Aristotle: Politics and Art
The Nature of Justice
Since friendship is an important feature of the good life and
habits can be acquired through moral education and legislation, Aristotle
regarded life within a moral community as a vital component of human
morality. Even in the Ethics, he had noted that social order is presumed
by the general concept of justice. (Nic. Ethics V 2)
Properly considered, justice is concerned with the equitability
fairness in interpersonal relations. Thus, Aristotle offered an account
of distributive justice that made allowances for the social rectification
of individual wrongs. Moreover, he noted that justice in the exchange of
property requires careful definition in order to preserve equity. The
broader concept of political justice, however, is to be recognized only
within the context of an entire society. Thus, it deserves separate
treatment in a different treatise.
* * *
That treatise is Aristotle's Politics, a comprehensive examination
origins and structure of the state. Like Plato, Aristotle supposed that
the need for a division of labor is the initial occasion of the formation
of a society, whose structure will be modelled upon that of the family.
(Politics I 2) But Aristotle (preferring the mean) declined to agree with
Plato's notion of commonly held property and argued that some property
should be held privately.
Aristotle also drew a sharper distinction between morality
than Plato had done. Although a good citizen is a good person, on
Aristotle's view, the good person can be good even independently of the
society. A good citizen, however, can exist only as a part of the social
structure itself, so the state is in some sense prior to the citizen.
Depending upon the number of people involved in governing and
of their interests, Aristotle distinguished six kinds of social structure
in three pairs:
A state with only one ruler is either a monarchy or a tyrrany;
A state with several rulers is either an aristocracy or an oligarchy; and
A state in which all rule is either a polity or a democracy.
In each pair, the first sort of state is one in which the rulers
concerned with the good of the state, while those of the second sort are
those in which the rulers serve their own private interests. (Politics III 7)
Although he believed monarchy to be the best possible state
Aristotle recognized that in practice it is liable to degenerate into the
worst possible state, a tyrrany. He therefore recommended the formation
of polity, or constitutional government, since its degenerate form is the
least harmful of the bad kinds of government. As always, Aristotle
defended the mean rather than run the risk of either extreme.
* * *
Another sharp contrast between Plato and Aristotle emerges in the
Poetics, and analysis of the effects of dramatic art. Aristotle, unlike
his teacher, supposed that the extravagant representation of powerful
emotions is beneficial to the individual citizen, providing an
opportunity for the cathartic release of unhealthy feelings rather than
encouraging their development.
Tragedy in particular arouses our fear and pity, as we recognize
inherent flaw of the tragic hero. Having seen the outcome in dramatic
form, we are less likely to commit similar acts of pride, Aristotle
argued, so the literary arts have a direct benefit to human society. This
provides no grounds for a Platonic notion of censorship of the arts.
Although their relative reputations often varied widely, the
of Plato and Aristotle continued to exert a powerful influence throughout
the following centuries. Even now, it is often suggested that Western
thinkers are invariably either Platonic or Aristotelean. That is, each of
us is inclined either toward the abstract, speculative, intellectual
apprehension of reality, as Plato was, or toward the concrete, practical,
sensory appreciation of reality, as Aristotle was. The differences
between the two approaches may be too fundamental for argumentation or
debate, but the coordination or synthesis of the two together is
extremely difficult, so choice may be required.
Certainly the philosophy of the Middle Ages, to which we will
remainder of this semester, exhibits some form of this division. As
Christian thinkers tried to find ways of accomodating their religious
doctrines to the tradition of Greek philosophy, some version of Plato and
some version of Aristotle were significant factors in their development.