Reading Aristotle’s Politics (Bk 1): The body politic

A few remarks.


Reading Aristotle in general reminds me of how little we have moved on from him in regards to us using the same kinds of terminology. We still consider communities, states, and other social units

2. Hierarchies.

Aristotle deems that there is a certain systematicity or heirarchical structure to the political order. By political order I also mean the social order. I wonder how a feminist would read Aristotle, we can easily read this as a justification of the social order, or a value neutral appraisal of patriarchal order. We can be even more neutral and see this as a non patriarchal order, but some kind of naturalised system of rule.


Aristotle seems to think that the social ordering is a natural phenomenon, perhaps akin to how an ethologist would look at the community structures of animal life. The likes of Dawkins, I presume would disagree, on the basis that it is exactly because of natural selection and the unique composition of homo sapien development, that our previous ancestral tendencies can be overthrown, so that we do not need to see the social order as an extension of some naturalised order of dominion. This is not something I can easily come down on, not from reading Aristotle, or even Dawkins as this is a much wider issue; but Aristotle opens the wound for this issue and the modern reader is left to decide whether to accept this naturalising interpretation or not.

2.2. The family is a unit that serves a function, so says Aristotle; it serves the head of the family, and serves the wider community and state stuctures. Perhaps here, we might even say that Aristotle was the first social theorist! It is here that later social theorists have theorised about the superstructure of society. Althusser would say that there are subservient aspects of society which ultimately serve the prime motive of society; supporting the ruling class and its economic system. The family, education, commerce and perhaps even religion, are all part of the ‘telos’ of the larger social machine.

Alternatively, we can go the way of the structural functionalists; like Durkheim or Parsons, and say that society works in the functional manner. Instead of a heirarchical scaffolding a la Althusser; we could consider the political order as an organic being, with components that serve functions (telos). Aristotle seems to think that each political organisation has a function, from within (to serve its constituents) and from without (to serve the wider body politic). Contrary to the Durkheimian organic analogue, however, is a a power narrative/analogy. Every social unit, from the family, the community and the state; needs to have a head. The family has the patriarch/master, the community has its leader and the polis has its statesman. This probably seems antiquated to many readers, and my initial thought is that it seems to naturalise the status quo political as some kind of paternal ruler; where ‘Father knows best’. Consider the ‘culture of personality’ propaganda of Stalin; the naturalising of Folk cultural themes in the Third Reich or even science fiction examples dictators like ‘Ming the Merciless’. Aristotle almost reads like prosthelytism to dictatorship. At this juncture I raise the question: at what point does analysis become justification?

I sound very negative in this reading, and perhaps more so than I thought I would be before writing this post.


Aristotle says something like: ‘A barbarian makes no distinction between a woman and a slave’. I thought this was a very crude and ambiguous phrase. One thing because it almost sounds like ‘The Philosopher’ is making a positive claim about the political status of women. The hell he isn’t. Going back to the ‘telos’ discussion of 2.3; Aristotle seems to think that the optimal telos of an object is that one object should have one function only, and no more than one. Perhaps I’m misreading here as I am thinking of the analogy of the ‘Good knife’ contrasts with this analysis. I think Aristotle is trying to say that having only one function makes the political unit function properly. A ‘civilised’ family unit should have a wife unit that functions for producing children, but domestic tasks would be performed by slaves (of course note the casual acceptance of slavery in this period). A labourer class would produce future labourers. It would be a sign of doing too much, and social disorder if an individual performed too many functions, thus ‘A barbarian makes no distinction between a woman and a slave’, I think the most charitable way of looking at this is some bizarre formulation of the perils of the work/life balance.


Let’s talk about Talcott Parsons. People in the 20thC talk about social changes as if it means social decline. Over the 20thC in the US and to some extent, Northern Europe; typical social strata were undermined. In the UK traditional industries concerning primary resources like mining, fisheries and industrial production were closed down for various reasons; leading to the destruction of old local certainties and family traditions of sticking to a single professional trade. For various reasons, religion loses its influence and the nature of social relationships have significantly changed; family structures are not necessarily predominantly two parents, married, heterosexual or m/f. Alternative structures emerged, alternative spiritualities and religious practices emerged (including: none, humanism and apathy).  Social structures change, and so do their functions. It might be exactly because of their change of function that they change their social influence.

I’m not quite sure yet if Aristotle says anything about whether political groupings are subject to change; of course knowing the period of Athenian politics; ‘Tyranny’ and deposing leaders was a very well known phenomena; however that’s slightly different than losing faith in the Orpheus Gods…

As a concluding remark. Although I’m not reading Aristotle in a serious exegetical and detailed manner; there is so much in so few lines that begs of analysis and discussion. I think I now understand why some ‘Continental’ philosophers have turned to Aristotle for their insights. I suppose it is only natural for one who wrote on so many topics, that he would have resonance to the modern social sciences.


Perhaps the social order can be read in metaphysical terms. Metaphysical because the social system concerns ‘ontology’ (what is there) and ‘mereology’ (the relation of parts to the whole). Aristotle is truly systematic in that these metaphysical elements compose the social order. Its one thing to naturalise social order; but what if we used naturalised metaphysics to analyse the social world? I think the medieval in me would absolutely love this prospect. Of course this raises just as many questions and general objections about metaphysics and naturalised metaphysics in general. However, mereology and ontology find their utility here, if philosophy is anything; it is the use of as few concepts as possible to explain the most. Metaphysics might do some good here. I suppose this sounds slightly heretical, and ‘continental’.

Michael (following conversations with Antisophie)

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