Aristotle Politics Book

Aristotle’s Politics book is a classic work of political thought to understate this remarkable document’s achievement and significance considerably. The Politics is a product of that singular moment in the West’s history when traditional modes of thinking in every area were being uprooted by the new mode of thinking that had made its appearance in the Greek world under the name of philosophy. It was in and through the elaboration of a philosophic, scientific approach to natural and human phenomena by the ancient Greeks, above all, by Plato and Aristotle, that the Western tradition’s intellectual categories took shape. The significance of Aristotle’s Politics lies in the first instance because it represents the earliest attempt to elaborate a systematic science of politics.

Aristotle Politics Book
Aristotle Politics Book

Politics’ subject matter is “politics” in its original sense, the polis’ affairs, and the classical city-state. The word polis cannot be translated by the English “state” or its modern equivalents because polis is a distinction. It denotes a political form that is equally distant from the primitive tribe and the ancient East’s civilized monarchic state. The polis, the form of political organization prevailing in the Greek world during its greatest period (roughly the eighth to the third century BC), was an independent state organized around an urban center and governed typically by formal laws and republican political institutions.1

It is in important respects the forerunner, if not the direct ancestor, of the contemporary West’s constitutional democracies.2

In its original sense, politics is at once narrower and broader than politics in the contemporary sense. It is narrower in virtue of its association with an essentially republican political order but broader because it encompasses aspects of life that are today regarded as both beyond and beneath politics. The Politics trespasses On the ground that would today be claimed by the disciplines of economics, sociology, and urban planning and moral philosophy and the theory of education.

Yet, the scope and range of Politics represent more than a passive reflection of its historical moment. By exhibiting the complex unity of the elements of human life and the manner Of their fulfillment in the polis and the way of life it makes possible, Aristotle provides at once an articulation Of the phenomenon of politics in the fullness Of its potential and a powerful defense of the dignity of politics and the political life. For this reason, above all, Politics is an original and fundamental book, one of those rare books that first defines a permanent human possibility and thereby irrevocably alters the way men understand themselves.

This much may be said at the outset regarding the general character and significance of the work before us. Before entering on a fuller consideration Of the Politics, it is essential to present some account of Aristotle himself and the age in which he lived and wrote.

Aristotle’s life is frequently presented as one of virtually uninterrupted devotion to study, with little connection to the age’s great events. To the extent that his well-attested relationship with Macedon’s rulers is acknowledged, it tends to be viewed as a sort of historical curiosity with few implications for Aristotle’s own activity. Yet, a good case can be made for quite a different interpretation. Although the evidence bearing on Aristotle’s life is incomplete and Often conflicting and unreliable, it seems highly likely that he was more active politically on behalf of Macedon. His fortunes were more intimately bound up with those Of its rulers than is commonly supposed. At the same time, it appears that the traditional picture of Aristotle as a close associate and admirer of Alexander and his works is, at best, very overdrawn.3

Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Stagira, in the Chalcidic peninsula of northern Greece. His father, Nicomachus, was a court physician to Amyntas III of Macedon and has become the king’s close friend and advisor; hence it would appear that Aristotle was brought up primarily in Macedonia itself. At the age Of seventeen, Aristotle was sent to Athens to pursue his education. Most reports indicate that he immediately joined the Platonic Academy. However, some evidence suggests that he may have enrolled Initially in Isocrates’ rhetorical school, which was then better known throughout the Greek world.4

He remained in Athens, in close association with Plato, for the next twenty years.

The circumstances of Aristotle’s departure for Athens are of some interest. Amyntas III had died in 370 / 69. His eldest son and successor, Alexander, was murdered shortly thereafter by Amyntas’s brother-in-law, Ptolemy of Alorus, thus initiating a dynastic struggle that was only resolved with the accession of Amyntask younger son, Philip, in 359. It may well be that the dispatch of Aristotle to Athens in 367 had as much to do with the political turbulence at home as with the intrinsic attractions of that great center of culture and learning.

Similar considerations are likely to have played a role in Aristotle’s departure from Athens in 348/47. It is usually assumed that Aristotle left the Academy after the death of Plato because Of disappointment at the choice Of Plato’s nephew Speusippus as the new head of that institution rather than himself, possibly because Of sharpening philosophical disagreements with the followers of Plato generally. Another explanation is, however, at least equally plausible. Ten years of Philip’s rule had brought internal stability to Macedon and the beginnings of the aggrandizement of Macedonian power and influence that was shortly to make it the most formidable state in the Greek world. Athens, its traditional in tersest in the north of Greece menaced by these developments, found itself increasingly at odds with Philip. In the summer of 348, with the capture and sack Of Olynthus, the Chalcidic Federation’s capital, Philip succeeded in bringing all of the neighboring Greek cities under his control, despite a belated Athenian intervention stimulated by the fiercely anti-Macedonian oratory of Demosthenes.

Given the atmosphere then prevailing in Athens, it would not be surprising if Aristotle had chosen to remove himself from the city. In fact, there is some evidence that Aristotle actually left Athens before the death Of Plato and one account explicitly states that the reason for his departure was that he was “frightened by the execution Of Socrates” that is, by the prospect Of a revival of the politically motivated popular hostility to the philosophy that had led to the trial and death of Plato’s famous teacher at the hands of the Athenians a half-century earlier.5

Some forty years later, during another outburst of anti-Macedonian feeling in Athens, allegations of treasonous activity by Aristotle during the Olynthian crisis could still be used to support a motion to banish all alien philosophers from Athens.6

Aristotle’s next five years were spent in Asia Minor. Two former members of the Platonic Academy had established a school at Assos in the Troad under the patronage Of the local ruler, Hermias Of Atarneus; it was here that Aristotle first settled. There is no direct evidence that Philip had begun to contemplate the possibility Of an invasion of Asia Minor at this time. Still, the Atarnian state, which had been created at Persian expense during a period of imperial weakness, was a natural ally and staging area for any such undertaking. Philip soon received Persian exiles at his court in Pella. When Hermias was captured in 341 thanks to a Greek mercenary commander’s treachery and brought to the Persian capital, the torture to which he was subjected appears to have had the purpose of laying bare the nature Of Macedonian intentions in Asia.

Given these circumstances, it seems quite possible that Aristotle had a role in forging an understanding of some sort between the two men. There is also evidence that Aristotle traveled to Macedonia before going to Assos in connection with the affairs of his native Stagira, which had been captured by Philip in the previous year. It may have been at this time that his relationship with the son of his father’s patron was first firmly established. 7

In any event, Aristotle soon became an intimate of Hermias. This remarkable man, a eunuch, by the report, who had risen from slavery to become a wealthy businessman before making himself a “tyrant” of Atarneus appears to have shared Aristotle’s philosophical interests.

The two men’s personal attachment is reflected in Aristotle’s marriage to Hermia” niece and adopted daughter, Pythias.

Possibly because of the increasing precariousness of Hermias’s position in the face of the revival of Persian power under Artaxerxes Ochus, Aristotle left Assos in 345/ 44 for nearby Mytilene on the island Of Lesbos. Then, in 343/ 42, he was invited by Philip to take up residence in Macedonia and— according to tradition —undertake the education Of his son Alexander, the future conqueror of the Persian Empire.

At the time of Aristotle’s arrival, Alexander was thirteen years old. Within two years, he would be heavily engaged in the affairs of the kingdom as regent during Philip’s prolonged absence on Thrace’s campaign, and subsequently as one Of his commanders in the campaign that culminated in the decisive battle of Chaperone in central Greece in 338. Because of these circumstances, it isn’t easy to imagine that Aristotle’s influence can have been as decisive in forming an outlook as is often assumed. Moreover, there is reason to wonder whether the traditional account of their relationship can be acted as Alexander’s personal tutor by no means represents the consensus of his biographical tradition and is not supported by any contemporary sources.8

As regards philosophical affiliation, it has been persuasively argued that Alexander  political ideas were closer to Cynic cosmopolitanism than to the views of Plato or Aristotle.9

The most plausible explanation is that Philip summoned Aristotle to establish a school for the education of the Macedonian gentry’s sons, and only secondarily, if at all, for the sake of Alexander. Philip appears to have been concerned to inspire a spirit of unity and loyalty in the fractious nobles of his large and heterogeneous domains. One of his most significant measures to this end was creating a body known as the Royal Pages, adolescent sons of the nobility who were brought to Philip’s court to prepare them for service to the monarchy and Philip personally. Though evidence is lacking, it is plausible to imagine that Aristotle was charged with the education in any case centered most probably on literary and rhetorical rather than philosophical subjects—of this select and important group.

Among his students may have been the sons of Anticipate, the regent of Macedonia during Aristotle’s first several years there and subsequently, and Ptolemy, the founder of the Lagid dynasty in Egypt, who was to be an important patron of the Peripatetic school after Aristotle’s death. Aristotle evidently formed a close friendship with Anticipate during these years, a friendship which seems to have been maintained through a regular correspondence after Aristotle’s return to Athens.10

The extent Of Aristotle’s association with Philip himself is not known. Philip was absent from Pella during much of the period of Aristotle’s stay. When the king again turned his attention to Greek affairs, however, Aristotle may well have played some advisory role, particularly concerning Athens.11

And we shall see that there is some evidence linking Aristotle to the political settlement imposed by Philip on the Greeks under the name of the League of Corinth. If Aristotle did have a hand in facilitating the reconciliation Of the Athenians with Philip, it would help explain his decision to return to the city in 335 permanently. Despite the renewed fighting that followed Philip’s assassination in 336 and Alexander’s decidedly less gentle handling of the rebellious Greeks, Aristotle could still count on a store of popular goodwill sufficient to neutralize at least in part the resentment generated by his long-standing Macedonian associations. It may also be that Aristotle felt less welcome in a Macedonia now dominated by the partisans Of Alexander.12 


1.Of the classical city-states of the Greek world, Athens and Sparta are the best known to contemporary readers. Yet, in many ways, especially in population and extent Of territory, they were exceptional. Kathleen Freeman, Greek City-States (New York, 1950), remains a useful introduction. See, more recently, Hansen 1991, 1993, 1998.

2. See, notably, Ober and Hendrick 1996.

3. The case has been argued principally by Chroust (1979, inventory Of the evidence in 1957. On Aristotle and Alexander see Victor Ehrenberg, Alexander, and the Greeks, trans. Ruth Fraenkel von Velsen (Oxford, 1938), Ch. 3.

4. See Chroust 1979, Plato was not actually present in Athens at the time of Aristotle’s arrival, returning from his Sicilian journey only in 365/64. The central place of rhetoric in the intellectual preoccupations of Aristotle’s early years will be discussed below.

5.  II Vita Aristotelis Syriaca 2—4 (Chroust 1979, 12117—24).

6.  The orator Demochares, supporting the motion of a certain Sophocles, alleged, among other things, that letters Aristotle had sent to Macedonia at this juncture were intercepted by the Athenians (Chroust 1979, In 21—22).

7.  Demetrius, On Style 29 = Aristotle, fr. 669 Rose. Aristotle’s diplomatic role concerning Hermias is accepted by J. R. Ellis, Phi lip and Macedonian Imperialism (London, 1976), 97—98. On Hermias’s torture and death at Persian hands see further 172—73.

8.  Indeed, there is a competing tradition according to which Alexander’s principal tutors were Leonidas, a relative of his mother Olympias, and a certain Lysimachus of Acarnania. See generally Chroust 1979,

9.  See, for example, W. W. Tarn, Alexander the Great (Cambridge, 1948); Ernst Badian, “Alexander the Great and the Unity Of Mankind,” Historia 7 (195 S): 425—44.

10.  The school’s location appears to have been at a site near the city of Mieza (in the mountains southwest of the capital Pella) known as the Nymphaion (Ellis, 160—62).

11.  One of the Arabic biographies of Aristotle (IV Vita Aristotle is Arabica 17—19) records an inscription supposed to have been set up on the Acropolis honoring Aristotle’s benefactions, specifically his intervention with Philip on Athens’s behalf. It makes sense to connect this with the circumstances of the Amphissan War of 338 and the aftermath of the battle of Chaeronea when Philip behaved with great leniency toward defeated Athens (Chroust 1979, 1.133-44)
12. A crisis in Alexander and his father’s relationship was created by Philip’s decision in 337 to contract a new marriage with the Macedonian noblewoman Cleopatra. Although polygamy seems to have been an accepted royal practice, Alexander and his mother, Olympias, apparently saw this step as a threat to his succession. That Olympias was implicated in Philip’s assassination in the year following, as some sources claim, is unlikely. Still, it is not impossible that the later factional struggle between Olympias and the family of Anticipate had its roots in this period, and that Aristotle’s close identification with Philip and Anticipate had placed him in an awkward position.

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