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(384-322 BCE)


Aristotle: Politics and Art

The Nature of Justice

 Since friendship is an important feature of the good life and virtuous
 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 or
 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.

* * *

 Political Life

 That treatise is Aristotle's Politics, a comprehensive examination of the
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 and politics
 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 the focus
 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 are
 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 in principle,
 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 latter's
 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 the
 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 philosophies
 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 devote the
 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.