Aristotle has a claim to possibly be the world's greatest ever scientist. A catalogue of his surviving works runs to over one and a half million words, and it is believed that this is only a fifth of his actual writings. He wrote on ethics, politics, economics, rhetoric as well as astronomy, geography, anatomy and metaphysics. Unlike Plato, who favoured contemplation of abstract Forms, Aristotle was firmly grounded in what Plato would call the world of mere appearances, and he had a very empirical and scientific style.
Taken together, his Ethics and Politics form of a fairly coherent political theory which is grounded in an understanding of individual ethics. Aristotle can seem like a laborious read because of his scientific method, but contained within his works there is ultimately as much light as heat. His off-putting style derives from two factors: firstly, his books are lecture notes which he would expand upon in person, and secondly, his belief that before embarking on a quest for knowledge it was necessary to canvass all existing beliefs and see if they contained merit. This is why he disputes many things with Plato, although in fact they had a great deal in common and the divergence should not be overblown.
Virtue and the good life
In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle develops a theory of what is the good life for human beings. The good life is for a human being to live in the way that is most suitable for a human being, that is according to reason. This is what separates man from the animals, as man alone has the capacity to exercise reason and the communicative ability which allows him to form political communities. For Aristotle, the good is not attainable outside of political communities, which are combinations of people designed to live self-sufficiently in pursuit of the good.
Ethics and politics are hence the same subject for Aristotle, and in chapter two of the Ethics he writes that 'even if the good is the same for the individual as for a city, that of the city is obviously a greater and more complete thing to obtain and preserve'. His enquiry into ethics is a 'kind of political science', and as political communities are necessary to attain the good life the two are necessarily the same. This means that Aristotle's account of political life is prescriptive in that he believes that the most excellent city must be organized in a particular way to achieve excellence. However, his works on political life, especially the Politics, also contain a large descriptive element. Aristotle rejected the Platonic idea of the Forms, instead believing that the good life was obtainable for those with practical reason. Practical reason necessarily involves an understanding of the world as it is, and hence he put much effort into examining contemporary constitutions and conceptions of the good so that the techne (art) of political science could be as complete and useful as possible.
If a city is to be constituted in a way conducive to the good life, it is necessary to understand what the virtues are and how they might be achieved in the individual. This is the project of the Ethics, which seeks an understanding of what the good is. Its conclusion is that the good is happiness, but a certain type of happiness. Happiness is concluded to be activity of the soul according to virtue, which distinguishes Aristotle from Plato who in the Republic describes happiness as contemplative activity from which practical politics is a distraction. This activity takes place in what Plato described as the cave – the world of appearances.
The prescriptive element of the Politics is based on this understanding that the only way to achieve the good is by forming a political community in which excellence can be sought. Like Plato, Aristotle places great emphasis on education of the citizenry so that they will learn how to achieve excellence. The Ethics describes what the good is, which is necessary because our practice must necessarily be informed by a theory of what it is that needs to be achieved. Aristotle's unified theory of politics is based on this extensive enquiry into ethics just as much as it is based on his enquiry into the details of political science, and this part of his work is descriptive. However, the ultimate goal of his enquiry is to understand how the state might aim at the highest good, which is its proper activity. It is necessary to understand the nature of the good in the individual before understanding it in the city, as the city must provide for the achievement of the good by the individuals within.
For the state to provide for the good of those within, it must necessarily continue to exist. Hence Aristotle devotes a section of the Politics to describing the reasons why states experience revolutions and how this might be averted. This exemplifies Aristotle's approach to his enquiry, as he develops rules which states should observe to stop themselves experiencing revolutions by examining numerous historical examples. Again we see him developing the prescriptive part of his work through an extensive description of examples and conditions in the practical world.
Seeing political science as a techne, he recognizes that like the art of medicine it can produce both good and ill effects, which is why he devotes time to examining the imperfect forms of constitutions, something Plato largely ignores in favour of instead describing the ideal polis. This explains why Aristotle also examines tyranny in some detail, despite his insistence that the aim of the city is to provide the good life for all those within it. Critical examination of the imperfect forms of constitution and the factors which leads to their destruction sheds light on how the excellent state might be preserved.
The manner of preserving the state lies in the proper exercise of justice by citizens towards one another and towards the non-citizen labour force. This is in accordance with practical reason and ethical first principles, and so is both practical and moral. Justice consists in equality among equals and inequality among the unequal, which will also tend to perpetuate the state as revolutions will come about when people do not receive what they deserve. Aristotle's description of revolutions and his concept of justice leads him to prescribe equality among the citizens as the ideal form of a state, which is justified both by ethical first principles and practical reason.
A crucial aspect of Aristotle's work is the impact of environment on people and states. The state to him is a fundamentally natural association, arising through a predetermined natural process. The first community is the household, in which man exercises a rule over his wife, children and slave. This community arises naturally due to humanity's desire to perpetuate itself and the need of those without practical reason to be ruled by those with it. Secondly, a village forms in which the progeny of the household live. Multiple villages which are self-sufficient and together aiming at the good life constitute a polis. Aristotle sees this teleological process as inevitable, as man is a political animal and those who can exist without a political community must be either 'beast or god'. Hence, it could be argued that this part of his work is descriptive, as it describes what naturally occurs rather as a result of the nature of humanity.
However, this would be a misreading, as the formation of the political community necessarily involves the exercise of reason, and reason must be guided. Aristotle is aiming to provide guidelines about how the political community should be constituted and perpetuated, with the understanding that it naturally arises as a produce of human desire taken as a given. The reasoning capacity can be exercised to a greater or lesser extent and in different ways, and it must be guided towards the right ends. In the Ethics Aristotle distinguishes between ends and means, and notes that someone may set themselves the wrong ends or use the incorrect means to achieve their ends. Hence there is a large prescriptive element in the Politics which describes how the state is best constituted.
Perfection is not attainable by all people or in all situations, and the environment or the characters of the citizens may not be conducive to achieving it. If the best state is not achievable, then the good consists in establishing the best possible state with the conditions the legislator has to work with. Political life is to be organized in such a way as to allow citizens to seek eudaimonia by exercising their practical reason, i.e. carrying out action in accordance with virtue, which leads to happiness. Aristotle's concept of virtue stresses its practical element and that it differs in various situations, so that virtue consists in being generous at the right time, for the right reasons, with money gained from the right sources, and so on.
It also consists in controlled and temperate activity, having neither an excess nor a deficiency of any particular motivation for actions. Like Plato, Aristotle stresses the role of education in inculcating the correct virtues. Education is a role he prescribes to the state, so that everyone will receive a uniform and useful education rather than being educated by their parents, who may not be virtuous or may not give the right education. Here we see that Aristotle's account of political life is primarily prescriptive, as he wishes for the state to mould all citizens in a certain way from a young age so that they act in accordance with right reason. However, the descriptive account of virtue in the Ethics was required to reach this conclusion and decide exactly what virtue and justice are. If the state is to establish a framework conducive to the development among its citizens of right reason, then the nature of right reason and the virtues must be described and understood.
In the last analysis Aristotle's account of political life is both descriptive and prescriptive, as the former is necessary for Aristotle's project of prescribing guidelines for how the state ought to be constituted. Happiness is the ultimate goal of the state and hence it is necessary to understand the nature of happiness so that a state can be constituted to aim towards it. It is necessary for Aristotle to examine the nature of multiple theoretical and existing constitutions so that he can describe a full techne of politics which is in accordance with right reason in the practical world.
His description of existing constitutions provides a starting point for analysis as Aristotle considered it worthwhile to examine the existing beliefs of people when embarking on a search for knowledge. By doing this it is possible to see what the problems with existing beliefs are and hence to seek a solution which does not share the same flaws. It also throws light on how the most perfect state can be achieved in imperfect conditions, which are the norm in practical situations.
Aristotle's understanding that ethics is only possible within a political community dictates that the community should be organized in certain ways so that happiness can be achieved for the largest amount of citizens. Hence the community must be organized to encourage maximum happiness by educating citizens in the correct way so that they practice right reason. An understanding of virtue is necessarily normative as it prescribes modes of conduct which a person must be self-discipline impose on themselves and the state can encourage with correct education. Aristotle prescribes for political life a form that encourages the person to control the desiring element in themselves and act according to right reason. Only a political life of a certain form can achieve this, but the process of description is vital to finding the nature of this form.