Aristotle's Political Philosophy

Daniel Cole, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Daniel Cole

    Daniel Cole has taught a variety of philosophy and writing classes since 2012. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Kentucky in 2021, his MA in philosophy from Miami University in 2011, and his BA in philosophy from Ball State University in 2008.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Learn about Aristotle's philosophy and basic biographical facts. Understand Aristotle's ideas about politics and government and his influences and impact. Updated: 01/06/2022

Table of Contents


Who was Aristotle?

Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who was born in 384 BCE and died in 322 BCE. He studied philosophy under Plato in Athens, and he was the teacher of Alexander the Great. What did Aristotle do? Aristotle contributed to virtually every known field and discipline, including systematizing formal logic. His works encompassed mathematics, metaphysics, biology, medicine, theater, ethics, and politics. His contributions to the various disciplines were long-lasting, and he is considered one of the most influential thinkers of all time. Among his major contributions to Western thought is his political philosophy. What was Aristotle's philosophy? Aristotle's core idea in political philosophy is that government exists for the sake of fostering eudaimonia, or 'a good life,' of its citizens, which involves cultivating virtue. Virtues are acquired character traits that express one's reason and should be admired.

Aristotle is one of the most influential political theorists of all time

A bust of Aristotle

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  • 0:01 The Philosopher
  • 0:56 Biography
  • 2:22 Political Philosophy
  • 4:47 Impact
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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What Was Aristotle's Political Philosophy?

Aristotle's political theory is prominently featured in his work, Politics. His work examines the ideas of good government, action, and leadership; and it is closely tied to Aristotle's primary work on ethics, Nicomachean Ethics. The two works are tied together because a good government will foster happiness and virtue in its citizens; while citizens expressing their virtues will contribute to a good government. For Aristotle, politics includes the legislative activity of a politician as well as persuasive speaking. Aristotle's government was not simply directed to public defense, acquiring wealth, or refereeing disputes. Good government consists of the institutions that allow citizens to most fully develop and express their rational capacities.

Aristotle's Views on Politics

Good government, then, requires understanding of what makes a good human. On Aristotle's understanding, a good human is defined by excelling at whatever activity is unique to humans. The unique human activity will presumably be its purpose. To offer an illustrative metaphor, a knife is capable of cutting where other utensils cannot. Its unique function is 'cutting,' and a good knife cuts well. Thus, To understand what makes a good human, one must understand the telos, or purpose, of humans. For Aristotle, the activity unique to humans is the exercise of reason; therefore, reasoning well is what makes a good human.

However, Aristotle thought different people had different degrees of rational powers. For instance, women were only rational to the extent that they were capable of obeying rational commands; he did not think women were capable of setting rational ends by themselves. Similarly, Aristotle thought there were people who were natural slaves, meaning they were not (at least by adulthood) capable of acting rationally by their own powers. Aristotle used a theory of reason to justify patriarchy and slavery, even though his notion of slavery was not tied to 'race.'

Aristotle's Views on Government

Aristotle defined forms of government in terms of who ruled the city-state. Aristotle believed there were three forms of genuine government, each of which had a corrupt form. Monarchy is rule by a single person, which is appropriate for a people when a single person's virtue far outstrips everyone else's. Its corrupted form is tyranny, in which one person dominates the whole city-state. The second genuine government is aristocracy, which is rule by the few (assuming there is a class of people whose virtue exceeds the other citizens). Its corrupted form is plutocracy, which is not rule by the best (most virtuous) but instead rule by the rich. The final form of genuine government is 'polity,' which is rule by the many. For a polity, citizens should be alike in virtue and they take office by turns. Its corrupted version is democracy, which is merely rule by the poor.

The mark of a genuine government is that the reason and the rights of the ruled are respected by the ruler(s). Corrupted governments, by contrast, seek to dominate the ruled. Aristotle argued that the appropriate form of government depends on the people; and a good legislator would not attempt to apply a form of government to a people who aren't suited for it.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was Aristotle's contribution to the government?

Aristotle contributed to the theory of government by detailing many of the possible forms of political community and how they relate to the overall purpose of government. Moreover, he offered influential arguments about what institutions are justified and to what extent.

What did Aristotle call politics?

Aristotle used the term politics to refer to the study of the proper organization and purpose of the city-state. As a study, it covered both the forms of political community as well as the overall purpose and features of all city-states.

What type of government did Aristotle believe in?

Aristotle believed that there were three genuine forms of government and three corrupted forms of government. Monarchy was genuine, but its corrupt form is tyranny. Aristocracy is a genuine form, but its corrupt version is plutocracy. Polity is a genuine form, and democracy is its corrupt formation.

What is the main idea of Aristotle's politics?

The main idea of Aristotle's politics is that government exists to promote and foster virtue in a way that leads to the good life of its citizens. Virtuous citizens are prepared to live together under common laws and contribute to their community.

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