Politics: A Treatise on Government (2004) Informative Summary

Overview: Aristotle’s Politics, a continuation of his Ethics, examines the nature and purpose of government. He argues that the state is a natural entity, formed to promote the good life for its citizens. This good life, for Aristotle, is one of virtue and reason, requiring a society that cultivates and promotes these qualities. He criticizes Plato’s ideal state in the Republic as impractical, suggesting that a more realistic approach is needed, one based on careful observation of existing political structures.

Aristotle explores various forms of government, including monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and oligarchy, examining their strengths and weaknesses. He highlights the importance of balance and a mixed constitution, advocating for a “free state” that blends elements of both democracy and oligarchy to ensure stability and promote the common good. He also emphasizes the crucial role of education in shaping virtuous citizens, laying out principles for a well-rounded education that emphasizes physical fitness, intellectual development, and moral character.

Key Findings:

  • The state is a natural entity, not an artificial construct. It arises from the inherent social nature of human beings, who are naturally inclined to live together in communities for mutual benefit.
  • The ideal state is one that promotes the good life of its citizens, defined as a life of virtue and reason.
  • Different forms of government have inherent strengths and weaknesses. While no single form is universally best, Aristotle favors a mixed constitution, combining elements of democracy and oligarchy, to create a stable and balanced society.
  • Education is crucial for the development of virtuous citizens. Aristotle advocates for a comprehensive system of education that encompasses physical training, intellectual development, and moral instruction.

Facts:

  • Aristotle’s Politics is a continuation of his Ethics. The two works are interconnected, with Ethics setting the stage for the political considerations in Politics.
  • The state is a community of well-being for families and groups of families. It provides a framework for individuals to live a complete and satisfying life.
  • The legislator is the only true teacher of virtue. By shaping the social environment and institutions, the legislator influences the moral development of citizens.
  • Aristotle studied 158 constitutions of his time. This empirical approach informs his analysis of different government forms.
  • The Greeks viewed the constitution as a way of life. It shaped not just political structures, but also the daily lives of citizens.
  • Aristotle believed that all men seek the good, but often go astray due to ignorance. This principle underpins his view of the state as a community striving for the good life.
  • The Greeks believed that the state was primarily about community of purpose, not force. Force, in their view, was a sign of the state’s failure.
  • Aristotle’s concept of political justice is based on the principle of “tools to those who can use them.” Political power should be distributed according to the abilities and qualifications of individuals.
  • Aristotle believed that artisans, while essential to society, were incapable of the intellectual and moral life required for citizenship. He viewed them as necessary tools for the good life of others, but not as full participants in the state.
  • He saw kingship as the proper form of government when there is a single individual of exceptional virtue. However, he also emphasized that absolute government is not truly political, as it lacks the element of equality among citizens.
  • Aristotle saw a strong middle class as crucial for the stability of a mixed constitution. This class serves as a mediating force between the wealthy and the poor.
  • He viewed democracy as the rule of the poor, not the many. Similarly, oligarchy was seen as the rule of the rich, not the few.
  • Aristotle believed that existing constitutions were perversions of the true form of government. This suggests a sense of disillusionment with the political realities of his time.
  • He saw education as the primary means for shaping citizens’ beliefs and aspirations, which in turn would influence the constitution.
  • The Greek concept of the “lawgiver” was not an ordinary politician, but a skilled expert called upon to address the specific needs of a state. This view is reflected in the numerous historical examples of individuals invited to draft laws for new colonies or to reform existing constitutions.

Statistics:

  • 158 constitutions: The number of constitutions studied by Aristotle, reflecting his empirical approach to politics.
  • 5,000 men-at-arms: The number of soldiers proposed by Plato in his Laws.
  • Five times the lowest census: The maximum wealth allowed for any citizen in Plato’s Laws.
  • Fifty talents: The amount invested by a Sicilian iron merchant who created a monopoly.
  • One hundred talents: The profit made by the Sicilian iron merchant.
  • Two oboli: The initial amount deemed sufficient for citizens, highlighting the endless nature of desires.
  • Two houses: The number of houses assigned to each person in Plato’s Laws.
  • One thousand horse and thirty thousand foot: The military capacity of Lacedaemon.
  • One thousand: The actual population of Lacedaemon, illustrating the decline in manpower due to the land distribution.
  • Fifteen hundred horse and thirty thousand foot: The military capacity of Lacedaemon.
  • Ten thousand: The original estimated population of Sparta.
  • Fifteen hundred: The number of horsemen Lacedaemon could support.
  • Thirty thousand: The number of foot soldiers Lacedaemon could support.
  • Ten thousand: The original estimated population of Lacedaemon.
  • One hundred and four: The number of magistrates in Carthage’s governing body.
  • Five hundred medimns: The wealth requirement for certain offices in Athens.
  • Five hundred: The number of wealthy citizens required to equal the power of one thousand poor citizens.
  • One thousand: The number of poor citizens required to equal the power of five hundred wealthy citizens.
  • Six hundred: The number of citizens who participated in government after Heraclea’s transformation into a democracy.
  • Four hundred: The number of people in the Athenian government during a period of oligarchy.
  • Thirty: The number of people in the Athenian government during a period of tyranny.
  • Thirty-three years: The total time Pisistratus and his son were in power.
  • Eighteen years: The combined reign of Gelo and Hiero in Syracuse.
  • Ten: The number of years Thebans needed to stay out of trade before participating in government.
  • Three years: The duration of Psammetichus’ tyranny in Corinth.
  • Thirty years: The duration of Cypselus’ tyranny in Corinth.
  • Forty-four years: The duration of Periander’s tyranny in Corinth.
  • Seventeen: The number of years Orthagoras and his family ruled Sicyon.
  • Seventy-seven years and six months: The total duration of the Cypselid dynasty in Corinth.

Terms:

  • Aesumnetes: An elected tyrant, a type of monarchy where the ruler has significant power but is chosen by the people.
  • Kosmoi: The supreme magistrates in Crete, analogous to the ephori in Sparta.
  • Penthelidee: A group of nobles who enforced their authority through violence, like a vigilante group.
  • Pedaci: A political faction in Athens, often opposed to Pisistratus.
  • Potagogides: Women employed as spies in Syracuse, listening in on conversations to inform the tyrant.
  • Partheniae: A group of Lacedaemonian citizens who were descendants of Spartan soldiers but were not given land or full citizenship rights, leading to resentment and eventually rebellion.
  • Eunomia: A poem by Tyrtaeus, a poet who lived during the Messenian wars, likely focused on good governance and law.
  • Philarchi: The chief magistrate in Epidamnus, later replaced by a senate.
  • Prytanes: A group of magistrates in Miletus who held significant power.
  • Triremes: Warships with three banks of oars, common in ancient Greece.
  • Triopium: A promontory in ancient Caria, a region in Asia Minor.
  • Trierarchs: Wealthy Athenian citizens who were required to finance and equip a trireme for the Athenian navy.

Examples:

  • Thales’ olive oil monopoly: A clever business strategy used by Thales, illustrating the potential for profit through economic manipulation.
  • The Sicilian iron merchant: A man who took advantage of wartime conditions to buy up all the iron, creating a monopoly and making a huge profit.
  • The Helen of Theodectes: This play features a character, Helen, who rejects accusations of slavery by claiming her lineage from the gods, highlighting the Greek connection between nobility and virtue.
  • The mare called Just: This mare was said to produce offspring that resembled the stallion who impregnated her, illustrating a natural connection between offspring and parents.
  • The story of Midas: This fable demonstrates the dangers of insatiable desire for wealth, showing that material possessions alone do not bring happiness.
  • The quarrel between the Syracusian magistrates: A petty dispute about a love affair escalated into a full-scale revolution in Syracuse, demonstrating how small conflicts can have significant consequences.
  • The dispute between the brothers in Hestiaea: A disagreement about an inheritance led to a political upheaval, showing the potential for personal disputes to become public conflicts.
  • The wedding quarrel in Delphos: An unfortunate omen and a subsequent murder ignited a series of seditions in Delphos, demonstrating how seemingly insignificant events can lead to widespread chaos.
  • The dispute over heritage in Mitylene: A conflict over inheritance led to war with Athens, demonstrating how personal disputes can have serious external consequences.
  • The story of the lions and the hares: This fable illustrates the dangers of allowing those with superior power to demand equality, highlighting the tension between natural hierarchy and political ideals.

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