“The Politics”

Aristotle. 1981. Tr. T.A. Sinclair, rev. T.J. Saunders. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Internet Classics Archive version (tr. Jowett) at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.html

In The Politics Aristotle addresses the questions that lie at the heart of political science. How should society be ordered to ensure the happiness of the individual? Which forms of government are best and how should they be maintained? By analysing a range of city constitutions – oligarchies, democracies and tyrannies – he seeks to establish the strengths and weaknesses of each system to decide which are the most effective, in theory and in practice. A hugely significant work, which has influenced thinkers as diverse as Aquinas and Machiavelli, The Politics remains an outstanding commentary on fundamental political issues and concerns, and provides fascinating insights into the workings and attitudes of the Greek city-state. [from publisher’s website]

I’m taking this opportunity to kick off our series on the urban Anthropocene by going back to a foundational text in my own discipline, Aristotle’s Politics.

That the Politics is about cities can be obscured by the connotations we give the word—but of course for Aristotle the term derives from the institutional form under which he lived, namely the polis, or city-state. I’d like to suggest four ways Aristotle’s views might intersect with our theme in this series, and with other ideas we have explored on this blog.

First, Aristotle argues that it is only cities that offer the possibility of a genuinely fulfilling life for human beings: a certain population size and organization of authority is required for the human potential of the inhabitants to be fully realized. With respect to the first consideration, the ideal size cannot be specified precisely. But his famous genealogy of the polis (Politics I.2) illustrates Aristotle’s claim.  Life at the household scale—where the fundamental organic needs of reproduction and sustenance are met—while necessary for survival is not sufficient for human flourishing. Neither is life at the scale of the village—a collection of households which interact to provide for something more than “daily needs” (plausibly a measure of security). It is only when interactions among some number of villages lead to the emergence of the polis that the possibility for human flourishing is actualized. But, for Aristotle, at this point the process he has been describing is complete. The drive to satisfy fundamental needs prompts the creation of the household and village stages, but with the creation of the city those needs can now be fully met. This points to the second consideration. The scale of the polis is appropriate to the kind of social organization that permits the satisfaction of the needs that went unfulfilled at the household and village scales. I will return to this issue below.

Second, perhaps unsurprisingly to people who have read my other posts on the topic, I think that we can gain some insight into Aristotle’s view by referring to the idea of niche construction. This is reasonable in light of his background in biology; it is in keeping with his thinking to use biological notions like niche construction to interpret his view. I take it as obvious that the Politics is about constructing something; my proposal is that we can think of what that is as a niche. My understanding of the niche idea is based on Ingo’s post on Hutchinson—I will simplify it here to mean a set of environmental conditions from which a species, by using its specific traits, is able to draw the resources it needs for its organic survival.

Thus Aristotle’s conception of the household can be interpreted as an association that makes use of a suite of human capabilities to provide for its members “daily needs;” indeed, he devotes several chapters of the Politics (I.8-10) to this topic. But Aristotle also explores in some depth the issue of provision for organic survival at the level of the polis itself, e.g. in his discussion of the physical geography of the ideal city (VII.5-7, 10-11). Finally, however, it is crucial to keep in mind that niche construction involves not just the construction of a niche, but its transmission to the next generation, along with traits suited to it. As Kim Sterelny notes, the inherited niche channels the development of the generation that is born into it, fitting them to survive by its means. In this light, Aristotle’s emphasis on education within the polis (e.g. VII.14, VIII.1) seems consistent with the project of reading him as a theorist of human niche construction.

But third, Aristotle articulates the idea that the human niche cannot be understood purely in terms of human beings’ metabolic needs. He writes that the polis “comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life” (I.2). I take this to mean that he recognizes a range of needs beyond those associated with organic survival, needs which must be met for human beings to flourish. (I discuss a similar point towards the end of a post on Adam Smith.)

In general, the needs in question are linked to capacities human beings possess to interact with one another in a social environment. These capacities, in turn, are the basis of Aristotle’s understanding of the virtues—the various particular ways that human beings can excel at being human. (His account of the virtues appears in his work the Nichomachean Ethics—but that work thoroughly informs (indeed flows into) the Politics.)  In my view (this is a conjecture), for Aristotle people have a need to exercise those capacities—they are, so to speak, potentialities that seek to be actualized. Now the need to reproduce brings men and women together in the household, and can be met in associations of that scale. But the needs in question now require social interactions at a wider scale, within a more heterogeneous social environment. Analogously to metabolic needs that draw people together into the household, these “higher” needs draw people together into the polis, which is of the size and complexity that affords their satisfaction.

A fourth way the Politics might inform our discussions on this blog has to do with the issue of normative evaluation. The heart of Aristotle’s view is that the polis alone offers the prospect of the good life for human beings; he holds that the polis is the natural context for human flourishing. This is of course a very substantial claim. In the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle provides an influential account of human flourishing, which is the subject of renewed interest in recent years. As I noted, that account of the good life is presumed by the Politics: it is presented as the goal of political life. As such, a conception of human flourishing can also serve as a critical normative standard, by which human associations can be evaluated.

Now this immediately raises the question of the applicability of Aristotle’s theory to our own circumstances. There are obvious reasons to have doubts here. Already in the early 19th Century Benjamin Constant offered the critique that a political theory based on the polis does not scale up to apply to modern nation-states. But can a theory based on the polis (with populations on the scale of tens of thousands) even tell us much about modern cities, or emerging megacities, several orders of magnitude larger?

In light of these concerns it makes sense to be cautious about uncritically adopting Aristotle’s views on the good life to use as a normative standard for evaluating our own urban experience. Nonetheless, his theory can serve as a model. The idea of human flourishing has powerful normative force, and it obviously makes sense to think about cities in terms of whether they promote or impede flourishing lives as we conceive of them, in light of our best inquiries into what they involve.

Addendum, based on some further reflection . . .

Let me add a few words which I hope will indicate why I think Aristotle is relevant to our concerns. An implication of his view is that there is something inevitable about cities as a form of human association; this is one way of understanding his claim that the polis is natural. There is something deep in human nature, he suggests, that drives people to create this kind of habitat for themselves (that niche construction idea again).

Aristotle’s account of human flourishing, I believe, points toward an account of that drive. But the presumption of this series is that there is an important connection between cities and the Anthropocene. Aristotle’s theory, therefore, may resonate with the intuition that, even if the Anthropocene is not strictly inevitable, it nonetheless stems from some very strong tendencies within human nature. (This was, in effect, the suggestion we explored in our Anthropocene Biosphere project in spring 2016.)

But this is absolutely not to say that the Anthropocene, with all of its terrifying dangers, represents the pinnacle of human flourishing. Rather, what I take to be Aristotle’s insight is this. Say we view the processes leading people into complex social forms (urbanization, and perhaps ultimately the global-scale interconnections we associate with the Anthropocene) as driven in some basic way by a drive to flourish. (We can take flourishing to involve the full development of human capacity—as suggested by Martha Nussbaum, for example (see below, and this post).) On that view we can use an understanding of flourishing as a meaningful normative standard to evaluate how those processes turn out—meaningful because it is rooted in, hence constrained by, an understanding of those processes themselves.


Laoupi, A. 2007. “The landscapes of memory. Classical Polis and the Urban Ecosystem’s Analysis. 8th Panhellenic Conference of the Greek Geographic Society, Athens, 4 –7 October 2007. Laoupi examines the polis as a socio-natural entity, and comments on anticipations of that approach in ancient theorists, including Aristotle.

Nussbaum, M.C. 1993. “Social Justice and Universalism: In Defense of an Aristotelian Account of Human Functioning,” Modern Philology 90, no. S1: S46-S73. (https://doi.org/10.1086/392123) Nussbaum interprets Aristotle’s virtues as versions of fundamental human capacities.


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