Development Of A Polis
In the Politics, Aristotle discusses the importance of examining a political society from a variety of perspectives.
In particular, he stresses the importance of the development of a polis and how the polis emerges from a single household association into a polis. The process of development begins with the household, the smallest unit that a person lives in. Smaller, more primitive communities contain a number of households, and when these households begin to work together, they form a village. How do these households decide to come together?
According to Aristotle, man is “by nature a political animal”, and this nature derives from the assumption that men have the innate desire to live and associate with other human beings. Since this desire to live with human beings is a part of human nature, Aristotle contends that one who refuses or cannot belong to such a community will be labeled a beast, a god, or simply “not a genuine human being”.
As more villages come together, the basic desires and goods become easily attainable and the people now have more time to pursue other, arguably higher and more desirable, goods. More complex social organizations emerge with the growing population, and out of this a polis is born. What keeps the polis running is the innate desire to belong with other human beings; the stronger the connection, the stronger the polis.
A striking feature of this argument stems from Aristotle’s claim (which Kraut takes as Aristotle’s implicit assumption) that the pursuit of higher goods does not derive from reasoning, but from living in a polis.
The people contribute to the polis that they live in, which makes it easier for people to acquire the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing, etc. These necessities are much easier to acquire because everyone pitches in to make life more expedient. For instance, the adult male citizens have a plot of land that they can cultivate and produce food that benefits the entire polis.
This way of obtaining goods triumphs over growing and hunting food, building houses, and sewing clothes in small household associations. Because one of the roles of the polis includes the provision of resources such that the people who belong to it do not have to struggle to exist, then the people gain the natural opportunity to pursue these higher goods.
In this sense, Aristotle argues that only those who live in a polis-like setting have the capability to live the best lives and that those who live in smaller, more primitive communities do not have that capability. In smaller societies, people must constantly work hard to maintain these basic necessities. In establishing this difference, Aristotle notes that “the association which aims in the highest degree and at the supreme good is the one which is the most authoritative and includes all the others. Now this is called a ‘state,’ and it is a political association as the type of place that he goes on to describe in further detail. Hence a political association, or a polis, seems to be the only kind of gathering where the highest good can be sought after and achieved.
The progression from the small household unit to a bustling polis must be examined further, as it contains a fairly complicated structure. For Aristotle, “the city is prior by nature to the household and to each of us”, and “the polis exists by nature […] [and] a human being is a being of a kind naturally adapted to live in a polis”.
Kraut provides some insight into what Aristotle means by prior, or that the city is arranged in relation to the first individual. In other words, “the city predates the existence of each of the citizens of which it is composed”. Aristotle does not say this to mean that the city is defined by a single individual, for “no whole is defined in terms of a single part”; rather the idea of prior is that the ability for a city to exist must already exist within humans as a possibility. The existence of a city predating the individual is shown through the desire of humans who want to be in association with others, and that explains why a city comes to be in the first place.
This means that household associations and polities both occur by nature as well, since these compositions emerge through man’s natural desires. Kraut shows Aristotle’s argument is that the good of the whole is better than the individual good – that is to say, “it is worse for a whole city to be destroyed than for any single member of the community to be destroyed, and not merely because it is better to save many than to save one”.
In a polis, the city is more important to maintain than the individual; if the polis were to be expended at the cost of saving one person, then the polis would lose the very components that make it what it is and therefore would no longer serve as a polis. But how can Aristotle talk about the ideal polis when there are a number of different types of polities that he recognizes and discusses in detail? That will be discussed at a later time, but now I want to focus on some of the important features of an ideal polis.