Understanding Aristotle: 22 Definitions from The Politics

It would be difficult to overestimate the influence Aristotle’s Politics has had in shaping the Christian West. Whether it be the Saints who drew from his natural wisdom, or the early modern philosophers who held him as their foil, the West has always been in dialogue with Aristotle’s political thought.

Bust of Aristotle via Wikicommons, Giovanni Dall'Orto

It would be difficult to overestimate the influence Aristotle’s Politics has had in shaping the Christian West. Whether it be the Saints who drew from his natural wisdom, or the early modern philosophers who held him as their foil, the West has always been in dialogue with Aristotle’s political thought. In the excellent work, Christians as Political Animals, Dr. Marc Guerra states:

Aristotle’s Politics offered a coherent account of political life to which Christians could appeal in grappling with the thorny problems that plague that life, especially when one introduces a sovereign transpolitical community such as the Church. By emphasizing the natural, as opposed to the divine, origins of the city, the Politics, at least in principle, allowed the transpolitical religion to draw sharp distinctions between political and ecclesiastical authorities.

The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, would toil to show that an intelligible purposeful nature and Divine Revelation and Order are harmonious. Understanding the principle that grace perfects nature, the beloved Dumb Ox used God’s self-revelation and Aristotle’s natural philosophy to demonstrate that the entire cosmos was ordered according to Four Laws: Eternal Law, Divine Law, Natural Law, and Human Law. Catholic political thought, which includes the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, draws heavily from St. Thomas’ teaching, which in turn draw from The Philosopher, Aristotle.

 

The Politics

The following are a collection of selected terms from the glossary of Carnes Lord’s translation of the Politics. The Lord translation is the premiere English translation and is highly recommended.

Aristocracy (aristokratia): any for of regime in which virtue is taken into account in the selection of officials; more properly, rule of the few who are best (aristoi) on the basis of virtue, or aregime centrally concerned with the cultivation and practice of virtue

Art (techne): any practical or productive activity based on a body of communicable knowledge or expertize. The related term technites is rendered “artisan.”

Barbarian (barbaros): anyone of non-Greek stock, including relatively civilized peoples such as the Persians or the Phoenicians of Carthage.

Citizen (polites): a free person who is entitled to participate in the political life of a city throughthe holding of deliberative and judicial office.

City (polis): a political community characterized by social and economic differentiation, the rule of law, and republican government; the chief urban center of community

Custom (ethos): the custom of a city or the habit of an individual ; also translated “habit.” The related verb ethizein is rendered “to habituate.”

Democracy (demokratia): any regime in which the “people” (demos) rule or control the authoritative institutions of the city; more properly, rule of the poor or the majority in their own interest.

Palazzo Ducale in Venice (Aristotle the Legislator) via Wikicommons, Giovanni Dall’Orto

End (telos): the character of a thing when fully formed, its completion or perfection. Of related terms, teleios is rendered “complete,” teleisthai “to be completed.”

Happiness (eudaimonia): happiness as a settled condition and state of mind, well-being. See Nicomachean Ethics 1. “blessed” (makarios) is a stronger term connoting an extraordinary degree of happiness comparable to that associated with the gods.

Justice (to dikaion): what is right, fair, or morallyjustifiable; a right or rightful claim (this sense is generally rendered “[claim to]claim to justice”). Of related terms, the adjective dikaios is translated “just,” the adverb dikaios “justly” or “justifiablly”: dikaiosyne is rendered “[the virtue of] justice.”

Law (nomos): written or unwritten law, custom, or convention. Nomos in the broad sense (often translated elswhere as “convention”) is frequently understood to opposition to physis, “nature.” Related terms are nomimos, “lawful,” ta nomima, “usages” or “ordinances,” nomisma, “money,” and nomizein, “to consider.”

Moderation (sophrosyne): the virtue that controls the desires, particularly bodily desires; its opposite is the vice of “licentiousness” (akolasia). See Nicomachean Ethics 3.10-12. The related adjective sophron is translated “sound”; it connotes soundness of mind or good sense as well as self-control. “Moderate” and “moderateness” render metrios and metriotes respectively, terms which connote a measured or balanced condition.

Nature (physis): origin, growth, development (the related verb phyein is translated “to grow” or “to develop”); the character of a thing when fully developed, its nature; nature or the universe. For Aristotle and the Greeks generally, “nature” is a term of distinction (it is frequently found in opposition to “chance,” “art” or “law”), implying a standard of value independent of human thought or action.

Order (kosmos): order, beauty, adornement (also rendered “ordered beauty”); the visible universe or cosmos (rendered “universe”). “Orderers” (kosmoi) was the term for a magistracy in Crete similar to Spartan overseers. “Orderlieness” renders eukosmia, a term connoting public order or decency. The verb kosmein is translated “to adorn.”

Palazzo Ducale in Venice (Aristotle as the Symbol for Logic) via Wikicommons, Giovanni Dall’Orto

Polity (politeia): a form of popular rule involving oligarchic feautures and directed to the common interests; more properly, any regime combining oligarchy and democracy.

Power (dynamis): the capacity or potential of a thing in a general sense (dynamis derives from the common verb dynasthai, “to be able”); the nature or character of a thing as expressed in its potential; power in a specifically political and military sense; a military force; also rendered “capacity.” Dynastoi, a term referring to exceptionally wealthy and powerful men, is translated “the powerful.”

Prudence (phronesis): goodsense or soundness of mind; wisdom or intelligence; prudence. In Aristotle’s thought, phronesis is the virtue associated with the active or practical portion of the rational part of the soul, prudence or practucal wisdom.

Regime (politaei): the organizations of officies in a city, particualrly the most authoritative; the effective government or governing body of a city; the way of life of a city as refelcted in the end pursuied by the city as a whole and by those constituting its governing body (the commong translation “constitution” is misleading insofar as it connotes a form of legal order).

Science (episteme): knowledge in a general sense; an organized body of knowledge, a science (generally use of theoretical sciences as distinct from applied sciences or “arts”).

Vice (kakia): Badness, baseness, viciousness, vice. The adjective kakos is rendered “bad” or “wrong,” the substantive kakon as “ill.”

Virtue (arete): the goodness, excellence, or right operation of a person or thing. See Nicomachean Ethics 2.1-6

Vulgar (banausos): characteristic of craftsmen engaged in manual work (as distinct from laborers, farmers, or merchants); more properly, characteristics of any work, art, or king of learning incompatible with the education of free persons in virtue.