Features Of An Ideal PolisOctober 9, 2018
Now that the general makeup of a city has been defined, I find it important to look at how Aristotle discusses the features of an ideal polis.
In Book B of the Politics, Aristotle deepens the discussion of the development of a polis by questioning its level of unity. In doing so, Aristotle objects to Socrates idea that a polis must be completely unified when looking at the relationship between children and their parents.
How property is dispersed creates a tension when trying to introduce the concept of a completely unified society and this will have to be examined as well. Other features that Aristotle describes include the size and location of the polis, and the exchange of goods.
According to Aristotle, a society where “all men possess the same things is in one sense [i.e., each separately] a fine thing yet impossible, but in another sense [i.e., all taken together] it does not lead to harmony at all”. In positing this claim, Aristotle assumes that a society that acts as a complete unit is one where “all men possess the same things”. To determine how this might fit into Aristotle’s conception, let us presume that there exists a society that embodies this Socratic unity. If each member of the society is held responsible for all of the same things, then Aristotle does not agree that this format leads to harmony.
Aristotle’s interpretation of the Socratic unity is that “each man pays most attention to what is his own, but less attention to what is common, or else, as much as contributes to his own interest. For each man, besides other reasons, thinks that the others will take care of the matter and so pays less attention to it”. How might this idea look in a modern context? Visualize that there is a particular neighborhood where families live. In this neighborhood, everyone in the neighborhood knows everyone else: it is a “tight-knit community.”
One day, a child, Natasha, trips another child, Brandon, who falls and scrapes his knee. Both parents witness the conflict, but whose responsibility is it to console the crying child and reprimand the offender? According to the Socratic unity, both parents are responsible for consoling and punishing each respective child. In Socrates’ unitary conception, the typical family structure is broken and the roles become much broader. In this type of society there appears to be no distinction between a biological parent and a parent who is a part of the neighborhood. In the Socratic view, any parent carries the same burden of responsibility, but because their effort is a conjoined one, either parent (or any parent in the community) will leave it to the responsibility of the other, neglecting the child completely.
Socrates’ belief in the complete unity of a community seems to be an impossible task especially when the responsibility of raising all of the children is given to the entire community. Aristotle believes that “this kind of association [which Socrates advocates] would necessitate a diluted sort of friendship”. If the parents of the community all shared the same responsibility for every child, it would result in a diluted friendship because the parents would not spend enough time with every child. Not only will this lead to an unfruitful friendship, but pursuing this type of unity will not provide the close attention and the love for a child if everyone has the same responsibility.
Moreover, it is unlikely that the unlikelihood of all parents can devote all of this time to all of the children without neglecting their own duties in other regards. Kraut highlights a point that Aristotle makes about children and their need for “extraordinary care from a small number of loving adults” .
Aristotle desires to see parents who pay close attention to their children. This idea opposes Socrates’ concept of unity, but this point helped Aristotle to formulate his own ideas about unity. Aristotle is right to give responsibility to the primary caregivers because in theory they know the children better than anyone else. Furthermore, it would be quite an arduous ask for every primary caregiver to assume that they must provide as much as they would for their own child as they would for another considering how difficult it is to raise a child in a traditional setting. One can only devote so much time to another human being without neglecting other necessary daily tasks.
Additionally, a complete unity weakens relationships if a person spreads his or her time with too many people; thus the person is unable to develop a true relationship. This idea references an earlier point made about diluted friendship, or the idea that “the words ‘my father,’ ‘my son,’ and the like would be uttered with the weakest feeling of friendship”. Hence the level of unity within a polis in regards to raising children should not be the responsibility of every citizen, but should rely primarily on the parents or of those who assume legal responsibility of said offspring.
Other than unity, another important feature of an ideal polis is the distribution of property. He sees property as falling under two different categories: private and public. Aristotle states three ways in which property is divided up:
the plots of ground are privately owned, but the crops are brought into the common stock for consumption (which is done by some nations), conversely, the land is commonly owned and cultivated but the crops are distributed and used privately (this manner of sharing is said to be done by some barbarians), and both the plots and the use of the crops are common.
Aristotle describes all three options because he understands that the polities during his time used these methods. Even though Aristotle seeks the ideal polis, he does so with the intent that the goal can be realized; that is, it has a practical application. Aristotle’s idea about property distribution and his overall conception of the polis is not merely theoretical; property distribution is something that can actually occur throughout every facet of this conception.
Out of the various distributions of property that he recognizes, Aristotle highlights the way in which the distribution contains “the goodness of both systems”, or a system that has both public and private elements. Aristotle sees more advantages in the system where the people cater to their own property because “men will not complain against one another [in matters of property], and they will produce more since each will be paying special attention to what he regards as being his own”.
If people possessed their own plot of land, they would take care of it without the worry that others might try and conquer it or become jealous that others make more than they do. How does Aristotle see this goal achieved? The goods the citizens produce go into a public sphere which people share communally, so citizens would use their property in a manner that helps the polis as a whole. This way produces fewer conflicts and boasts more advantages because it creates an amiable atmosphere for maintaining an ideal polis.
However, one might question whether or not the adult male citizens working their lands will really do their fair share of the work. Aristotle would respond this challenge using the idea of virtue, “because of virtue, the use of property will be according to the proverb ‘common are the possessions of friends’”.
People in a polis who pursue virtue will want to help out the whole polis by doing the necessary work. Additionally, to build upon this point, “one’s greatest desire ought not to be for a happiness that surpasses anyone else’s, or for superiority to everyone else as a public benefactor; rather, what we should want most of all is to live well by serving our community”. In essence, living well and the desire to serve one’s community drives one who owns a private property to want to raise many crops and food to put into the communal meal so that the polis as a whole does not struggle to meet basic needs.
In an ideal polis, the people work for the common good of all, and Aristotle uses Sparta as a practical example of what this might look like. In such a polis, the citizens “have their own property, but use each other’s slaves, dogs, and horses as though they were their own”.
Within this polis, the citizens demonstrate virtue because its citizens are trustworthy and generous enough to allow their fellow members access to their belongings with little preoccupation. This example defends against the doubt of whether the adult male citizens will do their share of work because its citizens would abuse it. It shows the citizen’s friendship toward one another, a key element in maintaining an ideal polis.
Size is another feature that Aristotle discusses with respect to the ideal polis. He does not state explicitly its precise size, but he does object to a polis that is too large because “it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, for a state with a very large population to be well-managed”.
A polis that is too large makes it too difficult to maintain law and order, and “to be a great state is not the same as to be a state with a great number of men”. Not having as many people helps the ruler better manage the polis, allowing the polis to “be regarded as being the greatest if it can best fulfill its function”. What this says seems accurate, but what does it mean for a polis to carry out its function? Translator Gerson gives us a better understanding of the function of a polis using the analogy of a shoemaker:
The function of a good shoemaker is to use only enough leather of good quality to make a shoe of good quality; a large quantity of leather alone is no guarantee that a good shoe will be made. Similarly, the function of a good state is to make its citizens happy; and the number of its citizens must be such as to make this possible.
Therefore the function of a polis is to make its citizens happy; simply because a polis has a reasonable size does not mean that it will then have the ability to carry out its duties in the proper manner. However, a large size will impede the function of the polis and will make it difficult, if not impossible to make its citizens happy. On the other hand, a polis cannot have too few people, as this too will inhibit the polis’ effectiveness.
Moreover, with too few members, such an “association is not self-sufficient”, and “it is not easy for a government to exist”. If the polis were too small, it would be unmanageable for the ruler. In any given polis, citizens have roles that need to be fulfilled, and with a small polis people would spend too much time trying to fill every role and they would have no time to do anything else; the polis would be in chaos and happiness would not be attainable.
Finally, location is a feature that Aristotle discusses for reasons gearing towards protection and sustainability of a rising polis. Location should be “difficult for the enemy to invade, but easy for the citizens to go out from”. It is vital that citizens feel safe in their own polis. If a polis has a weak military, it is possible that other polities will conquer it. Not only should the polis be situated in a safe location, but the polis should be close to the sea and to important resources.
He sums one hypothetical description of an ideal polis when he says that “it should be convenient for every part to receive protection from the other parts, and (b) the fruits of the earth should be easily transportable to all parts, and so should timber and any other such products which the territory happens to possess”. Polities that have an abundant source of materials thrive much better because they are more self-sufficient. Today, a country like Japan might fail to fit Aristotle’s conception of an ideal location due to their lack of resources. However, since they trade with many other countries whose goods transport favorably to those areas, Japan could still be a reasonable place to live.
While not all areas have a balanced unity, a distribution of property agreeable to all citizens, and an ideal location, I find that it is best to see Aristotle as a person who formats the idea of an ideal polis as a model for rulers to compare their polities. In addition, the purpose of the polis is to allow and promote living well for all of its citizens. But citizens who live in a polis also have a duty to fulfill, and I address how Aristotle articulates that role in the following section.