Aristotle was one of the most influential scholars in human history, and he contributed to dozens of academic disciplines. Explore his impact on political philosophy, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.
History is full of great philosophers. We’ve got Confucius in ancient China, Thomas Aquinas in Medieval Europe, and nowadays whoever it is that writes the advice in fortune cookies. Yes, many people are remembered for being a philosopher.
But only one person is remembered for being ‘The Philosopher.’ That’s the term Thomas Aquinas used to describe Aristotle, the ancient Greek scholar whose works set major precedents in the fields of mathematics, metaphysics, biology, medicine, theater, logic, ethics, and politics. With influences that are still felt this day, Aristotle tops almost any list of the most impactful philosophers in human history. He really was ‘The Philosopher.’
So who was ‘The Philosopher?’ Born in 384 BCE in the now-lost city of Stagirus, Aristotle lived during the rise of the Macedonian Empire.
That’s the era of Alexander the Great. Aristotle was educated in Athens, the undisputed center of learning in the Western world, and studied under the philosopher Plato, who was himself a former student of Socrates. After Plato died, Aristotle worked for the royal court in Mysia, and then Macedonia, where he actually became the tutor for the young Alexander the Great.
Once Alexander took the throne and started his empire, Aristotle moved back to Athens and set up his own school, where he taught for the next 13 years. He lectured and wrote and was recognized as one of the most distinguished scholars of the era. Aristotle studied not only philosophy but also math, biology, physics, medicine, dance, and theater and gave general lectures on all of these subjects in open forums for the general public of Athens. However, when Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, Athens became very anti-anything Macedonian, which included Aristotle. So, Aristotle fled to Chalcis, where he died in 322 BCE.
Aristotle was simply too versatile of a scholar for us to go into all of his theories right now, so we’re just going to focus on one main area: politics.
Aristotle wrote a lot about politics and ethics because to him, politics and ethics were inseparable. So, before we can talk about politics, we need to discuss Aristotle’s views on ethics.According to Aristotle, ethics should be defined by discovering your primary purpose. The basic idea is that all things have a purpose, or a reason for existence. For example, a knife is made to cut things. Aristotle called this primary purpose, or reason for existence, the telos.
So, if a knife is made to cut things, what are humans made for? According to Aristotle, the human telos is ration. Being rational, insightful, and logical is something unique to humans, and therefore is our primary purpose. So, actions that embrace your rational self are virtuous and decisions based on ration are moral.That’s the basic idea behind Aristotle’s philosophy on ethics. Now, remember how I said that to Aristotle, politics and ethics were inseparable? Well, in order for humans to be able to strive towards perfection, we need to have an environment that nurtures our rational self. That’s where politics come in.
The point of politics is to foster virtue in citizens and allow them to develop their rational selves.Basically, politics are like the tool that sharpens a knife – it allows it to fulfill its purpose. This means that having a moral government is necessary in order to have moral citizens. We don’t often think of a government as a purely moral institution, but that’s what it was to Aristotle. So, if your people are immoral, it is because the government is not using its power to encourage moral virtues and rational citizens. This gives the state, or the government, a major moral responsibility to foster education, arts, philosophy, science, religion, and other things that inspire virtuous, rational existence.
For many, Aristotle’s writings and teachings are the foundation of modern political science. What are the exact purposes of politics and government? What are the moral duties of the state? What is the ideal relationship between government and citizens? Aristotle was amongst the first to really address these questions in a practical, logical manner, and to describe the state as existing to nurture human morality.Aristotle’s theories were the foundation for moral and political debates in Western philosophy, and they influenced scholars from ancient Rome to the medieval Catholic Europe and Islamic Middle East. Our modern ideas about government have evolved from this to include the idea that governments exist to protect us and our liberties. Still Aristotle’s writings continue to be amongst the most studied and cited texts in human history.
This is especially impressive considering that less than a third of his estimated writings have survived, and those that did are mostly lecture notes. So, it’s no surprise that medieval Muslim scholars called him the ‘first teacher,’ or that Cicero referred to his works as a ‘river of gold.’ Aristotle was, quite simply, ‘The Philosopher.
Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived in the 4th century BCE. Although he was accomplished in dozens of disciplines, Aristotle is often remembered as the founder of political science as an academic field, largely due to his writings on the link between politics and ethics: systems of morality.Aristotle believed that all things had telos, a reason for existence or a primary purpose. For humans, it was ration and logic. So, morality and virtues were defined by being rational.
To Aristotle, this meant that politics were intended to help encourage rational values, so the government was, first and foremost, a moral institution. Not every politician ascribes to this view today, but Aristotle remains one of the most influential scholars in world history. And that’s what makes him ‘The Philosopher.’
- Telos: reason for existence
- Ration is the human telos according to Aristotle
- Acts are moral if they ascribe to ration
- Ethics: systems of morality
- Aristotle intertwined politics with ethics
- Main purpose of politics/government is to encourage ration and be a moral institution
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify the impact of Aristotle on politics
- Define ethics and telos
- Discuss the political philosophy of Aristotle