The polis in Aristotle’s Politics


            The polis is the end of both the household and the village, providing both with their completion in the fullest sense. The polis allows for man to reach his end, or what is best.  Aristotle states, “Again, that for the sake of which [a thing exists], or the end, is what is best; and self-sufficiency is an end and what is best.”[1] Because the polis allows for self-sufficiency it is best above the other two. The polis is superior to the household and village because, “the whole must of necessity be prior to the part…”[2] The household and village are not capable of aiming at the highest and comprehensive goods since they only look and aim at the daily and non-daily needs of life. Since the polis aims at the highest and most comprehensive good, and the others do not, the polis must be superior to them both. Unlike the village, within the polis one can commit the great and noble deeds. Leo Strauss states, “the chief purpose of the city is the noble life…”[3] Yet our modern understanding of state is a partnership that provides for the common defense, ensures domestic tranquility, observes contracts, promotes the prosperity of the people, and provides for the execution of justice. The idea of self-sufficiency or the end of human life are not a concern of the modern state.

Therefore, the translation of polis as “state” is unwarranted. The understanding of state is far different than polis. H.D.F. Kitto states, “It is a bad translation, because the normal polis was not much like a city, and was very much more than a state.”[4] The modern understanding of the purpose of the “state” is that it should secure one’s ability to be happy, along with provide for common defense, ensure domestic tranquility, observe contracts, secure the prosperity of the people and provide for the execution of justice.  Yet the state, unlike the polis does not actually go so far as to ensure man reaches his end. The main purpose of the modern state is to “enable its members to exchange goods and services by protecting them against violence among themselves and foreigners….”[5] The modern state has very little interest in the moral condition of the citizens. Leo Strauss tells us, “In modern times it came to be believed that it is wiser to assume that happiness does not have a definite meaning since different men…have entirely different views as to what constitutes happiness.”[6] As a result to this, Strauss states, “Hence happiness or the highest good could no longer be the common good at which political society aims.”[7] We therefore see that the modern state differs most drastically from the polis on this matter. The ancient polis was aimed at the happiness of individuals, and the people believed in an ultimate good; although this ultimate good may not be the same for all, Aristotle believed there was not  much difference to matter.

The natural state of man can be said to be the polis. The political rule of the polis is the rule among equals. Within the polis everyone ought to be capable of ruling and being ruled. This is the fundamental aspect of the polis, that it is the partnership among equals. Other such partnerships that Aristotle mentions later in the Politics are the tribe and empire, which bothof these has a rule other than that of equals. Modern states are typically either nations (in a much more modern sense of the word) or empires. The understanding of state then is actually not political at all since the rule of the empire is that of master-slave and the tribe lacks civilization or a regime. Thus the alternatives to the polis are in fact non-political.

Aristotle believes that man cannot strive for his ultimate good outside of the polis. Man outside of the polis is not complete and therefore not a man living to his end. The purpose of the politics is to complete or create the good life, or human. The purpose of the polis is to allow man to achieve his ends, thus the political and polis goes hand in hand. The end of human existence, according to Aristotle, is happiness. “Each individual strives for happiness as he understands happiness”, states Leo Strauss, “This striving, which is partly competitive with and cooperatively with the strivings of everyone else, produces or constitutes a kind of web…”[8] The “web” is defined by Strauss as a “society”[9], the understanding of the polis as a society was to promote and help obtain happiness. By allowing man to be fully self-sufficient the city also allows man to strive for what one considers to be happiness.

Aristotle’s understanding of the political comes with his discussion of man as a political animal.Man enters into household and village to provide for his daily and non-daily needs and into the polis to provide for self-sufficiency. Outside of the political, as Aristotle quotes Homer, “he is ‘without clan, without law, without hearth’”.[10]Man is not man when he is outside of the polis, as Aristotle claims “[he] is either a mean sort or superior to man…”[11]From Aristotle’s quote of Homer we find that the political provides from clan (family, household), law (moral virtue, justice and the good), and the hearth. As for Aristotle, man outside of the political is either below man (thus not comprehending justice, injustice, good and bad) or superior to him.

Thus, man must be by nature a political animal because outside of the political he is not a man at all. Above all other creatures, man is a political animal because, “[man] alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort]…”[12]  The polis attempts to do what nature cannot, promote the good and just while punishing the bad and unjust. Because man alone has knowledge of good and just, bad and unjust he enters into the city because nature is unable to promote one and discourage the other. And ultimately Leo Strauss observes within Aristotle:

The city is by nature, i.e. the city is natural to man; in founding cities men only execute what their nature inclines them to do. Men are by nature inclined to the city because they are by nature inclined to happiness, to living together in a manner which satisfies the needs of their nature in proportion to the natural rank of these needs; the city, one is tempted to say, is the only association which is capable of being dedicated to the life of excellence.[13]

Man’s own nature is what pushes him into the polis, the polis as defined by Aristotle is the only institution that can allow man to be truly happy.  Man by nature strives to be happy, outside of the polis man cannot achieve the natural ends of man and thus man must live within the polis to be truly happy.     

            And yet finally Aristotle asserts the superiority of the polis over man himself. The polis is superior to the individual because household is superior to the individual and the polis is superior to the household. Aristotle states, “For if the individual when separated [from the city] is not self-sufficient, he will be in a condition similar to that of the other parts in relation to the whole.”[14] The relationship between the man and polis for Aristotle is that of the non self-sufficient and the self-sufficient, and the part and the whole. Man’s relationship to the polis as Aristotle sums it up, “One who is incapable of participating or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of a city, and so is either a beast or a god.”[15] The political, therefore, is the relationship between man and the polis. The partnership within the polis, or the regime, sets down the laws, and provides for family life. Without the regime the polis cannot exist, within the polis every person is capable of ruling or being ruled and thus the regime is the rule between equals. This type of rule is the most political of all rules.

            The modern conception of the state differs greatly from that of the polis. The polis is aimed at the complete life; the polis is the means of reaching the highest good or ultimate happiness. The state on the other hand is only concerned with the external; it is limited in the aspects of life. As a result, the word state cannot be used for polis and such the word polis has no English meaning. Political is the total relationship between people, and between men and the polis.

 [1]Aristotle’s Politics book 1 chapter 2 lines 1252b  33-34 & 1253a1

 [2]Aristotle’s Politics book 1 chapter 2 line 1253a 20

 [3]The City and Man by Leo Strauss, part 1 “On Aristotle’s Politics” page 31.

 [4]The City and Man by Leo Strauss, part 1 “On Aristotle’s Politics” page 31.

 5]The Greeks: The Polis ch. 5 by H.D.F. Kitto page 1 on word document.

 [6]The City and Man by Leo Strauss part 1 “On Aristotle’s Politics” page 32

 [7]The City and Man by Leo Strauss part 1 “On Aristotle’s Politics” page 31

 [8]The City and Man by Leo Strauss part 1 “On Aristotle’s Politics” page 31

 [9]The City and Man by Leo Strauss part 1 “On Aristotle’s Politics” page 32

 [10]The City and Man by Leo Strauss part 1 “On Aristotle’s Politics” page 32

 [11]Aristotle’s Politics book 1 chapter 2 lines 1253a  4-5

[12]Aristotle’s Politics book 1 chapter 2  line 1253a  4

 [13]Aristotle’s Politics book 1 chapter 2 line 1253a 16-17

 [14]The City and Man by Leo Strauss, part 1 “On Aristotle’s Politics” page 41

 [15]Aristotle’s Politics book 1 chapter 2 line 1253a  26-28

 [16]Aristotle’s Politics book 1 chapter 2 line 1253a 28-29

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Published in: on March 24, 2008 at 16:20  Comments (1)  

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