economics’). Wealth has as its end provision for a household, and must be limited by its end, so ‘making money for its own sake’ is unnatural. Aristotle also discusses the forms of relationship which naturally occur in a household on the basis of the possession of ‘reason’ (the capacity to direct one’s own life and so the lives of others), so free men in whom the directive faculty naturally rules, rule over others, including wives (because the directive faculty, while existing in women, is ‘inoperative’); slaves, having no reason, are ruled as tools or beasts of burden.

Book 2 contains:

  1.  A discussion of ideal communities.
  2. A discussion of the community of wives and children among the Guardian class in Plato’s Republic.
  3. A discussion of the best arrangements for the holding of property. Aristotle tries to have it both ways, arguing that property can be held privately but used in common through gifts and hospitality which impart ‘friendship to the state’.
  4.  A discussion of whether property held in common would decrease wrongdoing which concludes that common ownership would not prevent crime because men steal more than the necessities of life.

Book 3 contains much definitional matter, including:

  1.  The answer to the question ‘What is the polis?’ The polis must be its constitution (the arrangements for the holding of public office, the way it is governed) because the constitution provides the polis with its identity over a period of time. The polis cannot be defined as its citizens, because they die and are replaced; nor can it be its territory because territory expands and contracts.
  2. The answer to the question ‘What is it to be a member of a ‘polis?’ States are composed of citizens, and citizens are those who have a share in public affairs, which means holding office, taking part in the administration of justice and membership of a governing assembly. The exact meaning of ‘citizen’ will of course vary from polis to polis because citizen is a genus, not a species. Those directly engaged in the business of getting a living with their own hands are excluded from citizenship because they haven’t the leisure for virtue.
  3. A classification of different types of constitution, probably borrowed from Plato’s Statesman. Aristotle divides constitutions into two groups of three, what we have come to call the ‘good’ and the ‘corrupt’ forms. The good forms are monarchy, aristocracy and politeia (Aristotle’s best state) and their analogous corrupt forms are tyranny, oligarchy and democracy (which is really rule by the mob, what the historian Polybius was later to call ‘ochlocracy’). Aristotle reminds us that this is a broad-meshed classification because in the natural world there are many more species than genera, so that it is convenient to class constitutions on the continum Few/Many, democratic/oligarchic. Like Plato, he thinks that different types of regime are based on different ideas about justice.
  4. A discussion of five different types of monarchy, which leads to the more general question of whether man or law should be supreme. Aristotle comes up with the dubious-sounding formula that law should be supreme in general, but men in particular cases. Kingship, he concludes, is not unnatural, provided the king rules in the interest of all and is truly a kingly man. (In Aristotle there are no queens.)

Books 4, 5 and 6:

These are the books which, according to Jaeger, represent a new departure in the study of politics. It is here that Aristotle is at his most biological, discussing the morphology of states and their pathology. So far he has only discussed monarchy and aristocracy, and he goes on to consider politeia, tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. These books contain:

  • A discussion of oligarchy in opposition to democracy and of politeia in opposition to tyranny.
  • An answer to five main questions:
    1. How many kinds of constitution do in fact exist?
    2. What constitution is best suited to normal circumstances, and which is best after the ideal constitution?
    3. Which of the inferior kinds of constitution are suited to each kind of population?
    4. How are the various forms of constitution to be organised? (Part of Book 4 and part of Book 5.)
    5. How are constitutions preserved and destroyed? (Book 5.)

  • Book 5. Aristotle on political pathology and preventive medicine. This book contains much historical detail and much sound political wisdom which has worn remarkably well over the centuries. (This is the ‘real political world’ that Thrasymachus claimed to understand at the opening of Plato’s Republic.) Points worth noting are the following:

    1. In a democracy men should be equally wealthy because they are equally free.
    2. In an oligarchy men should be unequal in all things because they are unequal in wealth.
    3. The cause of disaffection is desire for wealth and honours, or the desire to avoid poverty and dishonour.
    4. The causes which lead men to change a regime are:
      • Indignation at the monopolisation of wealth and honours by others. • Insolence, fear and the undue prominence of individuals.
      • A disproportionate increase in a particular class.
      • Intrigues at election time.
      • Carelessness in allowing disloyal persons to hold office. • Neglect of apparently insignificant changes.
    5. Regimes are preserved by:
      • A spirit of obedience to the laws (Aristotle at his most obvious).
      • Not relying on being able to fool all of the people all of the time.
      • Aristocrats and oligarchs would do well to cultivate the people.
      • The ruling group must on no account allow a split to develop in its own ranks.
      • Those who rule must not appear to be profiting from office too obviously.
      • Most importantly, the education system must be well adapted to the forms of government. Aristotle adds the twist that oligarchs should be educated democratically and democrats must be educated oligarchically, because bringing up young democrats in complete freedom and young oligarchs in luxury and ease is asking for trouble in the future.
      • Tyrants may preserve their power by appearing to act like kings.

 Books 7 and 8—Aristotle on the best state:

These are ‘Platonic’ books in Jaeger’s sense because they have little to say about the real political world and are largely concerned with the question of what kind of state would be the best. The best polis looks something like this:

  1. The question of population is not a matter of numbers so much as a question of how many are needed ‘to do the work of a city’, and the minimum number would be that which was required for self-sufficiency where self-sufficiency means both self-defence and economic autarky. Aristotle does not think that more means better. The polis should be small enough to be ‘seen at a single view’. Perhaps the ideal number would be a polis of adult male citizens who could hear the voice of a single herald in peace and of a single general in war.
  2. The question of territory is resolved in much the same way as the question of population. It must be large enough to secure a leisured life for its citizens but not so large as to provide luxury. Aristotle considers a position by the sea, because sea-power is a factor in war and commerce by sea is useful in providing those necessities of life which might not easily be provided by one’s own territory.
  3. Only Greeks are fit to be citizens.
  4. A polis obviously needs craftsmen and labourers, farmers, soldiers, a leisured class, priests and judges. The important question is the extent to which these roles can be merged into a single person, and Aristotle makes a division between those roles which are appropriate to a free man and those which are not.
  5. The best life for a free citizen would be to be a warrior when young, a ruler in middle life and a priest when old. When young, a man should defend his city, in middle age he should busy himself about its affairs, and in old age he should make sure that the gods are on its side.
  6. Agricultural workers, artisans and slaves form separate classes (though they are not cannon fodder), and so do women.

It is clear that only the warriors, rulers and priests are really part of the polis in Aristotle’s original terms in Book 3. The rest of the Politics is taken up with a discussion of education. The polis exists for ‘the good life’ of its citizens, and the good life depends on nature, habit and a ‘reasoned course of life’. Education is concerned with the last two. The end of man, what he has got it in him to be, is found ultimately in his reason. Reason is divided into two kinds, speculative reason concerned with ‘the life of mind’ and practical reason, which fits a man for the business of a city—politics and war. Education should be primarily directed towards citizenship in peace, and it is importantly a moral education because the polis exists to enable men to practise those virtues which go to make up the good life.


  1. McClelland, J. S. A History of Western Political Thought. London: Routledge, 1996. Print. 52-56.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Philosophy, Politics

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