Aristotle's Teaching in the

Aristotle's Teaching in the "Politics"

by Thomas L. Pangle

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With Aristotle’s Teaching in the “Politics,” Thomas L. Pangle offers a masterly new interpretation of this classic philosophical work. It is widely believed that the Politics originated as a written record of a series of lectures given by Aristotle, and scholars have relied on that fact to explain seeming inconsistencies and instances of discontinuity throughout the text. Breaking from this tradition, Pangle makes the work’s origin his starting point, reconceiving the Politics as the pedagogical tool of a master teacher.

With the Politics, Pangle argues, Aristotle seeks to lead his students down a deliberately difficult path of critical thinking about civic republican life. He adopts a Socratic approach, encouraging his students—and readers—to become active participants in a dialogue. Seen from this perspective, features of the work that have perplexed previous commentators become perfectly comprehensible as artful devices of a didactic approach. Ultimately, Pangle’s close and careful analysis shows that to understand the Politics, one must first appreciate how Aristotle’s rhetorical strategy is inextricably entwined with the subject of his work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226016177
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 493 KB

About the Author

Thomas L. Pangle is the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu’s “Spirit of the Laws.”

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Aristotle's Teaching in the Politics


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-01603-0

Chapter One

Book One: The Distinctiveness and Supremacy of the Political

* * *

Aristotle does not segue from the ending of the Ethics to the beginning of the Politics; he catapults us to a fresh starting point. The curtain rises to reveal a stage from which the contemplative life, which appeared in a kind of epiphany at the end of the Ethics, has disappeared. Nor is there any continuation of the censure of most lawgivers for their moral carelessness. Accordingly, as Newman remarks (1.3), "We hear no more of the notion that the individual householder can, by acquiring the legislative art, in some degree make up for the State's neglect of education." The Politics opens with a trumpeting assertion of the unrivalled authority of "what is called the polis." The polis is the "community" that "is the most sovereign of all," having as its aim the "most sovereign good of all." As such, the polis "encompasses all the other communities." Aristotle is evidently determined to begin by viewing politics in the light of its highest and most comprehensive claims—which he (followed by Thomas, in his prologue) articulates more forcefully and eloquently than anyone ever has, before or since (see also NE 1094a26–b10).

It is not only private philosophic association that is here implicitly subordinated to the political; of more obvious moment is the tacit subordination of religious association, public as well as private. The far-reaching implications are discernible in what immediately follows, where we see that Aristotle explains the origins and the nature of civic life in strictly naturalistic terms. Guidance by oracular revelations, providential intervention, the divine or demigod-founders who were worshipped in every Greek polis, parallel to the civic guardian angels that are a key aspect of Thomas's Christian-Aristotelian political theory (SCG 3.80, para. 14)—all are ignored Aristotle's account. The quiet neglect of sacred civic tradition is in a way compensated for, but thereby underlined for the thoughtful reader, by the prominent assertion of a personified Nature's unchanging general providence (1252b1–5). The eclipse of traditional, particular providence is especially remarkable for those who recall in comparison Plato's Laws (to be discussed at some length by Aristotle in book 2). In the Athenian stranger's account of the historical development of civic life (esp. in book 3 of the Laws), and in his subsequent elaboration of the legislation of the best possible regime, we hear repeatedly of the traditional gods and their providence. Aristotle further draws attention to his implicit unorthodoxy by repeatedly quoting, and giving the appearance of bowing to the authority of, the great poets, including especially Hesiod and Homer—who of course claim to be inspired by divine revelation, and who, on that authority, eloquently assert the alternative to Aristotle's naturalistic and rationalist outlook on the origins of the city. Aristotle, we may say, goes even further than Plato in writing as if philosophy, rooted in the study of nature (properly presented), can and should supervene over—though not replace—poetic tradition in providing the principled, conceptual basis for civic life and its sovereignty.

By the same token, Aristotle thus arouses in his reflective readers, at the very outset, wonder as to what he understands to be the justifying foundation of his implicitly naturalistic approach to civic life and history. How does Aristotle think that he has firm knowledge, rather than opined and plausible conviction, that there are no goddesses such as the Muses, and no ruling deities and founding demigods of whom the Muses are said to sing? Could the education (when it is successful) intended by the Politics together with the Ethics provide a key part of the answer?

But Aristotle never explicitly says a word expressing disagreement with the authoritative civic-religious traditions; and he draws attention away, to another, very outspoken, quarrel that he has—with philosophic political theorists.


Aristotle launches an assault on certain nameless thinkers who enunciate a perspective that denies or undercuts the grand claims of politics that Aristotle has begun by expressing. Aristotle blames these theoreticians for not speaking "nobly" or "beautifully" (kalws; 1252a9). A few lines later he adds (1252a16) that their views "are not true (alethe)." His standard is not only the noble or beautiful, it is also the true. Yet his primary concern is with giving beautiful nobility its full due—in the face of theorists who fail to do so. This sets the tone for the entire work: Aristotle will put in the foreground, and defend, while more quietly examining and correcting, the noble or beautiful way of seeing and articulating political life.

By attacking the insufficiently noble perspective, Aristotle lays that perspective squarely before us. Indeed, Aristotle does not at first articulate his own perspective except polemically. At the end of this first chapter, he sets as his agenda, for the following chapters, the demonstration of the falsehood of the unlovely view. So this opposing view plays a large role in defining, dialectically, Aristotle's primary articulation of his own outlook (Natali 1979–80). The significance of this becomes plainer when we recognize that the unlovely view is articulated by none other than Plato's and Xenophon's Socrates (even when reporting what he learned from the perfect gentleman Ischomachus) and Plato's Eleatic Stranger. Aristotle chooses to launch his treatise by climbing into the ring with these masters of irony, paradox, and argument. We need to pause in order to begin to try to figure out what may be the key dimensions of this Socratic-Platonic outlook over and against which Aristotle defines his own position.

First and foremost, Aristotle stresses that his adversaries conceive the art of political rule to be simply larger scale household management: the "statesman," the one "skilled in the art of political rule" (politikos) is viewed as not dealing with any concerns qualitatively higher than the concerns of the skilled household manager (oikonomikos). Secondly, and still more dubiously, the skilled household manager is in turn reduced: to being qualitatively the same as, and differing only because he acts on a larger scale than, one skilled in mastery over slaves (despotikos). So, by extension, the art of political rule is conceived as the art of slave mastery on a large scale (1253b18–20, 1256b16–17). But this darkest dimension of the opposing view Aristotle at once shrouds—by ceasing, at 1252a12, to speak of "one skilled in the art of mastery," and speaking instead of "one skilled in the art of kingship" (basilikos). It is a man thus skilled who is said by the opponents to exercise the ruling art on the large scale of the city or political community. And thus, in the third place, these opponents see no difference in kind between monarchic and political rule: the household is understood as ruled in a monarchic fashion, and the political community the same.

Putting all this together, we may conclude that a statesman would be understood, in this scheme as Aristotle presents it, to rule over the community as a benevolent master over slaves, some of whom are treated more like his children, and one or more of whom is governed as a junior partner (in the manner that a gentleman husband traditionally governs a wife or wives). It would further appear that where there is not monarchic rule, then republican rule is still seen as a variant on such monarchy, in which a number of individuals take turns in exercising, each temporarily, the partially masterful, partially paternalistic and husbandlike, but always essentially monarchic, authority—doing so, Aristotle adds, while guided "by the principles of such a science [episteme]" of rule (1252a15).

Now these last words introduce a fourth element, that is a key to one of the serious points being indicated through this somewhat preposterous Socratic framework. Politics is being conceived as the rule of a superior expert (Schofield 1990, 17). This framework represents a typically comic Socratic paradox: the playful paradox is meant, among other things, to spotlight the disproportion between what is conceivable in the mind's eye as truly rational rule, based on knowledge, and the very imperfect knowledge to be expected from all actual political (republican) rule. Aristotle, for his part, is responding by pretending to miss the comedy. He gravely points out that his opponents' way of conceiving politics abstracts from and thus obscures the massive primary nobility of republican politics, as experienced and articulated by dedicated participants: political society is to be nobly conceived as a full partnership or community (koinonia) involving rotation of office among equals, all of whom thereby share in a qualitatively more honorable ruling activity than can be partaken of by mere slave masters, household managers, or even kings who rule subjects (1255b18–20—but contrast NE 1160a35–36; cf. Strauss 1972, 63).

But by the same token, Aristotle ends this first chapter by putting in question the degree to which, in this noble conception, politics, as well as household management and mastery, can be understood as "artful," or craftlike (let alone scientific). Aristotle's last word in setting as his agenda the refutation of these opponents is to leave it an open question, "whether it is possible to grasp something artful (technikon) about each of the things mentioned" (1252a22–23). In opposing the Socratic paradox, we are compelled to wonder whether political life can at all be governed by scientific knowledge, or even artful craft.


The untruth of the opposing view will be made clear, Aristotle says, if we proceed according to "the guiding method." That method consists in analyzing "the composite whole" into its "smallest" indivisible or "noncomposite parts" (1252a16–18). This suggests that we will now proceed to focus on the human individuals who, especially through being or becoming citizens, but also as noncitizen inhabitants, constitute the "noncomposite" elements of the city. This method would lead us to see how individuals, by being the citizens, or by being related to the citizens, become integrated into a civic community in a manner that is qualitatively more complete than, and superior to, their being integrated by participating in their various roles in the household (cf. 1253b5–8). In this way, "it will become clear" how the city is the qualitatively supreme, most fully natural whole, of which individuals are elemental parts.

But no sooner has Aristotle introduced or announced this "guiding method" than he bewilders us by dropping it (Schütrumpf 1.185). He returns to the dropped method only at the beginning of the third chapter, and then again at the start of book 3 (though see the passing reference at 1258a21–22). Later, in the opening of book 3, our perplexity is given further food for thought. For there we are confronted by an enormous problem or puzzle that stands in the way of any such analysis of the city into its noncomposite, individual human parts. As soon as we focus on the regimes (politeiai) that actually accomplish the integration of individuals in civic life, we discover that political life is riven by tremendous and ceaseless dispute over the question, "what in the world is the city?" (ti pote estin he polis?—1274b33–34); and this dispute includes an equally ceaseless and sharp contention over who is, or is not, a citizen. Putting together these two passages—here at the start of book 1 and later at the start of book 3—may well prompt the wonder: to what extent is the city in fact a natural composite and whole? Or to what extent is the city an artificial (and unstable because endlessly contested) composite? Is the city a mixed entity, part natural, part artificial?

At the outset, however, Aristotle plants only a seed of this questioning. He begins the second chapter by announcing a very different method, which would allow us "to take the most noble/beautiful view in these matters" (1252a25–26). We will achieve this vantage point by looking at the polis as one of "the matters of active concern" (pragmata) that "grows naturally" (phuomena). In other words, we will look upon the city as "like an animate or animal nature." This perspective assumes (rather than demonstrates) that the city is a natural whole which fully integrates human individuals in a strong, harmonious sense. Accordingly, the argument that follows culminates in the suggestion that the city is prior to the individual, as whole to part, in the same way as the whole human body is prior to the foot or the hand (1253a19–27). By starting with so "beautifully" organic an assumption about the communal nature of humans, Aristotle obviates the need even to consider the possibility that civil society is a product of artificial convention or contract aimed at ending an ugly natural condition of war—the pre-Socratic view reported so eloquently by Glaucon in Plato's Republic (358e–59b), and later confronted momentarily in book 3 of the Politics (1280b8–11; consider Marsilius 1.4.4).


The embryo of the civic organism is a social unit consisting of a twofold relationship. First and foremost, there is the reproductive "coupling" of "male and female." This takes place, Aristotle says, through an impulse which is "natural" in the spontaneous sense that it is "not a matter of choice"—and is thus shared with "the other animals," as well as "with the plants" (1252a28–29). Now this is a most curiously abstract, and even comically incomplete (cf. Aristophanes Clouds 1427–33) characterization of the social bond uniting human reproductive couples. Aristotle does not speak of "husband and wife," or of "marriage," or even of concubinage: can there be a human household without choice and conventional, contractual agreements, in some form? And does not belief in the gods and their sanctions play a key role in making firm the conventions that transform volatile and promiscuous, spontaneous human mating into stable spousal parenting? When we reflect on his choice of expression, we see that Aristotle's "beautiful" account exaggerates—wildly, and when one thinks about it, rather comically—the social orderliness of basic, unreflective, human sexual nature. Aristotle points to, precisely by conspicuously omitting from consideration, the complex ways in which humans must deliberately construct artificial supplements that harness and repress the primal, natural, sexual urge.

The second facet of the elemental social unit, as Aristotle here presents it, is the union of "that which by nature rules" and "that which is ruled, on account of preservation." The former is "by nature master"; and the latter is "by nature slave" (1252a30–34; Aristotle's language here, identifying ruling and being ruled by nature with mastery and slavery, sounds perplexingly like that of the "Socratic" outlook he has proposed to refute). The idea that slavery is a basic natural root of civil society is of course distressing for us today—much more so than it would have been for readers in Aristotle's slaveholding time and place. But precisely because Aristotle's first readers would have been intimately familiar with slavery, they would have been more taken aback than we may be by the cheery fashion in which Aristotle speaks of this grim foundation of the polis. Aristotle characterizes this relationship as one in which "the same thing is advantageous to master and to slave" (1252a34): he explains that in order for the slave to survive, the slave's bodily action is in need of being directed by the master's capacity for intellectual foresight. In other words, Aristotle is assuming that slaves are so lacking in the capacity for practical calculation that they are unable to survive by themselves. Surely anyone who had actually experienced owning and employing slaves would find this preposterous: what slaves of any value are characterized by such severe mental impairment? But this amazing assumption is apparently required for the "beautiful" assertion that the master-slave relationship is rooted in a common advantage. In the third book of the Politics, Aristotle will speak more realistically (see 1278b32; also NE 1161a32ff.). Aristotle's exaggeration here once again serves to veil, but thus gingerly to indicate, grave questions about the naturalness and natural harmony of the basic social components of the household and hence the city.

Aristotle immediately proceeds to insist that by nature the female is distinguished from the slave (1252b1). This has the wry consequence that only certain male humans are by nature so mentally deficient that, in order to survive, they need to be under a master's guiding hand. To bolster his insistence that women are not slaves, Aristotle interjects the idea that "Nature" (feminine) has made every kind of being as a sort of tool intended to serve a single specific function (1252b1–5). In thus personifying "Nature" as a craftswoman, Aristotle blurs the distinction between the natural and the artificial. In doing so, he draws the thoughtful reader's attention to that profound distinction; he reminds of humanity's vast need to complete, if not to supplement, nature through art. Aristotle will deify "Nature" as artisan on a number of occasions in this initial and thus most visible book of the Politics—but not in subsequent books.

Aristotle draws from "Nature's" intention regarding the nonslave status of Her women a remarkable political inference. The fact that, among "the barbarians," women have the same status as slaves shows that the barbarians are all slaves: they all lack the naturally ruling capacity, and their "congress is that of female slave and male slave" (1252b5–7). So it turns out that, contrary to "Nature's" design, there are vast numbers of Her women as well as Her men who are so mentally defective that they need a master in order to survive. But if this is so, how have the barbarians managed to stay alive all by themselves, without masters to keep them, during the generations prior to some of them being captured in slaving expeditions? The grimly sardonic in Aristotle's account of the slavery around him becomes more apparent the closer one looks.

Aristotle takes one more big inferential step, bolstered by the invocation, for the first time, of the traditional authority of the Greek poets; "Therefore the poets assert: 'it is reasonable for Greeks to rule barbarians'" (1252b8). This poetic conclusion flatters the Hellenic practice of aggressively acquiring large numbers of barbarian slaves through slave hunts and through trading with slave hunters; but has Aristotle not begun to unveil the absurdity of the premise which justifies this? Is he not starting to uncover the massive problem slavery presents for the beautiful claim that the polis is the site of the naturally harmonious fulfillment of human nature and justice?


Excerpted from Aristotle's Teaching in the Politics by THOMAS L. PANGLE Copyright © 2013 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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Table of Contents

Contents The Challenge of Interpreting Aristotle’s “Lectures” Aristotle’s Relation to His Historical Context The Hazard Theorizing Poses to the Rule of Law Classical vs. Modern Republicanism The Deficiency of Actual Legislation The Philosopher’s Trans-Civic Virtue Chapter One. Book One: The Distinctiveness and Supremacy of the Political Aristotle’s Polemical Procedure The Switch in Method The Naturalness of the City Introducing the Problematic of Property The Natural Basis of Slavery The Critique of Greek and Lawful Slavery The Natural Art of Acquisition vs. the Unnatural The Political and the Kingly Art, in the Family Retrospect and Prospect Chapter Two. Book Two: Previous Conceptions of the Best Regime The Critique of Plato The Critique of Phaleas The Critique of Hippodamus Assessing the Most Respectable Greek Regimes The African Peak of Previous Political Life Solon’s Athenian Democracy Chapter Three. Book Three: The Debate over Justice among the Regimes The Quarrel over Citizenship The Criterion of the Common Good How Important Is the Regime? The Good Man vs. the Serious Citizen The Impracticality of the Republic of the Virtuous The Problematic of Humanity’s Political Nature The Debate over Distributive Justice Making a Case for Democracy Political Philosophy Comes to the Fore Absolute Kingship as the Best Regime? Another Surprising Transition Chapter Four. Books Four through Six: Ameliorating Actual Regimes The New Perspective on the Classification of Regimes A Revealing Experimental Failure The Varieties of Democracy and of Oligarchy The Basic Norm Guiding Statesmen in Democracy and Oligarchy Actual Aristocracy, Polity, and Tyranny The Best Practicable Republic Organizing the Three Governmental Functions The Destruction and Preservation of Republics The Destruction and Preservation of Monarchies The Reconsideration of Democracy and Oligarchy Chapter Five. Books Seven and Eight: The Simply Best Republic The Most Choiceworthy Way of Life The Preconditions of the Best Republic The Regime Itself Education Notes References Index of Names

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