Aristotle's Politics: Living Well and Living Together

Aristotle's Politics: Living Well and Living Together

by Eugene Garver

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Garver’s book is a major, and wholly original, treatment of Aristotle’s treatise on the meanings and implications of the idea that human beings are political animals.  If people can only become virtuous by active participation in the political community, this poses a central dilemma for Garver:  How is the Politics at one

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Garver’s book is a major, and wholly original, treatment of Aristotle’s treatise on the meanings and implications of the idea that human beings are political animals.  If people can only become virtuous by active participation in the political community, this poses a central dilemma for Garver:  How is the Politics at one and the same time philosophical and practical?   The answer turns on tracing the different kinds of relations between the good life and the good constitutions (and so, between ethics and politics as modes of inquiry).  Garver also deals with the question of how studying the Politics can help us understand politics more generally, in particular politics in the 21st century.

Editorial Reviews

David Depew

“Upending a truism, Garver finds Aristotle’s Politics more practical for us than his Ethics. In a work that is at once meditative and analytical, Garver leads us to realize that our actual, as opposed to our imagined, sense of the political can, upon reflection, give us a conception of the human good as substantive, shared, flexible, and multifaceted as Aristotle’s. In his refracted light we can see, as he did, that constitutions can be made morally better than the people in them and that under some conditions political stability is a moral good. Students and scholars of ancient philosophy, political theorists, and political scientists alike will find their minds turned around by this book.”
Lenn E. Goodman

Aristotle’s Politics deals insightfully, even masterfully, with the core philosophical issues that lie at the heart of our being as social and political animals. Whoever reads and studies this book carefully will grow in political subtlety and intellectual maturity, adding to his or her store of understanding the wisdom of a scholar who has spent years plumbing the meaning and the message of one of the landmarks of human inquiry.”
James Boyd White

“In this elegant book, Garver approaches Aristotle’s Politics in a deeply satisfying manner: by constantly asking tough, intelligent, and living questions, both as a way  of understanding what Aristotle was actually saying in this inherently foreign text, and as a way of connecting the Politics to political thought and action in our own very different world. All this is done with an extraordinary energy, fidelity, and intellectual honesty. An important and remarkable book.”
Stephen Salkever

“Garver’s insightful book will challenge and inform every student of Aristotle, especially those students who are also teachers. His reading of the Politics is similar to Aristotle’s reading of the human condition in its subtlety, care, and openness to puzzle and perplexity. The central theme is captured in Garver’s subtitle: in what ways do the practices of humans living together both promote and threaten the prospects for human well being? Taken together, Garver and Aristotle illuminate for our reflection problematic elements of the Politics and of the human condition we modern readers are not likely to see without their help.”
Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“Eugene Garver has written an excellent book. He reads the Politics as a unified whole, and tries to think it through from beginning to middle to end. And he consistently does so with intelligence and sensitivity to detail.”

Review of Politics - Susan D. Collins

“Garver’s interpretation of the Politics makes for dense reading, but his study captures the complexity of the relations among political philosophy, practical wisdom, and political action in Aristotle’s own thought. The book concludes with an epilogue that focuses on what is central to this thought: the claim that human beings are political animals. In drawing out five different senses inwhich we can understand this claim, and especially by showing how the Politics itself informs enduring political questions, Garver thinks through the ways in which philosophy can be practical without being subsumed by practical ends. Garver’s fine study is clearly the fruit of deep reflection on this very problem.”


“Garver is a skillful interpreter, and it is a privilege to take note as he ruminates on questions most commentators never think to ask. . . . Highly recommended.”

Reason Papers

“Garver explores frequently overlooked tensions in the work and refuses to accept easy solutions, but he keeps his sights set on how reading Aristotle ‘can help us think through our own problems.’ The result is a challenging and refreshingly distinctive treatment of the Politics.”

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Living Well and Living Together


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-28402-6

Chapter One

Book I: Slavery and the Will to Power

My exploration of the Politics begins by focusing on its most notorious feature, the endorsement of slavery. This might be thought a minor feature of the Politics, important only because it highlights the distance between Aristotle's moral world and ours. His discussion of slavery occupies only three chapters in Book I and part of another in Book VII. But the issues slavery raises cut deep into Aristotle's way of thinking and help us understand what he means by saying that people are political animals (I.2.1253a7–18, III.6.1278b15–30; NE VIII.12.1162a16–19, IX.9.1169b16–22; EE VII.10.1242a19–28).

Looking back, we reasonably see Aristotle's discussion of slavery as defending the indefensible. The justification of slavery, coupled as it is in Book I with an analogous denigration of women, is so easy to take as the occasion for outrage that it is hard to get past that feeling to examine the details of his arguments. He defends the naturalness of slavery in Book I and, to make things worse, in Book VII gives a racial interpretation to slavery as he locates those suited to be slaves in Asia, as opposed to Europeans too wild to be domesticated and to the Greeks whose ideal psyches make them natural masters. We can be appalled, or we can separate Aristotle the philosopher from Aristotle the Greek who was not able to overcome the prejudices of his time. Aristotle's defense of slavery is then a depressing example of a great mind unable to escape the prejudices of his times, and of philosophy enlisted as rationalization in the service of a hidden and distasteful political agenda. If we temporarily suspend those reactions, though, and look at some of the details of Aristotle's discussions of slavery, I think we find a richness that makes both his moral vision and our own moral lives more complicated.

For starters, while contemporary discussions of Aristotle's treatment of slavery typically describe it as a "justification" for slavery, Aristotle himself would be surprised to learn that he was justifying or even defending slavery. The discussions of slavery have a different purpose within his larger project. The Politics begins by criticizing those—such as Plato's Statesman—who do not see that statesman, king, household manager (oikonimikon), and master of slaves (despotikon) are different kinds of rulers (1.1.1252a7–8, I.3.1254a17–19). The discussion of slaves and masters in Book I is part of his larger project of showing how the polis emerges out of the household and therefore how the good life emerges out of aiming at life itself, without being reducible to it. His "defense" of slavery is more a matter of fencing slavery in, part of the project of cabining economic activity that occupies the first book of the Politics as it develops the autonomy of politics. Greece knew slaves who were not part of a household: there were the workers in the silver mines, and the Scythian archers who served as a police force in Athens, but Aristotle's vision is narrowed to household slaves. The helots of Sparta don't fit his account either. He devotes more of Book I to economics—household management—than to ruling slaves, but it is the latter activity that has to be separated from the art of the statesman.

Citizens have political relations toward each other, not relations of mastery and slavery. Therefore, strictly speaking, slavery is not a political but rather a prepolitical problem. In consequence, Aristotle treats questions about slavery as fairly easy; they can be solved by philosophical analysis rather than political deliberation, in contrast to the difficult subjects about citizenship and justice that require the nuanced division of labor between philosopher and statesman. Yet Aristotle also recognizes ways in which slavery can expand beyond this restriction to the household, and so become a more serious political problem, of greater interest to people who live in a world that doesn't accept his separation of the economic from the political. We have succeeded in abolishing slavery for the most part, but at the price of making economic activity much more dominant in our lives than Aristotle would have wanted. Compared to the world as Aristotle described it, slavishness and the pursuit of wealth are no longer shameful. Slavishness and the desire to dominate others have not disappeared along with the abolition of slavery. Even if poleis aren't around anymore, the tension between Aristotle's claim that man is a political animal and his observation that relatively few people live politically is a problem that remains with us.


Slaves have incomplete souls; they are incomplete people. To make such claims intelligible, I have to appeal to more of Aristotle's technical language and ideas from other works than I will need to do for most of the book. Aristotle sees a substance, such as a soul, as incomplete if it is defined by an essence, a formula or logos, outside itself. Its completion consists in reference to something outside itself.

The deliberative part of the soul is entirely missing from a slave, a woman has it but it lacks authority; a child has it but it is incompletely developed. (I.13.1260a12–14)

Since a child is incompletely developed, it is clear that his virtue too does not belong to him in relation to himself but in relation to his end and his leader. The same holds of a slave in relation to his master. (1260a31–34)

The soul of a child is incomplete because it is not yet complete. One cannot understand a child except by seeing her as on the way to becoming an adult. The souls of earthworms and of domestic animals are not incomplete; they just cannot do a lot of the things my soul can do. Slaves, in contrast to children but like women, are permanently incomplete. Biology speaks about "maimed" individuals of a species—lacking a hand, or the capacity to digest peanuts without allergic reaction—but not incomplete ones, and certainly not whole large groups of incomplete individuals. The oddness of such people is signaled by the fact that in Book I Aristotle argues first for the necessity of slaves, and of the naturalness of the master/slave relation, and only then looks around to determine the existence of people who fit the bill. Thus chapter 4 ends: "It is clear from these considerations what the nature and capacity of a slave are. For anyone who, despite being human, is by nature not his own but someone else's is a natural slave" (1254a12–15). And chapter 5 starts: "But whether anyone is really like that by nature or not, we should investigate next" (1254a17–18). (To see how odd it is for Aristotle first to show that natural slaves are necessary, and then that they exist, imagine proceeding in the same way, first showing the necessity of the male/female relation, and then proving the existence of women.) Aristotle's ensuing investigation is less empirical than one might expect, since nature does not act powerfully enough for us to identify natural slaves by inspection (I.5.1254b26–1255a1). So the argument in I.5 shows that there have to be natural slaves, not what they look like. The account of what makes someone naturally suitable for slavery will have to wait until VII.7.

I understand the slave's incompleteness this way. The slave's actions are by their nature incomplete; his acts fit the definition of motion in the Physics as the actualization of the potential qua potential (III.1.201a 10–11, 27–29, b 4–5), an incomplete activity whose completion lies outside itself in the end aimed at. It is no defect for a making, a poiesis, to be a motion, just as it is no defect in a cow not to be a human being. Motions and makings are supposed to be incomplete, because they are done for the sake of an end outside themselves. With respect to poiesis, there is nothing wrong with what slaves do; their performance is completely adequate. Otherwise it would be a burden to keep them around. It is, though, a failing for action, praxis, to be incomplete. Slaves have incomplete souls because they cannot fully engage in action. It is because slaves cannot engage in praxis and so, a fortiori, in the good life, that slaves are instruments (organa) with respect to praxis, not poiesis. Slaves might be defined as instruments for action, but they themselves can only engage in making.

When Aristotle defines motion as the actualization of a potential qua potential, he goes on to say that motion is incomplete because "the subject of whose potentiality kinesis is the energeia is incomplete" (Ph. III.1. 201b31–33; see also Met. IX.6. 1048b23–35). So here: incomplete praxis is the praxis of an incomplete human being. All humans engage in productive actions. But slaves differ from complete human beings because their central, essential, characteristic activities are incomplete. They act for the sake of something outside the actions, namely, the master. Since their actions are essentially incomplete, or, what is the same thing, essentially instrumental, children, women, and slaves are all in different ways incomplete human beings: "The activity of imperfect things is imperfect" (EE II.1. 1219a37–38); "Nothing incomplete is happy because it is not a whole" (EE II.1.1219b7–8).

It follows that slaves are by nature part of a master/slave relation. If their actions are incomplete, then those actions, and the slaves themselves, must be part of someone else. That argument doesn't apply to domestic animals. Their souls are not incomplete, and they are not part of the master. The master, in an important sense, is the household. The ruler of a polis, by contrast, is not the same as the polis itself. L'état, c'est moi is the definition of tyranny. A household comprises a master and a set of other people who are incomplete and so depend on the head of the household. A polis is a self-sufficient community of self-sufficient people (III.1.1275b20–21).

Aristotle does not write slaves out of humanity, though, because of their incompleteness. As we will see, slavishness, the psychological attitude manifested most obviously in slaves, is a truly human trait. Beasts and gods form the nonhuman boundaries around humanity: "Anyone who cannot form a community with others, or who does not need to because he is self-sufficient, is no part of a polis—he is either a beast (therion) or a god" (I.2.1253a28–29; cf. NE VII.1.1145a20–28); this is very different from saying that without a polis people are either masters or slaves. It is wild beasts—not the domesticated animals with which he compares slaves—and gods, not despots, who can and must naturally live outside cities. Beasts and gods are perfect exemplars of their kinds, unlike masters and slaves, who are incomplete human beings. (We will later see the senses in which Aristotle does and does not follow Hegel in seeing masters as well as slaves as incomplete.) Any people who can fully live their lives without a polis are complete in some nonhuman way, as beasts and gods are, rather than incomplete or corrupt in some human way, like slaves and the unruly Europeans whom we will meet in VII.7. In contrast to beasts and gods, people are political animals.

Both the slave and the person who makes mastery the center of his life fail to live politically; they do not successfully live some other way, as animals do. They are failed political animals. Slaves fail in a way that makes them incomplete. Mastery is more complex. The full human being and citizen is a master, but only of slaves. Someone who makes dominating others, especially free people, the organizing goal of his life is a failure in a more serious way that I will turn to in later sections of this chapter. Our human nature impels us to live as citizens in poleis, although not everyone can or does; not everyone wants to.

Not being able to engage in praxis makes someone an incomplete human being. Praxis is tied to human nature and the human function in ways making is not. There are no natural farmers or poets: "a slave is among the things that exist by nature, whereas no shoemaker is, nor any other sort of craftsman" (I.13.1260b1–2). There are natural men and women, adults and children, and, according to Aristotle, free men and slaves. All these natural distinctions are connected to praxis. Praxeis are constitutive of the good life and the good community. Makings are essentially incomplete, and slaves are in no way inferior to freemen in the performance of poiesis. But excellence in craft cannot qualify anyone for citizenship.


I now want to look at slavery outside its literal application within the household to see its political significance, and then, in the next section, consider mastery and its expansion beyond the household. There is slavery and there is slavishness. Slavishness is not confined to the household but is more widely distributed. In I.13 Aristotle notes that "vulgar craftsmen have a kind of delimited slavery" (ho banausos technites aphorismenen tina echei douleian) (1260b1). "A slave shares his master's life, whereas a vulgar craftsman is at a greater remove" (1260a39–40), although which of these undesirable situations is ethically preferable, Aristotle does not say. The metaphorical extensions of slavery to the craftsman who works for money in Book I is recalled in Book VIII, where he says that those who play music or practice other crafts to win attention or wealth aim at pleasure rather than what is good and so they too are banausic (VIII.6.1341a5–14). Slavishness as a psychic condition extends more widely than the institution of slavery itself. "It makes much difference what object one has in view in a pursuit or study; if one follows it for the sake of oneself or one's friends, or on moral grounds, it is not illiberal, but the man who follows the same pursuit because of other people would often appear to be acting in a menial and servile manner" (VIII.2.1337b17–21; see also see III.4.1277b3–7, VII.16.1335b5–11, NE IV.3.1124b31–1125a1, Rh. I.9.1367a–31). People engaged in trade and moneymaking try to please their customers, and so choose the pleasant over what is truly good. Therefore they cannot be good citizens, and will not be citizens in a good state.

Slavishness is even more threatening today, since it is less shameful. Slavishness is in a sense a default position: if people are not brought up properly, they will choose life rather than a good life, and so lead vulgar and slavish lives. People who organize their lives around acquiring wealth are slavish, even if not slaves, because to aim at wealth is to aim at satisfying the ends of people other than oneself. The customer, rather than virtue, is always right. Being wealthy might protect someone in Greece against being sold into slavery, but it does not protect anyone from living a slavish life. (If part of slavishness is directing one's actions toward satisfying another, it does not follow that the opposite of slavishness is selfishness. It is choosing things that are their own end, things worth doing for their own sake.)

Slavish people cannot lead a civic life and cannot be happy, because they aim at life rather than living well: so much for the civil society Adam Smith sees emerging out of people's desires to please each other and satisfy their demands instead of through servile emotions. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." The trouble, for Smith, with relying on the benevolence of the butcher is that dependence puts us in a servile position; appealing instead to their self-love makes us equals. Smith turns Aristotle on his head. Aristotle would see people appealing to each other's self-interest as acting slavishly and asking others to do the same. The crux of the difference is that for Aristotle only self-sufficient people can constitute a self-sufficient community. "Political animals are those whose joint work (ergon) is one common thing" (Hist. An. I.1. 488a7–8). "There cannot be a polis of slaves any more than a city of animals" (III.9.1280a31–33). Slavish people allow economic life to dominate political life, and too many people of this kind would destroy political life. (One line of Smith's followers would see this as precisely the benefit of commerce.)


Excerpted from ARISTOTLE'S POLITICS by EUGENE GARVER Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Eugene Garver is the Regents Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Saint John’s University and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota. His most recent books include Aristotle’s Rhetoric: An Art of Character and Confronting Aristotle’s Ethics: Ancient and Modern Morality.

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