Aristotle - a five minute crib

Written by Tom Butler-Bowdon on 11 August 2015 in Culture
The Greek philosopher believed that the purpose of the state was to achieve the happiness and elevation of its citizens

In modern times it has become fashionable to say that the individual is more important than any government or state.  Aristotle had a rather different view. The state, he asserts in his Politics (4th century BCE), “is a creation of nature and prior to the individual”.

While it may seem that the state exists for the protection of citizens, its real purpose is to enable its citizens to reach a higher spiritual and philosophical level as well as having greater material abundance. Aristotle’s ideal state is not simply a watchtower edifice to prevent violence against persons, its aim is expressly their development and well being:

“A state is an association of similar persons whose aim is the best life possible. What is best is happiness, and to be happy is an active exercise of virtue and a complete employment of it.”


He starts by considering how a state should be best organized. Should everything be in common? It never seems to work for relationships and children to be made common, he observes, along the lines of Sparta, but what about property? While it is a nice idea for property to be shared equally, it goes against human nature. People love to possess things and attempt to enrich themselves through their efforts, and society will be more stable and have less enmity if people are left to pursue their own interests without coercive sharing. 

In The Republic, Plato argued that the state would only be strong if fully unified, and social and cultural life strictly controlled. As the quality of the state was only as good as the quality of its citizens, social engineering was required; censorship, common property and rule by an enlightened elite were all necessary to achieve society’s goals.

Aristotle saw just the opposite: a state becomes strong thanks to its plurality of voices and ideas. A caste of enlightened ‘philosopher kings’, as Plato recommended, was unnecessary when you have an intelligent, involved public.


The many are more incorruptible than the few

Aristotle was not in favour of untrammeled democracy, but felt that it was more stable than oligarchy. “The many are more incorruptible than the few”, he writes, “they are like the greater quantity of water which is less easily corrupted than a little.” The successful society or polity is built on a large middle class of citizens with modest property ownership and direct political involvement in the administration of the state. While Plato condemned what today we call capitalism and the accumulation of property, Aristotle considers both in harmony with human nature – within limits. It is the state’s role to create laws on the accumulation of wealth and property that will benefit all, even if in his time this excluded slaves.

For a polity to be just, Aristotle says, “no one should do more ruling than being ruled, but all should have their turn.” This works because there is an inherent balance, in contrast to systems where there is only rule by the rich (oligarchy) or rule by the poor (democracy). The former have too much to protect, and the latter too little to lose, both of which can create the justification for violence and upheaval. The interests of a large middle class, in contrast, form a stable mass between them.


Aristotle’s 2,300-year-old warning

Aristotle warns that if society becomes too unequal economically, you would see a transition from democracy to oligarchy: “When the rich grow numerous or properties increase, the form of government changes into an oligarchy or a government of families.” Within the context of today’s debates about “the 1 per cent” and suggestions of rising inequality made by the likes of Thomas Picketty and Joseph Stiglitz, it is fascinating to read Aristotle’s 2,300 year-old warning.


Virtue: key for individuals and governments

In asking what is the best form of government, Aristotle says, any polity must first ask: what is the kind of life you are trying to achieve for people living in it? How do you define the good life? While external goods are important to the good life, Aristotle noted that they are generally achieved through ‘virtues of the soul’: honesty, temperance etc. And whereas external things eventually have a limit, or in too great an amount tend to corrupt the owner, the personal virtues are unlimited and can have unlimited positive effects. Virtue and right action do not come about by chance, and yet without them a good state and society cannot be built.

If the best life for an individual is in pursuit of virtue, as Aristotle saw it, so a state must be ordered so that it moves in the direction of virtue. It should not be set up simply to regulate markets, or support contracts, or for defence. To prosper and move forward it must have higher aims.

In saying this, Aristotle has been a big influence on state-builders ever since, giving them the excuse to trim some personal liberties in order to create laws and institutions that will make their citizens healthier, wealthier and wiser. 


Tom Butler-Bowdon is the author of 50 Politics Classics: Freedom, Equality, Power (Nicholas Brealey, £12.99 paperback)


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