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The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was one of the most important Western philosophers in ancient times. He contributed to nearly every aspect of human knowledge and society, especially in the field of politics. Aristotle even wrote an entire book called “Politics”. I found the full English-translated version of Aristotle’s “Politics” through Fordham University’s “The Ancient History Sourcebook” in the Greek subgenre of Philosophy (http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/ancient/asbook07.asp#Philosophy).
“Politics” is a comprehensive examination of the origins and structure of Greek society. Like the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, Aristotle’s perspective on politics is deeply-rooted in the city-state, or “polis” as the Greeks call it. In a polis, all citizens in a Greek city-state hold a functioning role in government. Young citizens would serve in the military, middle-aged citizens would govern, and older citizens took care of religious affairs. Newsome High School’s English Department adds on stating that “Since citizenship involves an active role in running the state, a citizen identifies strongly with the city-state to which he belongs, to the point that the Greeks consider exile to be a fate worse than death.”
Aristotle’s “Politics” as well as many other works from ancient Greece were shaped by its cultural and temporal contexts. Religion was present in all areas of ancient Greek life, especially in politics. With religion came stories and myths used to clarify the origins of the world, gods that represented each tangible or intangible aspect of life, and temples which saturated the Greek municipal landscape. These aspects of ancient Greek life allowed for Greek government and society to function and thrive.
Aristotle critically analyzes the political infrastructure of ancient Greece in Books IV-VI. Accordingly, a strong middle class prevents corruption and oppression. He goes on to say “though it is not necessary to give everyone equal access to public office, it is never wise to exclude entirely any group from power.” Aristotle recommends education and inclusiveness in order to preserve a constitution. Aristotle acknowledged that there were three kinds of government, each consisting of two extremes: good and bad or “just and unjust”, depending on how the ruler leads. When only one person is given the power to rule, the government is considered as a monarchy if the ruler is good or “just” and a tyranny if the ruler is bad. When a small group of elitists rule, the government is an aristocracy if the rulers are good and an oligarchy if the rulers are bad. When all of the citizens that reside within the city-state rule, a constitution is a polity if they rule well and a democracy if they rule poorly. In general, “Politics” states that a government is good or just when it benefits all of the citizens residing within the city-state and unjust when it benefits only those in power, whether singular or several. Aristotle also acknowledged that there were three branches of civic government. The first branch of civic government was known as the deliberative. The deliberative branch makes the major political decisions of the city-state. The second branch of civic government was known as the executive branch. The executive branch handles the everyday tasks of the city-state. The third and final branch of civic government was known as the judicial branch. The judicial branch oversees the legal affairs of the city-state.
Books VII and VIII refer back to the initial question of how the ideal city-state would appear to be. Surely, such a city would be large enough for self-sufficiency but would also be small enough to ensure fellow feeling. Aristotle notes that a successful city-state should be located by the water to allow for easy sea commerce, which was the easiest and fastest channel of transport that was available back then. Education ensures the well-being of the city-state, which is why Aristotle states his preference of a public program of education as opposed to something like private tutoring. His recommended curriculum consisted of a variety of learning subjects including reading and writing, physical education, music, and drawing. This system of education helped citizens make the most of both work and play, as well as allow the amount of leisure time in which to pursue the good life.
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