Aristotle on What Makes A Polis (City)

   The necessity for us of the separation of Church and State, as well as the end of the age of the polis,* makes modern politics fundamentally different from ancient politics. The Greek polis is the sovereign city. The closest thing to this in the modern world might be certain colonies, like Plymouth and Providence Rhode island, though these are not completely sovereign. Prior to the age of the empire and Christianity, the polis concerned both the spiritual and political virtues. In a teaching traced to Jacob Klein, the contract theory of government is one of the few great achievements of modern thought, so it is interesting to see how Aristotle (Politics, 1280b) writes of the social compact* below. One point appears which turns out to be more fundamental for us than Aristotle could have known. He is discussing democracy and oligarchy, and the claim of the oligarchs to have a greater share in the city because per individual, they pay more (and are forgetful of the political liberty and the lives of the soldiers that has allowed them to grow rich and secures their wealth).

…But no offices…take thought that the others…or none of those coming under the compacts should be unjust or depraved in any way, but only that they should not act unjustly toward one another. But concerning virtue and vice, politicians look through and consider the well legislated (eunomias). It is clear that any true polis, and not only those we name city, not only in speech, must be caring for virtue. For otherwise it becomes a mere battle alliance, which differs only in place. And law becomes a compact, and, as the sophist Lycophon says, a guarantor among one another of the just things, but not the sort of thing to make the citizens good and just…..

…the city is not a partnership in a location and for the sake of not committing injustice against each other and of transacting business…but the city is the partnership in living well both of families and clans, for the sake of a complete and self-sufficient life…friendship consists in a common social life…The end and purpose of a polis is the good life…A polis is… the association of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficient existence; and such…is a life of happiness and goodness. It is therefore for the sake of noble actions that political associations exist. Hence, those who contribute most to this sort of an association share more in the city than those who are equal or greater in freedom and birth, but unequal in political virtue, than those who exceed them in wealth, but are exceeded by them in virtue….

    Our government is set, by Jefferson, to secure rights, rather than to cultivate virtue. Happiness, by the way, enters our Declaration from Aristotle’s Ethics, where happiness is the end or goal and the health of the soul. But our right is the pursuit of happiness. Rights are prior to duties, due to human ignorance and the deficiency of everything man-made or artificial compared to the life of the soul. We leave virtue to be cultivated in private, and get this incredible diversity, often doing at least as well as anyone. It has been said that some universities are more like a polis than our cities. (After all, we are the only guys reading Aristotle!) As noted by ‘Tocqueville, religion too flourishes in a sense, in contrast with Europe. But this fits well with Socratic ignorance, or, everywhere except the best regime, ruled by wisdom or philosopher king, the contract theory of government seems to prevent a reign of ignorance. Christian poleis, such as the colonies, fail because Christianity is not a law like Islam or Israel, but the fulfillment of the law of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. The Old Testament is law for the Jews governed by Moses, and it is most amusing to see gentiles apply the book directly, as though the whole thing were a rule book or law, not sparing the rod, etc. We, the Christian nations, are in truth given a single commandment, and otherwise left on our own for fundamental legislating, taking Moses for a guide even as he did Abraham and Noah, in the first law against murder.

   What we have, or had, in the United States, is a nation and states that share sovereignty, while the cities, townships and counties do not share a common way of life, law, nor defense, beyond the high school football game. Central concerns such as defense are the job of the national government, while education, for example, is the concern of each district. Decentralization is supposed to facilitate liberty and local concerns, while these will be mishandled by the national government in a more unitary system.

   Soon, in a blog from an old Republic course called “The Appearances of Justice,” we’ll consider the associations in which justice appears, and the different definitions in the Republic, such as “minding one’s own business.” But it- justice- is only in associations: marriage, the family, the clan, the village, the city, township, county, state, nation and between nations, or among all humanity.


*Polis is the root of our words police, politics, polity, polite, politic, etc. “Politician” has no ignoble meaning in Geek, and the words for noble and beautiful are the same, Kalon, distinguished according to context with a double meaning. (We tried to reintroduce these in English, speaking of “noble wenches,” Greek and Shakespearean archaic terms to rile contemporary opinion. My Greek is rusty, and this Greek is difficult. Translation is mostly Carnes Lord, Laurence Berns, and Mr.Barker.

**Hobbes Locke and Rousseau famously develop this theory, available to but not developed by Socrates, as in Book II of Plato’s Republic. These hold fist that man is not by nature, but by contract political, and do not believe that justice is necessarily a part of happiness or the good..

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