Aristotle studied under Plato and tutored Alexander the Great. If only because of his pedigree he should be read and understood by anyone who is interested in politics. But those who want to understand politics in general, and American politics in particular, would do well to study the works of Aristotle for the insight they provide on human nature and the nature of politics.
According to Aristotle, a person can be truly human only within a community. Aristotle wrote in the Politics that any man who exists outside of a community is either a beast or a god (Politics 1253a2, 1253a25; see also NE 1097b10). For man is by nature a political animal which means if he is to act according to his nature he must live among others.
In Aristotelean terms one would say that in order to reach his telos–his purpose, or end–man must live among other men. Only when among others can man reason and communicate in a manner that is natural. Simply stated: It is unnatural for man to live alone and natural for him to live in community with others.
For politics this means that the political entity in which men live has the obligation to see that it functions in such a way that men can reach their telos within it. Since men join together in order to be fulfilled, the community which they join is only justified to the degree to which it allows them to do so.
Men cannot exist outside of the political community, but the political community exists only for man’s happiness. Therefore, any political community that exists for a reason other than man’s fulfillment is unjust and should be reformed or abandoned.
One should not confuse Aristotle for being a revolutionary however. Aristotle is a conservative in the way Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk were conservatives. Aristotle recognizes that men are in need of boundaries and laws but that those laws exist to help guide man to a more just life. “There is therefore a natural impulse in all men towards an association of this sort…Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he is isolated from law and justice he is the worst of all…The virtue of justice belongs to the city; for justice is an ordering of the political association, and the virtue of justice consists in the determination of what is just” (Politics 1253a25).
Through Aristotle we see a justification for the American colonists’ war for Independence from England as well as a defense of the U.S. Constitution. If we take the U.S. Declaration of Independence at its face we see that the colonists felt the end of their existence–those things that they required to be fulfilled–were being denied to them by the British. It is common sense that if your current situation denies to you life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that you have every right to break away. But, common sense is flimsy ground on which to base a war. One needs a sophisticated normative justification for one’s actions in that instance. Such a justification can be found in Aristotle which is simply that while man needs the political, the political exists for the sake of man’s well being. Therefore, when man’s well being is not being facilitated by a political entity man is free to break away for the political has then lost its legitimacy.
This understanding of the political is further embodied by the U.S. Constitution which was created for the explicit purpose of facilitating man’s quest for fulfillment. In no way does Aristotle say that the government is the source of man’s happiness. Quite to the contrary in fact. Man does not turn to the state or the government for happiness. Rather, man’s happiness is found within himself and in cooperation with other men. The government exists to help balance competing interests when one interest may unjustifiably infringe upon another’s quest for happiness, but the government does not guarantee happiness to anyone much less everyone. This is what the Constitution guarantees as well. The U.S. Constitution was put in place to make sure that we can all pursue those things that will fulfill us while guaranteeing that no person, and no government, can prevent us from doing so in an unjust manner. The Constitution does not guarantee happiness to anyone but it sets up an environment where we can all pursue our happiness as much as we are willing and able so long as we do not act unjustly upon others.
Reading Aristotle may not seem to be the best way to understand our Constitution. But our Founders were well versed in the classics which means if we want to understand them we must understand what they understood. Moreover, our Founders were in conversation with the greatest minds in political intellectual history. They did not write in a vacuum and we should not consider them within a vacuum either. We must consider the intellectual lineage within which our Founders fall if we want to understand and appreciate them and what we have inherited from them.
Read The Politics by Aristotle here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3227
Kyle Scott teaches political science and constitutional law at the University of Houston and has just published his fourth book, The Federalist Papers: A Reader’s Guide. In addition to his academic writing Kyle’s work has appeared in The Washington Times, Christian Science Monitor, Houston Chronicle, Huffington Post, and Foxnews.com. Kyle is also a member of Constituting America’s College Level Advisory Board and has contributed to the Constitution in 90 Days and the Federalist Papers in 90 Days.