An Introduction to the Work of Aristotle

Aristotle towers over the history of philosophy, having made fundamental contributions in many fields, among them logic, metaphysics, physics, biology, ethics, rhetoric, poetics, and politics.

Aristotle, a student of Plato, was a prolific researcher, teacher and writer. Known in the Middle Ages as simply “the Philosopher,” and called by Dante “the master of those who know,” he composed as many as 200 treatises, of which we have only thirty-one. His was the first effort to classify the areas of knowledge into distinct disciplines, such as biology, ethics, and physics.

Aristotle’s works fall under several headings: dialogues, scientific treatises, and systematic works. The systematic works are typically categorized as Logical Works, which include Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, On Sophistical Refutations; Physical Works which include Physics, On the Heavens, On Generation and Corruption, Meteorology; Metaphysics; Psychological Works, which include On the SoulOn Memory, Reminiscence, Dreams and Prophesy; Works on Natural History which include History of Animals, On the Parts of Animals, On the Movement of Animals, On the Progression of Animals, and On the Generation of Animals; and Practical Works which include Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Magna Moralia, Rhetoric, Politics, and Poetics.

Aristotle’s political teaching is available to us in his practical works, primarily in his Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, and Rhetoric. These works are not straightforward scientific treatises, because we pursue practical sciences not simply for the sake of knowledge, as we do theoretical ones, but also for the sake of the benefits derived from them. Political science is the practical science par excellence. It is the architectonic science, Aristotle argues, concerned with the human good, or happiness, generally, and therefore the one that orders all other sciences, such as medicine or farming.

Practical science is about human things, or human action, praxis, matters that are subject to change. Aristotle’s practical works proceed through dialectical examinations of the opinions of different men or groups of men, and not as a metaphysical deduction from nature or human nature. The audience for the works is citizens and statesmen as well as philosophers. Nor does Aristotle forge a highly technical vocabulary that is remote from political life. In fact, all the terms of importance in the practical works belong to political life itself. Because human things are variable, we should not expect the same precision in the practical sphere as in the technical sciences or mathematics. The practical sphere concerns opinions about what is just, noble, good, advantageous or harmful, things that are inherently controversial and about which men passionately disagree.

The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics primarily concerns virtue, especially ethical or practical virtue, the virtues of character such as courage and moderation. His discussion remains clear and convincing to this day, and the virtues he clarifies continue to be characteristics to which we aspire. The ethical virtues are the core of happiness, he argues, (as opposed, say, to unlimited acquisition) and differentiate human action from animal behavior governed by pleasure. Each virtue is the disposition to follow measured judgment about the goods and passions that we seek and with which we deal. To be moderate, for example, is to enjoy pleasure in the right way and amount with the right people at the right time.

Aristotle first discusses ten practical virtues, among them courage, which deals with fear; moderation, with pleasure; generosity (or liberality), with wealth; magnificence, with great expenditures; great pride (or magnanimity), with great honors; ambition, with lesser honors; and gentleness or proper anger, with anger. Each virtue is connected to two characteristic vices, an excessive and deficient way to deal with its good or passion. For example, cowardice or rashness are the vices that relate to courage, for example, or asceticism and licentiousness in relation to pleasure.

The peak of the ethical virtues is pride, for the chief honor with which it deals is political rule, and to have this virtue is to have the other virtues too. Aristotle treats the connection between virtue and politics even more fully and directly in the Ethics in his discussion of the several types of justice. Distributive justice, for example, is to give equal to equal and unequal to unequals, as we might give the better violin to the better violinist rather than giving it by chance or lot. He also considers friendship and moral weakness in the Ethics, and modes of intellectual virtue that include not just practical reason, but theoretical reason too. Indeed, the most excellent or virtuous use of reason, or the happiest life for those few to whom it is available, is the philosophic life.

How is Aristotle’s ethical theory related to his politics? The connection lies in the fact that, for Aristotle, character and, thus, happiness, stem from habits and, therefore, to laws that promote good habits. Also, politics must distribute rule or “offices” justly and, when possible, to those who possess good character and practical reason.

The Politics

As Aristotle understands things, the heart of political activity is the regime (the politieia or constitution) because it forms the people and resources of a particular place into a whole whose laws and actions serve an understanding of virtue and happiness. It is more significant than geography and resources or ethnic makeup, although such matters are significant. Once can see the importance of the regime by reflecting on the vast difference between Germany ruled by Nazi tyranny and Germany ruled democratically.

Regimes differ according to the principle of justice and central quality by which offices are distributed, and by their proclivity to serve the common good. Democracies attempt to distribute offices equally to those who are equally free, and the better ones serve a common good, and not only the class good of the majority. But even the better democracies are inferior to regimes such as aristocracy and monarchy that attempt to distribute offices unequally to the practically virtuous, in this way serving a common good. Still, all democracies are superior to oligarchies, which distribute offices unequally to the unequally wealthy, and to tyrannies, that serve the tyrant’s pleasure. All political communities—all cities and countries—require wealth, secure freedom, and virtue, so good laws measure the rule even of the excellent.

Because political science is a practical science, Aristotle considers varieties of regimes that are best in many types of circumstances, looking always for the type of regime that is least likely in any given circumstance to depart from the common good. Aristotle is neither (in contemporary terms) an absolutist nor a relativist. He considers politics from the standpoint of one who founds a community, on the analogy of one who trains athletes or improves bodies. By understanding what is best or excellent simply, one can see what is best in the circumstances, seeking neither to “absolutely” or harmfully ignore limits on what one can achieve nor to act as if there were no natural standard for improvement. Aristotle does not and cannot separate practical understanding altogether from theoretical understanding, although practice occupies its own domain.

To fully grasp Aristotle’s thought one must consider his criticism in the Ethics of Plato’s comprehension of the good; examine his understanding of the activity or “being at work” of things, including the soul and its excellence, virtue; and explore the view of form, matter, motion, causality, and being that guides his Physics and Metaphysics. The proper study of Aristotle may occupy a lifetime, as it did many great medieval thinkers.

 For further introductory reading, see:

Harry Jaffa,  “Aristotle” in History of Political Philosophy, Eds. Leo Strauss, Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1972.