In the previous post, Philosopher Kings, we’ve explored Plato’s works on politics. In this post, we will explore Aristotle’s, Plato’s student, view on politics. If you remember from one of the philosophy’s post, The Virtue Theory, he was the guy who proposed the moral theory – which I’m sure you don’t remember because hardly anyone read my posts, it’s a miracle that anyone is even reading this. You, my reader, you are the miracle. So thank you.
Other than being the proponent of the Virtue Theory, you’d be surprised to know that he was also the tutor of Alexander the Great. Aristotle studied in Athen under Plato in The Academy. The Academy was a well-known school in Athen back in the days. When Plato passed away, Aristotle surprisingly wasn’t chosen to succeed Plato in leading The Academy. Aristotle then moved to Ionia to study wildlife before he was invited to tutor Alexander the Great. This piece of historical information matters because it can explain how Aristotle’s ideas deviate from Plato’s: Firstly, it was a surprising matter that Aristotle wasn’t chosen as Plato’s successor. That was the first hint that Plato and Aristotle might not have seen eye to eye on certain matters, or ideas. Secondly, Aristotle studied wildlife in Ionia. That contributed to how he saw politics differently from Plato. Why? Because Plato saw that proper governance can be done purely through philosophical inquiries and reasonings, which is why he asserted that philosphers should become kings- this is a rather abstract and detached way of seeing politics in my opinion. However, Aristotle was much more in touch with reality. His study of wildlife gave him a scientific tendency. Instead of using pure philosophical reasoning, Aristotle analysed politics using observations – just like how he observed wildlife. On that note, he therefore invented empiricism, setting the foundation for the Scientific Method.
Application of Wildlife to Politics: Man is by nature a political animal
Aristotle interestingly engaged in cross-disciplinary application of thought. He approached the discipline of politics like science (there you go, the inception of political science). He observed that humans, like animals, congregate to form bigger units of themselves. Humans form households, villages, cities and civilizations; like how bees form hives and wolfs form packs. Humans are, Aristotle concluded, social animals. These social units (household, cities and civilizations) are essentially what Aristotle called politics. Hence, man are by nature political animals. Aristotle’s idea was unconventional mainly because it was and still is widely believed today that we humans are special beings that had excluded ourselves from the nature successfully based purely on our prerogative to use intellectual reasoning or the idea of human-exceptionalism that religions tend to expound (For instance, God created man, and he modeled man after his own image. Hence we are special). Aristotle did not believe in all that. Instead, he believed that we are all part of nature and our tendency to form civilizations and cities is similar to animals’ instincts to form colonies and congregates – only that they are in different forms. To Aristotle, that is what politics really are.
Essence of Humanity, Virtue, Political Moralism
Through the study of wildlife, Aristotle observed the trend that living things have a purpose in life, an essence. Naturally, he assumed that humans also have an essence. Influenced by the teaching of Plato and thus by extension, of Socrates, he thought that our essence is to reach eudaimonia, to live a good life. As for how we can do that on an individual level, refer to the philosophy blog post, The Virtue Theory. As for how this idea of eudaimonistic essence applies to the field of politics, Aristotle thought that we have the natural tendency to indulge in “the pursuit of virtues (which are the stepping stones to achieving eudaimonia), such as justice, goodness, and beauty. The purpose of the polis (political entities such as city-states), then, is to enable us to live according to these virtues.” (The politics book | Hardback, 2013). Similar to Plato, Aristotle thought that polis are means to a virtuous end, making the Aristotelian view on politics a form of political moralism.
Application of Wildlife to Politics: Taxonomy of the different forms of government
Aristotle, while studying wildlife in Ionia, was obsessed with the classification of data. He “devised a comprehensive taxonomy of the natural world, and in his later work, especially Politics, he set about applying the same methodical skills to systems of government.” (The politics book | Hardback, 2013). He categorized different forms of government based on 2 questions: who rules and on whose behalf do they rule?
The “who rules?” question creates a horizontal toggle in the diagram above, whether it is by one person, by a select few, or by the many. The “on whose behalf do they rule?” question determines whether the government is a True Government or a Corrupt Government. If the ruler is self-serving then it is corrupt, if the ruler’s intention is for the state to help its inhabitants live good/virtuous lives – reach eudaimonia – then it is true. Like Plato, Aristotle thought that self-serving rulers will create an evil governing entity, hence the choice of the adjective “corrupt”. This, then, creates a vertical toggle in the diagram above. To Aristotle, the higher and the more right the government form resides in the diagram, the better. However, both criterias generated by the 2 questions do not have equal weightage in Aristotle’s thoughts. He thought that the more people who rule, the better. Hence, a democracy – a corrupt form of government upon justification of mob rule as argued by Plato in the previous post of Philosopher Kings – is still better than a monarchy or an aristocracy. He was, in a paradoxical sense, both a critic and an advocate of democracy. He did not think that democracy is the best form of government, but it was better than most.
The Best Form of Government
So if democracy wasn’t the best form of government according to Aristotle, what is? If you’ve been paying attention to the rules of the diagram, you would know that the answer is the polity. A polity is simply, according to the rules of the diagram, a government form where many rule but collectively rule with the intent to help everyone reach eudaimonia. That, of course, is idealistic because it requires the masses to be enlightened enough to rule with the intent to help everyone reach eudaimonia. That means transcending above our selfish genes which we inherited from our ancestors through the process of evolution and also coming to a common consensus on what constitutes a good life – doing away with our natural tendency to seek material gain and to end up on a hedonic treadmill just because we think that material wealth will give us good lives. This whole thing is obviously a tall order that no state has ever achieved till today. If I were to put it in another way, a polity to a democracy is like communism to socialism, the former is the ideal version of the latter.
Aristotle, just like Plato, had left a lasting legacy in politics. His political viewpoints resurfaced and became popularised throughout the Middle Ages and contributed to the rise of constitutional government ideas during the Enlightenment. Today, the common type of democracy that we have largely stemmed from Aristotle’s political argument.
All in all, Aristotle deviated from Plato’s political viewpoint. As a diligent student of wildlife, he drew a parallel between the animal kingdoms and human politics. Similar to Plato, he believed in the idea that essence precedes existence and of course that the human’s essence is to reach eudaimonia, making Aristotelian politics a political moralistic viewpoint. Aristotle’s obsession with classification led him to then come up with a taxonomy, or a classification, of diffferent forms of government based on the criterias of the number of rulers and the purpose of the rule. He was both a critic and an advocate of democracy but he definitely believed that the best form of government is the ideal version of democracy: a polity. Although Aristotle’s ideas went dormant for a long time, his ideas were reawakened and translated into reality from the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment and till today.
The politics book | Hardback (2013) Available at: https://www.dk.com/uk/9781409364450-the-politics-book/ (Accessed: 16 January 2017).
The School Of Life (YouTube Channel)