Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Politics of Aristotle

In Search of the Republic--1

Any examination of the history of constitutions must begin with Aristotle's The Politics. This examination will not be a systematic, chapter by chapter analysis. Rather, it will focus on those ideas of Aristotle that influenced the Founding Fathers. Aristotle established the framework in which all discussions of governments have taken place. Moreover, Aristotle's insights have influenced the many different streams of both conservative and liberal ideas about society and government.

Readers are reminded that The Politics is actually a continuation of his work, Ethics. In that essay, Aristotle asserted that the primary motivation for human behavior is happiness. He made this conclusion because happiness is the only good that is sought for itself and not sought for the sake of something else.

Aristotle used the term in a different sense than we do today. The modern definition of happiness held by most people is that happiness is the psychological or emotional state that comes from getting what one wants. The Greek word Aristotle used for happiness is better translated, thriving or flourishing. So the question Aristotle tried to answer in Ethics was how do men thrive or how do we create thriving men? It was his way of asking the more modern inquiry, What is the good life?

Aristotle based his answers on man’s nature. He conceived man as “the rational animal.” Consequently, he argued that the pursuit of happiness will be a rational activity. In addition, Aristotle recognized that human beings by nature possess certain species specific excellencies or , as modern translations have it, virtues. Aristotle believed that human beings should cultivate these virtues. Aristotle thus defined happiness as “the rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue or excellence. In other words, happiness means excelling at being human or becoming an excellent human being.

But Aristotle also recognized man as “a political animal.” By nature human beings live in organized societies. Without society, man cannot fully thrive or achieve happiness. So in The Politics, Aristotle explores the different ways people have organized their societies and which ones are most conducive for human thriving or happiness. He examines some idealistic speculative constitutions created by philosophers. He examines actual constitutions of various Mediterranean communities. And, finally, he offers his own ideal constitution.

Readers are reminded, too, of the context of Aristotle’s The Politics. When Aristotle wrote, the form of social organization most familiar was the Greek city-state or polis (hence the word politics.) Dozens of them dotted the Mediterranean. The Greek city-states emerged in the 800s BC following the disappearance of Mycenaean civilization and its kings. The Dorian Invasions,about which ancient history scholars disagree, swept way Mycenaean civilization and brought about the subsequent Greek “dark ages.” The new city-states that emerged began as self-sufficient societies based upon kinship networks. Perhaps to prevent another catastrophe like the Dorian invasion, they grew into fiercely independent armed camps based upon citizen soldiers (the hoplites.)

The city-states consisted of a small urban center and the surrounding countryside. Athens, the adopted home of Aristotle, grew into one of the largest. It contained around 1,000 square miles, making it slightly smaller than Rhode Island. Most other city-states spread only between 30 and 500 square miles and had only 2,000 to 10,000 people. Athenians numbered about 350,000 people. Only about half of these possessed citizenship--the right to hold office and participate in juries. The rest were dependents-- women, children, and slaves-- or resident aliens.

This small size, both geographically and demographically, of the Greek city-state must be remembered as one reads The Politics. In addition, one must note the impulse to unity and conformity.
The notion of individual natural or political rights was largely alien to the ancient Greeks. The main liberty they embraced was liberty under the law, the idea that they lived under laws of their own making. This is one reason they contrasted themselves with the surrounding barbarians of other nations. Because the foreigners lived under the arbitrary power of  kings and tyrants, they were the equivalent of slaves. This conception of "republican liberty" endured as the most commonly held view of liberty before the advent of modern liberalism.

These two facts--the small size of the polis and the impulse for uniformity--present difficulties for application of Aristotle’s ideas to modern megalopolis or the expansive modern nation state.

But Aristotle's ideas, the good and the bad, possess a longevity enjoyed by those of few other thinkers.

And some of Aristotle’s ideas may provide insight into the challenges facing our own societies. They may also suggest common sense conservative approaches to overcome those challenges.

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