Assumption of the Virigin by Francesco Botticini
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In his erudite work, the Politics, Aristotle elucidates the nature, structure, and political end of the state. For Aristotle, the state consists of a political community composed of individuals and households who maintain some degree of shared cultural, familial, legal, or moral heritage. A state conducive to human flourishing is marked by the just distribution of civic and professional roles practiced by individual citizens who in turn, compose larger designated groups of the population, including artisans, magistrates, and soldiers. The state must be oriented toward an end, or telos, of some kind. Aristotle declares in his opening of Politics, “Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think good.”[1] Aristotle correctly identifies the telos of the state with the good of the political community. The end of the state, therefore, consists in the attainment of the highest good in the political order. According to Aristotle, however, the highest teleological good of the state stems from within the constitution of the polity and not from some externally transcendent or metaphysical lawgiver. Aristotle’s account of the nature and ordering of the political community, therefore, constitutes a valuable and coherent view, but it insufficiently conceptualizes the nature of the state’s political telos as something internally attained in the state.

The foundations of human polity, according to Aristotle, lend keen insight into the nature, and by extension, the telos of the state. Aristotle considers the state or polity qua political community the most primordial form of human concordance in nature. Aristotle calls the state “a creation of nature” and considers man “by nature a political animal.”[2] The state itself precedes nature and naturally forms from man’s capacity to create political communities for the sake of some cooperative social good. The highest of the social goods coincides with the telos of the state. Aristotle further writes, “The earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature. The final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to self-sufficing is the end and the best.”[3] The nature of the state necessarily follows from its end. The attainment of the state’s end does not occur immediately, but the teleological good of the state develops over time. The attainment of the state’s telos depends on the efficacy of the people’s contributions to the polity’s common good. The polity itself remains necessary for the attainment of the highest social goods, since Aristotle designates it as the “best” thing. Moreover, the nature of a state’s telos must pertain to self-sufficiency. Practically speaking, the good of self-sufficiency should be applied to both individuals and households in the polity, thus enabling the state itself to be politically self-sufficient.

Transitioning to the teleological polity in practice, Aristotle begins by describing the state as undergirded by the familial household. According to Aristotle, the household consists of the husband, wife, and children. Aristotle writes, “Household management attends more to men than to the acquisition of inanimate things, and to human excellence more than to the excellence of property which we call wealth, and to the virtue of freemen more than the virtue of slaves.”[4] The household acts as a microcosm for the entire polity. As such, the state should be ordered hierarchically with each constitutive person engaging a role particular to their station and predispositions. Fathers and husbands formally lead the household and serve as the formal deliberators or legislators. Mothers and wives serve as advisors to their husbands and as educators to their children. Children do not have a designated role in the household or polity according to Aristotle, since children do not possess completely attuned rational faculties. Nor would children have habituated the practice of civic virtue, both of which constitute necessary activities in attaining the good of the state.

Aristotle discusses property as integral to the telos and ordering of the state. He remarks that “property, in the sense of bare livelihood, seems to be given by nature herself to all…insofar as the art of household management must find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community and state.”[5] Privately owned property, on the one hand, enables people to sustain their own livelihoods. Property assures that basic necessities are fulfilled in the state. Aristotle’s understanding of property bears an intimate connection to his notion of self-sufficiency concerning the highest good of the political community. Firstly, citizens own property in part for efficacious stewardship that avoids the tragedy of the commons. More importantly, property ownership provides individuals with the material means to make the polity flourish and therefore advance the state toward its proper end. Aristotle further qualifies the role of property ownership in the polity. He writes, “Property should be[…]as a general rule, private; for, when everyone has a distinct interest, men will not complain of another, and they will make more progress, because everyone will be attending to his own business.”[6] The ownership of private property facilitates careful labor, superior attendance to the public good, and the completion of one’s own work. Aristotle largely assumes Plato’s definition of justice as the having and doing of what belongs to oneself. Since private property enables people to justly fulfill their civic and professional roles in a superior manner, it necessarily factors into the telos of the state. Aristotle, however, does not provide an account for whom or what deigns to bestow upon human beings the natural rights to property ownership. Aristotle simply assumes property ownership as a given and defends it as efficacious in the attainment of the common good. In order to avoid the tyranny of arbitrary laws concerning the ownership of property or the abolition of it entirely, an external lawgiver must exist.

Aristotle’s discussion on regime types reveals that each regime has a particular political constitution, that is, the state’s political form. The nature of each regime illuminates certain political realities regarding the administration of a citizen’s duties. These duties, if properly ordered, are central to the telos of the state. Aristotle elaborates on regime contracts, identifying issues with both pure democracy and oligarchy. He views both as tyrannically forcing arbitrary duties onto citizens to whom the duty does not belong. He explains, “Persons refuse to fulfill their contracts or any other obligations, on the ground that the tyrant, and not the state, contracted them; they argue that some constitutions are established by force, and not for the sake of the common good. But this would apply equally to democracies, for they too may be founded on violence.”[7] The coercion of democratic and oligarchic tyranny in imposing roles onto citizens to which they have no relations violates the organic distribution of roles based on the citizenry’s natural capacities and social standing. The excessive presence of one kind of regime in the polity, whether it be democracy, oligarchy, or even aristocracy, imbalances power and results in unjust civic arrangements of political power. In order to alleviate these pitfalls, a mixed polity must be maintained. Aristotle compounds this statement with his view on the breadth of civic governance. He asserts, “When they (the many) meet together they may very likely be better than the few good[…]or each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together, they become in a manner one man.”[8] Aristotle applies the division of roles in civic and professional life to the broader governance of the polity. The absolute rule of the majority ought to be avoided in order to preclude the oppression and neglect of the minority. So too, the excessive deliberation of the virtuous few in the aristocratic polity must also be avoided. When only the few always deliberated in matters of law and governance, the expectations of the magistrates became warped. As such, the few magistrates demanded responsibilities of the citizenry that extended beyond their capacity. Alternatively, the ruling few would have produced unjust laws that could politically, financially, or socially benefit them at the expense of the broader citizenry. Each group regulates the other’s behavior, thus rendering the nature of the state’s telos inherently cooperative and internally multifaceted.

Aristotle finally considers the holistic constitution of the state. The most desirable state constitution completely facilitates the active habituation of public virtue as well as a justly oriented political telos that fulfills the highest social goods of the political community. Aristotle describes the ideal state, or polity, as “the fusion of oligarchy and democracy.”[9] He continues, stating, “There are two parts of good government; one is the actual obedience of citizens to the laws, the other part is the goodness of the laws which they obey; they may obey bad laws as well as the good.”[10] Rooted in his previous discussion concerning the division of governing roles between the virtuous few and the many, Aristotle synthesizes the polity from elements of democracy and oligarchy. Justice informs the ethics of the laws in place. If a law commands proper allocation of a citizen’s capabilities and obligations to the community, the law is just. Citizens must obey just laws, which constitute the only legitimate law in the Aristotelian polity. The legislation of just laws and their subsequent obedience by the citizenry determines the success, and thereby the telos, of the state constitution in place. For example, the mediation of political and economic governance between the rich and very poor by the middle classes prevents any one group from dominating the legal deliberative system in place. The imbalance of power and absolute rule of one socio-political class violates justice, thus distorting the teleological good of the state. For Aristotle, then, the state’s political telos directly extends from its internal state constitution. The political constitution enables the exercise of just civic virtue within the state.

Aristotle’s placement of the state’s political telos internally creates problems for the conceptualization and longevity of the state. The placing of the state’s telos in an external lawgiver, i.e., God, lends an absolute grounding to the state’s purpose and standards. It has been thus far established from the writing of Aristotle that the telos of the state must remain absolute and immutable. It cannot, therefore, depend on the whims of those who compose the political community. The composition of the state constantly changes both in the number and kind of people who inhabit it, in addition to the constitution of its government. Aristotle himself illustrates the transience of political regimes, especially his preferred form of the mixed polity. Aristotle discusses the degeneration and transition of regime types, saying, “The democrats think that as they are equal they ought to be equal in all things; while oligarchs, under the idea that they are unequal, claim too much.”[11] He continues,

“Here then, are opened the very springs and fountains of revolution; and hence arise two sorts of changes in governments; the one affecting the constitution, when men seek to change from an existing form into some other…the other not affecting the constitution, when without disturbing the form of government they try to get the administration into their own hands.”[12]

Aristotle affirms the political reality of regime change. No matter how institutionally stable or how strong social consensus may be on civic virtue, the constitution of the state always changes after a certain period of time, typically by degeneration. For Aristotle, the two noblest of state regimes, the virtuous monarchy and aristocracy, degenerate into lesser forms of democracy and oligarchy sometimes through socio-political revolution. Furthermore, these degenerated regimes may become political tyrannies in their own right upon decaying into their extreme forms. Indeed, Aristotle recognizes the inevitability of regime change as something natural to the political order effectuated by natural human activity. Human beings possess a desire for power and control. This desire exists especially for those wealthy statesmen who subvert the standing regime to gain political rule or alter the state’s political ethos.

The state’s constitution and apprehension of its telos shall change or decline depending on the political norms and social traditions which inform the populace’s understanding of the state’s function. Thus, in a political reality marked by regime change, degeneration, and the alteration of political and ethical mores, the common good itself becomes opaque and wholly arbitrary. Aristotle’s political telos cannot remain a defined telos at all. Its internal reliance on the constitution of the political regime, whether just or unjust, renders it mutable. Aristotle does propose that the state’s telos should “aim at a good of some kind,”[13] but he provides no external context for what promulgates this good. Moreover, Aristotle does not address how the state’s telos, being its own internal success, results in the impossible standard discussed above. Defined as the internal success of the state itself, the political telos changes according to the interests of the varying political classes and increasingly arbitrary norms of the time. That is, a standard without an external source directs the ordering of a political community. Hence, Aristotle’s insular definition of the political telos admits a fair degree of fallibility. As such, an external source must fundamentally undergird Aristotle’s otherwise prudent theory of the political telos in the human state. A political Christianity, particularly a political Christocentrism whose source and arbiter is Christ, could serve as a viable solution to the problem of Aristotle’s political telos. A state teleologically oriented to the salvific and ordering cause of Christianity combines the classical virtues with the additional virtue of religion. The virtue of religion in the political community incorporates both personal and communal sacrifice for the family, as well as the common good of the polity. Religion grounds and informs the other four virtues to which a properly flourishing polity should adhere.

A polity whose external telos remains in the Christian religion has its institutions aligned with the active will of God. That is, political institutions derive their legitimate authority from God himself. The various testimonies of the great saints and scholars of the Church lend keen insight into God being the necessarily external source of the common good and teleological purpose in the state. Blessed Paul declares in his epistle to the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment[…]Then do what is good and you will receive his approval[…]Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”[14] For Paul, the governing authorities and the law of God exist harmoniously with one another —the latter giving way to the former and the former fulfilling the latter. God, as the source of all being and goodness, however, exists wholly outside of the law. The law and the political authorities which compose the state derive their being and moral legitimacy from God. The practices and constitution of the teleologically Christian state, therefore, adhere not to the arbitrary and ever changing circumstances of the state’s internal fortunes, but to Christ as the supreme lawgiver. God directs the proper action and authority of the state. When the authorities of the state deviate from the will of God in the human socio-political order, they wrongly administer justice to the wicked or permit the disbalancing of the social classes in the polity. Aristotle realized this particular folly of the classes and prescribed the balanced division of the social classes. He writes, “The middle-class is the least likely to shrink from rule…[since] the one class (the poor) cannot obey, and the other (the wealthy) can only rule despotically.”[15] On the whole, when these injustices occur, the state necessarily abandons its orientation to a telos found in God alone.

Saint Augustine further defines this notion of God undergirding the telos of properly just statecraft. In his Political Writings, Augustine endorses a polity ordered around what he calls the “heavenly city,” or the “City of God.” The City of God contains all that is good and uncorrupted. God rules as supreme and sovereign over all those creatures of which comprise the heavenly city. Augustine juxtaposes the City of God with the City of Man. In the City of Man lies the decaying earthly reality of post-Fall human civilization, especially exemplified by the degenerated paganism of imperial Rome. Augustine holds that the central organizing principle of the just state must be in Christ, postulating, “True justice does not exist except in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ—if it is admitted that it, too, may be called a ‘republic’ since we cannot deny that is an ‘affair of the people.’”[16] Augustine directly points out in whom the externalized telos of the state must abide. It is in Christ, as true God and true man, that the state must have its origin and direction. There must then be a social kingship of Christ preserved in the state, a kingship that recognizes Christ’s preeminence in all matters of administration, justice, and civic virtue. The governing authorities do not rule solely, or even primarily, from their own reason but from the mind of God made manifest in the sacrificial ministry of Christ on Earth, a ministry that united the earthly and heavenly cities.

Augustine further gives credence to this Christocentric telos of the religious state. He writes, “God Himself is the fountain of our happiness; He Himself is the end of all our longing. We strive toward him by love, so that by attaining him we might rest, happy because we are perfected by him who is our end.”[17] God is the source of all human happiness and the ultimate paragon of perfect virtue to be civically emulated in the state. Human beings, in constructing a political community, actively seek fulfillment in God. The state, therefore, constitutes a macrocosm of the human person who cannot attain moral and spiritual fulfillment in the political community alone. The good to which Aristotle argues all political communities bear their orientation must ultimately rest in Christ as supreme lawgiver and external perfecter of the state. The natural externality of the state’s political telos having been established, its particular end thereby lies in the communal salvation of all those who properly participate in the Christian polity. Thus, adherence to the just constitution of the state does not merely result in the human flourishing integral to the state but the rectification of all vice and degeneration through the salvation offered by Christ into the City of God. The one City of God is truly external but intimately connected to the properly ordered state. It exists for the perfection of the earthly state but also remains separate from the earthly realm in which all of Aristotle’s political ruminations practically reside.

All political communities aim toward some good. The state, as a political community, orients itself to its own common good. The common good of the state lies not only in the tangible polity’s own flourishing but the communal elevation of man affected by the social kingship of Christ. The political telos, then, cannot remain internalized to the arbitrary, transient parameters of the state, but it must have its source and being in Christ as supreme lawgiver. It is Christ who sanctifies the operation of the state through the institutes of the law and redeems the state through grace. As Christians, we must therefore advance, in charity, a political Christocentrism within our local communities and the broader American polity. In doing so, we must hearken to God’s exhortation in scripture to “be not afraid, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen and help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”[18]

Benjamin Vogel ’25 is studying political science and philosophy. He is from Scottsdale, Arizona.


[1] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Benjamin Jowett and S.H. Butcher (Norwalk , Connecticut: Easton Press, 1979), 5.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] Ibid, 8.

[4] Aristotle, Politics, 27.

[5] Ibid, 18.

[6] Ibid, 42.

[7] Ibid, 82.

[8] Ibid, 97.

[9] Ibid, 134.

[10] Ibid, 134.

[11] Ibid, 159.

[12] Ibid, 160.

[13] Ibid, 5.

[14] Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain, “Epistle to the Romans,” The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2006), 135.

[15] Aristotle, Politics, 5.

[16] Augustine, Political Writings, ed. Ernest L Fortin, trans. Michael W Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 21.

[17] Ibid, 73.

[18] Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, 611.

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