Today’s fifth post in my introductory series about political science is more philosophical in nature. What is a “Good” Life?
The Origin of “Politics”
The English word politics comes from the Greek word politikos which means “of, or about, the polis”. The polis does not mean police; it means a “city-state”, the basic political community of the ancient Greeks. Two famous Greek city-states were Athens and Sparta. There are still city-states today. Three modern examples are Singapore, Monaco, and the Vatican City.
In his book Politics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (b. 384 – d. 322 BCE) argued that humans are political by nature. He also believed that politics is the best activity for humans. In this post, you’ll learn about Aristotle’s life, his theory of human nature, and his view of politics.
Aristotle & his Take on the Good Life
Aristotle was from northern Greece, and his father was a doctor for the king of Macedon. When he was seventeen years old, Aristotle became a student of the famous philosopher Plato. After studying under Plato for twenty years he became an independent scholar. In 342 BCE, the king of Macedon asked Aristotle to teach his son, Alexander, who later became Alexander the Great. Aristotle taught Alexander for six years and then started his own school in Athens. (BCE, by the way, means “before the common era.” Any date after zero is CE -“common era.”)
As a scholar, Aristotle thought that political science was the study of goods. By “goods”, he meant what is good for us and how we ought to live. In order to know what is good for something, Aristotle argued, you must first understand its nature. If we want to know what is good for humans, for example, we must understand human nature. Aristotle called humans zoon politikons or “the political animal”. By his definition, humans are animals that naturally live together in political communities. Because it is natural for us, it is the only way that we can live a good life. Aristotle thought that families existed before communities, but he said that families are not political. That is because families are created by impulse (well, probably this is more true in ancient times) , whereas a community is created by reason. For Aristotle, reason is the highest human ability, and it can only be developed living together in a community. When we live by reason in a community, we are living the good life – the life of politics.
Aristotle vs Plato
Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, had an ideal view of politics, whereas Aristotle’s view was empirical. In his book The Republic, Plato tried to understand politics by imagining and describing the ideal political community. Some modern scholars argue that Plato’s actual purpose was to found a new political community. Aristotle, on the other hand, studied political communities that already existed in order to try to identify the best one. In other words, he developed his political theory using evidence. His purpose, scholars argue, was to preserve and improve political communities that already existed.
Aristotle’s ideas about politics are still very influential. He believed that there is a value to politics, and that we cannot be fully human without it. According to his theory, we are naturally political, so the good life is in a political community. In a political community, we can develop our highest ability, reason. When we think about politics today, we often ask the same questions that Aristotle asked, “What is the good life and how can we achieve it?”