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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.

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Political Theory
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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.

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History of Philosophy
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Last modified 12 November 2011.
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