Designed by Theorists: Aristotle on Utopia. (Essays)

By Jackson, Michael | Utopian Studies, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Designed by Theorists: Aristotle on Utopia. (Essays)


Jackson, Michael, Utopian Studies


1. Introduction.

THE PURPOSE OF THESE PAGES is the nomination of Aristotle for a place in utopia's pantheon. While Plato's Republic is regularly acknowledged as a precursor, even a progenitor, of utopian thought, Aristotle's Politics passes in silence. Yet Aristotle articulated a vision of the best life and the state that would make that life possible. He also examined the cities designed in words by theorists, like Plato. That method of starting with the best life may itself partly explain his absence from the utopian canon. Most utopias start with the best regime and derive the best life from that. In Jeff Chuska's words "Aristotle ... does not begin his study of the best regime with an inquiry into, say, the best form of government, social justice, or the most productive economy." This is Plato's method. Rather Aristotle "implicitly denies that a correct study of the good society can be made from such beginnings" (Chuska, 2000, x). Aristotle's approach does not quite square with what became the orthodoxy of the genre; still he has a conception of utopia.

Some gatekeepers of utopia airily dismiss Aristotle as a utopian thinker. One remarked that "Aristotle was not a utopian; there is a sense in which he was anti-utopian" (Ferguson, 1975, 80). Ferguson does not elaborate. Bald assertion that it is, his comment is typical of the way Aristotle is cast from utopian thought. So common is Aristotle's exclusion that there is no mention of him in the two most recent and comprehensive surveys of utopia (Claeys and Sargent, 1999), though Adolph Hitler appears in one (Carey, 1999).

The argument of these pages is that Aristotle conceived of an ideal society, one where the best life could be lived by those few capable of it. He did both of these tasks--outlining the best life and the best regime--as systematically as Plato in the Republic and Thomas More in Utopia.

He did not pursue the theory of the forms that Plato did, but then neither did Thomas More. Nor did he couch his utopia in the form of a traveler's tale as More did, but neither did Plato. Because of his preoccupation with method there is implicit in Aristotle's conceptions of the best life and best regime a series of steps that might be called Aristotle's rules. Implicitly these rules diagnose much of subsequent utopian literature, with the important exception of the starting point of the best life. In short, Aristotle is an unheralded exponent of utopian thought.

To support these conclusions part two summarizes Aristotle's Politics, part three reviews Aristotle's vision of the ideal life and best state from Books VII and VIII, and part four demonstrates Aristotle's influence on Thomas More and the affinities between Aristotle's Politics with More's Utopia. Finally, part five concludes with Aristotle's rules for the analysis of cities designed by theorists.

In this discussion "utopia" means a systematic and systemic conception of a far better life achieved by human intelligence and will. It includes the details of what that life is, and how it is lived. Utopia is the life of our dreams made flesh. "Utopia" is associated with the ideal and perfection. It differs from religious visions where divine grace delivers salvation rather than human effort (Sargent, 2000, 11). Aristotle's conception of the best life lies within this understanding of utopia. To place this conclusion in context, the next part reviews the relevant aspects of Aristotle's political theory.

2. The Politics.

Aristotle's Politics consists of the lecture notes of auditors. He lectured while walking, adding to the difficulty for note-takers. The text is discursive and more than once the text breaks off. Over the centuries editors and translators have moved around elements of the text we have, experimenting with different sequences, as freely as Pablo Picasso moved body parts in some paintings. Aristotle may have given lectures on politics many times, and perhaps other lectures were more complete or more finished. …

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