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Lecture 2, Aristotle

by John Gallagher (MA)

First presented in an Adult Education course for the Workers’ Educational Association in 1982 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the following lecture was the second of a series on Social Change and Human Beliefs.

This lecture summarizes some of the features of Aristotle’s political thought and the Greek environment in which it developed that might usefully be thought about in the present period e.g. ‘the good life’, the economy, democracy. Features not explored here, but taken for granted then, include slavery, the subordinate place of women in society and Aristotle’s endorsement of them.

Main points covered

–         How Aristotle reflects tensions of wider transitions

–         His method or approach to economics

–         Natural economics & money-making economics

–         Leisure as the basis of living

1. Aristotle Reflects Tensions of Wider Transitions

Today we shall look at some chapters of Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle himself was a thinker who reflected deeply on a traditional, and very Greek, view of life and economy in the context of a Greece that was undergoing very great transitions. Overall, the various Greek city states, including notably Athens, had developed from being more inward-looking, rural settlements to become states engaged in wider Mediterranean trade and colonization, from which they came to form the  base of a Greek empire. Aristotle in fact tutored the young founder to be of this empire, Alexander the Great, as he was to be called.

One pivotal development worth mentioning is that in the course of this development, the Greeks came across the use of coins, which hugely facilitated the growth of a merchant class and financially-based trade (“making a pile” as Aristotle was to call it). Coins were used in the ancient world from around the seventh century. The early Greek historian Herodotus wrote of them as originating in Lydia, which is in modern day Turkey (then Anatolia).

1.1 Present Adaptation Based On Awareness of Options

The value in studying some of the economic beliefs of history, as we have mentioned, is in becoming more aware of the range of possible options as we adapt to the complex, changing realities of the present. Thought, imagination and open discussion are essential amidst such changes if we are to see and make essential, and the best, practical adaptations. Otherwise we can live in societies where we suffer greatly from our ignorance, but without understanding why.

1.2 Review – From Rural Kin Groups to Citizens: Colonisation, Trade, War

Back now to Greece before Aristotle. To summarize last week:

In simple, we noted shifts of population, power and economy from the country to the city, from the rural family household and tribe to the city-state, from kin-group to politically organized and controlled, urbanized centers.

A major cause, we mentioned, was the spread of Greek colonies from the 9th Century BC from Spain to modern Turkey, to Italy and even to Crimea. With these colonies came increased trade, rivalry, and warfare whether among the fractious Greek states or with the Persian Empire beyond.

For increased trade and war, larger-scale co-ordination and organization, and more effective control was required, than could be provided by a lot of small family or tribal groups.

Increasingly, the political control and organization of the city-states came to incorporate or supersede that of the family household. Primary identity changed increasingly from that of family member to citizen of the state.

1.3 Control of food: Aristocracy, Bureaucracy, or Agora?

Given the shift towards the city and especially in the case of Athens also towards the sea, a very practical question arose as to who was to control and determine the distribution of food and necessaries, and thus who was to have political power.

In the case of the people of Athens, you will remember, the control of aristocrats or bureaucrats was in the main rejected. The democratic party wanted citizens to engage in the state’s political life and control and manage this distribution themselves.

So from the fifth century and onwards money was paid for civic and laboring duties. This money could be spent on cooked foods at the Agora or market place. This ended dependence on the aristocratic paternalism.

2 Aristotle’s Thought


2.1 Background: Old Understanding, Amidst New Times

Increasingly also, people were enticed away from the traditional more or less self sufficient household, to the city market, effectively the state created and supported city market.

Socially, economically, and politically, these were times of interesting changes. In practice, and certainly in understanding as reflected by Aristotle, a mixture of householding and city-market economies persisted. Aristotle who was immersed in the older views whilst the new ones were making their presence felt, clearly and crisply states the differences and tensions between them.

The old view of economy he commended, in terms he used to commend other things he considered important, as being “natural”. We shall look at his concept of ‘nature.’

He is useful as presenting a kind of balanced, even perhaps an exalted, overview of Greek life and ideals of his times. The differences between his views and today’s I also find interesting and hope that you will too.

2.2 Aristotle’s Biography

Aristotle was born in Stagira in 383 BC, and studied under Plato in Athens from 367-348, for 19 years. Then he spent 3 years in the Court of a ruler, Hermias of Assos, whose daughter he married. There he learned about the more practical side of politics and economics.  For six years, he also to tutored Alexander the Great as a youth.

From 335-322 he ran his own school at Athens, the Lyceum. There he produced his Politics that we shall be concerned with today, and his other great works.

He died in 322, a refugee from Athens after the death of Alexander (in Chalcis, on the Greek island of Euboea).

Reflecting the culture of his times, he was frank and unabashed about the use of slaves and prejudiced towards women. I shall take these facts as read and concentrate mainly on the more productive aspects of his thought.

3. His Method: “Nature-Based” Teleology (About Ends and Means to Ends)

So, to Aristotle’s thought. This can be more usefully seen as an endeavor to present a logical progression than to provide a precise account of actual historical developments. Much more is now known about early human history than was available to Aristotle, and there have also been many debates and developments in philosophy and economics since his day. I take all of that as read, and in the main, aim to present some of the main features of his  thought as he presented it.

As we shall see, he was very concerned with means and ends, with parts that subserved greater wholes.

3.1 His Starting Point: Nature

His starting point for understanding things is nature:

“We shall, I think, in this as in other subjects, get the best view of the mater if we look at the natural growth of things form the beginning.” (Politics, Book 1: Chapter 2)

Aristotle sees everything that happens in nature as purposeful. “Nature, as we say, does nothing without some purpose” (ibid).

3.2 Nature, Procreation & from the Household to the Village

Aristotle sees the social as beginning with and rooted in the biological. Thus pairing is seen as basic to the functioning of nature and creation of human society. He has what might be termed a bio-social starting point:

“The first point is that those which are ineffective without each other must be united in a pair. For example the union of male and female is essential for reproduction, since each is powerless without the other; and this is not a matter of choice, but is due to the desire, implanted by nature in both animals and plants, to propagate one’s kind.” (Politics 2:1)

From such pairing, grows the household; as he quotes the Greek poet Hesiod with approval:

“Get first a house and a wife and an ox to draw the plough’ (Politics 2:1)

“This association of persons, established according to the law of nature and continued day after day, is the household, the members of which Charondas calls ‘bread-fellows…” (Ibid)

Thus daily physical needs are to be met by the household.

The actual word for economy comes from the Greek oikos, the word for household and nomia which is management. Thus “economics” first meant “the art of household management.” Aristotle discusses household management in Politics 1:3.

Then through the natural addition of “sons and grandsons” who set up houses, “the village, the first association of a number of houses” enables more than daily needs to be met.

3.3 From Securing Life to “The Good Life”in the City State Using “Reasoned Speech”

Such social development culminates, for Aristotle, in “The final association, formed of several villages,” which “is the city or state.”

We have now gone, he points out, from the household “as a means of securing life” to a state where we “secure the good life” and “For all practical purposes, the process is now complete; self sufficiency has been reached…” (Politics 1:2)

The fully developed city state as he describes it is one that is large and self-sufficient enough for people to fully develop their human potential, which is for him the “good life”. He sees the key to their being able to so organize and live their lives lies in suitably exercising their “power of reasoned speech”. The need for such discourse and organization to live human lives makes the human being essentially “a political animal”.

In using such speech humans can create and build on a shared understanding of basic social premises like “what is useful and what is harmful, and so also what is right and what is wrong. For the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have perception of good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust.” (Ibid).

With the “law and morals”, that humans are thus able to create, and reach their fullest development in living “the good life”.

Very tellingly, Aristotle contrasts human beings with, and without, this good life:

“As man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and morals. Wickedness armed is hardest to deal with…” (ibid).

We shall see more of this ‘good life’ that can be lived in the state, wherein people are seen as able to reach their full development, near the end of this lecture.

It is worth pulling together the ways in which Aristotle is here seeing the development of human society as “natural”. At the outset, two, male and female, need to come together to reproduce, and they have an innate desire to do this. This interactive pairing is a first social step that leads on to the progressive development of increasingly larger social units of interaction until ultimately a city state is formed in which the good life can be pursued. While this process begins with more purely natural impulses, it becomes also one that is increasingly intellectually and morally modulated. In other words, it moves from biology towards an explicitly, humanly shaped, teleology.

At each stage, humans get more scope to develop more capacities than they had before. From this perspective, the acquisition of resources from nature that support such development is consonant with nature, or can be considered “natural.”

3.4 “Natural” Economics?

How are Aristotle’s “economics” to be viewed in relation to nature? The fact that Aristotle discusses “economics” itself as primarily “the art of household management” gives us our first clues.

In ‘household management’ people get and distribute their livelihood from nature.

What about that distinct (and then relatively novel activity) of “money-making” that was also taking a hold?

From his starting point of nature, within which household management (oikonomia) takes place, Aristotle is able to ask about “money-making”, is it the same as household management, or a part of it, or subsidiary to it? (Politics 1:8)

What, indeed, is true wealth he asks? Is it money? He locates his answer between physical nature and his understanding of ‘the good life’.

His starting point is that nature provides for animals and “men” even if in different ways. Animals live scattered about or in herds, whether as vegetarians or carnivores, Aristotle notes, according to their natures.

Similarly, humans derive their livelihoods in diverse ways from nature: thus there are nomads, hunters, raiders, fishermen and cultivators, and various permutations of these.

He then describes these people as “self-maintaining types,” as distinct from “those which depend on trade or barter. He adds about the former that “Getting a living in this self-supporting way is clearly given by nature to all her creatures, both at the time of their birth and when they are fully grown …” (ibid).

3.5 The Limited Material Needs of the “Good Life”

Goods are required to support living not only in natural environments, but also in city states. These are then used to support what he calls “the good life,” and they may be acquired by a number of means. The term “nature,” specifically “nature” as the basis of economics, now comes to be used in a different way. It becomes teleological: it is more to do with supporting the attainment of human ends than it is about subsistence living simply on the directly available provenance of nature as do nomads, hunters and such. Now more “acquisition” is required, and this has to be “managed.”

To go back to basics, the goods needed for human life either “must be there to start with, or this art of acquisition must see that they are provided; goods, that is, which may be stored up, as being useful or necessary for providing a livelihood.” (Ibid).

Put another way, there is a “form of property-getting, namely getting a livelihood,” that is, in accordance with nature, a part of economics of management…” (ibid).

In another significant leap, Aristotle adds that this management can obtain “whether the organization we are dealing with is a household or a state.” Indeed, he will reinforce the point a little further on by saying that such property-getting “is the natural duty of those in charge of a house or a city…” (ibid).

Aristotle has already just acknowledged the place of “barter and trade,” and he will elaborate further on this, as will be described shortly. Just here he says how an overall “financial independence” is the goal. Financial independence, that is, which “is adequate for the good life.”

“True wealth” is what supports this – he emphasizes that he is “sure” that “wealth in the true sense consists in property such as this.” (ibid).

Very significantly, he now stresses that the wealth needed is not unlimited. In this he cites and disagrees with Solon. Solon was the son of a merchant as well as being a poet who played a significant role in the development of the Athenian constitution. As Aristotle says,

“the amount of property of this kind which would give financial independence adequate for a good life is not limitless, as Solon thought. In one of his poems he wrote ‘no bound is set on riches for men’. But there is a limit; wealth is a tool and there are limits to its uses as to the tools of any craft; both in size and in number there are limits of usefulness.” (ibid).

Wealth is simply “a collection of tools for use in the administration of a household or a state.” (ibid).

To sum up, Aristotle acknowledges a need to acquire and to manage the use of property. However, such acquisition and management only become “wealth in its truest sense” when they subserve the greater end of supporting “the good life”. For Aristotle this good life is that which is experienced in a city state where people use their highest human powers, those of “reasoned speech,” to clarify and guide the way they live together as an ethical community.

3.6 Trade as Barter Consonant with Nature’s Purpose

In ‘household management’ people get and distribute their livelihood, from nature.

However, he acknowledges that “there is another kind of property-getting, to which the term money-making is generally and quite rightly applied” (Politics 1:9).

To break into the discussion of money-making, he first distinguishes between two “uses” of property. One is “the proper use of the article in question” and the other is for “exchange”. As he illustrates: “a shoe may be used to put on your foot or to offer in exchange. Both are uses of the shoe; for even he that gives a shoe to someone who requires a shoe, and receives in exchange cash or food, is making use of the shoe as shoe, but not the use proper to it, for a shoe is not expressly made for exchange purposes.”

This leads to a discussion of barter, initially as a way of maintaining self-sufficiency, whether at local or wider levels.

“The practice of exchange of goods did not exist in the earliest form of association, the household; it only came in with larger forms. Members of a single household shared all the belongings of that house. But members of different households shared many of the belongings of other houses also. Mutual need of the different goods was the essential basis of these exchanges, and it is on this basis that many of the foreign peoples still practice barter. For barter is the exchange of one class of goods for another, as may be found useful; they take and give wine for corn and so on. But they do not carry the process any further than this; it remains one of barter.” (Politics 1:9).

Initially such barter “is not contrary to nature and is not a form of money-making; it keeps to its original purpose – to re-establish nature’s own equilibrium of self-sufficiency.” (Ibid).

3.7 Money-making arises as a way of life

However, it was from such interchange “that money-making arose.”

Significantly, Aristotle describes this as coming about with the rise of, and the need to coordinate international trade. He explains how the use of money was in this context “quite understandable; for as soon as the import of necessities and the export of surplus goods began to extend beyond national frontiers, the provision and use of a conventional medium of exchange inevitably followed.” (Ibid).

Initially, metals were measured and weighed as a medium of exchange, but this was able to be done away with when “the pieces of metal were stamped” with “an indication of the amount.” Now a decisive shift from barter to money-making trade occurred:

“Once a currency was provided, development was rapid and what started as a necessary exchange of goods became trade, the other kind of money making.” (Ibid).

Now money-making careers became a possibility for certain kinds of people

“as men become more experienced and more and more adept at discovering where and how the greatest profits might be made out of commercial exchanges. That is why money-making is held to be concerned primarily with actual coined money and those who engage in it have to be persons with a good eye for sources where plenty of money is to be made. Indeed wealth is often regarded as consisting in a pile of money, since the aim of money-making and of trade is to make such a pile.” (Ibid).

Then Aristotle notes the development of something other than “exchange” simply to meet naturally-based needs” he calls this trade, based on “money-making”.

He contrasts situations where on the one hand “wealth and getting money are themselves the end” with household management. The latter, unlike money-making as an end, “has a limit, since moneymaking is not its function, but only a means to an end.” (Ibid).

Aristotle gives pointed summaries of how, in theory, he regards wealth and money-making, which he sees as being of two kinds:

“on the one hand true wealth, in accordance with nature, belonging to the household management, productive; on the other money-making, with no place in nature, belonging to trade and not productive of goods in the full sense. In this kind of money-making, in which coined money is both the end pursued in the transaction and the medium by which the transaction is performed, there is no limit to the amount of riches to be got.” (Ibid).


“one which is necessary and acceptable, which we may call administrative; the other, the commercial, which depends on exchange, is justly regarded with disapproval, since it arises not from nature but from men’s dealings with each other.” (Politics 1:10).

4. Leisure as Providing the Basis For Living

4.1 Higher Fulfillment in Leisure

One striking feature of Aristotle’s thought, one that he draws, in part, from his wider ethos, is a subordination of economics either as either practical household management or money-making to an end beyond themselves, viz to that of “the good life” as shaped by “reasoned speech.”

Such speech or discourse continually looks into what is going on and what people want to happen or how they want to act. There are always unfinished, essentially open-ended, aspects to these forms of enquiry and reflection, deliberation and decision-making.


4.1 Athenian Leisure, Basis of Democratic Life

Keep in mind, here, the reality of leisure in Athens. Leisure is devoted to civic, moral life – again, “the good life” of reasoned speech.

In the Athens of Aristotle’s day, the electioneering and holding of office, mass jury service, great festivals, the thrill and elevation of day-long theatre, were all everybody’s normal civic experiences.

Leisure was needed to devote oneself to the popular and democratic life of the polis. The political life of the state, rather than “the job”, or even “useful work,” was what defined and engrossed the committed citizen of the day.

This ancient Greek history and culture has become the main source of the philosophy, art, drama and democracy of the Western world, and all of these pursuits were intensively engaged in in the Athens where Aristotle lived and lectured.

This was the ethos where Aristotle came to look to philosophy and culture, to the reason of “reasoned speech” for bearings as to how to live, including how to use material goods and products, rather than vice versa.

What then, is this “higher life” of reason which the material livelihood itself is meant to subserve?

This brings Aristotle, surprisingly perhaps to many of us, to a discussion of leisure as the ‘highest end’ of humanity, wherein intrinsically worthwhile purpose is experienced in contemplation, intrinsic purpose that looks to no further purpose, but exists for own sake.

What might all of that mean? Let’s try and see.

As we have been noting, Aristotle had a great predilection for asking the end or the aim or this or that activity.

4.2 Work and Acquisition, For Their Own Sake?

Why, for instance, do we work? According to Aristotle, to sustain ourselves materially. Why do we sustain ourselves materially? For the sake alone of material sustenance and more material sustenance, and more, or even simply of material pleasure? Can our enquiry simply rest here?

Or is the material thriving for something beyond itself? As has been noted in this lecture, this is where “the good life” based on the use of reason and reasoned speech comes in. Such was Aristotle’s line of enquiry. Let’s pursue the matter further.

4.3 Leisure as Entertainment?

We work, Aristotle says, for the sake of leisure, which is a “cultivated leisure.” And that is not just play or entertainment, which for Aristotle “belong rather to the sphere of work; for he who works hard needs rest and lay is a form of resting, where work is inseparable from stress and strain.” (Politics 8:3).

4.4 Or Requiring Preparation and Discernment?

Beyond more games, “the way of leisure that we are speaking of here is something positive… the preparation for spending time at [such] leisure requires a great deal of learning and education” (ibid)

Learning and preparation for leisure? This sounds like something more than leisure as “rugby, racing and beer”, watching TV, or the proverbial Roman “Bread and Circuses”, surely.

4.5 ‘Work’ For Leisure; Leisure as the Supreme End in Itself’

So, do we have this cultivated leisure simply for work, do we have work for leisure? Aristotle has no doubts. He says:

“Indeed (repeating myself again) leisure is the basis of all human activity. It is true that we need both [‘work and leisure], but leisure is preferable to, and is the end sought by, working ….” (Ibid)

4.7 Knowledge, and Reality Beyond Utility – Or: What’s the Use of the Useful?

To get the full import of what Aristotle has to offer, it will be worth moving from his Politics to dwell a little on his Metaphysics. Here we can see how for Aristotle, leisure in its highest form is reason that reaches for and contemplates the ultimate causes of existence.

Knowledge itself is not just useful, or justified only when it is useful. For a start, the quest for it is based on a very basic impulse that does not need to be justified in terms of what is “useful”. He writes of a basic urge to know:

“All man by nature feel the urge to know and explore; in which the use even of the senses gives pleasure for is own sake, not simply because of ‘utility’” (Metaphysics, A:1)

We enjoy enquiring and seeing not just because these are useful; we enjoy them because that’s the way we are constituted as human beings. To so enjoy, is to experience our humanity itself. Some big questions or quests can open up once we start to experience and live according to our wonder. These may be expressed in some forms of art or philosophy.

A way to reach this realm might be to ask ourselves question like: even if hypothetically we could come to know “the use of everything,” couldn’t there still be other questions that our curiosity might lead us to pursue? Such as, Why do things exist, or happen at all? Could there be a master purpose, or just some kinds of experience(s), simple or otherwise that the things we might consider “useful” or perhaps pleasurable, might point to beyond their use or pleasure? What is life itself? What is it all about? Or more generally, What makes or could make some, or all of it, significant in some way(s)?

Such questioning is, I believe, of a different order from just ‘what is useful’ or what material goods I can get next, and then after that….

The mind, especially an unfettered, stimulated mind, will persist in wanting to raise such questions, and explore and contemplate, express and want to share, answers.

4.8 A Framework for Life, for Usefulness, and All Else?

So, for Aristotle, “wisdom” is knowledge in its highest, or purest form. Wisdom is

‘…. desired for no advantage extrinsic to itself…. [P]hilosophy alone… is pursued for its own sake.”

Philosophy, that is, which arose “when the necessities and the physical and mental comforts of life had been provided for.”

With the sense of life and meaning that can come from wisdom or a serious quest for it, we may at least obtain some sense of larger wholes and purposes within which to make better sense of our lives, efforts, and even work itself. Insofar as that is humanly possible!

Wouldn’t societies where this sort of quest was a serious and widespread preoccupation be more constructively engaged and more peaceful, and in very meaningful ways, highly productive societies, than otherwise?

4.9 Towards Nations with Peaceful National Lives

For Aristotle, cultivated leisure is not only the basis of full democracy, but also of full peace. In a context of Greek city states that were often engaged in conflict with one another and with others, Aristotle asks, what would people do if they were not being readied and trained for war? He further asks, Would the nation then decline?

Here he sees a quandary here that needs to be broken through. The only rationale for military training, after all, is the attainment of is peace. But how can morale be sustained and prolonged when peace is obtained? He considers that this situation calls for education in leisure:

“Military states generally, while they fight wars, survive, but when once they establish an empire begin to decline. Like steel they lose their fine temper if they are always at peace; and the lawgiver who has not educated them in the right use of leisure is to blame.” (Politics 7:14)

Comparisons might well be made with the situations of endemic warfare that have prevailed for much of the history of the medieval and modern Western worlds.

Could there be cultivated leisure in which people could explore their own sense of meaning, and share with one another in this exploration?

Could this help create internal personal and social peace, and help to support peaceful external relations?

Might Aristotle thus have something to teach us today about the value, possibilities, and need for cultivated leisure in which we can explore and discover what is meaningful for us both personally and with others? To create new senses of “the good life” for the twenty first century?

Can economies be constructed that will assist and enable us to cultivate such leisure?

Why not create a world of societies like that?

Your thoughts are welcome

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