Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 18, 2018, from

27. Politics: ideal states

The Politics pursues three connected aims: (1) it completes the discussion of happiness, by showing what kind of political community achieves the human good (mainly books I, II and VII); (2) it sets out moral and political principles that allow us to understand and to criticize the different sorts of actual states and their constitutions (mainly books III and IV); (3) it offers some proposals for improving actual states (mainly books V and VI). The order of the books probably reflects Aristotle’s aim of describing an ideal state after examining the strengths and weaknesses of actual states.

An individual’s desire for happiness leads eventually to the city. A human being is a ‘political animal’, because essential human capacities and aims are completely fulfilled only in a political community; hence (given the connection between the human function and the human good) the individual’s happiness must involve the good of fellow members of a community. The relevant sort of community is a polis (‘city’ or ‘state’) – a self-governing community whose proper function (not completely fulfilled by every actual political community) is to aim at the common good of its citizens, who (normally) share in ruling and in being ruled. The city is the all-inclusive community, of which the other communities are parts, since it aims at advantage not merely for some present concern but for the whole of life (Nicomachean Ethics 1160a9–30). Since happiness is complete and self-sufficient, the city is a complete and self-sufficient community (Politics 1252b28), aiming at a complete and self-sufficient life that includes all the goods needed for a happy life.

The connection between human nature, human good and the political community is most easily understood from Aristotle’s account of friendship. Complete friendship, which requires living together and sharing rational discourse and thought, is restricted to individuals with virtuous characters, but this is not the only type of friendship that achieves self-realization in cooperation; a similar defence can be given for the friendship of citizens. Collective deliberation about questions of justice and benefit contributes to the virtuous person’s self-realization because it extends the scope of one’s practical reason and deliberation beyond one’s own life and activities. Since the city is comprehensive, seeking to plan for everything that is needed for the complete good, a rational agent has good reason to want to share in its deliberations.

Since, then, Aristotle believes that political activity contributes in its own right to the human good, he argues against a ‘social contract’ theory that assigns a restricted instrumental function to the state (safety, or mutual protection, or the safeguarding of what justly belongs to each person; Politics III 9). Political life is to be valued for itself, apart from any instrumental benefit; the best city aims at the development of the moral virtues and at the political participation of all who are capable of them.

In the light of these aims, Aristotle describes the best city. It has to assume favourable external conditions (geographical and economic) to allow the development of political life. Its criteria for citizenship are restricted, since they exclude everyone (including women and manual labourers) whom Aristotle regards as incapable of developing the virtues of character. Within the class of citizens, however, Aristotle is concerned to avoid gross inequality of wealth. and to ensure that everyone shares both in ruling and in being ruled. The institutions of the best state provide the political, social, economic and educational basis for the practice of the moral virtues and for contemplation.

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Politics: ideal states. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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