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Politics: A focus on Aristotle's Political Theory

Updated on March 27, 2015

In politics, Aristotle explains that the polis or city is a political association. He goes on to explain that by nature, man is “a political animal” (1253a8). According to him, slavery is a necessary institution for the well being or prosperity of the society. He goes on to claim that similar to all deliberate acts by humans, such associations are established with the objective of achieving a common good (1252a3).

Machiavelli supports this notion by articulating that, the state and the ruler is mandated to ensure that the people in his or government’s jurisdiction enjoy the common good. Both theorists acknowledge that a political association is the most sovereign type of association since it incorporates all other forms of associations and has an aim of achieving the highest common good. According to Aristotle, there are three kinds of households making up the household. These include husband-wife, parent-child and master-slave. The “art of acquisition” as he noted is the fourth element of the household (1253a19)

According to Aristotle, a master should be able to utilize slaves in order to secure his livelihood. Similar to Machiavelli, Aristotle also notes that a ruler must be able to enslave the minds of the citizens since in essence; nature is constituted of “ruling and ruled elements”. While some leaders are born to be leaders by nature, others are also born to be slaves by nature (1256b25). Aristotle however, deviates from Machiavelli’s notion that rulers should not do injustices to their subjects by stating that those who were born by nature have a right to be enslaved. He however agrees with Machiavelli on this aspect when he says that a just slavery is when the master’s rule benefits both him and the slave (1254b16-23). We should remember that Machiavelli also affirms that the state is there to meet the interest and needs of the citizens.

In contrast to Machiavelli on the significance of man in a political grouping, Aristotle believes that man can only be regarded as fully human if he get to associate himself in the political association of the city. If not so, he will be disconnected from the state and therefore, he will fail to accomplish his ultimate purpose (1275a22). In this perspective, Aristotle is arguing on two aspects, that the laws of the state should be designed in such a way that they restrict the freedom of man. In addition, he as well opines that man cannot live effectively outside the state confines. Although Machiavelli is also arguing that, a ruler should be able to capture the minds of the subjects, he goes to the extent of claiming that such a ruler is free to use deception, lies or intimidation in doing so.

Aristotle argues that for a state to prosper, the ruler must exploit slaves fully. According to him, slaves were just born to be slaves and do not have any rationality, hence a ruler has to instill some form of rationality they lack through this enslavement (1254b16-23). As he points out, a good constitution is established through the principle of distribution. By this, he means that equal people should be equally treated while unequal people should be treated unequally. Machiavelly however refutes this assumption claiming that a ruler is expected to protect and serve all people alike, and not necessarily enslave them or some group of them. Slavery according to Machiavelli is great injustice to citizens. Aristotle points out that individual’s significancy in a society are determined by the contributions they make to the city. This deviates from Machavelli’s notion who utterly mocked human nature. For instance, according to Aristotle, any person develops to maturity both morally and intellectually through “involvement” in the state’s operations. Apparently, Machiavelli does not trust any citizen to be “involved” in the state. Instead, he argues that, men are untruthful and ungraceful lot. They are “fickle, ungrateful, deceivers, liars and greedy”. He goes on to articulate that men are self-centered who would act for their own and not the state’s interest given the slightest opportunity. He posts that men cannot care even in the case when the prince lands in danger.

An ideal city according to Aristotle is where all citizens experience happiness. Again, it is the mandate of the city to ensure that all citizens are happy (1274b4). This statement is also echoed by Machiavelli who also argues that the state is responsible for maintaining order and law, protecting people’s life and ensuring the well being of citizens. However, while this according to Aristotle depends on the free exercise of speculative reasoning, Machiavelli observes that in protection of the state, a state’s ruler has a mandate of employing instruments of conspiracy, lie, deception, massacre and even killing to achieve this goal (Machiavelli, 1961).

While Aristotle envisioned that a state could become more effective if its citizens were enlightened through being educated on writing, reading, music, drawing, physical training in achieving a common good, Machiavelli’s view of an effective state is one where citizens were made to fear the ruler. He observes that men are wreaked creatures, and they will break the existing bond of love no matter what level it was for their own interest if an opportunity arose.

In another spectrum, Aristotle also concurs with Machiavelli with the claim that man is a self-centered figure. For instance, he says, “mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think good.” The phrase on what “they think” is an indication that humankind seeks “good” based on their subjective definition of the term. If man seeks what he thinks is good to him, this translates that individuals will strive to seek what they think is good for themselves. This will subsequently lead to the accumulation of wealth for material comforts (1259a16). Machiavelli also note that men are self-centered who would act for their own and not the state’s interest given the slightest opportunity. Self centeredness of men is the reason why Aristotle advocates for education as a form of enlightening subjects on why they need to engage themselves with the development of their state as well as following the laws and stipulations. He argues that it is through education that the state’s laws could be made popular (1310a13). In essence, the political theories put forward by Machiavelli and Aristotle only supports the idea that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” While Aristotle argues that acquisition of this mind is through education, Machiavelli observes that it is through creating fear and deception.

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