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Aristotle’s reasoning as to why he believed the Greek polis to be superior to other forms of associations can be found in Book 1.2 of his teachings in Politics. It contains an analysis of the individual components which make up a polis, the household and village, and why these associations on their own are unable to satisfy the needs of the individual. This has to do with Aristotle’s concept of happiness; since all human beings strive for happiness and the end goal of the polis is a “good life”, he considers the polis to be the “final and perfect association” (Aristotle 281). What is interesting, however, is that Aristotle teaches that all associations are based on unions between those who cannot exist without the other (Aristotle 280), yet his idea of a perfect association is one that is self-sufficient. In this paper, I will argue that Book 1.2 of Politics shows that the idea of a polis was unique at the time, because it was not dependent on kinship structure, but was instead based on the concepts of self-sufficiency and justice. It can also tell us about the major forms of government at the time, as well as Greek attitudes towards barbarians and the importance of the family unit. To do this, I will examine why Aristotle rejects other forms of political associations that are not based on the polis system. I will also examine why Aristotle believed the polis to be superior to the associations that form it.
The first form of political association Aristotle rejects is that with no naturally ruling element. At the beginning of this chapter, Aristotle states that “first of all, there must necessarily be a union or pairing of those who cannot exist without one another” (Aristotle 280). This “first of all” is important, because it tells us that this is what he deems to be the most basic principle of what makes up a polis, in his attempt to break apart and analyze its individual components. He also states that there needs to be a union between the naturally ruling element and the element which is naturally ruled (Aristotle 280). Therefore, we can assume that the polis is made up of unions of these two types. Aristotle uses barbarians as an example of people who are unable to form these two unions. Since he states that barbarians have no ruling order, this must mean that, at the very most, the only union they are capable of forming is the first kind. They are only able to follow the most basic principle of associations. We know that these barbarians must be able to achieve the first, most basic, union because it has to do with marriage, about which Aristotle states that, “among the barbarians…conjugal union thus comes to be a union of a female who is a slave with a male who is also a slave” (Aristotle 280). Therefore, the first method of political association that Aristotle rejects is that of the barbarians who have no naturally ruling element because everyone would be considered a slave without some sort of ruling order. From this, we can infer that the polis must be different from barbarian groups in that they have some sort of ruling order based on the formation of these two unions between male and female and between master and slave.
Not only does Aristotle reject associations with no ruling element, but he also rejects monarchies. To understand why he does this, it is important to examine what Aristotle considers as building blocks for the polis: the household or family, and the village. He states that “households are always monarchically governed… just as villages, when they are offshoots from the household, are similarly governed in virtue of the kinship between their members” (Aristotle 281). He describes this kinship as “primitive”, indicating his belief that the monarchical structures found in households and villages are insufficient forms of associations. Aristotle uses the example of barbarians again, this time stating that the peoples of the barbarian world are still ruled by kings (Aristotle 281). Earlier in the chapter, he wrote that the barbarians have “no ruling element” (Aristotle 280), but a king would certainly be considered a ruler. This shows that Aristotle considered both associations with no ruling order and those under a centralized ruler, even though they are vastly different in structure, as barbaric. Based on this, we can learn that the polis must have had some sort of ruling order without a monarchy, so individuals living in the polis can avoid following the path of the barbarians. His use of barbarians as an example on two separate occasions can also tell us something about Greek cultural attitudes during this time period. For Aristotle to make the argument that people should not do what the barbarians are doing (e.g. having no ruling element or being ruled by a king), they must have some sort of negative connotation associated with the barbarians. That way, when Aristotle uses them as examples, they will compel his audience not to follow the same path.
We can also learn a lot about Greek family structure from Aristotle’s discussion on kinship and associations. He states that the polis is based on an association of villages, and villages are offshoots from households (Aristotle 281). Since everything stems from the family, and the family is needed to satisfy “daily recurrent needs” (Aristotle 280), it can be inferred that there was a strong family structure at the time. In regards to the village, Aristotle notes that some have referred to the members of the village as “sucklings of the same milk” or “sons and the sons of sons” (Aristotle 280). This proves that, not only were there close ties between the family, but within the village as well. Since the village is based off the interaction between different family kinship structures, we can see that the family was a political unit in and of itself in ancient Greece and surrounding societies.
The idea of a polis is also very different from that of an empire. Aristotle argued that individuals are intended to live in a polis. Without it, they cannot achieve self-sufficiency (Aristotle 281). He states that “the man who is isolated – who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient – is not part of the polis, and must therefore be “either a beast or a god” (Aristotle 282). It is interesting that many individuals in association with each other form a self-sufficient polis, yet a single polis on its own is in isolation, much like the single individual. Like Aristotle states earlier, it is only natural for the smaller associations of households and villages to form monarchical structures through kinship. Since single individuals naturally form kinship ties, we can assume that individual poleis, which are made up of these same individuals, would naturally want to form ties with other poleis. We know that Aristotle believes that human associations lead to the formation of poleis, yet Aristotle never mentions what occurs if different self-sufficient poleis try to associate with one another. Since Aristotle claims that these poleis are already self-sufficient, it would not be necessary for them to interact with each other. This is contrary to the idea of an empire with a single ruler, which is made up of multiple regions, all part of a whole, under a centralized governing system.
Another concept that makes the idea of a polis unique is that it is based on the idea of what is just and unjust. According to Aristotle, humans are different from animals in that the human “alone possesses a perception of good and evil, of the just and the unjust, and of other similar qualities; and it is association in these things which makes a family and a polis” (Aristotle 282). He also states that “justice belongs to the polis” (Aristotle 282). This is significant because the word “belongs” indicates that justice is a crucial part of the polis – the two go hand and hand. Aristotle describes those living under monarchical rule or under no rule at all as barbaric. If everyone is under the rule of a single king, the concept of justice may be skewed in the king’s favor. If there is no ruling element at all, there would be no concept of justice at all, because everyone is a slave.
Aristotle’s idea of nature helps him explain why he considered the polis superior to its constituent elements, the household and village. He believed that “every polis exists by nature, having itself the same quality as the earlier associations”, which also exist by nature (Aristotle 281). It is important to note here exactly what Aristotle means by “nature”, otherwise there will be a contradiction between the statement that earlier associations exist by nature and a later statement that the polis is the nature of those same associations (Aristotle 281). This contradiction can be reconciled by taking the word “nature” to convey two different meanings. When he says that every polis exists by nature, he means that the polis forms through the natural association of humans into households, villages, and ultimately the polis. All of these associations exist by nature, so why does Aristotle consider the polis to be the best? This has to do with the second meaning of “nature”, which he refers to as the “nature of things”. He defines this as the “end or consummation” of a thing (Aristotle 281). Even though the polis grew from the smaller associations of households and villages, Aristotle considers it the nature, or “end”, of all forms of associations. He views self-sufficiency as the end goal of associations and it is the polis which achieves that goal. This is why Aristotle stresses the superiority of the polis over other forms of associations.
His audience, however, certainly needed convincing that the polis was superior. If they did not, Aristotle would not need to make arguments for the polis and against other types of associations. For example, he states that, “while [the polis] grows for the sake of mere life, it exists for the sake of a good life” (Aristotle 281). By “grow”, Aristotle is referring to the growth from the basic building blocks of the polis, beginning with unions between individuals, leading to the household, village, and finally, the polis. This growth is necessary to achieve self-sufficiency, and it is the existence of the polis which achieves that. Self-sufficiency is the “best” (Aristotle 281), and therefore, so is the polis. Aristotle considers self-sufficiency to be crucial for living a good life, and therefore, this becomes his most important point about the polis. The audience his teachings were intended for must not have all understood the superiority of the polis, which is why he emphasized the distinction between life and a “good” life as well as the notion of self-sufficiency to convince them.
Based on what Aristotle wrote in Book 1.2 of the Politics, we can see that the concept of a polis was unique at the time, due to its self-sufficient nature and the important role played by justice. In his argument, we can learn about the other forms of government that were popular at the time: those with no ruling element, monarchies, and empires. These are the ones that Aristotle devotes the most time arguing against. Everyone is essentially a slave in societies with no ruling element, which is why he rejects those types of barbarian societies. We can infer that the idea of a monarchy was popular because monarchies are based on natural kinship ties – there is a clear hierarchical structure – and, by nature, the most basic unions between humans are based on this same structure. Furthermore, the installation of a king fulfills Aristotle’s principle that a “naturally ruling element” must exist as one of the fundamental building blocks of associations. Finally, it is natural for individuals and groups to want to associate with each other, but an empire, which involves groups of people associating with each other, would go against Aristotle’s idea of self-sufficient city-states.
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