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Vernon Yian

April 15th, 2021

GV100: Aristotle, the State, and the Good Citizen

0 comments | 17 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Vernon Yian

April 15th, 2021

GV100: Aristotle, the State, and the Good Citizen

0 comments | 17 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Florence Liu, BSc. Politics and International Relations ’21

In continuation of the exploration of the need for and origins of the state, this article will introduce Aristotle’s theory of human nature and the state. Aristotle is often regarded as one of Plato’s greatest rivals in the history of political thought, and takes a markedly different approach to theorising the state, preferring to chart its evolution from more basic forms of association. Through investigating the historical development of the state, Aristotle’s political philosophy claims that the state is a necessary and inevitable product of human nature and purpose. 


Aristotle’s naturalist teleology

Aristotle’s exploration of the state occurs through the use of a naturalist teleology. Naturalism refers to the notion that everything that exists is natural, and only natural laws and forces operate in the world. As a result, all knowledge of the universe can be obtained through scientific investigation. This can be understood in contrast to Plato’s rationalism – where Plato aspired to a higher truth outside the ‘cave’ of human experience that could only be attained through introspection, Aristotle believed that truth could be found inside the ‘cave’ through careful observation and systematic classification of the world. 

The core implication of Aristotle’s naturalist teleology is that everything existing in nature has a purpose and is specialised for this function, but will be able to fulfil this purpose when given the correct nurture. This understanding is foundational to Aristotle’s account of the origins of the state.


Man as a political animal and the origins of the state

In Aristotle’s view, man is by nature a political animal due to man’s purpose of becoming a eudaimon (virtuous, ‘flourishing’ person). While all men have the innate capacity to become a eudaimon, the achievement of eudaimonia is only possible when given the appropriate ‘nurture’, which he argues – given that virtue can only be developed in community with others – is the condition of living in a polis (city-state). The conception of man’s political nature thus creates an intricate connection between man and the state, leading to the conclusion that the state exists by nature. This argument should be considered in two dimensions. In a positive sense, if the state exists by nature, all men will end up living in the state. In a normative sense, the natural origins of the state dictate that men should want to live in the state. These strands of argument will be further developed below. 

Aristotle argues that the state is a form of association, and all associations exist for the fulfilment of some purpose. In addition, the state is a complex form of association representing the culmination of all other kinds of association. Aristotle identifies three main kinds of association:

  1. The household/family: responsible for the fulfilment of everyday recurrent needs; arises from two primary associations – a) male-female association, arising from need to reproduce; b) ruler-ruled association, arising from the need for the preservation of both
  2. The village: responsible for something more than the fulfilment of everyday recurrent needs (Aristotle’s definition of the exact purpose is vague, though the purpose of the village association can be broadly interpreted to mean survival); arises from the offshoots of the household/family association
  3. The polis: responsible for allowing man to fulfil his full potential; arises from the aggregation of village associations

Aristotle defines the ‘nature’ of a thing by its final condition (rather than its initial form). Thus, as the state is the end-product of all other forms of association, it exists by nature. Moreover, he advances the argument that the whole must necessarily exist before the part. Consequently, all other forms of association are meaningless should the polis association be destroyed. 

In addition to the positive dimension, Aristotle also develops a normative claim that man should want to live in the state. On a general level, naturalist teleology implies that natural ends produce the best outcome; because the state is the natural culmination of all other associations it must be the best condition for man to live in. More specifically, social living in the state is a vital condition for man to achieve eudaimonia; that man should live in the state is thus an inherent consequence of his telos. 


Different constitutions of the state

While Aristotle’s naturalist teleology may dictate that man will and should come together in a political association, this teleology alone does not necessitate that men come together in the correct form of association. Indeed, Aristotle explores different forms that the political association may take, arguing that some forms of constitution are more conducive to achieving eudaimonia than others. 

The ‘constitution’ refers to a shared law that governs the aggregated lower-level associations encompassed within the state, and is foundational to the state’s identity in that it outlines a set of principles that members of the state share. All constitutions are based around justice in two senses:

    1.  Particular justice: what is the ‘just’ amount of power any one individual should have?

Aristotle posits that the just distribution of power is contingent on the ultimate goal of the state – the achievement of the good life – and thus must be relative to the people. Thus, justice is equality for equal people, and inequality for unequal people. 

    2.  Universal justice: what is beneficial to the common advantage and general happiness of the state? 

Universal justice underpins the distinction between ‘correct’ constitutions, which rule for the benefit of the ruled, and ‘deviant’ constitutions, which rule for the benefit of the ruler. Because the state exists for the purpose of allowing men to achieve eudaimonia, the just state must therefore be one that allows its citizens to flourish. 

These two notions of justice can be used to create the following six-fold classification of constitutions. 

 Correct constitutionDeviant constitution
One rulerMonarchyTyranny
Few rulersAristocracyOligarchy
Many rulersPolityDemocracy


The good man and the good citizen

Finally, Aristotle argues that in order to understand the state we must understand citizens, for the state is composed of citizens. The Aristotelian definition of citizen hinges upon the ability to hold office or participate in the administration of the state; thus whether or not one is a citizen and what it means to be a ‘good’ citizen is dependent on the constitution one lives under. 

Aristotle posits that the excellence of a citizen is determined in relation to how well they serve their state or constitution, and thus there are many forms of citizen excellency contingent on the different forms of constitution. In contrast, there is only one singular and absolute form of ‘excellent men’. Consequently, the good citizen may not always be a good man – though the virtues of the good man and good citizen may sometimes overlap, such as in the case of the good ruler. This is perhaps contrastive against the Platonic argument that the good man and the good citizen are identical in their virtues, as excellence is achieved through the specialisation of function. 

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Vernon Yian

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