Citizens and Statesmen: A Study of Aristotle's Politics

By Mary P. Nichols | Go to book overview
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Chapter 5
CITIZENS, STATESMEN, AND MODERN
POLITICAL THEORY

Aristotle presents a vision of human life torn by conflict. Human beings try to enslave others and resist the attempts of others to enslave them. The poor seek the goods of the rich and the rich seek to increase their wealth at the expense of the poor. Virtuous individuals who want to rule unencumbered by their inferiors become tyrants. Competition and even war characterize the foreign relations of political communities. If tragedy is not in the foreground of politics, it lurks in the background, threatening to make an appearance. The necessity against which tragic heroes unsuccessfully rebel remains a limit to human life; slavery exists in Aristotle's best regime, and the concerns of defense must become an object for philosophy. Yet Aristotle's vision is not a tragic one. Aristotle objects to the Republic's teaching that regimes inevitably degenerate and that founding is a tragic undertaking. His political theory depends on deliberate choice, law and equity, political rule, and friendship. Human beings can deliberate about their alternatives; there is a realm in which events can happen one way or another as a result of human choices and actions (NE, 1112a15-b11). Law is not an imperfect substitute for the absence of statesmanship but the framework in which statesmen and citizens operate and the means by which they accomplish their common purposes. Political rule and the friendship it reflects, not mastery of slaves or overall kingship, manifests freedom (1325a23-30).

Aristotle's teaching about polity illustrates both the benefits and costs of human association. Polity is the regime most conducive to friendship, for in polity "the citizens tend to be equal and good, so that they rule in turn on the basis of equality" (NE, 1161a27-30; Pol., 1295b25-27). But polity only "tends to" equality. 1 Moreover, Aristotle describes polity as a mixture of democracy and oligarchy (1293b32‐

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