Ancient History & Civilisation



Let us suppose that Aristotle is alive today, and has submitted his Politics to a publisher. The publisher’s reader, a man of few words and incisive judgement, reports as follows:

Author: Aristotle Title: The Politics

Theme and Content. Survey and analysis of ancient Greek political theory and practice; concludes with recommendations of an ‘ideal’ state. Shows intimate knowledge of the whole field. Firmly based on historical detail. Full of revealing information and shrewd critical comment. Philosophical standpoint unfashionable, but none the worse for that. Sheer intellectual quality very high.

Presentation and Arrangement. Not so much a book, more like a series of loosely related monographs. Sequence of topics ostensibly systematic, in fact meandering; relation of one part to another often obscure. By contrast, argument of the individual sections, taken simply on their own, lucid and coherent (though sometimes over-compressed).

Assessment. Important work; likely to be controversial and influential.

Markets. Classics; political history and theory; constitutional studies; law.

Recommendation. Accept, subject to revision of presentation.

How then did such a remarkable work come to be written? To answer this question we have to turn detective; and we have few clues apart from the internal evidence of the text itself.


The Politics dates from roughly the last dozen years of Aristotle’s life, from 335 till 323, when he was in Athens engaged in teaching and research in the Lyceum. It is written in a highly distinctive style: it is plain and simple and stripped for action; it has the spare charm of economy; its only rhetoric is the absence of rhetoric; but it sports occasional anecdotes, poetical quotations, pithy maxims and wry jests. It has also what are perhaps the faults of its very merits: it can be bafflingly cryptic and elliptical. But in general it is a perfect vehicle for its special purpose, philosophy; and therein lies its beauty.1

In structure and organization, as the publisher’s reader noted, the text is often puzzling: Aristotle is apt to announce, with some austere flourish, what seems to be a systematic programme of inquiry, which he carries out in part; then he digresses; then he resumes the programme in a different form, and from a different point of view; in the course of discussion he makes promises he does not fulfil, and then tells us the inquiry is complete – and thereupon announces a fresh programme on a fresh topic. All his advanced work2is more or less like this; but the Politics is disorderly to a degree.

The most common explanation of this state of affairs is not simply that Aristotle was an untidy genius, but that the texts we have are the notes he used when he gave lectures or conducted seminars in the Lyceum. We may reasonably conjecture that he lectured frequently on the same topic, and that the semi-organized state of the text has come about because of his fresh starts, second thoughts, insertions, deletions, and retreading of old ground with different interests or questions or answers in mind – and all this over a period of several years, and under the constant stimulus of suggestions and objections from an ever-changing body of pupils. At some point, we may suppose, either he himself or an editor arranged all his material on political and social questions in a roughly intelligible order, in which condition, under the title Ta Politika, ‘The Politics’, it has survived.

But if we suppose that the text was meant only as lecture-notes, we must face the difficulty that it does not really consist of ‘notes’ at all. It amounts to something appreciably more elaborate than mere ungrammatical and unsyntactical jottings designed only to ‘trigger’ a train of thought in a speaker skilled at ad-libbing. Grammar and syntax are usually perfect, the argument is presented in logical and carefully connected steps, and the choice and order of words exhibit a certain minimum attention to literary grace. It may be of course that Aristotle was not good at ad-libbing, and needed a continuous discourse to read out. Yet the text will hardly suit that purpose either: it is too close-knit, too tightly argued, to be taken in at a hearing; it has rather the character of plainly stated raw material, inviting leisurely reflection. What we seem to have, then, is something intermediate between mere notes and a fully elaborated discourse; and the clarity and consistency of thought and uniformity of style discourage the alternative hypothesis that we have inherited notes taken in class by Aristotle’s students, which they subsequently wrote up.1

The suggestion that the text represents notes made by Aristotle for use in teaching is therefore plausible, but not utterly free of difficulty. The best solution is perhaps to suppose that he disliked ad-libbing from notes, but was happy enough to enlarge impromptu on the relatively full texts that have come down to us. But whether he so used them or whether he did not, he surely intended them to serve another and ultimately more important purpose. He was an encyclopedist and a polymath; his Lyceum was a research institute; it possessed a library and a collection of objects (e.g. maps) useful both for teaching and for research.1 Many passages in his works conclude with a formula such as ‘it is now clear that…’, or ‘now that we have settled these points,’ which show that he believes that a problem has been isolated, investigated, discussed and at least partly or provisionally solved. It looks as if we have the records of completed research, which were deposited in the library for consultation and for possible correction or amplification in the light of further inquiry. Those who subsequently turned to them found not disjointed notes, but material sufficiently fully written to be intelligible on deliberate and reflective reading, yet sufficiently succinctly written to be copied without undue labour; and it would be open to the insertion of passages of revision, amendment or addition. In short, Aristotle’s works demand readers.2

It is unlikely, though not impossible, that these specialized treatises were meant for readers outside the Lyceum; but some few do seem to have found their way to a limited public.3 The story, if it be true, of their vicissitudes after Aristotle’s death is quite amazing, and clearly there were many opportunities for them to be lost, damaged or disorganized.4 It was not until the middle of the first century B.C. that they were edited and published, by Andronicus of Rhodes; all our texts derive ultimately from his edition.


What exactly, then, has come down to us? It is obvious that we do not have a work which has been systematically organized and finally polished for publication by the author, but ‘a number of originally independent essays, which are not completely worked up into a whole’.1 Unfortunately, it is often by no means clear exactly where the ‘independent essays’ begin and end; but here is at any rate a conspectus of the contents:

Book I: Origins and nature of the household and the state as associations; the economics of the household, with special reference to the role of slaves; history and analysis of the modes of acquiring property.

Book II: Review of ideal states, both projected and existing.

Book III: Classification of constitutions according to varying conceptions prevailing within them of the ‘just’ distribution of political power; more specifically, since political power is the prerogative of citizens, a review of various answers to the question, ‘Who ought to be a citizen?’

Book IV: Survey of the main types of constitution, of their suitability to various kinds of citizen-bodies, and of the chief departments of state (deliberative, executive and judicial).

Books V and VI: Analysis of the causes of instability and permanence in the various constitutions.

Books VII and VIII: The construction of the ideal state (site, population, etc.), with special reference to education and the arts.

Comparison of this summary with the detailed chapter-by-chapter table of contents reveals that while it is possible to isolate the broad theme of a book, the sequence of topics is not fully systematic. In part, this must be because politics is not a discipline with precise boundaries, and it is fairly easy to move from one topic to another by a loose association of ideas. Some individual chapters seem almost haphazardly placed (e.g. VI viii), while groups of others obviously cohere, e.g. IV xiv-xvi:

xiv The Deliberative Element in the Constitution.

xv The Executive Element in the Constitution.

xvi The Judicial Element in the Constitution.

On the larger scale too, there are some curious and striking features, e.g.

(a) Why are Books VII and VIII. the description of Aristotle’s ideal state, clearly so very incomplete?

(b) Why are VII and VIII so widely separated from the discussion of other ideal states in II?

(c) Why, in spite of some words at the end of III suggesting that VII should follow immediately, do IV–VI intervene?

(d) Why are IV–VI. in particular, so unusually ‘realistic’ and ‘empirical’, replete as they are with historical evidence?

There are countless other oddities of structure and detail that for many years fuelled a very vigorous controversy about the composition of the work. Some editors simply printed VII and VIII immediately after III. and put IV–VI last, on the grounds that the order of the books had become muddled in transmission. Jaeger treated II–III and VII–VIII as an early version; VII and VIII he regarded as Platonic in tone and detail.1 and as dating from the 340s. when Aristotle was still working under Plato’s inspiration; IV–VI dated from the very last period of Aristotle’s career, when he had moved away from Platonic idealism, and was far more interested in the systematic collection and analysis of the facts of Greek political life, being now able to draw on the material in at least some of the 158 ‘Constitutions’ assembled and described by members of the Lyceum.2 By contrast, von Arnim saw VII and VIII (prefaced by II) as noticeably un-Platonic. and as reflecting Aristotle’s own mature views of his latest period, when he had departed furthest from Platonic doctrine.1

We need not linger over these and similar theories, some of which are of pixilating complexity. They depend largely on arbitrary assumptions about the order in which the subject-matter of the Politics ought logically to be arranged, and on controversial hypotheses about Aristotle’s gradual self-liberation from Platonic influence. I touch on them only because a modern reader of the Politics should be aware that he is reading something of a medley, a work not fully formed but in gestation; in particular, he should be alert to the possibility that books and chapters may be in a sequence not intended by Aristotle, and that they may date from different stages of his career. The controversies about these matters have in fact proved largely inconclusive, and today most people are content to take the Politics on its own terms and accept it for what it is: a series of topics examined and re-examined from a single and fundamentally consistent standpoint.2 Seen in this light, the variations of treatment and discrepancies of approach are utterly natural; and they are witnesses not only to the fluidity and versatility of Aristotle’s philosophical methods, but to the rich complexity of Greek political ideas and practice.


In short, the Politics is a work whose strength lies in its parts: it is a banquet whose courses, nourishing and succulent though they be, may have come up from the kitchen in the wrong order. Moreover, to a palate unaccustomed to Aristotle’s cuisine, the dishes taste a little strange; and there seems to be a certain powerful ingredient that gives them all a distinct tang.

This ingredient can be isolated by a comparison, admittedly a fairly rugged one and subject to all sorts of qualifications, between Aristotle’s characteristic approach to any problem and that of Plato. Throughout his works Plato exhibits a kind of cosmic pessimism: he believed that not only moral concepts but all objects in the whole of existence had a perfect suprasensible counterpart, which he called a Form or Idea. An individual just act, for instance, is just only in so far as it partakes of Justice, absolute and perfect Justice with a real and independent existence, which, the individual just act merely ‘imitates’ and ‘falls short of’. Similarly a bed, in this imperfect and approximate world, is not really a perfect bed, or a triangle a perfect triangle: they ‘fall short of’ Bedness and Triangularity, perfect examples to which individual beds and triangles only approximate. Plato’s political works are therefore penetrated by the sad convicition that moral and political conduct is always in some sense second-rate; the ruler should no doubt strive to produce the best possible conduct and institutions in his state, but perfection will elude him always.

Aristotle, by contrast, is a cosmic optimist. Things are always moving towards their full completeness: the acorn is not destined to become an oak tree that inevitably falls short of Oaktreeness; it is destined to grow into an adult and fully formed oak tree, which is its ‘end’ or ‘purpose’; it is here, in the final and complete stage of the natural process, that perfection is to be found; and the form of the oak tree resides in the oak tree, it is not something ‘out there’ and unattainable. Aristotle’s ‘teleology’ (Greek telos, ‘end’, ‘purpose’) flavours all his work, and is that ‘powerful ingredient’ of the Politics: everywhere he asks of any custom, law, practice, office, or constitution, ‘what it is for?’. The ‘end’ of man is to live ‘well’ or ‘happily’; the state arises naturally as assisting and working towards that end; and the various institutions of the state should be judged by the standard of how far they assist the state to achieve its purpose.1

Further, the ‘end’, happiness, pursued by man is in accordance with his nature; it is not something random.2 Aristotle concedes, of course, that men can attain some measure of happiness even when they fail to live fully in accordance with their nature; but it would be only in so far as they live thus that they would be happy. In other words, the kind of life needed for perfect happiness is something fixed and given, being somehow dictated by men’s very nature. In part, men have an inbuilt tendency to live such a life: by natural impulse they group themselves in family, village and state, spontaneous natural creations which facilitate the exchange of goods and services men’s nature needs if they are to live the good life. Hence Aristotle’s celebrated description of man as a politikon zōon, ‘an animal that [naturally] lives in a state, polis’. Beyond that point, however, the conditions of the good life have to be found out – partly empirically, partly by the philosopher’s reflections on the facts of man’s social and political experiences.3 The crucial point is that for Aristotle those conditions, though at present unclear to us, are in principle discoverable, as matters offact; hence political disputes are likewise about questions of fact, and are as much open to definitive solutions as (say) problems in mathematics.4

The Politics is then best seen as a mixture of reported fact and teleological assessment, the overall aim being to discover how men may attain the ‘good life’, or at least one of the many possible approximations. Sometimes analysis is paramount, sometimes raw factual material; but throughout, to maintain a firm grasp on Aristotle’s ‘natural teleology’ as his basic technique of analysis is the best way of thinking oneself into his head.


But why trouble to think oneself back into Aristotle’s head? A sceptic might argue as follows: ‘Aristotle’s world has vanished, and his comments on it can be of antiquarian interest only. We live in a unique twentieth century, which has its own unique and pressing problems, of which the ancients had not an inkling. Conversely, we ourselves are conceptually so locked into our own culture that to understand a society of the past is probably beyond us, in principle. The study of history is therefore a time-consuming fad we had better give up. Henry Ford was right: “History is bunk.”1

My riposte to such radical gloom would be simple and short. To expect to discover in history a series of edifying lessons that can be read off and applied to modern circumstances in some straightforward manner is of course naïve; but that is not the point. The study of history is part of man’s awareness of himself and the nature and place of his society in the world at large; it is valuable not so much because he can find in the past rough parallels to the present, but because he can find societies and events and ideas that are sharply different from those he encounters from day to day. Just as the arts – painting, sculpture, theatre, film, literature – are powerful and influential because they afford us alternative models to consider, so too history allows us to examine other societies, other critical approaches to life, which we may compare and contrast with our own, and so understand and take the measure of our own more securely. The society that loses its grip on the past is in danger, for it produces men who know nothing but the present, and who are not aware that life has been, and could be, different from what it is. Such men bear tyranny easily; for they have nothing with which to compare it.1

Aristotle in his political work offers for our contemplation a society in some ways similar to, yet very different from, our own; and he offers us an analysis of it based on the startling assumption that the right, the expedient and the natural are the same thing, and that human happiness resides in conformity to some naturally given pattern. To jolt oneself by study of that society and that analysis is an education.


Principles of Revision

Some such conviction as this has guided the revising of the translation: at every stage I have tried to enable the reader to immerse himself in the world of the ancient Greeks and to observe it through Aristotle’s eyes.

T. A. Sinclair’s translation of 1962 was a brilliant success. It was nicely readable and readily intelligible, and won the Politics a very large new readership. In this revision I have followed the principle of economy of intervention, and I have tried to retain those special merits of Sinclair’s work, so that it remains substantially and recognizably his. My innovations are chiefly two:

1. To bring the actual translation – particularly in the more closely argued passages – into greater conformity with Aristotle’s text, by retaining its full complement of detail, qualifications. ellipse, rough edges and awkward nuances which Sinclair ironed out in the interests of readibility and swift comprehension. In particular, I have sought to modify

Sinclair’s freedom of translation of key terms1 by what I describe as ‘flexible consistency’ of rendering (see further below).

2. An abundance of aids to the reader, notably this introduction, prefatory comments to each chapter, footnotes to provide cross-references and to clarify points of detail, bibliographies, and two glossaries of key terms.

In short, the apparatus of this edition will, I hope, help to bring the reader face to face with Greek society and with one of its most knowledgeable and trenchant critics.

Detailed notes now follow on both 1 and 2.

Translation of Key Terms

To describe and analyse political ideas and institutions Aristotle employs a fairly large, but by no means huge, set of key terms, which recur over and over again throughout the work, in different combinations and relationships appropriate to the particular topic or problem in hand. Many of these terms demand, according to context and subject-matter, a range of English words to translate them (particularly when they are used in special or technical senses). Now as soon as the translator adopts several English words for one Greek word, he may indeed accurately render his author’s meaning, but he will conceal the structure of his thought, as embedded in a particular culture; hence the reader needs to be told which single Greek term it is that lies behind the range of English terms. On the other hand, always to use the same English word for the same Greek word denies the Greek author flexibility of usage, and in any case leads to distinctly weird English.2

Since Aristotle uses language with more than usual precision, it seemed to me essential to make some attempt to reproduce the terminological structure of his argument. I have therefore:

(a) restricted as far as possible the range of English equivalents for a given Greek key term, so as to achieve a certain ‘flexible consistency’;

(b) inserted, in the italicized prefaces and in the footnotes, frequent transliterations of these terms, with comment on their meaning in the passage in question;

(c) provided a Greek–English and an English–Greek glossary, which will give the reader a fair chance of finding out the range of English words used for a Greek term, and of discovering which Greek word lies behind a given English one.1

The purpose of this rather lavish provision of aids to the reader is simply to enable him to think in Greek and Aristotelian terms. Once he moves away from the translation to the various aids, he will constantly bump into Aristotle’s concepts in their original dress, or rather in the borrowed clothing of English transliteration. It is increasingly common to find Greek literature and culture discussed with frequent reference to transliterated Greek words, and I hope the glossaries will strengthen this healthy trend, as well as encourage the increasing interest now being taken in learning Greek.

Refractory Terms

A number of the key terms have no natural equivalent in English, and at the cost of a certain strangeness I have allowed some traditional renderings to survive. I discuss a few only, by way of example:

(a) Aretē I have nearly always translated by the time-honoured ‘virtue’. The renderings ‘efficiency’ and ‘excellence’ have gained ground in recent years, but on the whole it seemed preferable to stick to what is familiar; and Aristotle is after all usually dealing with amoral quality of human beings, a notion which is still best conveyed by ‘virtue’. Moreover, in Greek, things too have virtues, which suits English usage: whereas a tool may have ‘the virtue of adaptability’, to say it has ‘the goodness of adaptability’ sounds wrong.

(b) Gnōrimoi, ‘notables’, a certain social group. One just has to get used to this Greek term for the well-off upper classes.

(c) Politikos, ‘statesman’. There simply is no English term for ‘a politēs (citizen) active in running the affairs of the politeia (constitution) of his polis (state)’. A ‘statesman’ nowadays is of course a superior kind of politician, usually full of years and honour; but in spite of that I stick to ‘statesman’, not only for its familiarity as an equivalent but because it offers a desirable verbal link with ‘state’ (polis). ‘Politician’ has quite unsuitable associations, notably of professionalism.

These and other awkwardnesses inherent in any translation simply have to be tolerated, or (better) actually welcomed as a fairly painless means of encountering the sheer Greekness of the text.

Italicized Prefaces to Chapters

In a work like the Politics, the reader needs specific comment related to each chapter, rather than a long general introduction.1 The purpose of my italicized prefaces is to elucidate, and to offer succinct comment on, the theme and purpose of the argument. I have tried to bring out the strength and value of Aristotle’s discussion, but I have not hesitated to criticize too; and I stress that my intention is to stimulate discussion rather than to exhaust it. I have adopted and adapted, and sometimes relocated, a good deal of Sinclair’s much briefer material. The prefaces also contain references to background reading not only in the Politics itself but in Aristotle and Plato in general, and in other authors both ancient and modern.

Numerical References

Throughout, references to passages of Aristotle, including the Politics, are made by book and chapter, and/or by line. Book and chapter numbers are printed in Roman numerals, book numbers in capitals, chapter numbers in lower case. Line numbers are shown above the title of each chapter, and in italic type at the start of each paragraph; they follow the standard method of making exact references to Aristotle’s Greek text, by page, column and line of I. Bekker’s edition (Aristotelis Opera, Berlin, 1831): for instance,Politics 1294b21 refers to page 1294, column b, line 21.

The titling of the chapters and their division into paragraphs are of course mine, not Aristotle’s.


Sinclair followed the now abandoned practice of printing as footnotes those portions of the text he supposed Aristotle himself would have presented as footnotes had he known the convention. I have restored such passages to their proper place in the text, and all footnotes are mine.

Historical events and persons I commonly identify with the utmost brevity; in any case, we know about some of them little or nothing apart from what the text tells us. Full discussions may be found in the commentaries, and in R. Weil, Aristote et l’histoire: essai sur la ‘Politique’ (Paris, 1960).


The bibliographies are selective, but still probably full enough for all categories of readers except the most specialist of scholars. They concentrate on the Politics, and contain little explicitly on the other works of Aristotle.

Table of Contents and Index of Names

The index covers proper names only, the longer entries being subdivided by topic. Its use in conjunction with the 103 chapter titles in the table of contents will fairly rapidly lead the reader to the particular subjects in which he happens to be interested. For the convenience of readers who are studying a single book or some other limited part of the text, the table of contents for each book is repeated before its opening chapter.

All dates are B.C. unless otherwise indicated.

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