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?




A group of us in and out of the desert, who admire each other’s wit and insight, have come together in an attempt at an online reading group.

Rod Dreher’s book on his “Benedict Option” inspired this endeavor, as many of us have interest in and opprobium for this proposal. Since the release date does not arrive until next year, we have decided to start with Aristotle’s Politics, hoping that that can start a discussion on what a community ought to look like and the ends it ought to have. Suggestions for future readings include From Dawn to Decadence and A Secular Age.

We have agreed to work through Politics a book at a time while taking turns writing a reflection on a chosen book. Commentary from any of the group are welcome at any point, whether or not the book for that week is “theirs,” and constructive comments from outside readers are welcome.