Principle and course of his politics

Position vis-à-vis Plato

Relation between Nature and Ethos in general

Value of the Ideal View and of the Empirical

Explanation of the Conflict between Plato and Aristotle


The Platonic idea of the good illuminates a future, and only a preview that it itself grants, puts the mind in a position to recognize it. This preview, the special gift of Plato, is absent in Aristotle, who therefore must derive his knowledge of the just from what exists, observed with certainty, without enthusiastic intuition. His basis is the world as it is, and the laws that visibly receive and govern their existence. For him, the cause and measure of the just is not a freely designed shape that floats over reality futuristically, unattained and perhaps unattainable; but nature herself, the impulse of which acts in unconscious things and the relations of men.

That institution [Einrichtung] is just which follows this impulse. Aristotle’s motto is “nothing can be good and noble that is against nature.” So he derives the ethical law from the natural. The content is one and the same to him, only that in the former case, freely-choosing essence implements it.

This assumption seems already to harbor a contradiction in itself. Nature, namely, acts with irresistible power. Where, therefore, it expresses its impulse, there is no choice, therefore no ethical law conceivable. Where, however, there is choice and resolution, hence room for ethical regulation, there also nature has retreated, and vouchsafes no standard. Furthermore, nature arouses conflicting impulses. Both selfishness and self-sacrificing love are its work, and it is certain that the ethos usually requires precisely that a natural impulse be overcome. If, therefore, a choice is made among these conflicting things, one would think that a different measure than the law of nature would have to be found, a peculiar ethical law in the background, from which the decision comes.

But Aristotle had no need of such. These contradictions have a basis only if one pays attention to individual effects. But for Aristotle the measure of the just is nature and its intention as a whole. An activity runs through the whole of creation which, while in appearance and in detail eliciting opposites, when taken as a whole acts in agreement. Unconscious nature everywhere manifests a creative impulse, an impulse seeking after preservation, propagation, increase of existence, through which creatures exist and multiply. It also displays the sphere of spiritual beings. It uses necessary wants to push people to combine, links them instinctively together, and so generates the various social relationships. Nature desires absolutely the richer, the manifold, the developed, even if, rebelling against its own goal, it here and there seems to wish to destroy existence and dissolve its creations into simple matter. It is therefore in accordance with nature that barriers of organic plant life restrain the raw elements, it is in accordance with nature that the reign of the impulse to sociability and its constructions in the spiritual world be secured against outbreaks of selfishness. It is a natural impulse by which man seeks the constant expansion of wealth, of luxury, since each activity is directed to its enlargement; but the general impulse of nature sets a limit to him by showing that wealth is to be used only for one’s own preservation, for the family and the state.

So Aristotle requires no other measure beyond reality; instead, reality provides this measure to him, while he finds the universal in it and recognizes it for what he truly wants, and what should be. It does not necessitate irresistibly; rather, it is an open question whether or not it will be obeyed in detail. It is not conflicting in itself; the conflicting impulses are not the ones which run through it universally. And it is clear that its requirements are not to be overcome by the ethos, but rather correspond to what is recognized as ethos.

Aristotle’s measure is thus the purpose of nature (τέλος). This is something quite different from what one usually understands by the concept of purpose (teleology). It is a purpose that lies in the thing itself (objective), not arbitrarily set by man (subjective), and it is already effective and fulfilled in the natural or social formations, not a purpose lying outside of them, which would make it nothing but a mere means, hence valueless in itself. Accordingly, Aristotle’s method is observation. He traces the phenomena of nature in order to discover, through analysis and comparison, the intention, the inner aspirations, of nature in those phenomena. By this course and in this manner he examines human life relations, beginning with the simplest and climbing to the richer, more developed; and this leads to his doctrine of state.

Principle and course of his politics

The first human life relation effected by nature is the union of man and woman, the purpose of which is the propagation of the race. To this attaches the parental relation and the lordship relation (i.e., between masters and slaves); these differ essentially from each other in that the parental relation is for the benefit of both parts, the obedient as well as the ruling, while the lordship relation only serves to benefit the ruling part. Nature leads to other connections, to villages, hamlets, finally to the state (taking city and state in the Greek manner as equivalent).

The state is the supreme relation, it is the fulfillment of that which nature aimed at in those preceding relations, because it alone has self-sufficiency (αὐτάρχεια), while those others always require another and higher connection that receives or protects them. That is why the state is the final purpose of nature, and man is a creature destined for the state (πολιτικὸν ζῶον). He who wishes to live without the state, would have to be a being of higher or lower nature than man. The state is therefore for the people, that is, the state is that which nature, already in the individual, aims at as its final purpose, as it everywhere refers the part to the whole, and in the part pursues the whole.

But the purpose of the state is first and foremost the life [Erhaltung] (ζῆν) of its citizens, thereafter the good life [Wohlerhaltung] (εὖ ζῆν). The latter requires many external circumstances (good soil, convenient location and the like), but above all it requires virtue, for it is in virtue, not in external goods, that satisfaction and well-being consist, and the education of the citizens to virtue therefore manifests itself also in Aristotle as the first task of the state.

Regarding the constitution of the state, the first and general requirement, in accordance with this purpose, is that it, like the parental power, be oriented as much toward the benefit of the subjects as the rulers, and not like the lordly power, exclusively for the benefit of the rulers. Accordingly, in each of the three basic forms – monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy – one distinguishes a true representation and a degeneracy (παρέχβασις) of the same, depending on whether it meets that requirement or not. It is necessary to distinguish kingship (βασιλεία) from tyranny, depending on whether the monarch is restricted by laws to the welfare of his subjects or not; aristocracy from oligarchy depending on the whether the meritorious are appointed to positions of rule for the general benefit, or simply the rich for their own benefit; polity from democracy, depending on whether the rule, which belongs to the whole, is really for the benefit of all or merely for the benefit of the poor, who constitute the majority. The polity – which Aristotle considered to be the most perfect form of government – is to be achieved through a combination of oligarchic and democratic aspects, not simply through an organic expansion and arrangement of both classes, but rather by an intermediate path between the two principles, e.g., applying the oligarchic means of punishing the rich with fines for absenting themselves from the popular assembly, together with the democratic means of rewarding the appearance of the poor in the assembly with donations, with access to the popular assembly linked to a moderate income, and offices allocated not by lot or turn-taking (in the manner of Greek democracy), but by election with reference to competence.

Taking that general requirement – orientation toward the common utility – as given, the first standard of the constitution for each state is the relative one, i.e., the consideration as to which constitution is the most appropriate to its particular condition and the elements existing in it. Where by birth, wealth, education, the citizens are equal to each other, then the democratic form exists; where a smaller number predominate, the aristocratic form does; where one protrudes above all others, the monarchical form does. A constitution that would be generally and unconditionally imperative and proper does not exist, because none of them can realize the purpose of nature in the state – the good life, education for virtue – in all circumstances, or at any rate in the best way.

Nevertheless, there is also an absolute standard of the constitution, namely that constitution – provided its appropriateness regarding the given elements – that in itself approaches achieving that purpose most nearly, or one could also say, that constitution corresponding to the elements that are best for that purpose. This is precisely what the polity is, because in his Ethics Aristotle refers to the virtue which indeed is the purpose of the state as being a mean between two vices, e.g., between greed and waste, cowardice and foolhardiness. That is why the condition of achieving the purpose of the state is most favorable where the middle class predominates, because, without the temptations of wealth or poverty, it is most likely to go the middle way everywhere. Such a condition of hegemony on the part of the middle class corresponds to the polity.

Position vis-à-vis Plato

Accordingly, Aristotle shared with Plato the procedure of deriving knowledge from objects, not human reason. Purpose in nature has for Aristotle, like the idea for Plato, a content in itself that can be discovered, not by examining thought determinations, but only through an activity of mind directed to the object, i.e., observation, contemplation. Of course, by direct contemplation such as with Plato and the ethical ideal, Aristotle cannot find the purpose of nature; he needs abstraction. For inwardly in the spirit Plato sees a future, and this view is sufficient in itself to recognize what is just, because its content is precisely that which is contained in the idea, perfection; Aristotle on the other hand sees only what is real, which as such cannot be the measure of the just; he must therefore compare the manifold manifestations of what is real; he must discover the universal from the particulars. But this abstraction of Aristotle’s has its proper use, which is the negative function of limiting, ordering, maintaining. It by no means itself provides him with the content; this he also derives from observation, which he engages in with every step. Currently, it is unjustly claimed of Aristotle that he understood pure thought free of sensorial particularity, the logical law, to be the essence and the truth of things. Neither he nor Plato attempted to disregard actual things, and derive the necessity of existence in one form or another from a thought [aus einem Gedanken]. For him as well, justice is not a system of rules, but a condition of men. And legal institutions have their measure and their valuation not in consistency but in the actual effects they exert on circumstances and the opinion of men.

The undertone is also the same for both. For them the state comes first, and people are subordinate to the purpose of its existence. In this, Aristotle apparently approximates the modern point of view, especially in view of his objections to Plato. He seems to desire personal freedom and satisfaction, since he blames Plato for rendering it impossible for his guardians to exercise charity and moderation because of their enforced poverty, and sacrifices the happiness and perfection of man to the state. But on closer inspection, Aristotle shows that he does not differ essentially from Plato. He also, by virtue of that pronouncement that the state is prior to the people (i.e., that the state is the purpose of nature in man), considered man in all his existence to be a mere subordinate member and agent of the state without a higher relation independent of the state, because it is the absolute end. Similarly, the will of the people is not the purpose of the institutions [Einrichtungen], nor is it their cause. The noblest must rule whether the others like it or not, for otherwise, he says, they would only concede equal rights even to Zeus himself if he lived among them. In his constitutional doctrine as well, the idea of ​​a personal claim to dominion or freedom, of an acquired right on the part of a prince or a state or nation, can nowhere be found; the crucial consideration is only ability, qualities [Eigenschaftung] to achieve success that will redound to the whole. Thus in terms of type, Aristotle shared with Plato this trait of the subsumption of men in the state, although in lesser degree and thus less conspicuously.

Yet in this, Aristotle is opposed to Plato: Plato recognizes a purpose beyond all that the real world with its phenomena has to offer, even, it would seem, out of its reach. Aristotle recognizes no ought, no purpose (τέλος) of things, as that which nature manifests to be its will that it either has already attained, or at least provides the means to attain. His opposition to Plato therefore does not carry the usual meaning: “these designs are certainly just and noble, but not capable of implementation,” but “they contradict the preconditions of nature, wherefore they are not what the source of the ethos desires and pursues, they are untrue and unjust.” Added to this is the uniform difference of character and treatment.

Aristotle requires the examination of all that nature has hitherto formed, which alternately and repeatedly is everywhere evident. The diverse social conditions, the differences among people, their activities, earthly possessions, talents, their relations determined by preceding events, their desires and motives, the functions of state – judiciary, government, the armed forces, the possibility of their distribution, mixture, complementary position, whence the infinite variety of constitutions – all this, how it is produced, and what it in turn effects, Aristotle finds necessary to examine to find out what maintains itself, therefore what is in accordance with nature, what is just. He is therefore the creator of actual political science, i.e., the science of the natural action and reaction of the institutions that everywhere are found in the same or similar manner, and which relates to the living aspirations of every time and nation in the same manner as mechanical laws to individual organic beings. This knowledge, which is essential to the statesman in order to choose the means for his intention, Aristotle requires in accordance with his standpoint, in order, from it, to discover the purpose.

So this is the basis and the path of his investigation. In this he limits himself to actuality, and discovers the result from many isolated observations. But for all the acuteness of this investigation and the truth of individual observations, the final shape that ought to arise – the state, which fully conforms to the purpose of nature – is not at all clear. The investigation is like a stream which after a magnificent course loses itself in the sand. Plato, by contrast, does not require all of these investigations to discover the just. It is given to him directly, something more glorious than any comparisons of the real could grant. Filled by his archetype, he creates new forms, he aims only at the one single state, the perfect; he sees it all at once and outlines it with the clarity of real life. If in details, in which Aristotle is so trenchant, he often considers the unseemly, what is contrary to nature, nevertheless around this whole there hovers a halo of moral elevation that pertains to an entirely different world than the natural strength and safety of the Aristotelian institutions.

With such opposite starting points, these two also certainly must come to conflicting results. But it is one and the same power that affects the natural conditions and impulses, and also provides the purpose for which man and his chosen connections have to strive. This explains the relationship between nature and ethos, which reality illustrates, and thus also the relation between Plato and Aristotle.

Relation between Nature and Ethos in general

The conditions wrought by nature are the necessary basis of the ethos. Marriage, parental authority are based on the natural impulse of procreation, the helplessness of children, etc. But as such they not only receive a law from the ethos, they also lay down a law for it, only in a different way. The ethos prevails over nature through its act (actual), by what it positively wants, ordering nature in terms of its purposes, such as the master over the servant. In this manner it shapes natural copulation into the thoroughly ethical institution of marriage. But nature gives a law to the ethos by its character (substantial), by what it is, as with the servant vis-à-vis the master. Though something is demanded of him, nothing can be demanded that he is not able to accomplish. For example, a law could not implement the power of children over adults, even if it were absurd enough to wish it. But true moral demands hereby run up against a barrier in the incapacity of earthly nature, and they become untrue, like nonsensical laws of that kind, if they do not take this restriction into consideration, but instead try to evade it.

But the natural conditions are also the prelude to the ethical. They then form the first link in the great chain which forms the historical progress in the ethos itself. Already in the instinct of animals, in the insensate impulse of the plant, there is that which, as morality, prompts men in ever more exalted form in the various epochs. This is Aristotle’s justification. From the effort of unconscious things, he goes over to the ought of conscious beings, sequencing to the uninterrupted climax.

Finally – besides the fact that nature is the substance of the ethos, and the less developed representation of the shapes thereof – nature has this in common with the ethos, that it leads to the same outcome in ethical relations, independently of the ethos. The natural impulse is set up so that it, purely in accordance with its own qualities, is a determining factor to meet the requirements which do not have the same root that it does. If people wished to isolate themselves, the natural need for aid would drive them to the state. And yet the peculiar significance of the state is not this aid. The want of security calls for public punishment to deter crime. Yet it is this public punishment as just retribution that is grounded in the higher order of the ethical world.

This is the basis of the community of Plato and Aristotle, through which they, pursuing opposites, on the whole not desiring it, yet arrive at similar results. Plato requires a multiplicity of forces and their fulfilled formation for the rich harmony of his depiction; so does he obtain the gradation of classes [Ständen]. Aristotle illustrates the natural want of this gradation, but he obtains thereby the fullness of the shape, like Plato. Plato has his state seek after the idea of the just, and as a result, happiness follows. Aristotle merely has it seek happiness, and this also results in virtue. It is a comparison of two architects, one of whom, by seeking merely to answer the purpose of the building, unintentionally makes a work of art, while the other wishes to answer all the demands of beauty, and so as a matter of course cannot leave unsatisfied any of the building’s requirements.

Value of the Ideal View and of the Empirical

Both also recognize the single spirit that prevails through all creation; but Plato believes he can see it immediately at a higher level than what is extant, and can behold it without the aid of what is extant; Aristotle wishes to recognize it in its expression in the lower levels, and thus be certain of the higher. This also portrays the only two true human ways of knowledge, ideal contemplation and empirical investigation.[1]

They also are inseparable. For Plato, the contemplation of reality always results in elevation to its primeval image [Urbilds], and if Aristotle were not already filled in advance with a harmonious contemplation, he would not have arrived at these results. Only this: with each of them, the one or the other is repressed. Both approaches therefore are clearly presented right at the beginning of philosophy, thus guaranteeing the unity of its object – but no less its own inadequacy. The empirical way appears safe and all-attaining, mediating the law of its progress from the antecedent course to its climax and thereby determining its future stages. But progress in nature is not like a straight line in which two points determine a third, but is like the vibrant growth of a plant, whereby its flower and the fruit cannot simply be extrapolated from its seed and stem. So he who understands the significance of the beginning, would have to know the end. But just as true and apt is that which corresponds: we do not understand the importance of the beginning, because the end is hidden from us.

From this comes the continuous uncertainty and often the error of the Aristotelian analogy. “Every whole of nature is greater than the parts.” From which he concludes: “The state is also higher than man.” But with any natural whole, the invigorating impulse proceeds from it and not from the parts; in the state, however, it is people, not the state, that put people in motion. And who can guarantee that the highest vocation is not the perfection of man without the state, whereby, as Aristotle himself says, he becomes like the gods? While for every activity nature provides tools which are not for itself, but for someone else, Aristotle deems slavery justified as a tool for the family and its care. But whether or not in the higher sphere of free beings, the existence of a mere tool will be discarded by the spirit that used it in the lower sphere, is something which that comparison cannot reveal.

Here, then, is the seat of the error which is the basis of the much-discussed defense of slavery. Although this no longer receives acknowledgment, reasoning from what nature calls for is still held by many to be infallible. The higher level always has a law of an entirely new sort, if only because it is the higher. Wealth contains poverty, but poverty does not contain wealth. The observation of that which precedes, and of progress itself, therefore can only direct, determine the selection, confirm, but cannot provide the proper knowledge for itself. For this reason, an immediate observation of the same is necessary for it to be recognized for what it should be or will be, because only by it is the previous course made understandable, while not being given by it. This constitutes the ideal contemplation.

But it is a special gift, and it promises, in accordance with its nature, only a limited knowledge. If the eye only sees by the sun, it will only see what Helios wills more or less to illuminate for it. So also, when the mind though the idea, which it itself is not, receives the power to recognize the good, its knowledge is dependent on how far this Helios sends its rays into the world and to its eye. And so far it has not granted to mortals all the splendor of its light. Plato himself, who to this day is held to have the glory of the sublimest mind that has applied itself to philosophy, is likewise only struck by a ray thereof. History after him has engendered higher thoughts, a life of nobler and deeper meaning, than he intuited, and he could not even keep his depiction free of untrue, opacifying traits.

If empiricism and the vision of the ideal interpenetrate, knowledge will probably increase in degree, but deficient knowledge will not be made into perfect knowledge.

Explanation of the Conflict between Plato and Aristotle

Now the question arises: from whence does it come that these two paths here appear divided, indeed hostile to each other? Why does Plato not inquire into the real and concrete activities of nature, and even design the state partly contrary to its conditions; and even more so, why does Aristotle close his eyes to what is higher, and remain content with the imperfect world? This is explained only by the lack of historical character in Greek philosophy. They both assume the existence of an impulse which is working towards a conclusion in simultaneous progressions from the lowest stages of unconscious nature to the highest stages of men and philosophers. But the same sequence of stages in time, the progress of generations and world epochs, and beyond that, the future transformation of conditions to which men are subjected on earth – these are things they do not consider. So, the unity of the given condition and its imperfection with the advanced condition and its perfection is wanting, and onesidedness of one form or another is inevitable. Plato steadfastly maintains that the perfect ought to exist. But he finds no relation of it with reality, and this lack appears to him to be accidental, or at any rate unaccounted for: and yet he cannot learn anything from it, nor is there a reason to consider it. Aristotle on the other hand steadfastly maintains that the real does not allow for perfection. Therefore what seems to him to be the highest, in fact the final object, is precisely the imperfect. So he falls into the contradiction: nature strives after perfection, and yet it has in itself the law that it cannot attain perfection.

[1] It hardly needs mentioning that empiricism here is not meant in the ordinary sense as a merely passive recording, without the control and penetration of mind.