Politics (Aristotle)

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Politics is a work of political philosophy by Aristotle, a 4th-century BC Greek philosopher.


If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.
The basis of a democratic state is liberty.
All paid jobs ... absorb and degrade the mind.
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  • Nature does nothing uselessly.
    • Book I, 1253a.8
  • Where some people are very wealthy and others have nothing, the result will be either extreme democracy or absolute oligarchy, or despotism will come from either of those excesses.
    • Book I, 1296a.4
  • Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name.
    • Book I, Part II
  • The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.
    • Book I, Part II
  • He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.
    • Book I, 1253a.27
  • Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all.
    • Book I, 1253a.31
  • Money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural.
    • Book I, 1258b.4
  • If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet, ‘of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods’; if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.
    • Book I, part 4 (1920 translation by Benjamin Jowett)
    • Popularly simplified to when the looms spin by themselves, we'll have no need for slaves.
  • Men ... are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody's friend, especially when some one is heard denouncing the evils now existing in states, suits about contracts, convictions for perjury, flatteries of rich men and the like, which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, are due to a very different cause — the wickedness of human nature.
    • Book II, 1263b.15
  • One would have thought that it was even more necessary to limit population than property; and that the limit should be fixed by calculating the chances of mortality in the children, and of sterility in married persons. The neglect of this subject, which in existing states is so common, is a never-failing cause of poverty among the citizens; and poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.
  • It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it.
    • Book II, 1267b.4
  • Again, men in general desire the good, and not merely what their fathers had.
    • Book II, 1269a.4
  • Even when laws have been written down, they ought not always to remain unaltered.
    • Book II, 1269a.9
  • That judges of important causes should hold office for life is a disputable thing, for the mind grows old as well as the body.
    • Book II, 1270b.39
  • They should rule who are able to rule best.
    • Book II, 1273b.5
  • The good citizen need not of necessity possess the virtue which makes a good man.
    • Book III, 1276b.34
  • A state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange.... Political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship.
    • Book III, 1280b.30–1281a.3
  • If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.
    • Book IV, 1291b.34
  • Demagogues arise in cities where the laws are not sovereign. The people then becomes a monarchy - a single composite monarch made up of many members, with the many playing the sovereign, not as individuals, but collectively. It is not clear what Homer means when he says that "it is not good to have the rule of many masters": whether he has in mind a situation of this kind, or one where there are many rulers who act as individuals.
    • Book IV, 1292a.7
  • Inferiors revolt in order that they may be equal, and equals that they may be superior. Such is the state of mind which creates revolutions.
    • Book V, 1302a.29
  • Even trifles are most important when they concern the rulers, as was the case of old at Syracuse; for the Syracusan constitution was once changed by a love-quarrel of two young men, who were in the government. The story is that while one of them was away from home his beloved was gained over by his companion, and he to revenge himself seduced the other's wife. They then drew the members of the ruling class into their quarrel and so split all the people into portions. We learn from this story that we should be on our guard against the beginnings of such evils, and should put an end to the quarrels of chiefs and mighty men. The mistake lies in the beginning — as the proverb says — 'Well begun is half done'; so an error at the beginning, though quite small, bears the same ratio to the errors in the other parts.
    • Book V, 1303b.19-30
  • Both oligarch and tyrant mistrust the people, and therefore deprive them of their arms.
    • Book V, 1311a.11
  • Democracy arose from men's thinking that if they are equal in any respect they are equal absolutely [in all respects]."
    • Aristotle, Politics, Book V 1301a.29-31
  • τὸ πένητας ποιεῖν τοὺς ἀρχομένους τυραννικόν, ὅπως μήτε φυλακὴ τρέφηται καὶ πρὸς τῷ καθ᾽ ἡμέραν ὄντες ἄσχολοι ὦσιν ἐπιβουλεύειν.
    • It is also in the interests of a tyrant to make his subjects poor, so that he may be able to afford the cost of his bodyguard, while the people are so occupied with their daily tasks that they have no time for plotting.
    • Book V, 1313b.16
  • ... καὶ ἡ εἰσφορὰ τῶν τελῶν...
    • Subjects are also kept poor by payment of taxes.
    • Book V, 1313b.16
  • It is a mark of a tyrant to have men of foreign extraction rather than citizens as guests at table and companions, feeling that citizens are hostile but strangers make no claim against him.
    • Book V, 1314a (tr. H. Rackham)
    • Variant: "It is the habit of tyrants to prefer the company of aliens. Citizens they feel are enemies, but aliens will offer no opposition."
  • A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.
    • Book V,1314b.39
  • The basis of a democratic state is liberty.
    • Book VI, 1317a.40
  • Happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are highly cultivated in their minds and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities.
    • Book VII, 1323b.1
  • But for those that are equal to have an unequal share and those that are alike an unlike share is contrary to nature, and nothing contrary to nature is noble.
    • Book VII 3.5, 1325b
  • Law is order, and good law is good order.
    • Book VII, 1326a.29
  • Practical life is not necessarily directed toward other people, as some think; and it is not the case that practical thoughts are only those which result from action for the sake of what ensues. On the contrary, much more practical are those mental activities and reflections which have their goal in themselves and take place for their own sake.
    • VII, 3, 8, 1325b16–20
  • Those who live in a cold climate and in [northern] Europe are full of spirit, but wanting in intelligence and skill; and therefore they keep their freedom, but have no political organization, and are incapable of ruling over others. Whereas the natives of Asia are intelligent and inventive, but they are wanting in spirit, and therefore they are always in a state of subjection and slavery. But the Hellenic race, which is situated between them, is likewise intermediate in character, being high-spirited and also intelligent. Hence it continues free, and is the best governed of any nation, and, if it could be formed into one state, would be able to rule the world.
  • Let us then enunciate the functions of a state and we shall easily elicit what we want: First there must be food; secondly, arts, for life requires many instruments; thirdly, there must be arms, for the members of a community have need of them, and in their own hands, too, in order to maintain authority both against disobedient subjects and against external assailants....
    • Book VII, 1328b.4
  • The soul of man may be divided into two parts; that which has reason in itself, and that which hath not, but is capable of obeying its dictates.
    • 1333a
  • οἱ ... μὴ δυνάμενοι κινδυνεύειν ἀνδρείως δοῦλοι τῶν ἐπιόντων εἰσίν.
    • Those who cannot face danger like men are the slaves of any invader.
    • Book VII, 15, 1334a
  • The appropriate age for marriage is around eighteen for girls and thirty-seven for men.
    • Book VII, 1335a.27
  • There can be no doubt that children should be taught those useful things which are really necessary, but not all things, for occupations are divided into liberal and illiberal; and to young children should be imparted only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without vulgarizing them. And any occupation, art, or science which makes the body, or soul, or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue is vulgar; wherefore we call those arts vulgar which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind. There are also some liberal arts quite proper for a freeman to acquire, but only in a certain degree, and if he attend to them too closely, in order to attain perfection in them, the same evil effects will follow.
  • It is not easy to determine the nature of music, or why any one should have a knowledge of it.
    • Book VIII, 5, 1339a

Quotes about Politics

  • Aristotle advised tyrants and oligarchs on how to preserve their position in the face of hostile public opinion; but the Politics was not a treatise on statecraft, and his advice is generally very unlike Machiavelli’s unabashed recommendation of violence and deceit. Politics was a treatise on the nature of the Greek polis, framed by a philosophical account of the nature of the good life. It explained why the skills and temperament of the statesman were useful, but it does not discuss them in detail or encourage the reader to acquire them. Aristotle’s ideal was, as he said, the rule of laws, not men. He theorized the political life, not the skills of statecraft. He made a persuasive case for the autonomy of the political realm, and for more everyday and down-to-earth values than those that Plato cared for; he provided a philosophical justification for the existence of statesmen and an account of why we should not seek to replace political leaders with philosopher-kings. Once he had explained the deficiencies of Plato’s attempted purification of political life, he needed no elaborate account of the role of philosophy in practical life, since his account of ethics and politics in the Nicomachean Ethics supplied it, along with a caution that such inquiries were not for young men but for those whose blood had cooled a little. Unlike Plato, he did not dismiss rhetoric as the art of making a bad case look good, but he made nothing of it in the Politics. The writer who made oratory central was Cicero.
    • Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012), Ch. 4 : Roman Insights: Polybius and Cicero
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