Aristotle's The Politics
outlines many themes- namely Aristotle's beliefs about how government and
society should be run. In general, his ideas contrast with Plato in that
Aristotle is an empiricist- he understands the importance of active
observation to determine the truth. Plato, on the other hand, believes that mere
logical inference can establish ideal reality. On the whole, Aristotle is more
educated in the differing constitutions of separate governments. From these
observations, he establishes his world view. Plato, to contrast, spends most of
his time in Athens, remaining an ivory-tower critic. Aristotle's idea of telos,
which allows for human flexibility, contrasts sharply with Plato's idea of the
Forms, which are unchanging and only understood by philosophers.
stresses the value of education. He believes that virtue, though a natural
impulse in some ways, must also be learned and spread through tradition. The
telos, or end result, of the study of politics is to Aristotle the highest form
of education, since genuine human happiness can only be known in a community, or
polis dependent on politics for survival.
Aristotle believes that any
constitution that ignores the interests of the whole people, or has
"unwrought" aims, is a government not based on the telos of good, but
evil. He teaches that justice is the only way to legitimize government. Rulers
need popular support to rule justly. Here, Aristotle's ideas about war follow.
He believes that wars are not an end in themselves, but simply a means to an
Also, Aristotle recognizes the
merits of different kinds of governments. Though he tends to favor
aristocracy-based governments, he realizes these are not ideal. He describes
each kind of constitution, "Tyranny is the perversion of Kingship;
Oligarchy of Aristocracy; and Democracy of Polity...None of the three is
directed to the advantage of the whole body of citizens." Yet when he
addresses which body of people should posses sovereignty, Aristotle votes for
the middle class. This is consistent with his notions of moderation. He asserts,
"It is clear from our argument, first, that the best form of political
society is one where power is vested in the middle class."
Aristotle believes that human
communities are more than cooperative dwelling places where men seek only to
satisfy their natural impulses and desires. Unlike Plato who believes that only
philosophers are capable of determining truth, Aristotle maintains that every
human, by nature, has the capability of reason. He asserts, "It is the
peculiarity of man, in comparison with the rest of the animal world, that he
alone possesses a perception of good and evil, of the just and the unjust."
Aristotle believes that the polis has a special duty to cultivate men's minds in
the pursuit of reason, which leads to justice and stability. He thinks that men
can live peacefully if they use their minds above their more animal-like
impulses. Through all of this, moderation is the key to "good"
societies. (Aristotle believes that the telos of every society is to achieve
good, a natural goal of man that needs cultivation.)
As stated earlier, Aristotle
is not an idealist, but a practical philosopher (though that may seem a
juxtaposition of terms). He isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, so to speak.
Unlike Socrates and Plato, his teachers, Aristotle doesn't try to conceptualize
a perfect governmental system. He knows that no human creation can be without at
least minor faults. He simply strives for the best system possible. Aristotle
also understands that not every inhabitant of the polis can achieve goodness.
Only true citizens, those "who [share] in the administration of justice and
in the holding of office," can find good, or happy lives. In this way,
Aristotle shares some of the goals of his teacher, Plato, but disagrees with him
about how man can achieve these goals.