Aristotle’s Theory of State: Nature, Function, Criticism and Thought!
Nature of Polis or State:
In Aristotle’s own words:
“Our own observation tells us that every polis is a community (or association) of persons formed with a view to some good purpose. I say ‘good’ because in their actions all men do in fact aim at what they think good.
Clearly then all communities aim at some good, that one which is the supreme and embraces all others will have also as its aim the supreme good. That is the community which we call polis (or State) and that type of community we call political.”
Let us now see what the definition wants to emphasize. According to Aristotle, the state is a community of persons. Every community has certain purpose and that purpose is good. As a community the state has a purpose, and that purpose is also good.
But the state is not an ordinary community. It is the highest of all communities and naturally its purpose shall be the highest or supreme. It is thus evident that like all associations the state is an association. But its purpose is different from that of other associations. Again, it is not an ordinary association. It enjoys the highest rank or position in the society or social structure.
As a typical biologist, Aristotle has analyzed the nature of state by dividing it into several components. He has said that we are accustomed to analyze other composite things till they can be subdivided no further, let us in the same way examine the state and its component parts. The application of natural method reveals that the state is natural or exists by nature.
In the analysis of the natural method we find the application of physic and nomos. Physic implies growth, nature and fundamental reality. The meaning of nomos is man-made, convention and custom. Aristotle says that the state is characterized by natural growth. But, during its different stages of progress, man-made laws and conventions have intervened.
The Greek word Koinonia means both community and association. Although, according to sociologists, there is a subtle difference between community and association we shall use the words here in the same sense and also interchangeably.
It is true that man is, by nature, a self-interest seeking animal and he does not hesitate to oppose the fulfillment of others’ interests. So the law, justice, institutions and conventions which are made by man may be evil. But Aristotle does not accept it.
He is of opinion that laws and conventions are basically good and man has made them to serve their beneficial objectives. To sum up, the state has developed naturally. It must not be treated as a result on contract or human contrivance. Men have made laws, institutions and conventions for their own benefit and these have facilitated and enriched the functioning of the state.
If the state is a natural development there are definitely several stages. What are the stages? Aristotle begins his argument by saying that the first stage of the state is the household.
The union between male and female constitutes the basis of family. Again, the union between male and female is essential for reproduction, since each is powerless without the other.
This is not a matter of choice, but the result of desire implanted by nature and this desire is to be found in all animals. Family includes other components such as slave, ox, and plough. Without these components a family cannot maintain its own physical existence. In Aristotle’s definition: “This association of persons, established according to the law of nature and continuing day after day, is the household.”
The household is the simplest form of association and meets the simplest necessities. But man’s necessities are various and naturally it is beyond the capacity of the family to meet those demands.
Several families have formed a village to fulfil the greater demands and necessities. It generally comes into being through the processes of nature. The village, although higher than the family, cannot cope with the growing demands of its members.
When several villages are conglomerated that gives rise to a Polis or State: “The final association formed of several villages is the city or state. For all practical purposes the process is now complete., self-sufficiency has been reached and so, while it started as a means of securing life itself, it is now in position to secure the good life”—(Aristotle).
Aristotle observes that besides securing life itself, it has also a greater purpose, i.e., to secure a good life. Elsewhere he has said that common interest is a factor in bringing men together, since the interest of all contributes to the good life of each. The good life is indeed the chief end of the state—both corporately and individually.
For Aristotle the nature of everything is not it’s first but its final condition. And the process of growth towards it is also described as nature. The city-state is a perfectly natural form of association, as the earlier associations from which it sprang were natural. This association is the end of those others and its nature is itself an end.
The state is natural not simply because it is the final stage of historical evolution, but because it alone meets all the needs of man, it is alone self-sufficient.
Neither household nor village is self-sufficient. They could meet only a part of man’s necessities. In his Politics we find two types of self-sufficiency—self-sufficiency in the necessities of day-to-day life and self-sufficiency in the need for good life.
Aristotle’s idea of the fulfillment of necessities of life is not to be detached from the conception of the attainment of ethical values. We have already noted that, according to Aristotle, for the sake of good life the exercise of both ethical and intellectual virtues is very much essential and the former requires the easy availability of sufficient amount of external goods. Only the state with an adequate size and sufficient population can ensure the smooth supply of external goods.
In Aristotle’s view, man seeks to satisfy his physical or material demands to attain good life. Any institution or community other than polis is insufficient. Therefore, the membership of polis is essential.
Man is by Nature a Political Animal:
It is now clear that the state is a natural form of organization and by nature man has become the member of the state. Therefore, both state and individuals as its members are natural. Aristotle does not stop here. Continuing his logic he has said that man is by nature a political animal.
The term political animal means an animal that lives in polis or state or polis. Nature has inspired and encouraged man to be a part of the state. Aristotle believed that it was not possible for man to live outside the state.
It is the state that fulfils all his requirements. If out of ill luck no man can get the membership of polis he will come down to the level of sub-man. On the other hand, if anybody refuses to live in a state he may be regarded as a superman.
It is the nature of man to live in a state. Aristotle says that, nature does nothing without purpose, and for the purpose of making man a political animal she has endowed him alone among the animals with the power of reasoned speech and other good qualities.
The implication of the term political animal is man is reasonable and with the power of reason he can distinguish between good and bad; right and wrong; just and unjust. Reasonability is the basis, according to Aristotle, of sharing a common view in the matters that makes a household or city.
The meaning of the term ‘as a member of the polis’ or ‘state’ is to be abundantly found in different ethical and political writings of Aristotle. He was also, record shows, interested in life sciences and extensively studied them. In his zoological works, he also used the term political animal. Aristotle has said that gregariousness is to be found both in man and other animals.
But the fundamental difference is man possesses consciousness and reasonability while other animals do not have these features. Politicality of man enables him to form organisation and also pursue a good life.
Aristotle’s analysis of state and individuals as its members is based on stark logic. This is possible due to the fact that Aristotle had sufficient knowledge on various branches of science. He was a man of great reason.
Organic Character of State:
A mere glance over Aristotle’s theory of state drives home an important point that it is organic in nature—which means that the state is a compounded whole. He has made distinction between “aggregate” and “whole”.
The former means that different parts of a thing are juxtaposed together to make a unit. By their juxtaposition the parts make a unity. But the whole means a different thing.
The polis or state is a whole. The state has several parts. But when they are put together the unity will mean a different matter. The state is not an aggregate of individuals. Its members are not atomized individuals related to one another only by the fact that they inhabit the same territory.
When the individuals form a whole they share a joint activity, and, at the same time, lose their separateness. Again, if the parts are separated from the whole, they will be useless. This is the organic theory of state.
Aristotle has said—the city or state has priority over the household and over any individual. For the whole must be prior to the parts. Separate hand or foot from the whole body and they will no longer be hand or foot.
An individual is not fully self-sufficient after separation. To put it in other words, only the membership of state makes him self-sufficient and helps him fulfil his ambition and also to be moral and virtuous.
The morality and virtuousness are the characteristics of man only. When man reaches the stage of full development he automatically becomes a member of a polis and a separation between man and polis will degenerate the former to the level of beast.
If man is an integral part of the state, can it be said that he is completely blended with it? Aristotle’s answer is a categorical no. He never thinks of a mixture. Although man is a part of the whole, he will stand in the same relationship to the whole as other parts. It implies that the individual will be able to keep his separate identity intact.
His state is a compound in which original parts are still discernible. In the state the individuals will perform different functions, but these functions are complementary.
That is, each person is dependent upon the other. By advocating that the membership of the polis does not obliterate the separate identity of man and group, Aristotle has acknowledged the plurality of parts composing the state.
On this point he has criticized Plato who advocated communism to do away with all sorts of differences. Aristotle does not think that by obliterating the differences the state will be a concrete and complete whole.
Individual and State:
The city or state has priority over the household and over any individual among us. This observation of Aristotle has encouraged the critics to frame a charge that he has deliberately subordinated the individual to the all-powerful wishes of the state.
Although he acknowledged the separate existence of the individual, he did not think that the individual would not have separate ideal, morality and goodness from those of the state.
The individual, according to Aristotle, can achieve these qualities only through the membership of and subordination to the state. He cannot have rights and liberties apart from the state or against the state.
The individual, although not merged with the state, is completely dependent upon the state for pursuit of his moral and ethical objectives. Aristotle holds that without the membership of the state the lofty ideals of individuals will remain unrealized.
But the individual’s dependence upon or subordination to the state is an issue of great controversy. Now let us analyze the matter from a different angle. If the objective of the state is to help the individual to pursue his own personal interest and objectives, then the state is subordinate to the individual.
For example, if the individual thinks that his personal protection must get priority and it is the duty of the state to help him, then the opinion of the individual will get priority over that of the state.
No question of compromise can arise in respect of personal protection. But if the purpose of the individual is to help the polis in achieving the common good, then the opinion of the state will always dominate and the individual must submit to the state.
Attainment of common good may or may not include private benefit. Whatever may be the case, the individual’s interest cannot claim special treatment. He must sacrifice himself for the sake of the common good embodied in the state.
The state imagined by Aristotle is the highest manifestation of morality, ideal, ethics and values, and all these are beyond all sorts of fragmentation. Since the individual is rational and his interest does not exhaust in performing certain political activities, he wants to attain the above-mentioned values and ideals and only the membership of the state can help him.
Aristotle is nurtured in Greek philosophy which always thinks of the community as a whole. Like all ancient Greeks, he has never thought actively about the rights and obligations of man. To all Greek philosophers, the attainment of the common good was the sole purpose of any polis. The view of the individual cannot get precedence over that of the state.
In this respect we may say that Aristotle subordinates individuals to the state, if we mean that, in balancing the claims of the individuals and the state, he favours the state more and individuals less. Although this was the view of Greek philosophers, the same thing is to be found in the democratic institutions of modern times.
The democratic institution of ostracism by which individuals could be banished without being convicted of any formal charge provides a good example of the general Greek view of the legitimate power of the group over the individual.
A Totalitarian State:
From the conception—the individual is subordinate to the state—another aspect of Aristotelian theory of state is derived, it is: his state is totalitarian or authoritarian. The very simple meaning of totalitarianism is that the state assumes the full responsibility of the all-round development of the individual.
It does not recognize the initiative to be adopted by the individual considering his own advantages and disadvantages, and also the role of various social and political institutions in moulding the character of the individual.
Determination of goals and the methods of their attainment will also be decided by the state. In a word, in the authoritarian view, the state is all-powerful.
Critics have called Aristotle’s theory of state simply totalitarian. Why? A modicum of democratic value suggests that the individual should have full freedom to pursue his goals independently. As member of different social organizations he can take their help.
At best he can expect that, as the supreme organization, the state can hinder the hindrances which stand on his way to the attainment of success. But under no circumstances the state will assume the whole responsibility.
If we look at the Aristotelian theory of state, we shall find that there is hardly any scope for the individual to think in his own way and to do something independently.
The state, according to Aristotle, is all-embracing and it leaves no room for the individual’s freedom. The morality of the state and that of the individual do not stand apart. So also ethics and idealism.
Since the state is the highest association, it is quite capable of shouldering the responsibility of expounding and enriching the moral and ideal values to which the individual aspires.
So the individual must be subordinate to the state and not the reverse. If the reverse is accepted then the authority of the state as the supreme organisation will be thrown in the air, and the non-existence of the state will imply the non-fulfillment of the goals. Again, this is unacceptable. Hence, the subordination of the individual to the state is a fait accompli.
This type of subordination of individual to the state—which may also be described as totalitarian, authoritarian or paternalistic—is certainly endorsed by Aristotle. He thinks that people want to be happy and their happiness is required to be maximum.
This is possible only if the state takes initiative in making legislation and controlling the entire educational system. That is, the state-controlled education and state-sponsored laws are the only weapons of attaining happiness. The state is the only authority of all the enterprises and the individual has no choice. There is no alternative but subordination.
His concept of organic theory of state is also a powerful hint of totalitarianism. In an animal body the parts have no importance away from the whole. Although this is true, yet the same cannot hold good for the relationship between the individual and the state.
The state is essential for the individual no doubt, but it cannot claim to embrace all the aspects of his life. .Only in totalitarianism the state is for the individuals and not vice versa.
The state can fulfil a part of human demands but not all the demands. For complete satisfaction and happiness, the individual seeks the membership of different organizations. Aristotelian state cannot tolerate this.
It is absolutely unintelligible how a political association can make all its inhabitants moral, ethical and ideal single-handedly. It is both physically impossible and morally unjustifiable. No person or organization can take the absolute guardianship of all individuals.
Aristotle’s polis is a community and not an association, because men value it for its own sake and not just as a means to the fulfillment of separate individual ends. If this is the nature of Aristotle’s polis, the individual finds no honourable position in the state.
He is simply a machine to help the state. Again, individual cannot claim any special treatment. All are treated identically. Totalitarianism does not recognize differences. Individual is rational if he unconditionally surrenders to the state. Defiance is tantamount to irrationality. We, therefore, observe that his theory is totalitarian.
Functions of State:
Aristotle has not elaborately analyzed the different functions of the state. The reason is unknown to us.
He has not viewed the state from an ordinary point of view. The state is not simply a pact of mutual protection or an agreement to exchange goods and services.
If certain people assemble together and enter into a pact to materialize commercial interests and mutual protection and for that purpose form an association that cannot be called a state.
In ancient Greece there were many such associations but they were not worthy of being called a state. The state is more than a contractual society and its function is not to help its members to gain few commercial and economic benefits. Its purpose is to attain virtue. If it fails in this sphere it will be an alliance.
The state is intended to enable all, in their households and their kingships, to live well, meaning by that a full and satisfying life. The citizens and inhabitants will not have a satisfying life if they have not established a relationship among themselves through marriages and brotherhoods.
So, mere formation of associations does not make a state. In the words of Aristotle “the political association which we call a state exists not simply for the purpose of living together, but for the sake of noble actions. Those who do noble deeds are therefore contributing to the quality of the political association.”
What Aristotle wants to say is that the objective of the state is to make the life of the individual noble and happy. This is the most important function. But the state must also look after the security and general welfare of its citizens. It, of course, comes under secondary functions.
His theory of the function of the state is quite different from that of Locke. The purpose of Locke’s contract is to establish a civil society and the primary function of the civil society is the preservation of rights of its members against the infringement by others. Every individual has a right to his life, liberty and property which he could not exercise and enjoy in the state of nature.
The state will ensure rights through the use of force. Any violation of rights and misappropriation of property shall be prevented by the state alone. The state, in Locke’s view, is the manifestation of combined strength and force.
It is the legal right of the individual to claim that their rights, liberties and property are to be protected and, at the same time, it is the legal as well as moral duty of the state to fulfil this demand.
But nowhere has Locke written of ennoblement of the citizens’ life. Here lies the fundamental difference between Locke and Aristotle. A real state is concerned with both outward and inward actions of man. If the state makes itself busy only with the outward actions, it will do only half of its functions.
Aristotle has emphasized upon education. Education is the most powerful weapon of making men good or of training them to virtue. Education can be impacted by the institutions set up by the state.
On this point Aristotle follows Plato very strictly. The object of institutions should be to train men to goodness, not only to intellectual, but to moral and physical, excellence.
The state should be the school of citizens. The state in Aristotle’s theory is a reformatory. Why the state is entrusted with this task he has not vividly discussed. Our opinion is, since the state is the supreme organization it is entitled to look after the interests of all men in a balanced way which no other association or institution can do. The outlook of church or any other religious institution is highly biased. These organizations or institutions cannot maintain discipline in education.
Criticism of Aristotle’s Theory of State:
Aristotle’s theory of state has been variously criticized. The first criticism against his theory of state is it is totalitarian in character. His concept of the state is all- embracing. The individuals in his state have no separate status. They are completely merged with the state. Its organic nature reveals the totalitarian feature.
If the individuals are separated from the state they will lose their importance as the separated parts of human or animal body lose their activity. Critics are of view that this contention of Aristotle about the relationship between the state and individuals is unacceptable.
Secondly, in Aristotle’s theory of state, associations or communities have no separate importance or position. The state or polis embraces all other communities. They owe their existence to the state. It means that all the communities are merged in the body of the state.
It implies that the polis has absolute control over all communities. He observes—”all forms of community are like parts of political community”. It is now quite obvious that both the individuals and the community are integral parts of the polis. This view of state is anti-democratic. We do not regard individuals or associations as mere appendix parts of the state. In modern times, the community plays the important part in the field of developing the personality of individuals.
Thirdly, it is not true that the state or polis is the greatest manifestation of supreme good. It aims at some good no doubt but not the supreme good. By supreme good he means complete human good, the good life of all members of the polis as distinct from the lesser goods or partial welfare of the individuals.
In real life, the state in no capacity can mould or determine the character of individuals in an absolute way. The state has a role, but it shares with numerous other communities. By denying giving importance to the community he has done injustice to it.
When he says that the polis is the manifestation of supreme good he wants to assert that it is an institution of supreme authority. The state, in practical life, is never the holder of supreme authority.
Although Aristotle does not talk about sovereignty in its absolute sense, his analysis indicates that he had developed a fascination about absolute nature of sovereignty. The absolutist character of a state is always inimical to the balanced development of human personality.
In spite of these criticisms something need to be said in support of his concept. According to Aristotle the state is not the product of any contract. It is natural. This does not mean that man has no role behind the creation of the state. The evolution of man’s consciousness and intelligence has helped the creation of state.
It has not been made by certain individuals all on a sudden. Efforts of centuries lie behind the creation of a state. This is the evolutionary theory of state. It is also called the scientific theory.
Family, community and state—all are perfectly natural. We all agree with this contention of Aristotle. Even modern thinkers are of opinion that the state is the final form as a political organization.
Theory of Sovereignty:
First of all, sovereign power may be vested in the people as a whole. But this possibility has not been approved by him on the ground that numerical majority may create injustice in the state. Majority people will be inclined to distribute the property of the rich among themselves. Although this act is justified by law it is unjust.
A tyrant may use force against the interest and wishes of the majority. But force cannot be the permanent feature of the state. Nor has it any moral basis. The third alternative suggested by Aristotle is that few wealthy persons may be allowed to exercise the sovereign power. Here again the greedy wealthy persons with the help of absolute power will plunder the property and wealth of many.
This is unjust. In the fourth place, the good should rule. In that case, only the good will dominates the majority and the latter will be deprived of access to state authority. The fifth alternative, that one man, the best, should rule, is no better, by making the number of rulers fewer we still leave larger numbers without official standing.
The Greek philosopher has solved the problem by saying that the sovereign power shall be vested in the hands of the people in general and not in the hands of few men. It may be that every one of the many is wise and capable of ruling.
But when all people assemble together and take decision collectively, their decision is much better and wiser than the decision of a single wise man. For where there are many people, each has some share of goodness and intelligence. That is why the general public is better judge of works of music and poetry.
But Aristotle is not satisfied with this solution. Although the collective judgment is wiser than the individual judgment, the fact remains that the inferior will rule the superior.
Aristotle apprehended such a possibility and there was reason behind such apprehension. In many city-states there was popular sovereignty which could not function properly.
In ultimate analysis, laws must govern the society and guide the behaviour of all men and officers. But where the laws are not rightly framed, people individually and collectively will rule.
Laws, framed according to the constitution, are right and just. Therefore, first of all, the constitution must be of the right type and any deviation will be unjust. Aristotle was aware of the consequences of the rigidity of law. It may result in injustice. But more injustice will appear from other methods.