Now we come to Aristotle. Political science is only one of the sciences that he invented. He was the parent of many: logic, physics, biology, psychology, rhetoric, poetics, metaphysics and the theory of scientific method and explanation generally.
Aristotle was the first to codify concepts and distinctions that have become commonplace not only in theoretical discourse, but also in everyday conversation. He conceived distinctions between theory and practice, form and content, subject and predicate, cause and effect, essence and attribute, potentiality and actuality, necessary and contingent. He also distinguished basic concepts like method in science and various ideas of causality: material, efficient, formal, and final; as well as literary concepts such as mimesis (imitation), plot, character, catharsis and recognition.
Along with all this he perfected the practice of abstraction, of forming abstract ideas and the universal terms that denote them. It is in this last instance that he differs most from Plato.
The rediscovery of his writings during the late Middle Ages caused a renewal of learning predating the Renaissance and inspired the founding of universities in Europe, outfitting them with a ready made curriculum and a model for the university lecture that is still in use today. It is no wonder that he was reverently referred to as “the master of those who know.”
I remember as a student in my first graduate seminar (on Aristotle) being told that we are all Aristotelians without knowing it, because many of his concepts and terms and methods of enquiry have become common sense or at least common discourse. If this is true, and it is true enough, then we must not ignore Aristotle. At the very least, reading him will enable us to recover the meanings of words we use every day with only a passive understanding of what they mean.
With the passage of time, Aristotle’s stature in the pantheon of great thinkers has diminished. His ideas have become mere commonplaces. In some respects they suffer from rigor mortis, and there is an aspect of obsolescence about them, especially in logic and physics. There is a measure of this in his politics also, but only a small measure.
He was completely absorbed in his time and place. He was a proud Greek, an elitist, a male chauvinist, notwithstanding that he did not cut a very impressive masculine figure—he had spindly legs and beady eyes and was overall unhandsome; he was an apologist of slavery, a denier of women’s rights, and a sentimentalist with regard to the golden age of Greece when its cities were free and independent. There is poignancy in Aristotle’s pride, for he lived just at the moment of profound political upheaval, when Greek cities were fighting a losing battle to maintain a measure of independence. He was not only an eyewitness in these affairs, but a participant in them.
Aristotle’s theory of politics consists of two parts, which have come down to us in separate works entitled Ethics and Politics. Keep in mind that he regarded ethics as an integral part of political science. Nowadays they are treated separately in college curricula, in separate departments. College curricula are expressions of modern culture, which regards the person as morally separable from society, perfectible in isolation from it. Aristotle would have found such an idea puzzling, if not lamentable. In Aristotle’s world, we are political animals first and foremost. The perfection of human life is unrealizable apart from the city; they must be perfected together or not at all.
Hence, he opens his discourse on ethics by introducing the idea of political science. He begins with a grand generalization: “Every art, every science, every action, every act of choice (that is, everything we do or contemplate doing!) aims at some good; hence it has been well said that the Good is the end towards which all things aim.”
It is a wonderfully crafted sentence, a Platonic bubble, which he bursts in the very next sentence: “But it appears that these ends differ,” which is to say, “Good” is a mere abstraction, a general term that has a variety of different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.
Still, Aristotle finds a way to combine all these ends in a single place. These activities all occur in a city; they are activities of a civilized life. Hence there is indeed a Supreme Good, not an idea, as Plato supposed, but a place, the polis, and the science that unites them in thought is political science.
Aristotle believed that the highest human good is a well-governed city consisting of responsible or virtuous citizens, where creativity flourished and a happy life could be lived in several ways. In this respect, Aristotle’s idea of ethics is wholly secular. The good life, morally and happily, is essentially a political life. This does not mean that Aristotle was irreligious, he just regarded religion as a subordinate part of politics. He was a proponent of secular religion.
Ethics is the theory of human flourishing, of life well lived, of a human life endowed with civility. Civility is not a natural endowment; it is achieved through training and perfected by regular self-discipline in an active life directed not by the prods of conscience but by the agile direction of a rational mind open to possibilities.
A large part of the Ethics is devoted to describing this training and discipline, which, properly regarded, is training in citizenship. The basics of his method will be the subject of the next essay.
But there is more: Aristotle also gives instruction on how to be wise in the best practical sense of making wise choices; and he has written a most insightful and definitive account of friendship as a social bond.
The Ethics concludes with an examination of the nature of happiness. His work is best understood as a handbook for citizens.
Postscript: Aristotle’s major work on ethics is entitled Nichomachean Ethics (it was supposedly addressed to his son Nichomachus), but is mostly cited simply as Ethics. His major work on politics is entitled just that, Politics. Both are available in reliable translations in Oxford World Classics.