Aristotle’s Politics Bk. 1

For my part, I’m envisioning these main posts as being part summary and part reflection. With that in mind, I’m indebted to my wife for pointing out that the Politics must be understood as a continuation of the Nichomachean Ethics. We see the reason for this in 10.9 of that famed moral discourse.

But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for virtue if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary. But it is surely not enough that when they are young they should get the right nurture and attention; since they must, even when they are grown up, practice and be habituated to them, we shall need laws for this as well, and generally speaking to cover the whole of life; for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than the sense of what is noble.

At the outset of the Politics then, is an assumption that is alien to our own. The life of virtue, in an Aristotelian model, is not under the control of the individual alone. Even having a virtuous household and family upbringing is insufficient. Without a virtuous regime (a.k.a. laws with the power of force to direct all toward the common good) personal virtue is unlikely or even impossible. This premise, I think, is worth quite a bit of discussion since it seems to be absent from both prevailing American political parties. But also, it may cause problems for Rod Dreher’s version of the Benedict Option since his embedded communities look a lot more like an extended household than a fully-fledged polis. If that is the case, the form of that community would be insufficient for inculcating virtue in Aristotle’s view.

Continuing in this vein, it is also worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on the opening lines:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which it thinks good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.

The vision here is of a gradated and interlocking function of parts ordered to a single unified end. Perhaps we might think of a metaphor from Aristotelian psychology where each lower form of soul (vegetative, animal) really subsists in the rational soul which provides the ultimate unifying principle for the person. There is no hint here of an antagonism between the individual and society, or between household and civil government. The practice of Aristotelian politics depends on each unit of human organization recognizing its place and role in relationship to its highest expression: the polis.

Very beautiful, and certainly more attractive than our current mash-up of Locke, Rawls, and Woodrow Wilson, but since this blog is on pilgrimage toward Benedictine resources, it would behoove us to make some Christian objections.

While the kingdom of heaven is not of this world, and difficult to make concrete (“Neither shall they say ‘Lo here!’ or ‘Lo there!’ for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you”) we may need to push back against the claim of any earthly organization to be the highest community aimed at the highest good. The mystery of the Church, while occupying a liminal space between earth and heaven, visible and invisible, does take the name ecclesia. She is the first-fruits of things to come and the threshold of beatitude. Can Aristotle’s system be brought in harmony or even co-existence with the radical demands of the apostolic kerygma of Christian society? We can begin that discussion here and continue to develop it as we go along.

More could be said, especially about Aristotle’s fairly hard-edged claims about natural slavery and the constitution of female rationality. Another point of interest could be the extended reflection on economics, the household, and the art of wealth-acquisition (a hot topic for Macintyre and other Neo-Aristotelians in political theory). But I leave that to you. What shall we take up first?


4 thoughts on “Aristotle’s Politics Bk. 1

  1. I was drawn to Aristotle’s classifying the polis as the highest and best community, and the family and local community belonging to the polis as parts. In our particularly liberal society we generally expect everyone will be let alone in communities of their own choosing; indeed, this seems to me a central assumption of the Benedict Option, even though this may significantly remove the Ben Op from the sphere of Aristotelian thought. I think it’s correct to say that Dreher’s Ben Op looks more like an extended family than a polis, and even then it looks like an extended family that has an image of the good different than that provided by the liberal state. (Though this begs the question: Does the liberal state ever claim to bring its citizens toward the good? I would say the state would describe its role as the provider and protector of rights, not the instrument of virtuous inculcation.) So it appears we may have a conflict between Aristotle’s polis, which enforces virtue in its citizens, and a Dreherian community of like minded believers that has little or no authority to actually inculcate virtue. Dreher’s vision, in this way, appears more like an Anabaptist community that is allowed to exist because the liberal lets it.


  2. Re: harmonising (?) the Politics with Catholic social teaching.

    Pius XI describes three necessary societies in “Divini Illius Magistri” (1929), namely the family, the state, and the Church. The first two belong to the natural order, the third to the supernatural. Aristotle of course has no notion of the Church as we do — that is, let us say for now, a wash — but the pontiff can be put into dialogue with him on the natural societies. I believe they end up saying very similar things about the relationship between the family and the state, that is: the family comes first in one way and the state comes first in another. Both seem to contradict themselves until this is clarified.

    Thus Pius:

    “In the first place comes the family, instituted directly by God for its peculiar purpose, the generation and formation of offspring; for this reason it has priority of nature and therefore of rights over civil society.” (12) This would seem to align with Aristotle’s statement that “in the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue” (1.2.27) The Philosopher mentions a second natural and necessary relationship, that of the natural ruler and subject, but later undercuts it: “out of these two relationships…the first thing to arise is the family” (1.2.10). This, he claims, is because the family is the “association established by Nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants,” a definition which might could use some scrutiny (1.2.12).

    Pius XI, immediately after giving priority to the family, qualifies himself, introducing what I suggest will be an important distinction in any critique of Dreher: “Nevertheless, the family is an imperfect society, since it has not in itself all the means for its own complete development; whereas civil society is a perfect society, having in itself all the means for its peculiar end, which is the temporal well-being of the community; and so, in this respect, that is, in view of the common good, it has pre-eminence over the family, which finds its own suitable temporal perfection precisely in civil society” (12). Compare this to Aristotle in 1.2.18, where he makes his own claim that the state is “by nature clearly prior to the family and the individual.” This statement appears to contradict his prior claim that the family is the first thing to arise, which I can deal with. The bigger issue is that it almost certainly contradicts the Pope in his citation opening my previous paragraph: “the family…has priority of nature…over civil society.”

    At this point I’m in a muddle on exactly how Aristotle means that the state is naturally prior to the family, since he spends his first burst of explanatory gas on its priority over the individual. Perhaps Aristotle’s “priority” will end up being equatable with Pius XI’s “pre-eminence” but the language is different enough to make me nervous about jumping to that conclusion.

    What I wish to focus on is this: how do we understand and apply the notion that the family, as well as, presumably, Aristotle’s intermediate “village”, is an imperfect society?


    • McClelland raises some good questions.

      I want to briefly quote the entirety of the section that appears to be at issue (Bk 1 Ch. 2 (Bekker number 1253)):

      “Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state [polis] is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.”

      That is to say, the individual, and perhaps even the family, cannot survive without the cooperation with the larger polis. This runs contrary to a number of early modern approaches, but this makes sense in an historical/anthropological imagining of events: it would be difficult or impossible for an individual or family unit to alone provide food, clothing, and shelter for themselves. So when the Philosopher says “the state [polis] is by nature clearly prior to the family” he appears to be saying the same thing Pius is when he qualifies his statement with “the family is an imperfect society, since it has not in itself all the means for its own complete development; whereas civil society is a perfect society, having in itself all the means for its peculiar end, which is the temporal well-being of the community . . . .” The priority of the state, then, springs from the fact that the needs of food, shelter, etc. (“temporal needs”) cannot be provided through this banding together of many villages and families. So, yes, I think McClelland is right in equating the “priority” with “preeminence.” But I am curious for more thoughts on this.

      To give my own brief answer to McClelland’s final question, then, I would say that Aristotle’s family and village are “imperfect” (1) in that they cannot provide for themselves materially without greater cooperation with other members of the polis and (2) in that the polis perhaps has authority to inculcate virtue where the family and villages have less such authority. (I realize I’m throwing (2) in there last minute.)


      • From 1252b, line 29:”And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of the thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature.” Nature seems to me somewhat synonymous with the chief end of something and synonymous with the final cause of Aristotle’s four causes. In looking only at the formation of associations, the state is the final cause of forming the family, and as such the state is prior to the family. In order to have an action or a change, there must first be an end to which the action or change is directed. In the same way, materially the family comes about first, and the state could not exist without the family, but the formal idea of “the state” was present in the whole progression there from the beginning, in the same way that the idea of the statue maker’s statue was there from the beginning even if the block of marble was there materially first (This is Richard, btw).

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