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Politics

A foundational work in the history of Western political philosophy

By Aristotle
16-minute read
Audio available
Politics by Aristotle

Politics is a foundational work in the history of Western political philosophy. From Machiavelli to Thomas Hobbes to Karl Marx, few major Western thinkers have been able to avoid a dialogue with the arguments Aristotle advanced some 2,500 years ago. That’s hardly surprising. In his quest to define the purpose and nature of politics, Aristotle left no stone unturned. Justice, slavery, citizenship, class conflict, democracy, and the good life – all are addressed with rigor and nuance in this remarkable text.

  • Political buffs
  • Historians
  • Thinkers and philosophers

Aristotle was born in 384 BCE and died in 322 BCE at the age of 62. He was taught by Plato in ancient Athens at the height of its golden age and went on to found his own school, the Lyceum. The quintessential polymath, Aristotle wrote on topics as varied as ethics, politics, metaphysics, logic, rhetoric, psychology, economics, poetry, and music. His work continues to shape the way we think about these subjects to this day.

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Politics

A foundational work in the history of Western political philosophy

By Aristotle
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Politics by Aristotle
Synopsis

Politics is a foundational work in the history of Western political philosophy. From Machiavelli to Thomas Hobbes to Karl Marx, few major Western thinkers have been able to avoid a dialogue with the arguments Aristotle advanced some 2,500 years ago. That’s hardly surprising. In his quest to define the purpose and nature of politics, Aristotle left no stone unturned. Justice, slavery, citizenship, class conflict, democracy, and the good life – all are addressed with rigor and nuance in this remarkable text.

Key idea 1 of 10

Humans can speak and reason, and this makes us moral creatures.

How should states be ruled? What is the best form of government? 

These questions have been at the heart of Western political philosophy for some 2,500 years. At the very beginning of that tradition, in fourth-century BCE Greece, Aristotle set out to answer them. 

But before we can talk about how best to arrange a society, we need to know something about the people who live in it. What is their nature? Answering this can help us think more clearly about what it is that we actually want states and governments to do. 

The key message in this blink is: Humans can speak and reason, and this makes us moral creatures. 

Aristotle was an empiricist – he believed in the power of observation. If you want to understand any animal, he thought, you have to look at how it behaves. 

Follow a bee, for example, and you’ll observe it gathering food. Stay on its trail, and you’ll learn that it isn’t merely satisfying its own needs – it’s collecting resources for its hive. Here, you’ll discover a society with a division of labor. Some bees farm; others are soldiers. At the top, there’s even a ruler – the queen. 

Bees, it turns out, are social animals like us. Humans live in states; bees live in hives. Both are communal constructs that serve the common good of their members. But there’s a vital difference. 

In the ancient Greek polis, a city-state like Aristotle’s Athens, labor was also divided among farmers, soldiers, workers, and rulers. Each class fulfilled its individual role, and the result of their collective work was the common good – the preservation of their city. But humans who lived in city-states did something bees don’t. They also thought and talked about how our societies should be organized, just as we still do today. 

We do this because we, unlike other animals, possess logos – a Greek word meaning both “reason” and “speech.” These faculties have profound moral implications.

Say someone is causing you physical pain, and you'd like them to stop. Here, your logos would come in handy.

To express pain, all you need is a voice – a grunt or bark will do. Humans aren’t just animals, though; our voices are capable of conveying far more than mere grunts or barks. We can attempt to stop the pain by explaining why it’s morally right to treat others as you’d want to be treated yourself. And other humans have the faculty of reason to accept or reject our arguments, and change their behavior accordingly.

Aristotle, who believed that nature makes nothing in vain, says that this is why we possess the gift of speech. It allows us to make moral judgments and cooperate with others in leading a life that conforms to what we think is right.

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