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Aristotle’s Definition of Political Science

Aristotle (385-322 B.C.) writes in the Nicomachean Ethics that the end of politics is to engender “a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.”1  For that reason, statesmen must have some knowledge of the human psyche.2 If Aristotle’s observation means something more than that politicians should have a good grasp of human nature, then what are the dimensions of this knowledge?

We saw earlier that differentiated human psychological consciousness is not something that men have always had.  Rather, this was the unique result of the discovery in Hellas of philosophy as a mode of consciousness of existence‑in‑truth, of openness to transcendent divine reality. That this differentiation should be a principal discovery of a theological revolution, however, is somewhat perplexing. Yet, if we observe that the men of these ancient cultures came to know themselves only by reference to acts of the gods or by acts of men who were both mortal and immortal, once the hegemony of the intracosmic gods was broken the differentiated consciousness of man was a logical development.  Prephilosophic ancient man could not see or understand himself as uniquely human as long as the only ones with individuality were gods or men who were nearly gods.  The newly differentiated consciousness of the divine reality as transcendent, not intracosmic, had the effect, therefore, of pushing the human psyche into the forefront of human consciousness because now man was understood to be the source of order and disorder.  Eric Voegelin writes that “Through the opening of the soul the philosopher finds himself in a new relation with God;  he not only discovers his own psyche as an instrument for experiencing transcendence but at the same time discovers the divinity in its radically nonhuman transcendence.  Hence, the differentiation of the psyche is inaepuruhle from a new truth about God.”3

We find this “new truth about God” manifest in Aristotle’s discussion of intelligence (nous) and of the contemplative life (bios theoretikos)  as the maximal actualization of human happiness.   Aristotle taught that human action is oriented towards ends hierarchically ordered and intellected by the soul, which is itself hierarchically ordered into higher (rational) and lower (appetitive and vegetative) aspects. The soul’s life in accordance with virtue is true happiness, which in the sphere of human action is the cause (anion) and arche of all that men do. In human affairs, true happiness is analogous to the divine arche in the field of physis.4

Nous, as the highest capacity of the rational part of the soul, deals with “the highest objects of knowledge.”5 “At its highest level, poetic contemplation of the divine reality, Aristotle calls it the striving to be deathless or immortal since, he says, nous is either “divine or the:  most divine thing in us.”6  How is this “immortalizing” aspect of Aristotle’s philosophy crucial to understanding his definition of political science?  It is crucial because noetic consciousness of transcendent divine reality articulated in Greek philosophy, the philosophic insight that the arche of all that is was not a cosmic god but a divine principle (arche) beyond the cosmos that man could contemplate with his reason (logos) and not merely honor by ritual sacrifices, broke the hegemony of the myth and opened the way for a “science” of politics.

Political science, as Aristotle developed it, therefore, is the science (episteme) or knowledge of human action within a field of ends reaching from the highest (the divine reality) to the lowest existent things in the order of being. Human action at its highest level is the immortalizing act of human contemplation (theoretike)  of the divine nous.7 With this as his standard, Aristotle saw that the rationality of human action on even the lowest level logically depends upon an ultimate end.  That is the context in which Aristotle comments in the second chapter of the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics that our desire would be empty and vain if there were no highest good which gives meaning to all our other desires and upon which all others depend.8  The symbol that Aristotle uses to describe this dependence is “participation” (metulepsis).9 We participate with our human nous in the divine reality (ho nous theion) through noetic activity.  Aristotle is saying that human action cannot be understood apart from consciousness of the divine without serious consequences not only in philosophy, the life of a single man, but also in the life of an entire community.


Aristotle’s concept of friendship is illustrative. It may seem unusual to us that one of the founders of Western political science should focus upon friendship as the principal good of political life.  Our contemporary concept of political community seems to be based on the compromise of our desires or interests in a quite tawdry clash of competing claims for governmental action.  James Madison in The Federalist, Number 10, delights in the notion that the American democratic republic is based on the competition between factions, which in an extended territory lends stability to the regime.  Aristotle believed, however, that political community was held together by something greater than the mechanical resolution of particular private interests.  He said that friendship (philia) seems to hold together the polls, because statesmen are naturally more concerned about philia than they are about justice.10  Hence to promote concord (homonoia) concerning the most important things is the statesman’s chief goal. One cannot, of course, dismiss concern for justice. An unjust political regime will inevitably have recourse to greater and greater injustices, if it is to survive.  But friendship leads to concord, which seems to be a synonym for “order” for Aristotle; and without order, we may infer, there can be no justice. Aristotle even says that community (koinoniu) is friendship.11  Where community is, there is some friendship, just as sharing mutual experiences leads to an experience of a mutual bond.

Aristotle also uses philia in differentiating between types of political constitutions. The friendship of a king, he says, is similar to the friendship of a father to his child.  Friendship between a husband and wife is the same as between rulers and subjects in an aristocracy.  Friendship between brothers is equivalent to the relationship of citizens in a timocracy, which is a political community oriented towards martial ends, or a warrior society.12  By the same token, friendship gives Aristotle a standard by which to denote tyranny as a political constitution which is a perversion of the good.  There is no friendship in a tyranny.  Friendship depends on having something in common, some principle of equality.  All the same, there are higher and lower types of friendship.  Aristotle distinguishes between friendship and the object of one’s love.  There is friendship between those who love the good and those who love what is pleasant and useful.13  Obviously, the friendships based on things pleasurable and useful will break easily when conditions change.  The most durable is friendship among men who love the good.  Thus the social bond, in so far as that is a type of friendship, is not only an exterior community but also a vital reflection of an interior community.  Statesmen must have some insight into this relationship if they are to be successful in encouraging concord.

In the feelings of a good man towards himself, Aristotle finds the highest type of friendship.  This self‑love reflects the class of theological experience which underlies Aristotle’s political science.   Today to argue that the best men love themselves, of course, would be perceived as eccentric.  The oft‑expressed ideal of modernity, if not the reality, is for men to help their fellow men and thus to avoid an excessive concern for themselves.  But the self‑love in which Aristotle is convinced the highest type of friendship is embodied refers neither to egoism nor altruism.  The man who loves himself, Aristotle says, loves that in him which is most noble, good.  Thus he tries to make that dominant in himself.  He obeys his nous, which Aristotle says, always chooses what is best.14  Aristotle calls the good man spoudaios, sometimes translated as “virtuous” or “mature.” The relationship of the spoudaios with himself is the standard by which to judge friendship.15 We recall that Aristotle considered the nous to be the most divine part of man, or divine itself, and it is the act of nous which shapes the lover of himself into the good man.  By loving his nous, the spoudaios opens himself to the divine nous and by that means becomes virtuous. This was the nucleus of Aristotle’s concept of political science as a science of human action.

The Science of Human Action

The concept of action, as Aristotle understood it, includes both what men do and what they ought to do. Today we can distinguish between “behavior” and “action.” Behavior is something man has in common with animals.  Cows, chickens, and human beings have in common certain biological functions which evoke no moral valuation.  They eat, grow, age, sleep, defecate; in short, they “behave.” But “to act” implies something which is unique to human beings:  man’s consciousness of his action as morally right or wrong.  As we have seen, for Aristotle an act is moral insofar as it fulfills man’s unique nature. To the extent that man can fulfill his humanity, or destroy it, it is said that he “acts.” This consciousness is the meaning of human action which Aristotle believed we could know scientifically.  Moreover he thought that such knowledge (episteme) is the necessary prerequisite for politics because politics has as its end the making of virtuous citizens.

For Aristotle, the science of politics was the architectonic science, the master science, because its end, the good for man, is employed in directing political affairs and is ultimately directed at the education of citizens. To be sure, without political order, the most basic and immediate end of politics, there would be no other human affairs, knowledge, or skills.  Political order makes possible all these human concerns.  Nevertheless, it is not sufficient merely to live.  Man must live well, that is, live as a human moral agent.  As the science of human action, political science enables man to fulfill this aspiration.

To act, Aristotle thought, is to act in reference to a good.  Human action is teleological.  Man is conscious of this hierarchy of goods the moment that he recognizes that anything is higher or lower than another.  The universality of this recognition is manifest in common speech when we refer to particularly base acts as “animal.” The cosmos, too, reveals a hierarchy in which divine reality is the highest order,  man the next highest, then the animal, vegetable, and inorganic orders.  So we implicitly admit that there is an ultimate good, if we observe that one thing is higher than something else.  Aristotle thus rightly distinguished between higher and lower types of political constitutions, higher and lower aspects of the soul,  and between higher and lower orders of being.  There must be an end, Aristotle observed, which we desire for its own sake, because if we live in ignorance of that ultimate end which governs or places limits upon our individual actions, our lives will be governed by an infinite series of desires, and not by the good which is best for man.  Knowledge of this ultimate end, therefore, is, he says, “important to our lives.”16

We have already discussed Aristotle’s concept of the contemplative life as the good for man.  Inasmuch as the highest form of human action is that by which man experiences his participation in the divine nous, we can see that the basis of Aristotle’s science of human action, the knowledge of the virtues by which men actualize their capacity to be human, is the new theological experience of the transcendent divine reality.  Human action is rational in the substantive sense of the term only in so far as it aims at its proper ultimate end.  In the Metaphysics Aristotle says:

“Further, the final cause is an end, and that sort of end which is not for the sake of something else, but for whose sake everything else is; so that if there is to be a last term of this sort, the process will not be infinite; but if there is no such term, there will be no final cause, but those who maintain the infinite series eliminate the Good without knowing it (yet no one would try to do anything if he were not going to come to a limit); nor would there be reason in the world; the reasonable man; at least, always acts for a purpose, and this is a limit; for the end is a limit.”17

Aristotle articulates in the above passage the basis of his concept of political science as a science of human action. We perhaps have difficulty making sense of it because the cultural basis of a discussion of action with reference to a “final cause” has been eclipsed by new concepts of physics. Yet if we penetrate to the experience which is the nucleus of Aristotle’s concept of rational discourse about human conduct, we perceive he is saying that without the transcendent Good, human action lacks the limits upon which the rationality of human action depends. The reasonable man, the man of nous, knows these limitations and always acts for some purpose. One might say that his actions are ordered, not random.

Hence limitations on political action will, in the Aristotelian sense, be based on the limitations of human, that is, rational, moral action.  Moral limits to political ends come from man’s nature as a moral, political being. Aristotle, unlike the Christian political philosophers, does not find the end for man in a life after death and thus does not see political action limited by the other‑worldly perspective of the Christian expectation of life in the city of God. Rather, he saw human action limited by the end‑oriented rationality of action in this life.

Phronesis and Rights by Nature

Political science in one sense is the science of human action, but Aristotle also defined it as the prudential giving of laws which aim to make citizens virtuous. Such a goal requires that statesmen themselves be virtuous, and they are to the degree that they are prudent, since prudence is a virtue.  The requisite virtue of statesmen according to this model is practical wisdom (phronesis), sometimes translated as prudence.18  How is phronesis related to politics?  Perhaps by taking note of that aspect of the soul where phronesis is manifest, we will find the answer.  Phronesis pertains to the calculative part of the soul, the logistikon, that aspect of the soul that is obedient to reason, while the scientific part, the epistemonikon, is reason itself.19  The logistikon calculates things that vary and to that degree, we may observe, is a lesser form of reason. Yet for the statesman, it is sufficient.  Politics is continually subject to change. Aristotle observes also that phronesis is the part of the soul that forms opinions,20  and from out of opinions one can refine the truth. Even the unproved assertions of the spoudaios, he says, are as deserving of as much attention as those statements he makes whose truth he demonstrates.21  Aristotle also tells us that phronesis issues commands; that is, its end is an authoritative statement of what we ought to do or not do.22

The political implications of Aristotle’s concept of paradigmatic law‑giving as the virtue of phronesis are brought out in his consideration of justice.23  Were we to attempt to find another topic which has had a greater influence on political thought in the West, we would have great difficulty.  Aristotle, like Plato, grappled with the Sophistic argument that nature and law are opposed, that there are no absolute standards of justice except the ability of the strong to subdue the weak.  Both Plato and Aristotle believed that nature and law are not opposed, that they are intimately related, and that the Sophistic argument should not be allowed to stand unchallenged.  An equivalent argument is the view commonly held today that what is “right” depends on the “values” of the particular individual who makes the valuation.  According to this view, nothing is right or wrong absolutely because everyone is different.  The sincerity of a person’s valuation determines the justice of an ethical judgment, not the nature of justice.

It is interesting that “nature” was chosen by Plato and Aristotle to delineate the concept of objective justice by which they refuted the Sophistic position. They were in search of a term that suggested a concept of that which is, of reality. And, even today, we speak of “human nature” or of “nature’s course,” and we mean something that is structured, settled, and independent of the will of man.  Yet Aristotle’s discussion of right by nature, what came in the Latin world to be called lex naturalis and jus naturale (“natural law” and “natural right”), suggests that this understanding is incomplete. It was another aspect of the meaning of nature (physis) that led Aristotle to choose this term.

What is “right by nature,”24  Aristotle says, does not exist by people thinking it to be so, but everywhere it must have the same force.  However, some people note that what is recognized as just is different and changeable and thus assume that all justice is merely conventional.  Aristotle agrees that all justice is changeable but shows it does not follow that all justice is conventional.  He says there is justice by nature and not by convention.  But justice by nature is also changeable.  Moreover, Aristotle tells us that it is evident which sort of justice is by nature and which is merely legal and conventional.

We might say, Well, what is evident to Aristotle is not evident to us. And we might ask, Who knows? and What is right by nature? Moreover, since it is changeable, how can it be everywhere forcefully existent? How can it be true, if it changes? In order to answer these questions we must refer to what Aristotle says about precision. The degree of precision in the matter of what is right by nature is necessarily a function of fording the measure. We could not be very precise about the weight of an elephant if the measure we used was that commonly used for liquid quantities.  The fragile character of right by nature also requires a suitable measure:  and that, he says, is the just man, the spoudaios.

Two passages in the Nicomachean Ethics define the spoudaios:

“Thus, what is good and pleasant differs with different characteristics or conditions, and perhaps the chief distinction of a man of high moral standards is his ability to see the truth in each particular moral question,  since he is, as it were, the standard and measure for such questions.”25

“But in all matters of this sort we consider that to be real and true which appears so to a good man.  If this is right, as it seems to be, and if virtue or excellence and the good man, insofar as he is good, are the measure of each thing, then what seem to him to be pleasures are pleasures and what he enjoys is pleasant”.26

In its realization, or actualization, right by nature is changeable, diverse; yet at the same time, it is unchangeable and everywhere the same, in the sense that what is right in the specific instance of concrete human action will always be seen to be so by the spoudaios‑ The circumstances in which we make ethical judgments are always changing, but what is right will always be judged correctly by the good man. He possesses the virtue of phronesis.

Eric Voegelin refers us to a passage in the Eudemiun Ethics which explains Aristotle’s reasoning. Aristotle asks, “What is the commencement of movement in the soul? The answer is clear, as in the universe, so in the soul, God moves everything.”27 In this reflection we may perhaps understand his use of the symbol “nature” as a concept applicable to human action, ethics. There is a connection between ethics and ontology, and the ontological symbol of physis best reflects that connection. Where is the connection? The above‑mentioned passage gives us a clue. Nature, physis, was theophanous, evoking in the Greek philosophers an experience of the divine reality which is its origin.

From the unmoved mover, the first cause of being, the movement of being flows into the range of human action. Similarly, Plato spoke of the phronimos as the man who experienced the Agathon, and acts with phronesis. These concepts express the connection between the movement of being and the field of ethics, human action. The spoudaios is permeable, open, to the movement of being and is the judge in the changing instances of human action of what is right by nature.

This formulation should be contrasted with the modern notion of “natural rights,” with which Aristotle’s concept of “right by nature” conflicts in several particulars. What is “right by nature” is not knowable by everyone: it is known only by the mature man. Some men, we infer, will never know what is right by nature, because they themselves live lives closed to the divine, that is, fundamentally unjust lives. Aristotle also emphasizes a consciousness of what is right, not the possession of a right. It is conceivable, therefore, that the exercise of a “natural right” could conflict with what is right. For Aristotle, however, right and justice were synonymous. The modern view to the contrary seeks preservation of rights “by any means necessary,” that is, even to the exclusion of justice. Thus the end of government is seen to be the preservation of rights as opposed to justice, order, or the common good. Furthermore, Aristotle’s concept of right was linked to his concept of nature, thus giving an ontological association to a basically political concept. Because nature (physis) for the Greek philosophers from Thales to Aristotle was theophanous, Aristotle used it in this context to evoke an experience of the relationship, the consubstantiality of law, justice, order, and community with the divine. Natural right, however, is above politics, fundamentally unlimited, autonomous, both of the political community and of justice. Whereas right by nature in Greek philosophy and its Latin formulation, natural law, were limitations on the state, natural right has become a chief means by which modern political theorists justify the extension of state power into areas hitherto considered private.


Suggested Readings

Beginning students should read Aristotle’s Nicomachema Ethics and Politics; advanced students, his Metaphysics and Physics. The above works are available in an inexpensive edition of the important works edited by Richard McKeon, The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1968).

Valuable secondary sources are Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Plato and Aristotle, Vol. III (of which the section on Aristotle is available separately in paper); Werner Jaeger, Aristotle, Fundamentals of the History of His Development, Richard Robinson, trans. 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1962); Sir David Ross, Aristotle, 1st ed., rev. (London and New York: Methuen, Barnes and Noble, University Paperbacks, 1966); Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally and Co., 1964).



 1. (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Martin Ostwald, trans.  (Indianapolis:  Bobbs‑Merrill Co., Inc., Library of Liberal Arts, 1962), 1099b30.  All translations from the Nicomachean Ethics quoted here are by Martin Ostwald.

2. N.E., 1102a18.

3. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics.  An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 67.

4. “And the source and cause of all good things we consider as something worthy of honor and as divine.” N.E., 1102a2‑5.

5. N.E., 1177a21.

6. N.E., 1177a16.

7. “Further, the final cause is an end, and that sort of end which is not for the sake of something else, but for whose sake everything else is; so that if there is to be a last term of this sort, the process will not be infinite; but if there is no such term, there will be no final cause, but those who maintain the infinite series eliminate the Good without knowing it (yet no one would try to do anything if he were not going to come to a limit); nor would there be reason in the world; the reasonable man, at least, always acts for a purpose, and this is a limit; for the end is a limit.” Aristotle, The Works of Aristotle, W. D. Ross, trans., Metaphysica, Vol. VIII, 994b8‑16. All translations from the Metaphysica quoted here are by W. D. Ross.

8. “Now, if there exists an end in the realm of action which we desire for its own sake, an end which determines all our other desires; if, in other words, we do not make all our choices for the sake of something else – for in this way the process will go on infinitely so that our desire would be futile and pointless ‑ then obviously this end will be the good, that is, the highest good.  Will not the knowledge of this good, consequently, be very important to our lives?  Would it not better equip us, like archers, who have a target to aim at, to hit the proper mark” If so, we must try to comprehend in outline at least what this good is and to which branch of knowledge or to which capacity it belongs.” N.E., 1094a 19‑26.

9. “And thought thinks on itself because it shares (metalepsin) the nature of the object of thought; for it becomes an object of thought in coming into contact with and thinking its objects, so that thought and object of thought are the same.” Aristotle, Metaphysica, 1072b19f.

10. N.E., 1155a20f.

11. N.E., 1159b32.

12. N.E., 1160b24f.

13. N.E., 1156a6f.

14. N.E., 1169a12f.

15. N.E., 1166a1

16. N.E., 1094a23

17. Aristotle, Metaphysica, 994b8‑16.  My analysis of this passage is based on the interpretation of Eric Voegelin, “On Debate and Existence,” Intercollegiate Review, III (1967), 143‑152.

18. For a fuller discussion of phronesis on which my interpretation is based, see Eric Voegelin, “Das Rechte von Natur,” in Anumnesis.  Zur Theorie Der Geschichte Und Pulitik (Munchen:  R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1966), 124‑133.

 19. N.E., 1139a5f; 1140a24f.

 20. N.E., 1140b25f.

 21. N.E., 1143b10f.

 22. N.E., 1143a7f.

 23. Aristotle’s discussion of justice is found in Book V , Nicomachean Ethics.

 24. N.E., 1134b16‑1135a5.

 25. N.E., 111300f.

 26. N. E , 1176a 15.

 27. Aristotle, The Works of Aristotle, Vol. IX, Ethica Eudemia, J. Solomon, trans. (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), 1248a25.

Dick Bishirjian

Richard J. Bishirjian, was Founding President and Professor of Government at Yorktown University from 2000 to 2016. He earned a B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in Government and International Studies from the University of Notre Dame under the direction of Gerhart Niemeyer. He is editor of A Public Philosophy Reader (St. Augustine's, 2015) and The Conservative Rebellion (St. Augustine's, 2015); and author of The Coming Death and Future Resurrection of American Higher Education (St. Augustine's, 2017)

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