PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 7

 - The Mixed Regime and the Rule of Law: Aristotle, Politics, I, III


The lecture begins with an introduction of Aristotle’s life and works which constitute thematic treatises on virtually every topic, from biology to ethics to politics. Emphasis is placed on the Politics, in which Aristotle expounds his view on the naturalness of the city and his claim that man is a political animal by nature.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 7 - The Mixed Regime and the Rule of Law: Aristotle, Politics, I, III

Chapter 1. Aristotle: Plato’s Adopted Son [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: I’ve always been told that any serious introduction to political philosophy has to start with a big piece of Plato. We’ve made some effort to do that. Now, we have to move on. So we move to Plato’s son, his adopted son, in a manner of speaking, Aristotle. There’s a story about the life of Aristotle. It goes something like this. Aristotle was born. He spent his life thinking and then he died. There is, obviously, more to his life than that. But, to some degree, this captures some of the way in which Aristotle has been perceived over the centuries. That is to say, the ultimate philosopher. Aristotle was born in the year 384, 15 years after the trial of Socrates. He was born in the northern part of Greece, in a city called Stagira, which is part of what is now called Macedonia. It was called that then. When he was about your age, when he was 17 or thereabouts, maybe slightly younger than many of you, he was sent by his father to do what you are doing. He was sent by his father to go to college. He was sent to Athens to study at The Academy, the first university, spoke about and established by Plato. Unlike most of you, Aristotle did not spend four years at the Platonic Academy. He remained attached to it for the next 20, until the death of Plato. After the death of Plato, perhaps because of the choice of successors to The Academy, Aristotle left Athens, first for Asia Minor and then to return to his home in Macedonia where he had been summoned by King Phillip to establish a school for the children of the Macedonian ruling class. It was here that Aristotle met and taught Phillip’s son. Who was Phillip of Macedonia’s son?

Student: Alexander.

Professor Steven Smith: Alexander. You all remember the recent movie of a year or two ago about Troy with Colin Farrell about Alexander. Who played Aristotle in that film, do you remember?

Student: Anthony Hopkins.

Professor Steven Smith: Anthony Hopkins, excellent. Was it Anthony Hopkins? I have in my notes here it was Christopher Plummer. I’ll have to check. I’ll have to Google that when I go home. Maybe you’re right. I have a feeling it was Anthony Hopkins. Whoever, he was an excellent Aristotle, didn’t have a large enough part in the film. In any case, Aristotle returned to Athens later on and established a school of his own, a rival to the Platonic Academy that he called the Lyceum. There is a story that near the end of his life, Aristotle was himself brought up on capital charges, as was Socrates, due to another wave of hostility to philosophy. But rather unlike Socrates, rather in staying to drink the hemlock, Aristotle left Athens and was reported to have said he did not wish to see the Athenians sin against philosophy for a second time. I’ll go back to that story in a minute, because I think it’s very revealing about Aristotle.

In any way, this story helps to underscore some important differences between Plato and Aristotle. At one level, you might say there is an important difference in style that you will see almost immediately. Unlike his intellectual godfather, Socrates, who wrote nothing but conversed endlessly, and unlike his own teacher, Plato, who wrote imitations of those endless Socratic conversations, Aristotle wrote disciplined and thematic treatises on virtually every topic, from biology to ethics to metaphysics to literary criticism and politics. One can assume safely that Aristotle would have received tenure in any number of departments at Yale, whereas Socrates could not have applied to have been a teaching assistant. These differences conceal others.

For Plato, it would seem, the study of politics was always bound up with deeply philosophical and speculative questions, questions of metaphysics, questions of the structure of the cosmos. What is the soul? What is the soul about? Aristotle appears from the beginning to look more like what we would think of as a political scientist. He collected constitutions, 158 of them in all, from throughout the ancient world. He was the first to give some kind of conceptual rigor to the vocabulary of political life. Above all, Aristotle’s works, like the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics, were explicitly intended as works of political instruction, political education. They seem to be designed less to recruit philosophers and potential philosophers than to shape and educate citizens and future statesmen. His works seem less theoretical in the sense of constructing abstract models of political life than advice-giving, in the sense of serving as a sort of civic-minded arbiter of public disputes.

Unlike Socrates, who famously in his image in Book VII of the Republic, compared political life to a cave, and unlike theApology where Socrates tells his fellow citizens that their lives, because unexamined, are not worth living, Aristotle takes seriously the dignity of the city and showed the way that philosophy might be useful to citizens and statesmen. Yet, for all of this, one might say there is still a profound enigma surrounding Aristotle’s political works. To put it simply, one could simply ask, what were the politics of Aristotle’s Politics? What were Aristotle’s own political beliefs?

Aristotle lived at the virtual cusp of the world of the autonomous city-state of the Greek polis. Within his own lifetime, Aristotle would see Athens, Sparta, and the other great cities of Greece swallowed up by the great Macedonian Empire to the north. What we think of as the golden age of Greece was virtually at an end during the lifetime of Aristotle. Other Greek thinkers of his time, notably a man named Demosthenes, wrote a series of speeches called Philippics, anti-Phillip, to the north to warn his contemporaries about the dangers posed to Athens from the imperial ambitions of Macedon. But Phillip’s [correction: meant to say Demosthenes’] warnings came too late. Again, the autonomous Greek polis that Plato and Glaucon, Adeimantus and others would have known came to an end.

What did Aristotle think of these changes? What did he think was going on? He is silent. Aristotle’s extreme reluctance, his hesitance to speak to the issues of his time, are perhaps the result of his foreignness to Athens. He was not an Athenian. Therefore, he lacked the protection of Athenian citizenship. At the same time, you might think his reticence, his reluctance to speak in his own voice may have also been a response to the fate of Socrates and the politically endangered situation of philosophy. Yet, for a man as notoriously secretive and reluctant as Aristotle, his works acquired over the centuries virtual canonical status. He became an authority, really one could say the authority on virtually everything. For Thomas Aquinas, who wrote in the thirteenth century, Aristotle was referred to, by Aquinas, simply as “the philosopher.” There was no reason even to say his name. He was simply The Philosopher. For the great Jewish medieval philosopher, Moses Maimonides, Aristotle was called by him “the Master of those who know.” Think of that, “the master of those who know.”

For centuries, Aristotle’s authority seemed to go virtually unchallenged. Are you with me? Yet, the authority of Aristotle obviously no longer has quite the power that it once did. The attack began not all that long ago, really only as late as the seventeenth century. A man, who we will read later this semester, named Thomas Hobbes, was one who led the pack, led the charge. In the forty-sixth chapter of Leviathan, a chapter we will read later, Hobbes wrote, “I believe that scarce anything can be more repugnant to government than much of what Aristotle has said in his Politics, nor more ignorantly than a great part of his Ethics.” Think of that – “nothing more repugnant to government than what Aristotle wrote in hisPolitics.”

Naturally, all thinkers, to some degree, have read Aristotle through their own lenses. Aquinas read Aristotle as a defender of monarchy. Dante, in his book, De Monarchia on monarchy, saw Aristotle as giving credence to the idea of a universal monarchy under the leadership of a Christian prince. But Hobbes saw Aristotle quite differently. For Hobbes, Aristotle taught the dangerous doctrine of republican government that was seen to be practiced particularly during the Cromwellian Period in England, during the civil war. Aristotle’s doctrine that man is a political animal, Hobbes believed, could only result and did result, in fact, in regicide, the murder of kings. There are certainly echoes of this reading of Aristotle as a teacher of participatory republican government in the later writings of democratic thinkers from Tocqueville to Hannah Arendt.

Chapter 2. Man Is, by Nature, the Political Animal [00:12:45]

Anyway, this returns us to the enigma of Aristotle. Who was this strange and elusive man whose writings seem to have been enlisted both for the support of monarchy and for republics, even for a universal monarchy and a smaller participatory democratic kind of government? Who was this man and how to understand his writings? The best place to start is, of course, with his views stated in the opening pages of the Politics on the naturalness of the city. His claim that man is, by nature, the political animal. That’s his famous claim. What does that mean–we are the political animal. Aristotle states his reasons succinctly, maybe too succinctly.

On the third page of the Politics where he remarks that every city or every polis exists by nature, and he goes on to infer from this that man is what he calls the zoon politikon, the political animal, the polis animal. His reasoning here, brief as it is, is worth following. Let me just quote him. “That man” he says “is much more a political animal than any kind of bee or herd animal is clear.” Why is it clear? “For we assert,” he says, “nature does nothing in vain and man alone among the animals has speech. While other species,” he notes, “may have voice, may have sounds and be able to distinguish pleasure and pain, speech”–logos is his word for it. Man has logos–reason or speech. The word can mean either.– “is more than the ability simply to distinguish pleasure and pain.” He goes on. “But logos,” he writes, “serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful. And hence,” he writes, “the just and the unjust. For it is peculiar to man as compared to other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad, just and unjust and other things.” In other words, he seems to be saying that it is speech or reason, logos, that is able to both distinguish and create certain moral categories, certain important moral categories that we live by–the advantageous, the harmful, the just and unjust, and things of this sort that constitute, as he says, a family and a polis.

But that’s Aristotle. In what sense, we could ask ourselves and I think you probably will be asking in your sections, in what sense is the city by nature? In what sense are we political animals by nature? Aristotle appears to give two different accounts in the opening pages of the book that you might pay attention to. In the literal opening, he gives what looks like a kind of natural history of the polis. He seems there to be a kind of anthropologist writing a natural history. The polis is natural in the sense that it has grown out of smaller and lesser forms of human association. First comes the family, then an association of families in a tribe, then a further association in a village, and then you might say an association of villages that create a polis or a city. The polis is natural in the sense that it is an outgrowth, the most developed form of human association, in the way that one used to see in natural history museums, these kind of biological charts of human development from these lesser forms of life all the way up to civilization in some way. That is part of Aristotle’s argument. But there is a second sense for him and, in some ways, a more important sense in which he says the polis is by nature. It is natural.

The city is natural in that it allows human beings to achieve and perfect what he calls their telos. That is to say their end, their purpose. We are political animals, he says, because participation in the life of the city is necessary for the achievement of human excellence, for the achievement of our well-being. A person who is without a city, he says, who isapolis–without a city–must either be a beast or a god. That is to say, below humanity or above it. Our political nature is our essential characteristic. Because only by participating in political life do we achieve, can we acquire the excellences or the virtues, as he says, that make us what we are, that fulfill our telos or fulfill our perfection. When Aristotle says that man is a political animal by nature, he is doing more than simply asserting just a truism or just some platitude. In many ways he is advancing a philosophic postulate of great scope and power, although the full development of the thesis is only left deeply embedded. He doesn’t fully develop it in this work or in saying.

He isn’t saying that man is political by nature. Note that he is not saying, although he is sometimes taken to be saying this, that he is not saying that there is some kind of biologically implanted desire or impulse that we have or share that leads us to engage in political life. That is to say we do not, he wants to say, engage in politics. To say it’s natural for us to do so is not to say we engage in political life spontaneously and avidly, as you might say spiders spin webs or ants build anthills. He is not a kind of socio-biologist of politics, although he sometimes appears this way when he says that man is a political animal. In some ways, to the contrary. He says man is political not because we have some biological impulse or instinct that drives us to participate in politics, but, he says, because we are possessed of the power of speech. It is speech that makes us political. Speech or reason in many was far from determining our behavior in some kind of deterministic biological sense, speech or reason gives us a kind of freedom, latitude, an area of discretion in our behavior not available to other species. It is a reason or speech, not instinct, that makes us political.

But then the question is, for Aristotle, the question he poses for us is: What is the connection between logos, the capacity for speech of rationality, and politics? How are these two combined? Why does one lead to or entail the other? In many ways, he’s not making a causal claim so much. He’s not saying that it is because we are rational creatures possessed of the power of speech that causes us to engage in politics. He has more of an argument of the kind that this attribute oflogos actually entails political life. He makes his argument, I think, because logos entails two fundamentally human attributes. First, the power to know, you could say. The power to know is our ability to recognize, by sight, members of the same polis or city. It is, above all, speech that in a way, ties us to others of our kind. That we share not just the capacity for language in the way a linguist might assert, but that we share a certain common moral language. It is this sharing of certain common conceptions of the just and unjust that make a city. It is the capacity to know and to recognize others who share this language with us that is the first sense in which logos entails politics.

But reason or logos entails more than this capacity. It also entails for Aristotle, interestingly, the power of love. We love those with whom we are most intimately related and who are most immediately present and visible to us. In many ways, Aristotle believes our social and political nature is not the result of calculation, as we will see in Hobbes, Locke, and other social contract theorists, but such things as love, affection, friendship, and sympathy are the grounds of political life and are rooted in our logos. It is speech that allows a sharing in these qualities that make us fully human.

But to say, of course, that man is political by nature is not just to say that we become fully human by participating with others in a city. It means more than this. The form of association that leads to our perfection is necessarily something particularistic. The city is always a particular city. It is always this or that particular city. The polis, as Aristotle as well as Plato clearly understand, is a small society, what could be called today a closed society. A society that leads to our perfection that leads us to complete and perfect our telos must be held together by bonds of trust, of friendship, of camaraderie. A society based simply on the mutual calculation of interests could not be a real political society for Aristotle. We cannot trust all people, Aristotle seems to say. Trust can only be extended to a fairly small circle of friends and fellow citizens. Only a small city, small enough to be governed by relations of trust, can be political, in Aristotle’s sense of the term. The alternative to the city, the empire, can only be ruled despotically. There can be no relations of trust in a large, imperial despotism.

It follows, in one sense, that when Aristotle says that man is by nature a political animal and the city is by nature, the city can never be a universal state. It can never be something that incorporates all of humankind. It can never be a kind ofcosmopolis, a world state or even a league of states or nations. The universal state will never allow for or does not allow for the kind of self-perfection that a small, self-governing polis will have. The city, as Aristotle understands, will always exist in a world with other cities or other states, based on different principles that might be hostile to one’s own. That is to say not even the best city on Aristotle’s account can afford to be without a foreign policy. A good citizen of a democracy will not be the good citizen of another kind of regime. Partisanship and loyalty to one’s own way of life are required by a healthy city. To put the argument in terms that Polemarchus, from Plato’s Republic would have known, friend and enemy are natural and ineradicable categories of political life. Just as we cannot be friends with all persons, so the city cannot be friends with all other cities or the state with all other states. War and the virtues necessary for war are as natural to the city as are the virtues of friendship, trust, and camaraderie that are also necessary.

Note that in the opening pages of the book, Aristotle doesn’t say anything yet about what kind of city or regime is best. All he tells us is that we are the polis animal by nature and that to achieve our ends, it will be necessary to live in a polis. But what kind of polis? How should it be governed? By the one, the few, the many, or some combination of these three categories? At this point we know only the most general features of what a polis is. It must be small enough to be governed by a common language of justice. It is not enough merely to speak the same words, but in a sense, citizens must have certain common experiences, certain common memory and experience that shape a city and the people. The large polyglot, multiethnic communities of today would not, on Aristotle’s account, allow for sufficient mutual trust and friendship to count as a healthy political community. So Aristotle seems to be offering, in some respects, a kind of criticism of the kind of states with which we are most familiar. Think about that when you have your sections or when you talk about this text with your friends. What is Aristotle saying about us?

The citizens of such a city can only reach their telos or perfection through participating in the offices, in the ruling offices of a city. Again, a large cosmopolitan state may allow each individual the freedom to live as he or she likes, but this is not freedom as Aristotle understands it. Freedom only comes through the exercise of political responsibility, which means responsibility for and oversight of one’s fellow citizens and the common good. It follows, for him, that freedom does not mean living as we like, but freedom is informed by a certain sense of restraint and awareness that not all things are permitted, that the good society will be one that promotes a sense of moderation, restraint and self-control, self-governance, as Adeimantus says, that are inseparable from the experience of freedom. In many ways Aristotle there offers, as does Plato, a certain kind of critique of the modern or even the ancient democratic theory of freedom, which is living as one likes.

Chapter 3. The Naturalness of Slavery [00:30:15]

You can see these opening pages of the book, dense argument being condensed in very deep ways, carry a great deal of freight. There’s a lot in there that needs to be unpacked. I’ve only tried to do a little of that here with you today, to go over what Aristotle is suggesting in this idea of man, the polis animal. Whatever we may think about this view, whether we like it or don’t like it or whatever your view might be, you must also confront another famous, more like infamous, doctrine that is also very much a part of Book I. I refer to his arguments for the naturalness of slavery. Aristotle tells us that slavery is natural. The naturalness of slavery is said to follow from the belief that inequality, inequality is the basic rule between human beings. Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson seem to disagree over the basic fact of human experience, whether it’s equality or inequality. If this is true, Aristotle’s Politics seems to stand condemned as the most antidemocratic book ever written. Is that true? Aristotle’s claim about naturalness seems to require, as he told us, slavery, the categorical distinction of humanity into masters and slaves. How to understand that?

Again, Aristotle’s argument is deeply compact and will be easily misunderstood if you only read it once. It will just as likely be misunderstood if you read it three, four, five, or ten times, if you are not attentive to what he’s saying. You must learn to read closely. What was Aristotle saying? In the first place, it’s important that we avoid, I think, two equally unhelpful ways of responding to this. The first, which one finds among many modern-day commentators, many kind of neo-Aristotelians, we might call them, is to simply avert our eyes from the harsh, unappealing aspects of Aristotle’s thought and proceed as if he never actually said or meant such things. We need to avoid the temptation, in many ways understandable as it might be, to airbrush or sanitize Aristotle, to make him seem more politically correct for modern readers. Yet, we should also avoid the second, equally powerful temptation, which is to reject Aristotle out of hand, because his views do not correspond with our own.

The question is what did Aristotle mean by slavery? Who or what did he think was the slave by nature? Until we understand what he meant, we have no reason to either accept or reject his argument. The first point worth noting about this, is that Aristotle did not simply assume slavery was natural, because it was practiced virtually everywhere in the ancient world. You will notice that he frames his analysis in the form of a debate. He says at the outset of his argument, “There are some,” he says, indicating this is an opinion held by many people. “There are some who believe that slavery is natural, because ruling and being ruled is a pervasive distinction that one sees all societies practice.” But he says, “Others believe that the distinction between master and slave is not natural, but is based on force or coercion.” Even in Aristotle’s time, it appears slavery was a controversial institution and elicited very different kinds of opinions and responses.

Here is one of those moments when Aristotle, as I indicated earlier, seems most maddeningly open-minded. He’s willing to entertain arguments, both for and against the debate. Aristotle agrees with those who deny that slavery is justified by war or conquest. Wars, he remarks, are not always just. So, those who are captured in war, cannot be assumed to be justly or naturally enslaved. Similarly, he denies that slavery is always or only appropriate for non-Greeks. There are no, he is saying, racial or ethnic characteristics that distinguish the natural slave from the natural master. In a stunning admission, he says–listen to this–that “while nature may intend to distinguish the free man from the slave,” he says, “the opposite often results. Nature often misses the mark,” he says. Now we seem to be completely confused. If slavery is natural, and if nature intends to distinguish the slave from the free, the free from the unfree, how can nature miss the mark? How can the opposite often result? I mention this because such complications should alert the careful reader. We’re trying to read carefully. What is Aristotle doing in making this seem so complicated?

At the same time, Aristotle agrees with those who defend the thesis of natural slavery. His defense seems to run something like this. Slavery is natural because we cannot rule ourselves without the restraint of the passions. Self-rule means self-restraint. Restraint or self-control is necessary for freedom or self-government. What is true, he seems to suggest, about the restraint over one’s passions and desires is true of restraint and control over others, just as he appears to be saying there is a kind of hierarchy within the soul, restraint of the passion. So does that psychological hierarchy translate itself into a kind of social hierarchy between different kinds of people? The natural hierarchy, then, seems to be a sort of hierarchy of intelligence or at least a hierarchy of the rational.

“How did this come to be?” Aristotle asks. How is it that some people came to acquire this capacity for rational self-control that is necessary for freedom and others seem to lack it? How did that come to be? Is this hierarchy, again, a genetic quality? Is it something we’re born with? Is it something that is implanted in us by nature in that sense, or is that distinction something that is created by nurture and education, what we would call today maybe socialization? If the latter, if this hierarchy of intelligence or this hierarchy of the rational is the result of upbringing, then how can slavery be defended as natural? Doesn’t Aristotle call man the rational animal, the being with logos, suggesting that all human beings have a desire for knowledge and the desire to cultivate their minds and live as free persons. Isn’t there a kind of egalitarianism, so to speak, built in to the conception of rational animal and political animal?

He begins his Metaphysics, his great book the Metaphysics, with the famous opening statement, “All men have a desire to know.” If we all have a desire to know, doesn’t this connote something universal, that all should be free, that all should participate in ruling and being ruled as citizens of a city? Yet, at the same time, Aristotle seems to regard education as the preserve of the few. The kind of discipline and self-restraint necessary for an educated mind appears, for him, to be unequally divided among human beings. It follows, I think, that the regime according to nature, that is to say the best regime, would be what we might think of as an aristocracy of the educated, an aristocracy of education and training, an aristocratic republic of some sort where an educated elite governs for the good of all. Aristotle’s republic, and I use that term to remind you of Plato as well, is devoted to cultivating a high level of citizen virtue where this means those qualities of mind and heart necessary for self-government. These qualities, he believes, are the preserve of the few, of a minority capable of sharing in the administration of justice and in the offices of a city. It seems to be a very elite teaching. Would you agree? Unappealing to us, perhaps, for that reason, very contrary to our intuitions and the way we have been brought up. Yes? You’ll agree with me.

But before we dismiss Aristotle’s account as insufferably inegalitarian and elitist, we have to ask a difficult question, not just of Aristotle, but more importantly of ourselves. What else is Yale, but an elite institution intended to educate, morally and intellectually, potential members of a leadership class? Think about that. Can anyone get into Yale? Do we have an open admissions policy for all who want to come here? Hardly. Does it not require those qualities of self-control, discipline, and restraint necessary to achieve success here? I will leave aside, for the moment, what happens on Friday and Saturday nights. Is it any coincidence that graduates from this university and a handful of others not unlike it find themselves in high positions of government, of business, of law, and the academy? Is it unfair or unreasonable to describe this class, as Aristotle might, as a natural aristocracy? I leave you with this question to think about. Before we reject Aristotle as an antidemocratic elitist, take a look at yourselves. So are you, or you wouldn’t be sitting here today. Think about that and I’ll see you next week.

[end of transcript]

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