Plot: Aristotle searches for the ideal constitution for a city-state by examining those existing around his part of the world, including those proposed in theory as models, such as those found in Plato’s Republic and Laws.
My copy is the Penguin Black Classic The Politics, translated by T. A. Sinclair, and revised by Trevor Saunders (ISBN 0140444211)
My thoughts: Like his biological treatises, The Politics is a series of essays or lectures written in a conversational style. It starts with building up from basic units (individuals, families, households, village, to the city-state) the assertion that the city-state is the goal which will make men happy. Unfortunately, Aristotle cannot dispense with the need for slavery so it will make only some men happy. In Book 1, dealing with household management, he claims that some men are “slaves by nature”, their bodies suitable to do menial work by their inherent strength and their virtues underdeveloped or missing, and should be regarded as tools or property of the household manager, as it is “nature’s purpose to make the bodies of free men to differ from those of slaves” (page 69). Not so enlightened after all, despite actually raising the question of equality and justice, and then dismissing them with the above obfuscation. And his position on women and wives is not much better.
Likewise, the attitude towards the Earth and all other living things is similarly of its time but repugnant now (at least to me)
“If then nature makes nothing without some end in view … it must be that nature has made all of them for the sake of man … even the art of war … must be used both against wild beasts and against such men as are by nature intended to be ruled over but refuse …” page 79
He now moves on to his quest for the ideal constitution for a city-state, starting with Plato’s idealised Republic. Yet here he undermines his slavery argument by pointing out that free men should take turns ruling for a year and then be ruled by their peers after that. So by his own argument, they are all capable of being ruled (ie slaves).
And now we have the observation that agricultural classes (ie the ruled) have a lack of strong affection for their wives and children, unlike the upper classes!!
Moving on to a less personal (?) subject is the idea of communal ownership of property (including wives and children as Plato proposed in The Republic) which Aristotle is not wholly in favour of, with his observation that “it is more necessary to equalise appetites than possessions” (a neat summation why true communism is so difficult to achieve) and the difficulty of the need to fix the amount of allowable private possessions at a level not too high or too low.
These anomalies aside, Books 3 and 4 cover the art of government and choice of constitutions more appropriate to a study of politics, discussing the three basic models : monarchy, aristocracy and polity, in different flavours, and their respective ‘deviations’ (tyranny, oligarchy and democracy). Although Aristotle is obviously not a fan of democracy as it existed in Ancient Greece, he does admit that the masses (by which he only means free men, not the whole population) may be correct in their collective voice regardless of their individual baseness. He also points out that the best constitution will take into account the middle classes, who are usually the most numerous. This leads on to constitutional change, and the highbrow theories meet reality as his examples of factions (which are a leading cause of change to a different form – oligarchy to democracy or vice versa) involve jilted brides, rejected suitors and disappointed heirs forming groups amongst their supporters to revolt and eventually change the ways of government.
I must confess to starting to skim sections at this point, but this was due to my disinterest rather than any flaw with the text, and readers interested in political philosophy will no doubt be more fascinated than I was. I eventually succumbed to defeat by Book 5 and gave myself an early birthday present by shutting down and going off for a lavish Chinese takeaway. True monarchy in action!
“For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice. …. Man without virtue is the most savage, the most unrighteous, and the worst in regard to sexual license and gluttony.” Book I, part ii, (page 61)
Personal rating: 4/10
The sanity in between: Destination Unknown. Agatha Christie lets Poirot and Miss Marple have a holiday and tries her hand at a spy thriller, creating a Hitchcockian story with a Bond-style villain. Quite enjoyable and very escapist.
Next : Staying with the theme and reading Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution