Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review | Politics by Aristotle

Aristotle was a sharp cookie. This much is evident from reading his Politics. Unlike later thinkers, Aristotle had a high regard for empirical evidence in the context of a more abstract and global account of truth. As a forerunner to the empiricists, the Greek philosopher built his arguments around his experiences and observations. Though he loved his own country, Aristotle appropriately distanced himself from bias and pretense in his political observations. Before delving into the depths of political investigation, Aristotle traveled much of the explored world and observed various specimens of political arrangement. He then made some general observations and classifications of government forms. His Politics is a compendium of lectures spanning eight books and covering topics from the development of the polis (or city-state) to the causes of revolutions. The following is a brief overview of each book:

Book I: Aristotle begins with an exploration of the state’s telos (or purpose), outlining the different relations between men, women, slaves, children, and the outside community. He begins with the assertion that the state’s telos is self-sufficiency. In this book, Aristotle states, “…he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state,” (1253a2). Immediately following this remark, Aristotle notes that “…man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends.”

Book II: The bulk of this section is devoted to the comparison of different governments and their constitutions. Aristotle's use of the word "constitution" indicates the composition of the polis, not merely its legal documents. In the United States, the word "Constitution" refers to the fundamental legal documents guiding its three branches of government. Aristotle's use of the word "constitution" is also used in his analysis of animals and refers to a thing's entire composition. The constitution of a bee includes antennae, six legs, a set of wings, compound eyes, etc. Likewise, the constitution of a polis includes institutions, legal documents, culture, etc. It is therefore no surprise that Aristotle assumes there is no such thing as a perfect constitution. However, some constitutions are more perfect than others. At a minimum, laws exist for the regulation of property and vice. According to the philosopher, “the greatest crimes are caused by excess and not by necessity,” (1267a7). Since men have insatiable desires, laws must exist to check the excesses of these desires. Furthermore, the best constitutions are the ones where the laws are most respected. These constitutions recognize that men are creatures of habit who appreciate tradition and reliable stability in the laws.

Book III: Next, Aristotle insists that a good government requires virtuous subjects and leaders. He then unpacks the three basic kinds of constitution: Royalty (the perversion of which is Tyranny), Aristocracy (the perversion of which is Oligarchy), and Constitutional Government (the perversion of which is Democracy), (1279b7). Of the three, Constitutional Government was his favorite. Elsewhere, he adds that “rule by law” is always better than “rule by man,” since man is a fickle creature and motivated by desire. Whereas Democracies favor the rule of men, Constitutional Governments have a higher regard for a mixed hierarchy of authority.

Book IV: This is possibly the most disagreeable book from the perspective of an American, but it still has merit (e.g. “The government should be confined to those who carry arms,” 1297a13). Generally, Aristotle focuses on education, the arts, and some of the finer points of the state. He talks about the motivating forces, strengths, and weaknesses of each constitution. As a result, he discusses Democracy’s trend toward equality. This is well worth the attention of American citizens. I won’t spoil all the interesting goodies in this section. Nevertheless, anyone with a basic reading of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, should see significant parallels.

Book V: I found this to be the most interesting book in Aristotle’s Politics. The philosopher discusses revolutions, their causes, their remedies, and possible preventative measures. He tries to answer the question, “How can a government prevent or survive a revolution?” Aristotle poses the same question to each of the three constitutions. There is a striking similarity between Aristotle’s analysis of democratic revolutions and that of Alexis de Tocqueville. For example, Aristotle states that democracies revolt whenever there is a sense of inequality. To remedy this, Aristotle suggested increasing the middle class, (1308b7). In other words, people will not revolt if they feel relatively equal and have property of their own to defend.

Book VI: Of the perverted forms of government, Democracy is Aristotle’s favorite, and he devotes this short book to the dissection of Democracy. He begins with a discussion of four kinds of Democracy. He then dives into a discourse on the offices of state, taxation, and other boring subjects. However, there are some really good quotes in this book, so it is still worth reading. For example, Aristotle alleges that “the basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state;– this they affirm to be the great end of every democracy,” (1317b2).

Book VII: In this book, Aristotle describes the interests of the state as identical with the interests of the individual. He believed the good of one is the good of the other. His more repulsive arguments regard marriage and the family. He claims that “Women should marry when they are about eighteen years of age, and men at seven and thirty; then they are in the prime of life, and the decline in the powers [of procreation] of both will coincide,” (1335a15). Perhaps the most repulsive and shocking argument regarded “the exposure and rearing of children.” He suggested that “there be a law that no deformed child shall live, but that on the ground of an excess in the number of children, if the established customs of the state forbid this… no child is to be exposed, but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not lawfully be done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation,” (1335b16). Indeed, Aristotle. Indeed. That is the question.

Book VIII: Aristotle’s final book addresses education. He believed each constitution should have a form of education tailored to its specific virtues and fortified against its vices. Aristotle’s conclusion offers a delightful break for the reader. He spends much of his arguments on the subjects of poetry, story-telling, and education in music. Nowadays, music and education operate in different spheres. However, Aristotle recognized the powerful influence of each on the soul. He believed that the two should be experienced together. After all, the music that students accept “will correspond to their minds,” (1341b7) and must be “instrumental” to their education.

Hopefully, the foregoing review will inspire others to read this vital text. The ancient writings of Aristotle speak more loudly today than ever before. The Politics is a combination of dry wit, reflections on human nature, and a semi-scientific approach to statecraft. Since each book addresses different facets of political life, it offers an in-depth topical guide to the armchair philosopher, the student, and the enlightened citizen who still cares about the health of his country.

By Ethan Foster
Originally Published at Animus Crypta.

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