PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday January 31, 2003



[1.] Background.

·         biographical details, as well as general philosophical background, are in the "Introduction" by Richard Kraut, in your textbook (pp.178-182)

·         Aristotle penned two great works of moral philosophy: the Nichomachean Ethics[1] and the Politics[2] (some would include a third work, the Eudemian Ethics, which covers much of the same ground as the Nichomachean Ethics). We'll be focusing on the Politics.

·         According to some (but by no means all) Aristotle scholars, the Politics was not written as a single integrated work. It's possible that some of it actually consists of Aris' lecture notes edited by his students; the order in which the various books of the Politics were written is also in question.[3]

·         Here's a description of different views that modern scholars take regarding the Politics:


there are first those scholars who say that the Politics is not a coherent whole either in doctrine or form; there are second those who say it is a coherent whole in doctrine but not in form; and there are those who say it is a coherent whole in both doctrine and form.[4]


So if it seems to you that at some points Aristotle says contradictory things… well, you might be right. Not even the experts agree on whether or not this is really the case.

·         We'll be focusing on four books of the Politics: I, II, III and VII. It is likely that book VII (which comes seventh in the manuscripts from which all modern translations stem) was actually intended by Aristotle to come fourth -- if this is correct, then we'll be reading from what Aris intended to be the first four books.



[2.] Politics Book I.


In this book, Aris examines:

·         different units of human association that combine to make a city (polis)

·         different forms of rule, especially the rule of master over slave.


[2.1.] From the Household to the Polis. The polis is constituted by a number of villages, which in turn are constituted by a number of households/families:


I. the household/family


The most basic units of human association are:

These are both natural, a direct result of human nature itself


·         husband and wife

·         stems from the natural desire to reproduce


·         slavery (master and slave)

·         stems from natural superiority; some individuals are naturally suited to be rulers. Others are naturally suited to be slaves.


Together, these relationships constitute the household or family. These are both "instituted for the satisfaction of daily recurrent needs" (1252b, p.223)



II. the village

·         The village is an offshoot of the household/family; in its most basic form, it's an extended family living in close connection


III. the polis

·         "the final and perfect association"...

·         formed from several villages

·         natural, not conventional (just like the household and the village); it exists by physis (nature), not by nomos (convention).

·         "the height of full self-sufficiency"

·         while its predecessors came to be "for the sake of mere life", the polis exists "for the sake of a good life". (1252b, p.223) Aris connects self-sufficiency with the good life -- the final cause (end, purpose, function) of the polis is self-sufficiency, in the sense of enabling individuals to live good lives. These points are captured in a description of the polis Aris gives in Politics III:


What constitutes a city is an association of households and clans in a good life, for the sake of attaining a perfect and self-sufficing existence. (1280b, p.245)


So even though a polis is a natural phenomenon, it still has a purpose, a function, a "final cause." This strikes modern readers as odd -- how can something that was not created on purpose by some intelligent agent have a purpose? An ax has a purpose, viz. the job that it was intended to do by its creator. But how can a naturally occurring thing (a rock, a blade of grass, or -- acc to Aris -- a state) have a purpose?


Aris' view of the natural world was teleological -- all naturally occurring objects and beings have functions or purposes. This includes man! [We'll get to this in Book VII-which-is-fourth]



[2.2.] Man, the Political Animal. One of the best known ideas of Aristotle's political philosophy is this: "man is by nature a political animal" (1253a, p.224) -- it is part of human nature to associate with other individuals in a city-state:


...the city belongs to the class of things that exist by nature, and ... man is by nature a political animal. He who is without a city, by reason of his own nature and not of some accident, is either a poor sort of being, or a being higher than man... (1253a, p.224)


The point is not simply that we live in groups -- most other animals do that. Humans are different:

·         only humans use language

·         this enable us to communicate with one another about what things are beneficial and what things are harmful

·         only we can perceive the difference between good and evil, just and unjust

·         "it is association in these things which makes a family and a city" (1253a, p.224) [discussion: what does Aris mean here?]


Aris says towards the end of I:2 that "the city is prior in the order of nature to the family and the individual." By this he seems to mean that a human living apart from a city is not really human; he is either "a beast or a god", even though we might still apply the label "human" to him. An individual is not really or fully human apart from the polis.


Note: The sort of genealogy Aristotle engages in here is very different than what Plato does in Republic II. Plato was describing the development of a hypothetical, perfect polis; Aristotle means to be explaining how an actual polis comes to exist. But they both agree that the polis is a natural phenomenon, not a conventional one (unlike Hobbes, for example, who sees the state as conventional, and in particular as based on a contractual relationship between rulers and subjects).



[1] The entire Nichomachean Ethics (Ross, trans.) is online at

[2] The entire Politics (Jowett, trans.) is online at .

[3] Schmandt, H. History of Political Philosophy pp.67-8, n.3.

[4] Peter Simpson, "Introduction" to The Politics of Aristotle, 1997, p.xvi. Simpson also describes disagreements among scholars as to the order in which the eight books of the Politics are supposed to occur.  Simpson believes they were intended by Aristotle to occur in this order: I, II, III, VII, VIII, IV, V, VI.

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