Aristotle: Laying foundation for political stability

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 2/5/2019 12:32:14 PM IST

 Aristotle, the father of political science, was born in 384 B.C. in Stagira, Greece. Unlike his teacher Plato who was an idealist, Aristotle was more of a down-to-earth realist. He believed that human nature cannot be made or remade. It should be taken as it existed, good and bad. Thus, his observations of things as they were in real life led him to lay a different framework of political systems and governance in a practically attainable way. His political thoughts were not necessarily designed to recruit potential philosophers but rather to educate citizens and shape future statesmen.

After Plato’s death, Aristotle left Macedonia and returned to his home in Stagira. But in 343 B.C. King Philip II of Macedonia invited him back to tutor and mold his son, who is known by eventually being called Alexander the Great.  

Aristotle is often quoted for saying that “Man is a political animal by nature.” Man is designed by nature to live together in communities and to participate in political process. And because politics, according to Aristotle, is the science of city-states, it is something man cannot do without. Politics serves as the main instrument to govern people’s lives and thus creates civilization. In that way a civilized human existence is only possible in the city-state. Or else, without politics or the state, man would simply become the worst of the animals.  

For Aristotle, politics cannot be divorced from ethics. As such, he wrote extensively on ethics in his book Nicomachean Ethics, especially as it relates to public life. The aim of the state is the highest good for the people, for the sake of living happy and well. The attainment of the good for one man alone is, of course, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation and for states is nobler and more divine. To be sure, some people do not even have a notion of what is just and right, since they have never tasted it. Living under the sway of emotion, they pursue their own pleasures and the means by which they can obtain them. That’s why politics must use legislative means to dissuade them, if necessary, by force. All this is because the natural tendency of most people is to be swayed not by a sense of shame but by the fear of punishment their wrong actions may invite.  

Aristotle appealed to nature as a standard for politics. He developed his concept of the state by examining nature. Just as male and female have self-preservation and procreation instincts, humans by nature are driven for self-preservation and social evolution. Since the state comes from family units, one must first understand how nature designs the human family to operate. For example, as husband and wife, parents and children, masters and slaves. He argued that the state is natural, because it originates from family and completes the process of social evolution: from families to villages, and from villages to city-states. To put it another way, man is more complete only in association with the state, whereas family units and villages are incomplete and also not self-sufficient in terms of supplies of goods, roads, military force, and so on. In this sense, the state is the best of all structural entities and, therefore, it is the highest community of all.

Political instability presented serious problems in those days, which had understandably caused Aristotle to become concerned regarding how stability could be created. For this purpose, he basically devised two methods. The first was the constitution. He gathered 158 constitutions which existed at that time and carefully studied them with a view to find out what was best in them so that he could conjure up with a middle ground, thereby avoiding extremes and providing a guiding framework through a combination of the best of all.

According to Aristotle, the second method for political stability and good governance is in having the appropriate form of government. His guiding principle was to see whether a government prescribes the rule of one, a few, or the many. Another guiding principle was whether a ruler is devoted to his own interest or to the common good. If the rule is guided by self-interest, he said it is perverted and deviant. On the basis of these principles, he arrived at six main classifications of government: monarchy, aristocracy, polity, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. His view was that, in a normal situation, when a government is guided by the interest of the society at large, that particular form of government is to be commended. At certain periods, monarchy might be good, but over time it might deteriorate into tyranny. Likewise, aristocracy could slip into oligarchy and polity into democracy (in which some unfit leaders could end up ruling).

Aristotle observed that when a governmental system becomes perverted, chances of unrest may increase, often leading to political instability. The causes could be as follows: (1) Dissatisfaction with the wrong distribution of power, prestige, and wealth; (2) Economic inequality – the bigger the economic gap between the rich and the poor, the greater possibility for revolution; (3) Injustice, especially towards certain sections of the society.

To prevent political turmoil or revolution, Aristotle prescribed certain remedies: First, a ruler should use the constitution as a tool for governance and get as many citizens as possible to consent to the rule of law. Second, he believed that the minority group should not feel cheated (e.g., the educated formed a minority in that day), because if they do, dissatisfaction can spread and have an adverse effect upon everyone. Third, he believed that the middle class provides the best chance to prevent political unrest, because their influence is crucial for the stability of the state. And most importantly, education inculcates the value of self-restraint and plays a very important role in creating a strong, stable, and civilized society.

Mazie Nakhro

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