Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Aristotle was born in Macedonia, the son of the king’s physician. Already interested in the natural world, at the age of 18 he went to Athens to be taught in Plato’s famous academy. After Plato’s death in 347 BC, Aristotle travelled to the city of Atarneus in modern-day Turkey, where he had influential connections. A few years later he was invited by King Philip II of Macedon to act as tutor to his son, Alexander. In later years the ruler who would become known as Alexander the Great quarrelled with Aristotle, but it seems that the philosopher exerted some influence over his pupil’s outlook. When Alexander succeeded to the Macedonian throne Aristotle continued to advise him, and the King made sure that he had access to the best sources of knowledge.
In about 335 BC Aristotle, now approaching the age of fifty, returned to Athens and opened his own school of philosophy, known as the Lyceum. It was here that he produced his most famous writings, some of which have survived in the form of notes taken by his pupils. However, after the death of Alexander in 323 BC there was a reaction in Athens against Macedonians, and Aristotle was forced to flee. He died the following year at his country house at Chalcis, on the island of Euboea.
Aristotle made a significant contribution to knowledge in an amazing variety of fields; such was his authority that in the Middle Ages he was known simply as “The Philosopher.” His approach, in contrast to that of Plato, was to concentrate on the observation of material phenomena. It was typical of him to attempt a classification of his subject-matter. This approach is best regarded as empirical, and (primarily) inductive (see pages 12–14 of the Introduction).
In politics, Aristotle followed previous authors (including Plato) by producing a classification of different constitutions. These were good or bad depending upon whether or not they were operated to the advantage of the people as a whole. Monarchy and aristocracy were “good” forms of constitution in which the government was in the hands of a single person or a few. Their defective counterparts were tyranny and oligarchy. Where power was exercised by the people as a whole, the good and bad governments are “polity,” where there is little or no class discrimination, and democracy, which Aristotle regarded as the rule of the poor in their own selfish interests.
Whatever the form of constitution, Aristotle believed that “politics” of some sort comes naturally to human beings. His famous remark, “Man is a political animal,” actually means that people naturally associate in the polis, or city, rather than living in isolation from each other (see page 286, Chapter 14). However, this still means that Aristotle thought that politics, in the modern sense, was natural for humans: when people gather together in significant numbers questions inevitably arise about the form of their association, and who is to take the decisions. For Aristotle, a kind of “politics” is inherent in the individual household, in which women should be ruled by their husbands. This, according to Aristotle, is entirely for their own benefit. Aristotle’s view of the institution of slavery is even more uncongenial to today’s liberal democracies. In his view, some people are slaves by nature, requiring direction from a superior intellect if they are to survive. Thus, it turns out that slavery is actually beneficial to the slaves, as well as the masters!
Although Aristotle fully deserves to be ranked among the greatest political philosophers, his views on women and slavery illustrate his tendency to discover justifications for existing practices, instead of following Plato’s more subversive approach to “common sense” ideas. Similarly, while Plato was concerned in The Republic with building a complex picture of an ideal state, Aristotle was more concerned with a search for the best constitution possible in specific circumstances. Unsurprisingly, for Aristotle the best practicable form of government is “polity,” a constitutional form that can be dominated by neither the rich nor the poor. In such a state, the middle classes will normally be the prevailing element. This conclusion is compatible with the notion of a “golden mean” in personal conduct, which Aristotle outlined in his Nicomachean Ethics. On this view, the wise person will avoid extremes (thus, for example, being neither cowardly nor brave to the point of recklessness).
Julian Barnes (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Sir David Ross, Aristotle, Routledge, 6th edition, 1995.