Aristotle’s Political ScienceAristotle 384-322 BC | Born in Stagira, Macedonia
Though Plato was the first to elaborate a Socratic philosophy of politics, his student Aristotle was the first to articulate a practically-oriented political science, meant to be of use to legislators, statesmen, and citizens. Like his teachers, Aristotle did much to promote philosophy as an ally to the city and a guide for political action, and thereby not only encouraged toleration of philosophy but established it as a crucial basis of authority throughout the Western world. Yet despite the importance of reason or speech in Aristotle’s political teaching, he did not advance any theory or argument for freedom of speech. Moreover, he argued that the city (or the political community) has supreme authority over all things, implying that there is no absolute limit to political authority that might carve out any universal “rights,” such as the right to free speech.
Philosophy, Science, and Political Authority
Aristotle’s argument for the supreme authority of the city is foundational to the Politics, his treatise on political science. In the first chapters of the Politics, Aristotle argues that the city is a natural whole that emerges organically from natural but primitive associations like the independent family. He concludes on this basis that the human being is a mere “part” of the city just as a hand is a part of a body, implying that everything about the individual — his or her function, duties, and happiness — is determined by the city, which is to say by its laws and rulers. On this view, there is no distinct sphere of human liberty beyond the city, as is presupposed by our rights-oriented constitution.
The implications of this outlook for the question of speech is indicated more clearly in the introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics, the companion or prequel to the Politics which investigates happiness and virtue. Aristotle begins the Ethics with the argument that “every art and every inquiry” — and thus also every “science” — “is held to aim at some good” and that this good, or at least its highest or fullest form is the political good. He concludes from this that the city is authoritative over the use and purpose of all of the arts and sciences. Political authority determines the bounds, if not the conclusions, of all scientific inquiry.
While these arguments promote the authority of the city apparently at the expense of philosophy or free inquiry, they also crucially yoke the city’s authority to philosophy. Therefore, while they don’t propose any particular measures establishing freedom of speech, they nevertheless imply that the city depends philosophy, and therefore on a thorough questioning of all matters. For instance, while Aristotle argues that the city is authoritative over all the particular sciences, he also insists that this authority itself admits of a science — a supreme, or “architectonic” science. Aristotle furthermore suggests that although not everyone necessarily need to possess such a science, it is always better to understand things for oneself than to take one’s bearings from authority alone.
In his account of the natural origins of the city in the Politics, moreover, Aristotle proves even more radical than his teachers. For while Socrates takes pains to deny at his trial that he engaged in natural science or doubted the city’s gods, Aristotle’s argument for the supreme authority of the city is founded on a natural science that all but explicitly denies the agency of traditional gods in human politics. Thus, in promoting the authority of the city, Aristotle makes the city dependent on natural science, which it had hitherto regarded as a nuisance at best and at worst a grave danger. In doing so, Aristotle radically undermines traditional religious sources of authority.
Aristotle’s Politics. 2nd Ed. Edited and Translated by Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Edited and Translated by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.