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Aristotle

Supported by his father, a medical doctor, Aristotle at eighteen went to Athens to study under Plato, and he remained at Plato's academy for twenty years – until Plato's death in 347. As a student, Aristotle supported Plato's philosophy, but soon he modified his views. He moved from Plato's reality and essence in abstract ideas to a collector of facts. He believed in reason and the spirituality of the heavens as did Plato, but he also believed in observation. Many, for example, still assumed that rivers flowed from some great pool of water hidden from humanity's view. Aristotle advised such people to climb mountains and observe that rivers begin as small streams in high places.

Harmony was central to Aristotle's theory of politics, as it had been with Plato. Aristotle saw humans as social creatures and that social participation was inescapable. In other words, Aristotle believed that no citizen belonged just to himself, that every civilized person was a member of the state, and that no one should be immune from the rules of a community. He believed that the welfare of a community contributed to the well-being of its individual members.

Drawing again from classification, he put the city-state above the family and individuals, claiming that the whole must necessarily be prior to the part. He saw the state as necessary in creating harmony – by promoting balance, moderation and protecting the individual from abuse. He favored a balance between the powers of the state and the rights of individuals, between regimentation and anarchy, claiming that the state should not be so powerful or all encompassing that it fails to offer a good amount of liberty to its individual citizens – which put him at odds with Plato's totalitarianism.

Much of Aristotle's political writing was a retort to Plato's republic. He believed that Plato's communism – the elite holding everything in common – was impossible. He wrote that property owned in common received less attention than property owned by an individual. Men, he wrote, care most for their private possessions.

In addition to opposing communism, Aristotle opposed excessive wealth. Responding to strife between Greece's rich and poor, Aristotle applied his golden mean and advocated a balance between great wealth and poverty. To this end he favored the creation of a strong middle class and government assistance to the poor, with everyone having the right to property but no one accumulating more than was needed for what he called "intelligent living."

It was Aristotle who made the first effort at political science. His interest in data led him to gather information on 158 Greek and other cities. From his data he concluded that the best form of government was rule by an elite. He believed that democracy was unsuitable because of the lack of wisdom among common people and that common people were swayed by demagogues. The best rulers, he claimed, were people who had first learned to be good subjects. There was, he wrote, nothing degrading about obedience when obedience is directed toward good ends. When men are young, he suggested, they should be warriors. They should not rule until they are older. And they should be priests when they are older still – past an active life.

Aristotle believed that superior people should rule inferior people. Losing himself in a gross generalization he viewed Greeks as the superior people. He believed that Greeks had the high spirit of "the northern races" and the intelligence of "the eastern races." He wrote that Greeks should not be slaves but that they should be slave owners.

Aristotle believed in torture for eliciting truth from slaves – as was commonly practiced among Greek slave masters. "Torture is a kind of evidence," he wrote, "which appears trustworthy, because a sort of compulsion is attached to it." Aristotle recognized that a person being tortured might say whatever the torturer wants to hear in order to stop the torture, but he accepted it for use against foreigners and slaves – those he considered barbarians – because they were simple like children and inclined, therefore, to tell the truth.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.