Why We Call It Political Science

Aristotle & Plato: Pixabay

Let us dive a bit deeper into Aristotle’s view of politics and how it differed from his teacher Plato.  Previously we saw how Aristotle disagreed with his teacher Plato that only a philosopher king could properly rule.  Aristotle believed that humans were inherently flawed and that reality required just laws to be supreme in order to rein in human nature.  Aristotle’s book “Politics” might be better titled “Political Science” in today’s vernacular and he would have considered it to be one of the different types of “true” science.  The first would be physics and metaphysics, or the search for truth.  I would use metaphysics in the classical sense here, “The branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value.  The theoretical or first principles of a particular discipline.”[1]

Please note here that the word “nature” keeps popping up in these discussions.  It was one of the things which we addressed way back in the early articles about the Stoics and Marcus Aurelias.  As a reminder, the ancients believed that things, and people, had “natures” that are immutable and that the understanding of those natures was fundamental to the understanding of that which they were studying.  As such, that nature is as much a truth as the study of physics.  Politics is a practical science because it seeks to study the nobility of action and its impact on citizens.  Because of that, it is superior to physics in that it seeks to provide prescriptions rather than to simply answer questions about the world around us.

As a practical study it is designed to produce measurable results, just like military science would.  Again, this differentiates Aristotle from Plato who was largely asking questions about the ideal forms of governing in a theoretical vacuum.  Since the end that Aristotle is seeking in his study is the betterment of mankind, he viewed political science as the highest study.  A noble politician is like a craftsman who attempts to create the perfect piece of pottery, and our political scientist is attempting to create the ideal society.  To order this society it would naturally require things like laws, but also customs and traditions, and provisions for educating morality, that properly support society.  The laws, customs, and traditions, are the “constitution” that forms the framework of the state, and Aristotle anticipated that any constitution would need reforms as things changed as well as defenses against those who would subvert the state by undermining the constitution.  Taken in its entirety, this study was what Aristotle called “political science” and was much more important that the mere issuing of day-to-day rules.

Just as Plato described the state as a charioteer driving a team of individual horses with different strengths, Aristotle thought of the state as a collection of individuals with different abilities and skills that had overlapping goals and interests. It is important here to reiterate that the constitution to which Aristotle refers is not just the law, although that is an important part.  The constitution consists of the organizing principles of the state, its nature, its way of life.  He uses the chemical example of a medicinal “compound” which someone can change in composition but not in organizing principle if it is to remain effective in the way it was originally intended.  He acknowledged that a key part of this organization would include a proper ruler and believed that this ruler would be key in crafting the right constitution to the state.

Since the community is created by those who seek to do good, and all generally seek that, the community and rulers who have the highest authority are those who seek to achieve the highest good. To reach for a more perfect society would be inherently more noble than establishing a less ambitious society.  Life is a basic good, and all just states start with that as a first principal, but throughout Politics, Aristotle talks about the “good” life and “happiness” as the proper end for a just state (Sound familiar? A more perfect union?  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?).

We see again and again how the ancients saw the “nature” of that which surrounded them and applied that to their thinking.    Plato’s chair, and his willing and less willing horses with their driver as both a political and personal metaphor, Aristotle’s state as chemical compound, are all examples of seeing parallels in the natural world to political life.

To dig a bit deeper into Aristotle’s “compound” analogy, this allows for differences in humans just as it does in nature.  The constitution is provided by the ruler who then hands it over to politicians who craft it into a workable society.  A true craftsman understands the materials that he has to work with and does not ask too much, or too little, from his medium.  This is an interesting parallel to the Babel story we discussed earlier, where the Hebrew philosopher laments both the aim of the tower builders, and the fact that they chose the wrong materials.  The just politician works on the entire constitution, laws, customs, and traditions, to strengthen his state to the benefit of the citizens who are the elements in the compound with which he is working.  He understands their nature and seeks to maximize their effectiveness.  A just leader is wary of any law that violates the nature of the people.  For example, Aristotle completely rejected Plato’s utopian ideas of individuals not having property, or having the raising and education of children be a communal undertaking, because that would violate the basic human nature to care more about what is yours than what is communal.


And finally, Aristotle believed that the constitution was not something to be changed easily as it represented the founding core of the state.  Laws could be changed as long as the purpose of doing so was better adherence to that same original constitution.


All of this is from the point of view of the leaders.  Citizens and constitutions have responsibilities as well and we will get into that next time.

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[1] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition


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