Aristotle: A Complete Overview of His Life, Work, and Philosophy

Aristotle, Father of Political Science is one of the most influential thinker of Western Political Thought provided extensive work on Western philosophy, Political science, and ethics, shaping the foundations of these fields and influencing centuries of thought. His works laid the groundwork for critical thinking and systematic inquiry. The question is How much we know about him?

Aristotle ( 384 B.C )

Introduction: 

Aristotle, widely regarded as the Father of Political Science, occupies a unique position in the history of philosophy as both the most prominent disciple and a formidable critic of Plato. His intellectual contributions have left an enduring mark on subsequent political thinkers and the field of political science. His philosophy shared the origin from subject “Biology”. Aristotle is renowned for introducing a scientific and pragmatic dimension to the study of politics, which was previously steeped in philosophical speculation. His substantial impact on comparative politics has earned him the title of the Father of Comparative Politics. To understand Aristotle’s journey, it is essential to delve into his early life and the influences that shaped his philosophical outlook.

Early Life  

Aristotle was born in 384 B.C in Stagirus, Thres. Aristotle’s formative years were significantly shaped by his father, Nichomachus, who served as a physician to the King of Macedon. This early exposure to the analytical and scientific methods of his father laid the groundwork for Aristotle’s rigorous approach to problem-solving. His penchant for comparing the state to an organism and individuals to its constituent organs can be attributed to his scientific upbringing. Later he also established his library known as Lyceum based on Peripatetic School.

Impact of Plato on Aristotle’s Life 

While Aristotle emerged as a prominent thinker in his own right, he was profoundly influenced by his mentor, Plato. Some scholars even assert that Aristotle is the greatest of all Platonists. Plato’s influence on Aristotle is evident in several key ideas, including the belief that humans are inherently social beings, necessitating life within a society. Both philosophers agreed that democracy was not an ideal form of government and that the state’s purpose was to foster moral development in individuals. Additionally, they concurred that there should be no inherent conflict between the individual and the state, and both advocated for a system where certain citizens could focus on intellectual pursuits while others performed manual labor. 

However, important distinctions exist between the two philosophers. Plato constructed a philosophy that started with general principles and moved towards specific applications, while Aristotle proposed a philosophy that began with specific observations and derived general principles from them i.e. Inductive Methodology. Moreover, Aristotle rejected Plato’s concept of communal ownership of wives and emphasized the importance of the institution of the family, arguing that its abolition would disrupt societal harmony.

Important Works of Aristotle

Nicomachean Ethics (350 BC) – Here Aristotle states that human beings can be happy only if they fulfill their basic function i.e. fulfill the capacities of their human nature in an excellent way. He gave a term for Happiness – Eudaimonia. He examines the various virtues necessary for living well in a polis. In this Book he gave his idea of “Golden Mean”.

Metaphysics (350 BC) – In this, Aristotle rejected Plato’s theory of forms. Metaphysics is characterized by the study of “being qua being” – being in general rather than specifically of this or that sort. 

Politics (350 BC) – Politics is the most influential and profound work of Aristotle. He describes the role that politics and political community must play in bringing about a virtuous life of the citizens. He defines ‘polis’ or city as a ‘koinonia’ or a political association.  Maxey called Aristotle “1st Political Scientist” because of his work Politics.

Physics 

Rhetorics 

On the Soul (350 BC) – Three types of Soul – 

  • Nutritive Soul
  • Sensible Soul
  • Rational Soul

Eudemian Ethics 

⮚  De Anima

Perspective of Aristotle as a Thinker 

Aristotle’s philosophy is characterized by its reliance on common sense rather than specialized knowledge for good governance. He believes that rulers should possess worldly wisdom rather than being immersed in the realm of abstract ideas. As a conservative thinker, Aristotle advocates for the preservation and rectification of existing institutions over their complete elimination. 

He adopts a functionalist approach, emphasizing the utility of institutions, viewing them from a utilitarian standpoint. Aristotle is a proponent of the Golden mean, advocating for moderation and balance over extreme positions. His belief in teleology, the idea that there is a predetermined purpose for every individual in nature, underpins his philosophy, suggesting that nature guides our destinies as we move toward our preordained roles. In essence, Aristotle’s philosophy is a fusion of practicality, moderation, and a deep understanding of human nature, making him a pivotal figure in the history of political thought.

Major Themes of Aristotle’s Political Thought

Let’s discuss the major themes of Aristotle’s political philosophy, including his theory of the state, the importance of the rule of law, and his insights on different types of constitutions.

Theory of the State By Aristotle

Aristotle firmly believed in the significance of the state in human life. Drawing from the Socratic tradition, much like his teacher Plato, he underscored the critical role of the state in our existence. According to Aristotle, humans are inherently political beings. Nature has not designed humans to be self-sufficient; we rely on communities to fulfill our needs. Aristotle argued that living without a state would require superhuman qualities or divine attributes. Therefore, he regarded it as the destiny of humanity to be part of a political community.

In Aristotle’s view, the state is not just a collection of individuals; it is the highest form of association. While man may precede the state chronologically, the state takes precedence logically. It is not a single entity but a “family of families,” embodying unity in diversity. Within the state, various interests coexist, and achieving equilibrium among them is crucial for its stability. For Aristotle, the State is prior to Individual and a natural institution which is most vital. Hence, “Individual without the state is either a beast or God”.

Rule of Law by Aristotle

Aristotle favored the rule of law over the rule of a single individual. He believed that the “passionless authority of law” imparts a moral quality and dignity to both rulers and subjects. This perspective on the rule of law laid the foundation for constitutional rule. Aristotle outlined key elements of constitutional rule:

  • Rule in the common interest of the people, not the rulers’ self-interest.
  • Governance guided by regulations, not arbitrary orders.
  • Willing subjects who are ruled by consent, not force.

Theory of Constitution by Aristotle

Aristotle used the terms constitution, state, and government interchangeably. For him, a constitution was not merely a form of government or a set of norms; it was a way of life that determined the moral character of the state. Aristotle categorized constitutions into four types based on his study of 158 different constitutions:

  • One: Monarchy (Best form of government, but not always practical)
  • Few: Aristocracy (Rule by the rich) – Can pervert into Oligarchy (self-interest)
  • Many: Polity (Rule by the middle class) – A golden mean between Oligarchy and Democracy
  • Many: Democracy (Rule by the ignorant poor) – Can pervert into Mobocracy – Worst Form of Government according to Aristotle.

Aristotle believed that Polity, a government by the middle class with moderate property and wisdom, was the most suitable and practicable form of government. It represented the golden mean between Oligarchy and Democracy. Polity incorporated three essential elements:

  • A Deliberative Body (Legislature)
  • The Official or Magistrate (Executive)
  • The Judicial System (Judiciary)

Why Polity is Most Suitable

Aristotle argued that Polity, as a constitutional government, offered a balanced blend of democracy and oligarchy. It was neither a rule by the majority nor the minority but rather a rule by the middle class, which he believed was the most stable segment of society. This form of government considered factors such as freedom, wealth, culture, noble birth, and numerical superiority.

Theory of Citizenship by Aristotle

Aristotle equated citizenship with duty. According to him, being a citizen means actively participating in the affairs of the state. However, Aristotle’s view of citizenship had some limitations. He believed that only adult males from the propertied class could be considered citizens. Others, such as the Working class,women, the elderly, children, and slaves, were excluded due to various reasons like being too busy, household responsibilities, physical limitations, or lack of reason.

Theory of Slavery by Aristotle

Aristotle’s theory of slavery is a complex one. He saw slavery as both natural and useful. He examined slavery through a functional lens, categorizing slaves into two types: those who were slaves by law (prisoners of war) and those who were slaves by nature. According to Aristotle, slaves by nature were individuals incapable of making decisions and bearing the consequences of those decisions. For Aristotle slavery was a necessary and natural subject.

Aristotle believed that mentally strong individuals should be rulers, while physically strong ones should be producers or slaves. He argued that the institution of slavery could be beneficial for slaves under a benevolent master, allowing them to develop virtues. Moreover, it allowed masters more time for active participation in the affairs of the state, as slaves could work for extended hours.

Theory of Property by Aristotle

In his theory of property, Aristotle critiqued Plato’s idea of communism of property. Aristotle approached property from a functional perspective, recognizing it as a source of virtues. Unlike Plato, he did not support the abolition of private property but acknowledged its potential negative aspects.

Aristotle classified property into two types: animate (slaves) and inanimate (material holdings). He proposed three systems of property and favored individual ownership with common use. He saw individual ownership as motivating, fostering self-respect, and increasing productivity. However, he also suggested that individuals contribute a portion of their income to the state to address potential inequalities created by private property.

With this he also held that the “family is an important and natural institution that surpassed the time and proved its contribution for the stability of the state”.

Theory of Justice By Aristotle

Aristotle discussed justice at three levels: distributive justice, rectificatory justice and corrective Justice. His theory of justice is known as the Theory of Proportionate Justice (Distributive Justice). Distributive justice deals with the fair distribution of resources and positions in society, while rectificatory justice focuses on addressing harm done to one another.

Aristotle introduced the principle of proportion, suggesting that rewards should be proportional to a person’s contribution to society. He further stated – “Justice is to do the rightness and the wrongness of our actions”.

Concept Of Knowledge by Aristotle

Aristotle also believed the all Knowledge can be classified into three classes – 

  • Theoretical Knowledge
  • Practical Knowledge
  • Productive Knowledge

With this Aristotle also defined 4 causes of an explanation of being anything such as:

Formal Cause – The formal cause relates to the inherent design, structure, or pattern that defines an object or phenomenon. It answers the question: “What is its essential nature or form?” In the case of a living organism, like a tree, the formal cause encompasses the genetic code and characteristics that make it a tree. The formal cause focuses on the blueprint or idea behind the existence of something. 

Material Cause – This cause refers to the material substance or components that make up an object or entity. It answers the question: “What is it made of?” For example, the material cause of a wooden table is the wood itself. Understanding the material cause helps us comprehend the physical composition of an object.

Efficient Cause – The efficient cause is the force or agent responsible for bringing about an event or causing something to happen. It answers the question: “What initiated or caused it?” For instance, the efficient cause of a book could be the author who wrote it, the publisher who printed it, or the person who purchased it. It relates to the actions or processes that lead to the existence or occurrence of an object or event.

Final Cause (Telos): The final cause deals with the purpose, goal, or end for which something exists or occurs. It answers the question: “Why does it exist or happen?” The final cause provides insight into the reason or intended outcome of an action or the existence of an object. For example, the final cause of a plant is to grow, reproduce, and contribute to its ecosystem. It is concerned with the ultimate aim or function of an entity within the broader context.

Theory of Equality by Aristotle

Aristotle’s theory of equality is closely linked to his theory of justice. He believed that inequality, whether real or perceived, could lead to revolution. Aristotle advocated for treating equals equally and unequals unequally. He supported a meritocratic society where those with reason and courage would be masters, and those lacking these qualities would be slaves.

In Aristotle’s view, treating both masters and slaves as equals would be unjust, and he endorsed differential rewards based on merit.

It is also important to note that as per Aristotle, women are inferior to men as he described “women as an infertile male”.

Read More about PlatoPhilosophy of Plato

Theory of revolution by Aristotle

In the realm of political philosophy, Aristotle’s Theory of Revolution stands as a pivotal concept. This ancient philosopher, often regarded as a conservative thinker, held a rather cautious view on the notion of revolution. To Aristotle, any form of change, regardless of its scale or method, be it peaceful or tumultuous, could be classified as a revolution. Yet, he leaned towards stability, preferring it over the unpredictable nature of change.

Aristotle delved into the general causes that could spark a revolution, shedding light on the roots of societal upheaval. The feeling of inequality among the populace, the presence of corruption within the ruling class, and an excessive influx of foreigners into the society were identified as the common triggers. These factors, Aristotle believed, could ignite the flames of discontent and pave the way for a revolution.

However, Aristotle was not just a harbinger of gloom and doom; he also provided insights into how to quell potential revolutions. Embracing change as an inevitable force was one facet of his solution. He advocated for the importance of preventing any sense of injustice among the people, maintaining vigilance against corruption, monitoring both internal and external movements within the state, and preserving the delicate social balance. These strategies, according to Aristotle, were essential in keeping the flames of revolution at bay and ensuring a stable and harmonious society. In essence, Aristotle’s Theory of Revolution serves as a timeless guide, offering wisdom on how societies can navigate the turbulent waters of change while striving for enduring stability.

Conclusion 

In conclusion, Aristotle’s groundbreaking contributions to the field of political science have left an indelible mark. Through a meticulous examination of 158 constitutions within the Greek city-states, he pioneered the comparative method in the study of political science. As the inaugural realist thinker and a staunch individualist, Aristotle’s magnum opus, “Politics,” has not only shaped the Western tradition but also laid the very foundation upon which it rests. His work remains an enduring cornerstone, influencing and guiding scholars and thinkers throughout the ages, and continues to be a source of inspiration for the study of politics in the modern world.

Important Quotes By Aristotle

⮚ “It is unjust to treat equals unequally; It is equally unjust to treat unequal equally”. 

⮚ “Man is by nature a political animal”. 

⮚ “Virtue of Justice consists in moderation, as regulated by Wisdom”

⮚ “Authority of statesman is different from the authority of master.” 

⮚ “State comes into existence for the sake of life and continues for the sake of good life.” 

⮚ “State is the highest of all associations.” 

⮚ “One who can live without state is either a beast or god but he can’t be a man.” 

⮚ “Polity is the best practicable form of government.” 

⮚ “Law is a reason without passion.” 

⮚ “I will not allow the Athenian to commit another sin”

Important Commentaries on Aristotle

⮚ “Aristotle’s conception of slavery is more a justification of a necessity than a deduction from disinterested observation of facts.”. – Barker 

⮚ Aristotle’s ideal state is Plato’s second best state – Sabine

⮚ “Aristotle’s best possible state is simply the one which is neither too rich nor too poor; secure from attack and devoid of great wealth or wide expansion of trade or territory, homogeneous, virtuous, defensible, unambitious community, self sufficient but not aggressive, great but not large, a tightly independent city devoted to the achievement of the Highest possible measure of culture and virtue, of wellbeing and true happiness attainable by each and by all”. – C. H. McIlwain 

⮚ “Politics is not a systematic study of political philosophy, but rather is 3 treatise on the art of government.” – Gettel 

⮚ “Aristotle is the greatest of all Platonists. – Foster 

⮚ “Plato found the corrective to his thinking in his own student.” – William Ebenstiein 

⮚ “The ideas, expressed by Plato as suggestions, illusions or illustrations are taken up by Aristotle.” – Dunning 

⮚ “As Brutus loves not Caesar less, but Rome more, so Aristotle says–dear is Plato, but dearer still is truth.” – Will Durant 

⮚ “Aristotle begins by recognising two senses of the word. By ‘Just’, we may mean what is lawful or what is fair and equal.” – W.D. Ross 

⮚ “Aristotle’s methodology is scientific; his work is systematic, his writings are analytical. Aristotle’s each essay begins with the words: ‘Observation show” – Barker

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