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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Part Three: Perfectionism

This is before my supervisor has commented on. Should change but not by much. 3rd of Jan. 2007.

Part Three: A State of Perfection

“Progress is not an accident but a necessity. Surely must evil and immorality disappear; surely must men become perfect.”
--Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, 1851, pg 31[1]

Examining the State from a perfectionist stance may not be a common position today, but perfectionism has had a very long history and has been touched by some of the great and influential philosophers. Karl Marx, with his view that humans beings' capabilities are best realised under communism, is a perfectionist, and his theories have fundamentally changed the course of history. Even after the fall of the Berlin wall, the withering away of the communist ideal and the Fourth International, after the apparent triumph of American-style state capitalism, Marx's ideas still find resonance amongst the oppressed and powerless. For Marx, at least on superficial level[1], the State would be justified if the working class controlled it:

“We have seen...that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling as to win the battle of democracy.

“The proletariat will use its political supremacy top wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.

“Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.”[2]

On the other end of the scale, Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas have also touched and continue to touch countless individuals and leaders(including Adolf Hitler, as Primo Levi puts it, “It is certain that his [Hitler's] personal obsessions, his capacity for hatred, his preaching of violence, found unbridled echoes in the frustration of the German people, and for this reason came back to him multiplied, confirming his delirious conviction that he himself was the Hero prophesied by Nietzsche, the Superman redeemer of Germany.”[3]); individual human beings reach perfection when they exercise their will to power maximally, and many try to do so. Mussolini, as way of another example, wrote in 1908 that, “To understand Nietzsche we must envisage a new race of ‘free spirits’, strengthened in war, in solitude, in great danger.”[4]

For Nietzsche, the State would be justified if it were to facilitate (or support) the rise of the übermensch, regardless of the fate of lesser men. As Jacob Golomb states:

“Nietzsche did not reject the state where it was conducive to authentic life aspirations--a vital element in his philosophy. But once this legitimate (and "natural") creation changed its nature and became a manifestation of extreme nationalism that hindered free and spontaneous creativity, Nietzsche vehemently opposed it and wished to curb its destructive effects. Perhaps under the influence of Hobbes, Nietzsche would call this kind of state ‘the coldest of all cold monsters.’ However, where it encouraged individuals to shape and form their cultural identity in an authentic way, Nietzsche regarded the state as a ‘blessed means.’”[5]

Yet, the most influential of all has to be Aristotle, who, with his conception of the good life (eudemonia)[6], and that politics and political structures should promote the good life amongst individuals; because the polis[7] can best promote the good life, it should be adopted over other forms of social organisation. To view Aristotelian ethics outside of Aristotelian politics is a mistake, for they are two parts of one system of living with a clear goal; the production of eudemonia.

One point about Aristotelian ethical and political thinking that must be said, as an aside, that it is teleological in structure; the ethics of individuals and the politics of a society have an end goal[8], something to which they are both working towards; the good life. This is an end-orientated way of thinking, and has the primary advantage of answering a very germane question; what is the point of society (or the State, if you wish) in first place? The achievement of the good life. To the age-old question—why are we here?—the answer is obvious. Of course, a teleological moral theory may have meta-issues regarding it (in metaphysics, for example) and its validity, but, again, that is outside the scope of this project. Incidentally, both Aristotle and Plato were the first to systematically describe how, based on ethics and metaphysics, how a human society should be organised. In the case of Aristotle, the basis for the best kind of societal structure had already been achieved, as will be pointed out later, during Athens’s Golden Age, which is powerful reason to subject his theory to the State.

Further, on the value of examining Aristotle, the State is (or isn’t) justified according to what can be gleaned from the Politics, Nicomachean Ethics, and a fair amount of historical evidence, then that will be highly suggestive of the overall justification of the State. Of course, this won’t be a knockout (or total victory) for the State’s justification. For that to happen, Aristotle’s theory (or some version/adaptation of) would have to be proved to be the correct and true moral theory, better than all other contenders, and that is, again, a project far outside of the scope of this already overly ambitious project.

Aristotle's perfectionism is not a lightweight moral philosophy, has been mulled over for nearly two thousand and four hundred years, and has become so misunderstood, twisted, deformed, and misrepresented that Aristotle has been used to justify the modern State. Open up a political philosophy primer and you'll find Aristotle's defense/justification of the State, modern politicians point out that Aristotle argued for democracy and, by implication, they are carrying on the tradition of freedom & of Athens itself through modern representative, two-party democracy. Horse swill. Athenian democracy is not equivalent to or even vaguely resembles modern democratic systems. If anything, today, we have Plato's republic, not Aristotle's polis.

And, in this process of confusion, the greatness of the polis and the Ancient Greek thought on how men should best organise themselves has been cast aside, cast so far that we are in danger of losing sight of it forever. Why has this come past? How, after thousands of years of study, has the beauty of Aristotle's thought been lost? Has there been a secret society of Platonists, existing for millennium, working subtly at the margins, perverting our thoughts to the stage where Aristotle's politics becomes the Republic? Probably not. Instead, society and its values have changed. Language has changed considerably. For example, English does not have equivalent terms for the polis, philia, eudemonia, or paidera. We are left only with the vague translations in fragmentary texts of city-state[9], friendship, happiness, and education; none of which fit the bill and confuse more than help. Aristotle was not saying that in order to be happy, individuals must hang out with friends and be citizens & college students of a city which happens to also be a State (say Singapore). No, he was saying something very different, and something which has no current political analogue, and will require some effort to uncover.

Before we can understand what Aristotle was saying, what the polis, eudemonia, philia, and paidera really consist of and how they inform us on what is to be done, we need to first get a grip on the ancient mind and ancient politics.[10] Without such a comprehension, we cannot understand Aristotle properly, especially as our understanding will inevitably involve the juxtaposition of our modern values onto Aristotle's political and ethical theory. In fact, it is precisely this juxtaposition that causes some of the problems and lead to the erroneous position that Aristotelian ethics can justify the State.

Our modern values are the products of thousands of years of history, thought, paradigm shifts, revolution, oppression, revision and counter-revolution, and, yet, some of our more important values are relatively modern. Slavery was not only legal just under a 150 years ago but one of the economic foundations transatlantic commerce. However, in that 150 years, slavery has been transformed into an institution that no one dares to defend, and the vast majority of people wouldn't even consider defending it. Slavery has become taboo, pushed far to the margins of criminal society, and, consequently, when we read Aristotle's defense of slavery (Politics, Book I) it sounds hollow and easily dismissed with a wave of the hand; the man was obviously wrong about slavery, as everyone knows. Of course, some philosophers have deconstructed and torn apart his defense; Nicholas Smith, for example, has done just that, and it appears an easy task.[11] Aristotle does not prove, with anything approaching great vigour, his claim that slaves are beasts, who's only redeeming feature seems to be their masters' reason. Aristotle's metaphor is as soul is to body, master is to slave.

In fact, Aristotle's defense of slavery seems a bit lazy; a quick wave of the analytical hand. This, at first, seems puzzling, but for only as long as we see it through the lens of our modern values. Given the context, the institution of slavery was not controversial within Ancient Greek society. Just as today, where the wrongness of slavery is taken for granted, the ancient Greeks (and, by no means were they alone on this point[12]) took the rightness of slavery for granted. It was, to use Aristotelian terminology, natural. The debate seems to have been around the proper way of relating to slaves; while Plato barked commands, Aristotle sought a slightly more refined approach; sort of like the current debate surrounding whether or not choke chains should be used on dogs.

Athenian society, when compared to that of other Greek societies, was fairly “generous” when it came to the status of slaves; slaves enjoyed certain protections against violence, they could earn and save their own money, and even preformed many of the day-to-day functions of the polis—clerking and some security—was undertaken by slaves, the Scythian archers a prime case in point. However, those working in the Laurium sliver-mines were not so well off, forced to work in truly horrible conditions. A. Aymard describes the mines as:

“Their [Ancient Greeks] lack of technical knowledge meant that the work was done with rudimentary tools, in narrow galleries lit only by the flames of smoky oil-lamps. Above ground, the smelting of the ore, which was strongly tainted with sulpher, produced poisonous fumes that destroyed vegetation and gave the surrounding countryside a grimly desolate appearance. It was here that the slaves were lodged, in squalid camp-sites, and without any families—this last provision being imposed to save the extra cost of feeding useless mouths.”[13]

Make no mistake, and this is crucial, Ancient Greek society not only condoned slavery, but also considered it to be as natural as man's domination over sheep.[14] Slaves were not men. The classification of men did not include slaves, and the thought of including slaves in the brotherhood of men would have been heterodox in extreme. Or, in the sake of clarity, slavery was not an occupation of men but rather a separate existence for a different (and inferior) creature; separate and not equal. This may sound harsh to our ears, but should not be so: Nazism was built on a similar ideology, that Jews and Slavs were sub-human. The ideology of Apartheid was inclined in the same manner; blacks were inherently inferior to whites. The Soviets under Stalin even declared a new species, Homo Sovieticus.

Aristotle had no intellectual reason to make a complete and detailed defense of slavery for precisely this reason; slavery was too natural to be in question, and Aristotle's main reason for defending slavery was not to defend the institution but to begin to limit membership of the polis (well, that and a couple of more digs at Plato, something of an Aristotelian hobby)[15]. In Politics, Bk. III Ch. 5, Aristotle discusses whether workers (i.e. non-slaves employed in crafts & services) should be considered citizens of a good polis. Even through they are free and not in bondage, Aristotle believes that they have neither the time nor the ability to participate in citizenship. A requirement of being a citizen in a good polis is the education and the time to actively engage in practical and theoretical wisdom (the political vs. the contemplative life will be discussed later), and those engaged in menial services, which are the realm of the household, were far too busy to engage properly in the running of the polis.

It would be wise to remember that Ancient Greece was a preindustrial society where the basic commodities of life (food, clothes, materials) primarily came from the household level. Household were more that today's nuclear or even extended families, they were hives of production in and of themselves with attached workers and slaves (barring the truly poor citizens who hardly had habitable dwellings let alone slaves). When combined with agricultural (both estates and peasant farms) and small craft workshops and maritime trade, this economic arrangement was able to supply not only the basics of life but also the luxuries. The Roman Republic supplied its entire military, which between 13% to 35% of its male citizens served in at any give time (225BC to AD14)[16], with precisely this kind of economic setup. Aristotle also highlights the role of the household in providing the basics of life and need to manage it, but keeps it very much distinct from the political activities of the polis (see The Politics, Book I, Chapters 3-13).

When answering the charge that everybody should be a citizen, and with an eye to excluding workers, Aristotle states:

“After all, slaves do not belong to any of the above-mentioned categories, nor do freed slaves. And we do not for a moment accept the notion that we must give the name citizen to all persons whose presence is necessary for the existence of the state.”[17]

The others who are necessary for existence of the polis yet who should be excluded from the citizenry are women, children (male children being qualified citizens as they have the potential of becoming citizens with the appropriate education and birth[18]), free men not born to citizens (to be a citizen of Athens both mother and father had to be third-generation citizens[19]), foreigners (i.e. Greeks from outside the polis), barbarians (all non-Greeks), and, presumably, idiots (who have no capacity for practical or theoretical wisdom). While Aristotle points out throughout the first half of Bk. III that the citizenry of one polis will differ from another depending on constitution—for example, a tyranny would have an extremely limited citizenry, a oligarchy slightly less, a democracy even more—he does have a clear idea of what a citizen should be and in what context. As he states:

“The meaning of citizen is best applied in a democracy; in the other constitutions it may be applicable but it need not necessarily be so.”[20]

Owing to the “lost in translation” and “lost over 2,300 years” factors, it is hard to understand what Aristotle means as a worker with a great deal of precision; not to mention he was something of a snob (the best life one could live was as a philosopher, which, incidentally, he was) and, on this score, his proposed exclusion of workers could have been a reflection of literary arrogance that afflicted Athenians of learning and leisure.

This point is not to be made in mere passing: The majority gestalt of Athenian citizens seems to be that manual labour was something best avoided. Athenian citizens, if they could at all help it, shied away from professions in general, many of which are considered to be of high social value and esteem in today's world. For example, as usury developed at the end of the Fifth Century BC, it was mostly foreigners and slaves who became the bankers and moneylenders; today, the elite cut each other’s throats to become financiers. Aristotle was not alone on this point, as Plato and Xenophon also had naught good to say about manual labour.

Of course, the situation regarding trade and professional work is more complex than utter aristocratic horror. Solon engaged in mercantile behaviour to replenish family fortunes, Demosthenes's father manufactured arms, and Isocrates came from a family that manufactured flutes (slaves did the actual work). Still, the general thought seems to have been the less one could do of such activities the better; politics and war being more 'honorable' expenditures of one's time.

Tied to this prejudice against manual labour, at least in Athenian thought, is the notion of autakry (usually translated as self-reliance). Athenians considered it to be not only wise but the expression of a full life if they were self-reliant, that is they were able to feed, clothe, house, educate, etc. themselves without having to rely on other citizens and this equated to actual freedom. This meant that the self-sufficient farmer was almost idealised, and, to this end, many Athenians owned rural holdings in Attica that provided not only food but also as a source of revenue that enabled them to support their city lifestyles. This concept of freedom is somewhat far more expanded than some of today's notions. Wage slavery, as Robert Flacelière (from whom most of the stated information on manual labour in Athens derives) seems to state, was the antithesis of freedom:

“To a Greek, obsessed as he was with the idea of freedom, to be dependent on some other person for one's daily bread seemed an intolerable condition of servitude. A truly free man should be altogether his own master; and how could he be that if he was drawing a salary from someone else?”[21]

Aristotle is also quite concerned about autakry. He seems to think that an individual cannot be a good citizen if he, as will be elaborated on later, does not have virtue and it is the role of the polis to help install virtue in its citizens. Also, one cannot be a good citizen if one is dependent on others for one's survival (i.e. wage slavery). Therefore, a good citizen for Aristotle is one that possesses virtue and is self-sufficient. Likewise, a good polis is a virtuous and self-sufficient one. The difference, and it may not be a worthwhile distinction, between a virtuous polis and a virtuous citizen is between collective and individual virtue.[22]

However, let it be noted that not all Greeks the dim view of manual labour. While Spartans did not follow Athens approach (as often was the case), but also Ionia and Corinth differed significantly. Manual labour was not looked down upon in these cities; in Ionia the title of worker (cheirônax, or master craftsman) was a term of honour and respect.[23]

Therefore, Aristotle's dislike of workers being citizens is more a reflection of prejudice than of anything else. While it is important to note this prejudice, the discussion around manual labour can be safely ignored for now as it makes little difference for the background surrounding the polis, and, anyway, worker citizens (including the illiterate) both attended and participated in the political life of the polis. The most famous of historical examples, coming from Plutarch[24], of this is when an illiterate Athenian approached Aristides, not knowing who he was, with a ritual potsherd and asked him to write down the name “Aristides”--the potsherd being used for tallying votes for an ostracism from the polis. Aristrides dutifully wrote down his name without informing the man of his identity.

Whilst on the subject, however tangentially, it is worthwhile noting that Athenian culture (and that of other places in the Ancient World) was an overwhelmingly oral culture. The written word was very secondary, and the domain of the few. At risk of over simplification, verbal oaths were to Athenian what written contracts are to us today. That Athenian society, politics, business were mostly accomplished orally is interesting to flag in its own right; especially the fact that illiteracy seems to offer no practical bar to citizens engaging in and deliberating upon both major and minor political decisions.

Allied to the question of workers as citizens is the actual makeup of Athens during its Golden Age (fifth century BC) of democracy, which seems to be the reference point for Aristotle, who was writing after the disastrous Peloponnesian War with Sparta; a war that destroyed the democracy and reforms of Pericles, and ended with occupation and oligarchy, eventually followed by revolution). In pegging his claim to democracy, Aristotle states, “And just as a royal rule, if not a mere name, must exist by virtue of some great personal superiority in the king, so tyranny, which is the worst of governments, is necessarily the farthest removed from a well-constituted form; oligarchy is little better, for it is a long way from aristocracy, and democracy is the most tolerable of the three.”[25] Therefore, in seeking of an understanding of the polis, examining the great epoch of Athenian democracy is not only justified but wise.

The citizenry of Athens, during the Golden Age, was open to Athenian offspring (remember Aristotle was quite keen on having citizenship requiring both mother and father to be citizens)[26]. Others could be granted citizenship, but this was rare and only granted by the Assembly. Citizenship via parentage may have been a holdover from the tribal epoch; modern people still make distinctions between first-generation citizens and those who can trace back citizenry for many generations. Further, it would be wrong to hold the opinion that the the citizenry of Athens did not solely consist of wealthy men of leisure who, owing to households filled with slaves and floating on the riches of Athens's maritime trading dominance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The undercurrent of all politics at the time was the struggle between rich and poor citizens. Some citizens were said to be financially worse off than slaves; in fact, until Solon instituted his famous reforms poor citizens who defaulted on loans could be sold into bondage (slavery) by their creditors in order to recoup their loans.[27]

The poor were, according to M. I. Finely, “...all the free men who laboured for their livelihood, the peasants who owned their farms as well as the tenants, the landless labourers, the self-employed artisans, the shopkeepers.” The rich were those who could live upon the labour of others. Ancient Greece (with Sparta excepted)[28] had two basic classes (in the loose sense of the term, not in the strict Marxist sense), and the politics of the time revolved around the conflict of these two classes and the resulting patronage.[29]

The astute and knowledgeable reader may recall that Aristotle, in Politics (1289b27-33), divides the citizenry into three classes; rich, poor and middle. The division being primarily around who can afford hoplite (Greek infantry, and the backbone of Greek military structure) armour. In addition to this classification, Solon also made economic divisions. He came up with four, based mostly on agricultural output. Despite these economic divisions, the evidence on a whole points to Ancient Greek society having only two classes of citizens[30]. Aristotle was most likely inserting the doctrine of the mean into economic structure; a case of the tail wagging the dog.

This division is so crucial to Athenian society that it flows (as would be natural) throughout Aristotle's political thinking. The true difference between democracy and oligarchy is that democracy is for the free (which would include the poor but not exclusively) while oligarchy is for the rich. As Aristotle puts it (1290b1-4):

“Therefore we should rather say that democracy is the form of government in which the rulers are free, and oligarchy in which the rich; it is only an accident that the free are the many and the rich are the few.”

From the above, we can see the importance of this division and how it refutes the idea that numbers (i.e. mob rule) is what constitutes Athenian democracy. Rather, the status of being free is inherent in democracy. And, once this is understood, the reforms of Solon, for example, become truly intelligible, as does other facets of the polis. The structure of the Athenian polis reflects the political strength the free (vs. the rich). Poor Athenian citizens were paid to sit on juries, direct taxation only applied at times of extreme crisis (such as the Peloponnesian War), and the navy served as a source of employment for those citizens (as rowers) unable to afford hoplite armour. As time passed, the offices of the polis lost their property qualifications. Further, the rich were required to fund the community activities of the polis such as festivals and naval galleys. To use modern terminology, capital was subordinated to the greater good of society.

Why? How did this come about? Precisely because of the political structure of the polis, and here it is necessary to differentiate between the polis and Athens & Attica in general, and it is only once this differentiation is made does talk about the value of Aristotelean ethics and politics become intelligible. Further, the lack of clarity concerning Aristotle's thought and contribution towards the ultimate question--how should we live?--can be resolved. The beginning of this differentiation is with the Ancient Greek mind, a topic that the preceding pages of conversation have alluded to.

The Ancient Greeks were not touchy-feely people. Sentimentality was not one of their graces, and neither did they have our relatively modern (post French Revolution) conception of human rights. They were, by today's standards and actions, hard people living in hard times. Famine, illness, armed conflict, plague and death haunted the average Greek at every turn. Newborn babies were routinely exposed, ethnic cleansing common, selling and trafficking of people the basis of an economy, and war (in which almost all Greek citizens participated in) consumed two years out of every three. Wars, in particular, were fairly brutal experiences with the victors often massacring and/or enslaving the losing population. Grain insecurity dominated everyday thought, and death often came early. This kind of situation and without, it must be stressed, a conception of human beings invested with value and rights just for being human, must have produced a mindset very different to our own. The results of such that are most relevant to this inquiry are twofold.

One, Greek citizens had a very strong mental divide between themselves and non-citizens, much deeper than today's bourgeoisie has with the proletariat. The modern bourgeoisie class recognises the proletariat has human beings in the moral sense of the term, and has resorted to a variety of arguments to provide a moral basis for their domination under the capitalist system: Social Darwinism being at the root of most of them, coming out strongly in current libertarian political, moral and economic theory, and aped in World Bank and IMF policies. Even divine sanction is still a part of this moral underpinning of economic and political domination, both by the continuing aberration of monarchical dynasties and by the current use of evangelical Christian teachings in regards to the accumulation of wealth (the largely unspoken thinking being that the rich have been blessed by God in return for belief, and that the poor remain poor because their belief is not strong enough). Further, modern society has inherited some ancient prejudices, such as xenophobia, racism, sexism, and paternalism, that continue to play themselves out in the mostly unconscious domination of the few over the many.

Ancient Greeks had no need to resort to such intellectual lengths, as Aristotle's defense of slavery shows. They were made of sterner stuff. Like we would never dream of including the tools of industrialisation (trains, steel, factories, etc.) in our political decision-making and the human family, neither would they included slaves and women. Not only were they considered incapable of making political decisions, they weren't considered to be fully human in the moral sense of the term. Therefore, to exclude them from political life and subjugate them to lives of mere economic and breeding activities required no great moral justification. Such was the way of the Ancient World.

The second result of the Greek mindset, or worldview if you prefer, was an intense notion of freedom that was, in many respects, greater than what is commonly held today. Not only did they seek, at great lengths, economic freedom (being the ability to provide for oneself, and not to be dependent on another for the basic means of civilised life), they also valued their political freedom. It was this cherishing of freedom that prevented the unification of Greece for centuries. No sooner than a particular city gained dominance over another Greek city, would there be a revolution by the citizenry of the subject city or a short-lived alliance struck with a rival power. Revolutions were common and the makeup of alliances between cities (leagues and confederacies) was ever-shifting; no sooner had the Greeks banded together to defeat Darius were they at each other's throats, again. Perhaps, it was this intense notion of freedom, more than the Homeric virtues of honour, glory, and vengeance, that was the cause of much of Greece's constant warfare.

Further, this sense of freedom was not only directed towards domination from without, but also from within. Athens's history is rife with examples of internal uprisings and banishments of potential tyrants. The notion that freedom equated with substantial political decision-making was something worth fighting for. Authority was to be resisted.

Now that the Greek mindset has been established to a reasonable degree, it is possible to turn towards Aristotle's political and ethical thought. Without such an understanding, much would have gotten lost and the reader would be well-advised to continually keep the Greek mindset in his/her consciousness as he/she reads on, and, to this end, Aristotle will be quoted at length and going may be slow and ponderous for the thesis proposed is slightly unusual and, therefore, needs extra care in the proving. May the reader suffer it well. Incidentally, one of the failings of many university courses in classic philosophy is that they are taught outside of the history and archeology of Ancient Greece and Rome; stoic thought, for example, cannot be properly conceived unless the capriciousness of life in ancient times is appreciated, and that requires historical learning.

Therefore, let us turn to Aristotle and start with his conception of what a man is. In The Politics, Aristotle informs us that man is a political animal, due to his ability to determine right from wrong, just from unjust, and that man cannot live outside of the polis and fulfill his potential as man. Further, Aristotle sees that men who are outside the polis inclined towards senseless violence and fairly deficient in the good life; either that, or they are gods. Conversely, the passage quoted below (Bk. I Ch. 2, 1253a2-6), states that it is only once a man belongs to the polis can he have the opportunity of eudemonia:

“Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces- the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts.”

Aristotle makes a similar point in Book I of Nicomachean Ethics. In fact, when reading the Nicomachean Ethics, Book I provides a series of clear signposts to the content and direction of the entire work and the theory itself. Aristotle states (Bk I, Ch. 7, bold added, 1097b12-16):

“Now by self-sufficient [autakry] we do not mean that which is sufficient for a man by himself, for one who lives a solitary life, but also for parents, children, wife, and in general for his friends and fellow citizens, since man is born for citizenship.”

This also implies that men, having been born into citizenship, also are born into the duties of citizenship; Aristotle seems quite clear on the idea that no man is an island and that a man's ethical (and political) success requires him to interact with others. Of course, citizenship does not necessarily mean living well (i.e. living well requires more than mere citizenship). Living well requires, amongst other things, that citizens take an active role in the polis, as Aristotle points out in The Politics (Bk. III, Ch. 5, 1278a35-1278b5):

“That there are many sorts of citizens, and that he may be said to be as completely who shares the honours of the state, is evident from what has been already said. Thus Achilles, in Homer, complains of Agamemnon's treating him like an unhonoured stranger; for a stranger or sojourner is one who does not partake of the honours of the state: and whenever the right to the freedom of the city is kept obscure, it is for the sake of the inhabitants. From what has been said it is plain whether the virtue of a good man and an excellent citizen is the same or different: and we find that in some states it is the same, in others not; and also that this is not true of each citizen, but of those only who take the lead, or are capable of taking the lead, in public affairs, either alone or in conjunction with others.”[31]

A similar point was also made by Pericles in his famous Funeral Oration, of which Aristotle was fully aware. Simply put, Pericles describes those citizens who do not take part in the political life of the polis as useless. This signifies a conceptual difference between a legal classification of a citizen (born to a Athenian father), and the moral conception of a citizen (i.e. one who engages in the polis via attending the Assembly, sitting on a jury, fighting in the wars, proposing legislation, sitting on the Council of 500, working within his deme for the education of the youth, etc.). While Aristotle does address the former (as has already been shown), he is most concerned with the latter and, hence, his discussion on what is virtuous for a citizen to do and what kind of polis should exist to perfect the virtue of the citizens.

For Aristotle, the politics of a society are not only for the production of the good life for members of that society, politics are integral to the good life. Whilst on this point, note that Aristotle primary concerns regarding the polis were twofold: What should be the correct structure of the polis; i.e. the structure of society, the Assembly, who is a citizen and other such matters? And, secondly, what is the virtue of the polis? The latter question regards the virtue of the citizens, as they constitute the polis? Obviously, these two questions are related, and cannot be dealt as if one has no effect on the other. This is evident in Aristotle’s classification of types of occupations that constitute the good life, namely the contemplative life (the best good life that can be achieved) and the political life (the second-best good life), from NE Bk. X, Ch. 7 (1177a31-1177b15):

“For while a philosopher, as well as a just man or one possessing any other virtue, needs the necessaries of life, when they are sufficiently equipped with things of that sort the just man needs people towards whom and with whom he shall act justly, and the temperate man, the brave man, and each of the others is in the same case, but the philosopher, even when by himself, can contemplate truth, and the better the wiser he is; he can perhaps do so better if he has fellow-workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient. And this activity alone would seem to be loved for its own sake; for nothing arises from it apart from the contemplating, while from practical activities we gain more or less apart from the action.[32] And happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure, and make war that we may live in peace. Now the activity of the practical virtues is exhibited in political or military affairs, but the actions concerned with these seem to be unleisurely. Warlike actions are completely so (for no one chooses to be at war, or provokes war, for the sake of being at war; any one would seem absolutely murderous if he were to make enemies of his friends in order to bring about battle and slaughter); but the action of the statesman is also unleisurely, and -- apart from the political action itself -- aims at despotic power and honours, or at all events happiness, for him and his fellow citizens -- a happiness different from political action, and evidently sought as being different[33].”

Whilst it is certainly amusing to note that Aristotle found that the life he was leading (and that of his friends) was the highest or best form of good life—primarily because the contemplative life is an end in itself and require the correct moral and intellectual virtues, but also because the contemplative life, that of a philosopher, is divine, as stated in Bk. X, Ch. 8 of NE (1178b20-25), “Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation? Therefore the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness.”—he has a great regard and respect for the political life.

It is even more than a great regard for the political life, political action is required for a society to enable the contemplative life. Without the right kind of society, it will be impossible for individuals to gain the noble virtues and the physical practicalities (such as wealth) required for the contemplative life. As Hurka (see Part One) stated in his definition of perfectionism, “But they [different versions of perfectionism] share the foundational idea that what is good, ultimately, is the development of human nature.” For Aristotle, there are only three ways citizens can obtain virtue; through natural endowment, intellectual teaching, and habituation[34].

Natural endowment is beyond control, and intellectual teaching is wasted on the young, according to Aristotle. Both of these defy reason, and virtue requires reason. In the case of natural endowment, reason obviously does not apply, and natural endowment is capricious as it strikes some and not others. Aristotle doesn't believe that virtue should be a matter of chance, it takes work and reason and these are not of the domain of the youth. Instead the youth should be brought up in a polis with the right kind of laws, and this will provide the platform for their later philosophical education. Therefore, the propagation of virtue amongst the citizens of a polis cannot rely on the “grace of the Gods” or intellectual teaching (for it does not work on the youth). Something else is required. Aristotle states in NE Bk. X, Ch. 9 (1179b18-33) that:

“...some think that we are made good by nature, others by habituation, others by teaching. Nature's part evidently does not depend on us, but as a result of some divine causes is present in those who are truly fortunate; while argument and teaching, we may suspect, are not powerful with all men, but the soul of the student must first have been cultivated by means of habits for noble joy and noble hatred, like earth which is to nourish the seed. For he who lives as passion directs will not hear argument that dissuades him, nor understand it if he does; and how can we persuade one in such a state to change his ways? And in general passion seems to yield not to argument but to force. The character, then, must somehow be there already with a kinship to virtue, loving what is noble and hating what is base.

“But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for virtue if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young.”

Aristotle then goes on to explain that the only way virtuous action amongst citizens can be achieved is through habituation, which requires not only education but laws. Socrates remarks in Crito help to indicate the deep feelings toward the law that Athenians held; although, as with most of Plato, his words may have been doctored to suit Plato's political vision, which is the antithesis of Aristotle's.[35] Without preempting the discussion on the polis, it will suffice to say that the Athenians (and here Aristotle was no different) considered the law to be something not external to themselves but something to which they belong. Aristotle believes that the law should be used, as it has a power greater than that of the family. The power of the collective whole provides the rules of behaviour that are in accordance with virtue, as he states in NE Bk. X, Ch. 9 (1180a14-28):

“However that may be, if (as we have said) the man who is to be good must be well trained and habituated, and go on to spend his time in worthy occupations and neither willingly nor unwillingly do bad actions, and if this can be brought about if men live in accordance with a sort of reason and right order, provided this has force, if this be so, the paternal command indeed has not the required force or compulsive power (nor in general has the command of one man, unless he be a king or something similar), but the law has compulsive power, while it is at the same time a rule proceeding from a sort of practical wisdom and reason. And while people hate men who oppose their impulses, even if they oppose them rightly, the law in its ordaining of what is good is not burdensome.”

Viewed in isolation, this entire quote seems to suggest an almost totalitarian approach to politics and societal organisation. This is not hyperbole, for some historians have read Ancient Greece in this light. The esteemed classicist Robert Flacelière, for example, has done so:

“'With sovereign power over the various individual citizens who compose it'-the ancient city was an end in itself, an absolute which left none of its members any great measure of liberty, and severely restricted all individual activities. In this sense, it was a basically totalitarian concept, which is obvious enough when we look at Sparta. In Athens, however, the more liberal aspects of the Athenian character may tend to mask this profound truth though they cannot ever eradicate it.”[36]

This, as is slowly being argued, is an incorrect reading of the Aristotelean polis. This view, and similar views outline earlier, can only make sense if the Aristotelean polis is a State (as has previously defined), which it is not. Further, Aristotle's basic ethical position would not support the State. Before either of these claims can be proved, more spadework has to be done.

Education has been mentioned in passing and the subject needs a fair amount of clarification. The education of the Athenian youth does not seem to have been the responsibility of the state/government. Instead, Athenian fathers paid fees to individual teachers for their sons' education[37], physical and military training seems to have been the responsibility of the entire polis but devolved down to the level of tribes and demes (see below), and intellectual training (what we would call tertiary training) the domain of philosophers, who entered into private relations with individual students. The point is that education was, when compared to how today's States educate their young, an overwhelming private affair but backed up with considerable social pressure. It seems highly unlikely that a young Athenian would refuse to attend his military service at the age of 18 or avoid the wrestling and boxing matches at the gymnasia.

The habituation of virtue via education and legislation is the end of the polis. Aristotle sees individuals as part of the polis and that one must live in a polis to be a human being (the thought of an individual, Mad Max style, without a community would have been abhorrent to Aristotle). A. C. Bradley, in “Aristotle’s Conception of the State”, puts this point across quite clearly:

“That end of the State which is described as good living or happiness is also described as the common interest or good (to koinêi sumpheron, III.6.1278b21-2), that noble living (kalôs zên) in which each shares according to his ability. In any whole that is ‘prior’ to its parts, in any organism, there is an identity between the general welfare and the particular welfare of each part. It is the healthy and harmonious development of its organs or functions that the health of the whole body lies, and the interest of the State is nothing but that of its citizens.”[38]

Therefore, the distinction previously outlined (internal page reference) between the virtue of the citizen and the virtue of the polis is, perhaps, artificial. A virtuous citizen is one who will act towards the maximisation of the polis's virtue, and, at the same time, a citizen can only be virtuous in a polis with the correct constitution. A citizen who finds himself in a polis with the incorrect form (say an oligarchy) should work towards the installation of the correct form, democracy, and should do this in accordance with others; he should do this for his own sake and those of other for they cannot obtain the correct virtue under an incorrect constitution. Virtue is both collective and individual. Ian Johnston puts this point across with an admirable simplicity:

“To introduce an analogy to which I shall return from time to time, one might say that Aristotle sees the individual as inevitably part of a team—a large and complex but clearly identifiable group of team members of all sorts of capabilities, an environment which shapes the purposes and value of that individual life in relation to other members of the team community and to the team as an overall unity. And just as a team player, in a sense, has no identity or purpose without a team in which he or she can participate as a fully integrated member, so the human being has no complete identity or purpose without the polis to which he or she belongs.”[39]

Furthermore, the achievement of the good life requires friends (including the contemplative life) and that in turn requires politics, for, as people are fond of pointing out, Aristotle sees men as political animals bound together by the bonds of community and friendship. The notion of an ‘atomized’ individual would have been abhorrent to Aristotle, perhaps enough to cause him to don Athenian battle-amour and impale Ayn Rand. Once again, our modern values hinder our understanding of Aristotle: Ayn Rand is one of the 20th Century high priestesses, the cult of the individual has become engraved in our psyche, and Nietzsche's superman in the form of global financiers (what Tom Wolfe calls 'masters of the universe') makes more sense to us than Aristotle's citizen. The Athenian citizen is a different being in its entirety; citizenship cannot exist without community, and it is community that defines individuals, not the other way around. In NE Bk. IX, Ch. 9 (1169b14-23), Aristotle states:

“Surely it is strange, too, to make the supremely happy man a solitary one; for no one would choose the whole world on condition of being alone, since man is a political creature and one whose nature is to live with others. Therefore even the happy man lives with others; for he has the things that are by nature good. And plainly it is better to spend his days with friends and good men than with strangers or any chance persons. Therefore the happy man needs friends.”

Once again, the reader is at the mercy of the translators. Here, the term “happy” is a translation of eudemonia, and it does not fit. Eudemonia is best translated as living well in accordance with virtue, and virtue cannot, as has been previously shown, not be considered solely as a individual trait but also as a collective. The need of Aristotle (as in “the happy man needs friends”) is best thought of as interdependence, and friends are more than the causal acquaintances of the modern era; something goes astray in translation. Aristotelian friends, as Murray Bookchin states, are more akin to a tightly knitted community based not on bloodlines but common cause and aims:

“Underlying these various ‘means’ is Aristotle’s emphasis on human solidarity or philia, which includes friendship (the common English translation for the Greek term) but which is a word more far-reaching in its connotation of civic commonality. The intimacies of friendship may be reserved for a limited few, but philia implies an expansive degree of sociality that is a civic attribute of the polis and the political life involved in its administration. Man is “by his nature” a political animal or zoon politiken, which is to say that he is destined not only to live in a community but also to communize.”[40]

But what of these so-called virtues? Once again, it seems that English language does not carry through the complete meaning of the Greek word “arête”. Arête is usually translated as virtue or excellence (sometimes also as valor), and, pre-Sophist times, was thought to defy being taught, and one can assume a more complete meaning than simple virtue. The concept of arête has a long history within Ancient Greek thought, back to Homer, it seems, and the idea of defining it seems to have taken a while to formulate. A.R. Burn states:

“He [the poet Phokylides, 6th Century BC] also said, 'All virtue is summed up in justice,' which was original in his time. Virtue in Homer, arete, was quite compatible with aggression. A horse or a sword could have arete as well as a man. What Phokylides was saying is that human virtue is moral virtue.”[41]

Luckily enough, the concept of arête went under more intellectual rigour since the days of Homer, or Phokylides for that matter. Aristotle explains what virtue is exactly; a state of character that is in neither excess or deficiency (NE 1106a1-b9). Aristotelian ethics has often been described as virtue ethics, which is a fair enough assessment. In order to obtain perfection, or eudemonia, one must achieve the following moral virtues (each of with is the mean between excess and deficiency): Courage, temperance, liberality, munificence, high-mindedness, right ambition, good temper, friendly civility, sincerity, wittiness, modesty, and just resentment[42].

Yet, possessing these virtues alone, does not qualify one for eudemonia; they are merely means to an end. As Aristotle points out in Bk I., Ch. 12 of NE (1101b34-1102a5):

“Praise is appropriate to virtue, for as a result of virtue men tend to do noble deeds, but encomia are bestowed on acts, whether of the body or of the soul. But perhaps nicety in these matters is more proper to those who have made a study of encomia; to us it is clear from what has been said that happiness is among the things that are prized and perfect. It seems to be so also from the fact that it is a first principle; for it is for the sake of this that we all do all that we do, and the first principle and cause of goods is, we claim, something prized and divine.”

Eudemonia requires that a citizen also chooses the right kind of life according to Aristotle, and he provides two types of good lives to live; as stated earlier, they are the contemplative life and the political life. Although their seems to be some disagreement in the secondary literature, Aristotle is quite clear that it is the contemplative life that is the best life with the political life coming in a close second. The political life seems to mean that a citizen engages himself, as much as is possible and within the doctrine of the mean, that in the political life of the polis, which would include the education of the polis. One gets the feeling from reading Aristotle that this is no bad thing, and is, in fact, required for others to live the contemplative life. If one cannot live the contemplative life, then there is no shame or dishonour in living the political life, which is in accordance with virtue and autakry. The contemplative life is to preferred because it is an end in itself; that philosophical knowledge and wisdom (what is usually referred to as reason) is sought in and of itself. The political life is not an end in and of itself, it seeks to set the conditions necessary for some of the polis's citizens to live the contemplative life.

However, and it must be stressed, that even the contemplative life requires virtue, autakry, friendship, luck (it must be a long life according to Aristotle), and the correct political structuring of society (i.e. the polis). The quote from Aristotle above (pg. 13 INTERNAL REF) shows this quite clearly. If Murray Bookchin is correct about the translation of philia (usually translated as friendship), then it becomes obvious, especially in light of everything else already said, that the best life a citizen can lead requires an engagement in the polis. The contemplative life cannot be a life of seclusion; it must be the life of a citizen contributing to the good of the polis as a whole (educating one's children, interacting with friends, and having a degree of political influence). Socrates, who can be said, regardless of his philosophy, to have been living the contemplative life, was fully engaged in the polis as a citizen, to the extent of serving as a hoplite and having a wide circle of friends. As Aristotle states in an important passage in the Nicomachean Ethics (1099a31-b6):

“Yet evidently, as we said, it [the contemplative life] needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the lustre from happiness—good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy, and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had throughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death.”

From all of the above, Aristotle’s position is becoming clear. For him, the political cannot be divorced from the ethical, in fact, living the ethical life requires being engaged (as a citizen in a polis) in the political life, as it is the nature of man. However, being involved in the political life is not enough for an individual, he most also act in a virtuous manner, which he gains through education and habituation. Education and habituation are best achieved via the polis, of which the end is the promotion of eudemonia. Furthermore, a citizen must also have a fair degree of self-reliance; one cannot live the good life if he is under the domination of another for the basic needs of life. This last point is often tied in with the notion of wealth, and the definition of wealth for the Ancient Greek is one who's household provided him the means to engage in the political and/or contemplative life. Richard Kraut notes that half of the Book I of The Politics is devoted to the subject of household management and makes the following point:

“We should also notice that although Aristotle expects his readers to leave most crafts to others—he does not take himself to be talking to cooks, cobblers, and horse trainers—there is nonetheless one craft, at least, that every one of his readers needs: household management (oikonomia). They must have or develop the virtues by which they can exercise proper management of their property (including their slaves) and family. If they cannot handle these material and personal goods, they will not have the leisure needed to engage in politics and philosophy.”[43]

Even the contemplative life requires an engagement in the polis, as has been shown. It is impossible for a man to be a citizen without such an engagement[44]; what one does with this engagement seems to rest on a variety of factors such as luck, opportunity, and natural inclination. Only after a man has become a citizen of a democratic polis, has achieved self-sufficiency, engages in the polis through friendship, takes on the duties of the polis such as educating his children and serving when necessary in the military, and lives the virtuous life can he choose to live the good life; either via the political life or the contemplative life (Aristotle's ethics address why the contemplative life is superior to that of the political life). Neither of which life demands a withdrawal from the polis.

Often in the philosophical literature concerning Aristotle there is a distinction between the perfect virtues (contemplation and politics) and the imperfect virtues (such as self-sufficiency, courage, friendship, etc.). In this terminology, the perfect virtues can only be obtained if the imperfect virtues are obtained first, including actively living in the polis. And now, finally, it is time to turn to the polis and the State.

The polis, of which much has already been said, is a community of citizens that works towards realisation of eudemonia. This working towards eudemonia, in the case of Athenian democracy, worked primarily through the Assembly, which met at the agora (a wide open and common place). The Assembly was free to all citizens and met on a pretty much constant basis. Any citizen was free to propose and debate any decision of the Assembly, and it was the Assembly, by majority vote, that made the decisions of Athens. The Assembly was the highest decision-making authority and none had the right to overturn, circumvent or ignore its decisions, which encompassed all spheres of Athenian life (including economic, social, military, and foreign). In addition to the Assembly, there was a Council of 500, which prepared the agenda for the Assembly (but of which the Assembly could reject or alter at will) and helped in resolving technical issues. The Council of 500 was made up of citizens drawn by lot from Athens's demes (similar to neighbourhoods), and the term of service was a year. Given that Athenian citizenry seems to have peaked between 30,000 to 60,000[45] individuals, there was a strong chance that an individual citizen would serve once on the Council of 500. In addition, there were a variety of offices empowered to carry out specific tasks such as commanding the army. These offices were either by lot or by election, short in duration, and subjected completely to the Assembly. Any officer had to give a complete accounting to the Assembly at the end of his term. Finally, there were the juries, which comprised of up to a total of 6,000 citizens and determined disputes (trade, criminal, etc.). Once again, jury duty was by lot, and citizens on a jury were given a modest stipend, enabling the poorest of citizens to attend and complete their civic duties. The average citizen, through no real effort greater than that of the majority of his peers, would be called upon to decide upon and play a practical role in the vital actions of the polis at least once during his lifetime.

Physically, the polis encompassed a city and the surrounding countryside and had a fairly limited (by today's standard) citizen population. A proper polis was completely independent. Not only could it meet its material needs (which it did primarily through levies on the rich and on trade), it was free of any foreign intervention.

Beyond the above, there was also a spirit of community amongst the citizens of the polis. While hard to describe in English, it seems to have had a common identity and ethos which all citizens obeyed. The polis had an identity that could not be separated from that of any individual citizen. The success of the polis was that of the citizen, likewise for defeat. To turn against the polis was to turn against oneself. And precisely for this reason, the citizens of the polis from the military of the polis, and, in fact, there was no division between the two.

Further, the Athenian polis was no accident. Through a series of political reforms (more like revolutions), the power of the polis came increasing held by that of all the citizens. This was achieved precisely through the kind of legislation that Aristotle advocates for. More and more the entire citizenry began to make the decisions of the society, ending with a situation where power was distributed horizontally across the entire citizenry and decisions made entirely through face-to-face democracy. Further, no bureaucratic class or hierarchical power structure was allow to develop within the citizenry. The previous discussion on how capital was subordinated is a prime example of preventing any one sector from achieving political dominance, and ostracising problematic individuals was used as a method of getting rid of potential tyrants. Murray Bookchin sums up the polis and its genesis as:

“Within a span of three centuries, the Athenian people and their renegade aristocratic surrogates such as Solon, Kleisthenes, and Perkiles were to dismember the traditional feudal system of Homeric times, wage a steady war against privilege within the citizen body, and turn the popular assembly from a lifeless, rarely convened mass meeting into a vital on-going forum for making major decisions, thereby opening public life to every Athenian adult male. Power ceased to be the prerogative of a small, well-born stratum of the population. It became a citizen activity. Athens's historic calender is marked by seething upsurges of the people, startling fluctuations between aristocratic rule tyranny, limited popular government, until, by the latter half of the fifth century B.C., Athenian political life stabilized around a face-to-face democracy of the most radical kind.”[46]

And, this has been labeled a State in the vast majority of the literature. Even on Lawerence Krader's “look around you” definition of the State, the polis, as described above, can't be called a State. The polis is very different from any of the societies all of us happen to live in; take a look around. On the definition arrived at in Part Two, the polis isn't a State. While there was a defined territory (somewhat fuzzier than today's borders to be sure, but defined nonetheless) and population, it can hardly be said to have the same hierarchical structure. The polis did not stand above its citizens; it was its citizens. The State has dominion over its subjects; it and it alone claims final authority and decision-making power, and the individual citizen is subordinate to it. That kind of hierarchical control did not exist within the polis. Instead, the polis had, by its very nature, a horizontal structure (what is called flat management in today's business parlance) with an equal distribution of power amongst all citizens. While the State structures society in a way that institutionalises power relations between people through functions granted by the State, the polis did no such thing, and it could not have done so even if it had wanted to. Another way of looking at this point is that while the State organises society in the manner of its choosing, the polis is society[47].

Neither did the polis have the kind of bureaucratic government that characterizes States. There was no permanent bureaucratic class with fixed military, judicial, and executive branches. The Assembly, with its shifting composition, served as the polis's decision-making apparatus in a way that is remarkable different from the governments of modern States. It is hard to say one is governed when you yourself make and enforce the laws under which you live; Proudhon's description of what it is to be governed could not be uttered by an Athenian citizen. And this is in evidence by the manner Athenians obeyed the law.

Yet the polis was remarkable resilient; destroying the myth that a State is required for defense and internal security. It withstood a multiple of wars with other Greek cities and even Persian invasion. The spirit of the polis was strong enough to be passed down the generations, and the citizens maintained an eternal vigilance against loss of power and both internal and external dominance of the few that must have made Thomas Jefferson bitter with envy.

What the polis did not have that also immediately characterises it as different from modern State-controlled societies; there was a distinct absence of the cult of the individual. The individual Athenian did not have a social contract (tacit or otherwise) with the polis; he was the polis but only in cooperation and unity with all the other members of the polis. This is a hard concept to grasp, for it is the antithesis of current Western values and traditions.

The only way the polis could be described as a State—and this, perhaps, is what has lead to so many translations of Aristotle labeling the polis a city-state, and legions of intelligent philosophers calling the polis a State—is viewing Athens with the inclusion of women, foreign Greeks, barbarians and slaves. If this viewpoint is taken, then Athens begins to look an awfully lot like a State. The citizens of Athens formed a government, and there was a hierarchical ordering of society with Athenian men forming an elite governing class and the rest of society in a sharply delineated hierarchical structure with slaves occupying the lowest class. This domination was institutionalised, and from a woman or slave's perspective Athens had a very feudal, aristocratic feel to it.

While this is a valid criticism of the Greek world and is a very good reason not to turn back the clock and start living as if it were 450 BC, it misses the point in its entirety. Great lengths have been taken to explain the Greek mindset and the relationship between citizens and non-citizens. This definition takes modern values and thoughts and juxtaposes them on the Ancient World, and that is foolish. As pointed out, there was a total disconnect between Greek men and everyone else, and this disconnect is fundamental to their way of thinking in regards to political philosophy. It wasn't that Aristotle needed to prove that women and slaves had to be excluded, they were excluded because of their very nature; they were a part of the polis in the same way computers and antibiotics are part of today's society, they existed so that citizens could live well.

This is undoubtedly harsh (hard people in hard times, remember) and the incorrect view to take of humanity, but it is wrong to apply this stance in relation to Aristotle and the polis. If one can accept the Greek mindset for a few minutes, the beauty of the polis unfolds. In a way, the citizens were the sole occupants of the set called humanity, and, therefore, the political structuring of Athens can only apply to them; in a very real sense, the polis ideally gave political power to all of humanity. If the reader cannot make this mental transition, then all that is said here is without hope or meaning.

However, if looked at from the Greek citizens' point of view, the Athenian polis was something quite remarkable and definitely not a State. The polis had diffused power so that individuals held equal share and treated each other with the equality and comradeship that Marxists and unions would ideally like for all workers. There was no call for the citizens to unite, for they were already united in quite possibly one of freest, egalitarian, and open complex and urbanised societies to have ever existed in the history of humankind.

Therefore, it is entirely incorrect to call the polis a State. Anyway, Aristotle doesn't. Aristotle conception of a proper polis is miles different to what was going on in Sparta (which he compares with often in The Politics). Unlike today's philosophers, Aristotle had an amazing variety of different working models to choose from. While much of the actual text has been lost (perhaps in the burning of the library at Alexandra), Aristotle had before him a range of Greek constitutions to choose from and plenty of non-Greek examples (including Persia and his homeland of Macedon) to point to. He looked to Athens, not Sparta, not Asia, not Europe. Heck, he could have sided with Plato. He could have picked a State-like structure—they existed at the time—but, instead, choose the polis as being the one form of societal organisation best suited to the promotion of human perfection.

Of course, Aristotle wasn't content with the polis of Athens's Golden Age. He thought it could be definitely reformed. While it is true that he thought that if men of perfect and absolute virtue could be found (godlike even), that we should allow them to rule. However, he does realise that such men are difficult to find and that in their absence what has been called the middle constitution should be adopted. This middle constitution essentially sets out to reform the quality of citizens; they should neither be too rich as to use wealth as a lever of domination, nor too poor to be unable to have the time (leisure) to engage in the polis. Aristotle saw it vitally necessary for the access to some of the important imperfect virtues to be enhanced for the majority of the Athenian citizens. This would enable the citizenry to engage in the polis and begin the road to eudemonia.[48]

Aristotle had other reforms in mind. He was unhappy that education was an essentially private affair, that it was conducted in the same realm as that of the activities of the household. He suggested that it be transferred to the realm of the polis, that the education of he youth becomes a common affair. This does not require that the polis becomes a State, if the polis could manage wars, it could manage education and on occasions had done so (see above INTERNAL REF). Again, Aristotle could have chosen the Spartan model of education, but declined to. He must have believed that the polis could have achieved the transition of education out of the private realm and to the public realm without losing its vital political structure. Still, this is only a reform.

What Aristotle seems to have been suggesting in The Politics was as follows: There was a Golden Age of Athens. There was the right kind of polis during the Golden Age, but to be the best polis (in terms of producing the most virtuous citizens) there would have to be improvements. However, the basic interactions of citizens were to remain. Not only that, human perfection could not be obtained without it. It was an imperfect virtue. Therefore, Aristotelean ethics and politics cannot be used to justify the State for the State is the wrong kind of political structure for eudemonia to flourish.

Where Aristotle comes unstuck is in the field of economics, which is, after all, a sub-discipline of ethics and politics. In order for citizens to have the time and wealth to engage in the political and contemplative lives, others would have to grow crops, make shoes, clean houses, build roads, etc. The economic solution Aristotle provides is entirely unacceptable if we are looking towards him on how best to achieve human perfection. His solution is that women, slaves and barbarians should do all the physical work while citizens manage that work and get on with running the polis and studying philosophy. He states (1329a21-26):

“...for happiness cannot exist without excellence, and a city is not to be termed happy in regard to a portion of the citizens, but in regard to them all. And clearly property should be in their hands, since the farmers will of necessity be slaves or barbarian country people.”

To condemn human beings to lives filled only with mindless labour without the chance of perfection is a crime against humanity. This is now a fair criticism, and leads any philosopher who subscribes to a version of Aristotelean ethics a major problem: In order to achieve eudemonia, a individual must belong to a polis (not a State) and have the economic freedom to fully engage in the political and contemplative life. This will require a fair degree of freedom from work, and this only seems achievable with a large underclass of workers. Yet, this runs straight against our hard-earned (both in intellectual and physical blood) conception that each and every human being should have the opportunity to perfect him or herself and that no one should be the slave of another.

Thus, if Aristotelean thinking is to survive in practical terms, the ethical/political philosopher has a tremendous challenge ahead of him/her. The open, direct, and horizontal democracy has to be preserved; people must have the time to engage in political and philosophical pursuits, and without the economic enslavement of others. There cannot be those who are deprived of the ability to gain perfection. And, this new kind of society must be beyond the State for its inherent structure is contrary to the self-reliance and political freedom required for eudemonia. How then does one keep the democracy, openness, community and self-reliance of the polis without its supporting economic structure?

[1] Marx is often seen as wanting a withering away of the State, the idea being that after the workers have taken control of the State, they will install a Communist State that, owing to the control of the workers, will lead to a time when the State will no longer be needed. Without getting into a long discussion on the matter, Marx’s comments seem to be a sop to the anarchists of day, with whom Marx was engaged in bureaucratic struggle.

[2] Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto, English Edition of 1888 (Friedrich Engels ed.), Section II. Republished at

[3] Primo Levi, If This is a Man & The Truce, (London: Abacus, 1987), pg. 395

[4] Cited in James Joll, Europe Since 1870 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1976), pg. 166
[5] Jacob Golomb & Robert S. Wistrich (eds), Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), Introduction. Found at

[6] Eudemonia has often been translated into happiness, as in the W.D. Ross translation of the Nicomachaen Ethics (available at The “good life” is perhaps a more correct translation, especially in the modern capitalist context where happiness is often equated, in a variety of media formats, to pleasure and/or the acquisition of wealth (goods), retail therapy. Aristotle’s opinion on wealth as end of the good life is rather dim, and, perhaps, is as an apt a criticism of material gain above all else today as it was in 350 BCE. He states in NE (Bk. I, Ch. 5): “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else. And so one might rather take the aforenamed objects to be ends; for they are loved for themselves. But it is evident that not even these are ends; yet many arguments have been thrown away in support of them. Let us leave this subject, then.”

[7] Of the polis, much more will be spoken of shortly. For it will be the contention that much of the philosophical and political thinking surrounding the polis is mistaken, due to an understandable but fatal mistranslation of the polis into the city-state or the State, most of which arises from inadequate definitions of the State.

[8] As will be shown later, the good of the individual is the good of society. Aristotle's conception of a free man is a person who is part of a society (namely the polis), and whose fate is intimately tied up with that society. It is impossible for eudemonia to be achieved outside the polis.

[9] In the Penguin Classics paperback version of The Politics, which is the prime version used for referencing in this text, “polis” seems to be directly translated to “state”, which threatens a false analytical split when the relationship between the state and the citizens are discussed. In modern English usage, we often say thing like, “The State and its citizens,” and “The rights of citizens granted by the State.” This implies a sense of ownership—or, at least, a power relationship—between the State and the citizens, which implies that they are two distinct entities. As will be shown in due course, this distinction does not hold with the polis.

And, on the subject of texts, translations vary widely. In addition to the Penguin Classics texts, the Cambridge University Press text and a few e-book texts have also been used, and often the texts do not match. For example, the Cambridge text seems to confuse constitution (in the Ancient Greek meaning, which was far broader than modern constitutions; in a way, the Athenian constitution seems better at capturing the spirit of a society than the South African constitution, which is really a set of basic legal codes) with government. The Athenian constitution did not rule, it did not decide, it did not implement as modern governments do (see Part Two for a definition of government). Good luck to the Aristotelean scholar.

[10] One of the many advantages of considering Aristotle is that he was writing just after the Golden Age of Athens, and during the consumption of the Greek cities by Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great. Aristotle wrote Politics and NE in Athens (of which Aristotle was not a citizen) in 335BC, after Philip of Macedon’s invasion of Greece in 338BC. Interestingly enough, Athens rebelled in 323BC, after Alexander died in Babylon, and Aristotle was forced to flee Athens due to his Macedonian links (tutor to Alexander, and suggests that Athenians weren't all that happy with being dominated by a foreign king) for Epirus, where he died in 323BC. This was a period of transition from one political system and another, and marks an important juncture in human civilisation. After the Macedonian conquest of Greece, the polis of Athens was never really reformulated, although its spirit and fond memory was used in the Roman Republic and Empire’s propaganda and self-justification (by 150BC Greece had become a province of Rome). Of course, neither the Roman Senate nor the city of Rome were a polis, but that didn’t stop the Roman elite (many of whom had read and studied Plato and Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius being a prime example) from trying to “cash in” on the legend that Athens had become. Plato's Academy continued teaching for 900 years, until the Christian emperor Justinian suppressed it in A.D. 529.

For us, today, when we read Aristotle we have the advantage of knowing that the system of governance provided by Aristotle had once existed, it had worked, and Aristotle had been able to observe this, as was his general approach to all philosophy. Of course, given the troubled times in which he lived, Aristotle may have been looking back in time (through the proverbial rose-tinted glasses) for a brighter past.

[11] See Nicholas Smith, “Aristotle's Theory of Natural Slavery”, In: David Keyt & Fred Miller, Jr. (eds.), A Companion to Aristotle’s Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1991), pg. 142-155

[12] Egyptian rulers used men to build the pyramids because cattle were too valuable. The Old Testament is complete with references to slavery. See Exodus 20:10. 21:2-11, 20-21, 26-27, 32. 22:1-3. 23:12 and Deuteronomy 5:14. 15:12-18. 21:10-14. 23:15-16. 24:7.

[13] A. Aymard, L'Orient et la Grece antique (1953), pg. 329. As quoted in: Robert Flacelière, Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles (London: Phoenix Press, 1965), pg. 48-49

[14] In fact, slavery was not a matter of domination but of economics. The economy was based upon the labour of slaves. This point will resurface in this work.

[15] Although more conjecture than rational analysis, it does seem hard to argue for or against the equality of all human beings without a conception of universal human rights.

[16] M. I. Finley, Politics in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pg. 17

[17] Aristotle, The Politics, Bk. III, Ch. 5. Translated by T.A. Sinclair (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1962), pg. 111

[18] Aristotle, The Politics, Bk. III, Ch. 5. Translated by T.A. Sinclair (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1962), pg. 111

[19] Aristotle, The Politics, Bk. III, Ch. 2. Translated by T.A. Sinclair (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1962), pg. 104

[20] Aristotle, The Politics, Bk. III, Ch. 1. Translated by T.A. Sinclair (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1962), pg. 103

[21] Robert Flacelière, Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles (London: Phoenix Press, 1965), pg. 117. For a detailed discussion of labour and Greek attitudes to it, do see the entire chapter five of said work.

[22] Curtis Johnson, Aristotle's Theory of the State (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1990), pg. 48

[23] Robert Flacelière, Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles (London: Phoenix Press, 1965), pg.120

[24] Recounted in M. I. Finley, Politics in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pg. 50

[25] Aristotle, The Politics, Bk. IV, Ch. 1. Translated by A. Dreizehnter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pg. 83. (1289a39-1289b5)

[26] Note that at certain times, especially when the citizen population was severely depressed from war, famine or similar tragedy, the requirements on citizenship were loosened. These cases seem to have been the exception, but, at the very least, shows that the Greeks were flexible when the polis itself was threaten. However, there seems to have been an ideal, that of citizenship via parentage. This ideal was expressed in law in 451BC (at the time of Pericles) when citizenship had to come from both mother and father, instead of the father alone.

[27] M. I. Finley, Politics in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pg. 17-18

[28] Sparta was a notable exception in the Ancient Greek world. Unlike Athens (or many of the other Greek cities), Spartan society was a ruthless military aristocracy where the divisions were between the Spartans and the helots, which were violently ruled by the Spartans, thus giving Sparta a very different internal dynamic. Essentially, the source of conflict within Sparta was the repression of the helots. Helots were not given any political rights (even slaves in Athens had certain rights, such as the ability to buy one's freedom), and treated as chattel. Therefore, this discussion excludes Sparta, and, as a general rule, Sparta should be excluded from any of the future discussions on the Ancient Greeks. The situation in Sparta differed enough, on average, to warrant this exclusion.

[29] M. I. Finley, Politics in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pg. 17-18

[30] For more details on the historical and archaeological evidence see M. I. Finley, Politics in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pg. 17-18

[31] Bold added.

[32] Bold added.

[33] Bold added.

[34] A. C. Bradley, “Aristotle’s Conception of the State”. In: David Keyt & Fred Miller, Jr. (eds.), A Companion to Aristotle’s Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1991), pg. 28

[35] Socrates states in the Crito that: “For, after having brought you into the world, and nurtured and educated you, and given you and every other citizen a share in every good that we had to give, we further proclaim and give the right to every Athenian, that if he does not like us when he has come of age and has seen the ways of the city, and made our acquaintance, he may go where he pleases and take his goods with him; and none of us laws will forbid him or interfere with him. Any of you who does not like us and the city, and who wants to go to a colony or to any other city, may go where he likes, and take his goods with him. But he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the State, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him. And he who disobeys us is, as we maintain, thrice wrong: first, because in disobeying us he is disobeying his parents; secondly, because we are the authors of his education; thirdly, because he has made an agreement with us that he will duly obey our commands; and he neither obeys them nor convinces us that our commands are wrong; and we do not rudely impose them, but give him the alternative of obeying or convincing us; that is what we offer and he does neither.” Reference: Plato, Crito,

[36] Robert Flacelière, Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles (London: Phoenix Press, 1965), pg. 30

[37] Note: In extreme crisis, the Assembly seems to have taken over payment of fees. These times seem rare, and one notable example is when the Athenian populace was evacuated pending a Spartan attack, citizens successfully carried a motion through the Assembly that the polis pay for the education of the youth during the evacuation. REFERENCE AND CHECK

[38] A. C. Bradley, “Aristotle’s Conception of the State”. In: David Keyt & Fred Miller, Jr. (eds.), A Companion to Aristotle’s Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1991), pg. 32

[39] Ian Johnston, “Lecture on Aristotle's Nicomachaean Ethics” (, 1997)

[40] Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1987), pg. 37-38

[41] A.R. Burn, The Pelican History of Greece (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1965), pg. 128

[42] List of moral virtues taken from

[43] Richard Kraut, Aristotle and the Human Good (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pg. 249

[44] There is also Aristotle's stronger claim, shown previously, that a man cannot be a man outside the polis.

[45] The population figures given from Athens vary widely, but it seems that the population of citizens was somewhere between these numbers.

[46] Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1987), pg. 40

[47] Aristotle makes this point in The Politics (1337a10-18) when he states that the character of the citizens determines whether a polis is a democracy or oligarchy.

[48] See Book IV of The Politics, (1295a22-39)



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