Understanding Aristotle’s Account of the Relationship of the Household to the State

The relation of the state to the household (or family) is one of the most important questions of political philosophy and of Catholic social teaching. There is an apparent disagreement on this question between Aristotle and Pope Leo XIII—Aristotle writes, “the state is by nature clearly prior to the household” (Politics, 1253a19), while Pope Leo writes, “the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community” (Rerum Novarum 13). It is therefore important to determine precisely what they mean, and on what arguments they base these statements. Beatrice Freccia’s first contribution to The Josias attempts to do this for Aristotle, showing by a careful reading of the relevant texts what Aristotle means by saying that the state is prior to the household. This is the first of two parts. Part Two will be posted on Wednesday. A printable version of the piece can be found here. – Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

Part One

I. Introduction

At the outset of his Ethics, Aristotle points out that one cannot expect an equal degree of precision in the treatment of all subjects. This is particularly true of those subjects that ethics and politics address:

Problems of what is noble and just, which politics examines, present so much variety and irregularity that some people believe that they exist only by convention and not by nature. The problem of the good, too, presents a similar kind of irregularity, because in many cases good things bring harmful results. There are instances of men ruined by wealth, and others by courage. Therefore, in a discussion of such subjects, which has to start from a basis of this kind, we must be satisfied to indicate the truth with a rough and general sketch: when the subject and the basis of a discussion consist of matters that hold good only as a general rule, but not always, the conclusions reached must be of the same order. The various points that are made must be received in the same spirit. For a well-schooled man is one who searches for that degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of that subject at hand admits: it is obviously just as foolish to accept arguments of probability from a mathematician as to demand strict demonstrations from an orator.[1]

Because the matters that Aristotle treats of in the Ethics and the Politics are inextricably tied up with particulars, there can be no scientific demonstrations about such matters, and it would be ridiculous to expect such a thing.

This is a highly satisfactory explanation of the obvious differences between Aristotle’s treatment of, say, justice and his treatment of logic in his Categories. But it sometimes seems as if Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics are not just “rough and general sketch[es]” in terms of the degree of precision which they admit of. The reader often is left to his own devices when it comes to synthesizing the concepts discussed—“bridging the gaps,” as it were.

A particularly good example of an issue that is only outlined (but about which there is no dearth of material to synthesize) is the relationship between the family and the state.[2] Aristotle’s explicit treatment of the matter in the Politics[3] is exceedingly spare, but what he says explicitly is remarkably consistent with not only his implicit references to the matter elsewhere (both in the Ethics and the Politics), but also with his general theories about human nature (e.g., moral and intellectual virtue, friendship, happiness and rule). It is perhaps the case, given this degree of consistency, that Aristotle felt that the “general sketch” that he provides gives the student everything he needs to formulate an answer to the question “What is the relationship of the household to the state, according to Aristotle’s account?”

This paper will attempt to make a beginning in answering that very question. It will argue that, though the primary end of the family is rightly said to be “the supply of men’s everyday wants,”[4] the family is, in a secondary sense, also ordered towards the true state’s end of ensuring that its citizens “live well.”[5] The household prepares its members for their life within the state by developing the virtues appropriate to each of them, a task which is integral to the health of the state. Further, the role which the household plays in the proper functioning of the state is a role which the household is peculiarly suited to, and which only it can play.

This paper will first briefly address Aristotle’s general definitions of the family and the state, as well as his explicit treatment of the relationship between the two. A more thorough investigation of the nature of the household will follow. For, as Aristotle says at the beginning of the Politics:

…The complete household is made up of slaves and free persons. Since everything is to be sought first in its smallest elements, and the first and smallest parts of the household are master, slave, husband, wife, father, and children, three things must be investigated to determine what each is and what sort of thing it ought to be. These are expertise in mastery, in marital [rule] (there is no term for the union of man and woman), and thirdly in parental [rule] (this too has not been assigned a term of its own).[6]

Each of these three relationships, then, will be examined in detail. Having acquired a clearer picture of the relationships within the household, the peculiar degree of ‘other-self-ness’ and the having-of things-in-common within the household will be addressed, as well the particular ways in which the household develops the virtue of its various members. Finally, the necessity of the household will be addressed. (This last consideration is dependent on the peculiar other-self relationships and the having-of-things-in-common within the household, as well as on the household’s development of the virtue of its members).

II. Defining the Family, the State, and the Relationship Between the Two

A brief treatment of Aristotle’s definitions of the family, the state and their relationship will of course be a necessary preliminary to a closer examination of these three. These are defined in Aristotle’s Politics, which presupposes his Ethics. In the Ethics, Aristotle defines virtue as an activity, discusses the individual’s need for other men if he is to develop moral virtue,[7] presupposes moral virtue to intellectual virtue (because it orders the parts of the soul),[8] defines happiness as activity in conformity with the virtue of the highest part (the rational element),[9] and, since happiness will lack nothing, notes that happiness will be marked by self-sufficiency.[10] It is theoretical knowledge which is self-sufficient[11] and loved for its own sake, and the perfection of the pursuit of theoretical knowledge will require other men, insofar as it requires intellectual discourse.[12] Finally, in a transition to the Politics, Aristotle discusses the need for laws, if men are to continue in virtue their whole lives.[13] And since laws are the “product of politics,”[14] it would seem that there is a need for the state.

It is to “complete…our philosophy of human affairs,”[15] then, that the project of the Politics is embarked upon. It is in Chapter 2 of his Politics that Aristotle treats of the origins of the family and the state:

In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue (and this is a union which is formed, not of deliberate purpose, but because, in common with other animals and with plants, mankind have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves), and of natural ruler and subject, that both may be preserved.       

Out of these two relationships between man and woman, master and slave, the first thing to arise is the family…. The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants…. But when several families are united, and the association aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village….

When several villages are united in a single community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.[16] And therefore, if 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, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and best.[17]

Finally, as to the relationship of the family to the state, Aristotle has the following to say:

Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.[18]

This brief exposition of the relationship between the family and the state leaves the reader, as we have said, with a great many questions. The issue of the priority of the state to the family is a particularly perplexing one—is the family really ordered to the state, as an organ is to the body? How can this be the case, when they have been said to have different ends? While an exhaustive treatment of the various ways in which the “priority of the state” could be interpreted is outside of the scope of this paper, we will nevertheless keep in mind, while examining the relationship of the household to the state (and in particular, the ways in which the family might be said to be ordered to the state), how this relationship might bear on the question of priority.

III. Relationships Within the Household: Husband and Wife

Before entering into a discussion of the relationship between husband and wife, it will be helpful to review Aristotle’s discussion of friendship in his Ethics (which precedes his discussion of the various relationships within the household), since the ideal marriage would seem to be a sort of friendship.

At the beginning of Book VIII of the Ethics, having already considered diverse opinions about friendship, Aristotle concludes that “the object of affection” is the lovable. The lovable, he writes, is divided into three types: the good, the pleasant and the useful. Through a dialectical consideration of friendship, he arrives at some basic requirements for a relationship to be called a friendship:

 …To be friends men must have good will for one another, must each wish for the good of the other on the basis of one of the three motives mentioned [the good, the pleasant and the useful], and must each be aware of one another’s good will.[19]

Thus, there are three kinds of friendship, corresponding to the different sorts of lovable things.[20] But, Aristotle says of friendships of use and pleasure, “…These two kinds are friendship only incidentally, since the object of affection is not loved for being the kind of person he is, but for providing some good or pleasure.”[21] Having eliminated these two kinds of friendship from the consideration of true friendship, he states that:

The perfect form of friendship is that between good men who are alike in excellence or virtue. For these friends wish alike for one another’s good because they are good men, and they are good per se. Those who wish for their friends’ good for their friends’ sake are friends in the truest sense, since their attitude is determined by what their friends are and not by incidental considerations. Hence their friendship lasts as long as they are good, and goodness or virtue is a thing that lasts. In addition, each partner is both good in the unqualified sense and good for his friend.[22]

And then, just afterwards:

Now this kind of friendship [the friendship between virtuous equals] has all the requisite qualities we have mentioned and has them per se, that is, as an essential part of the characters of the friends. For in this kind of friendship the characters are like one another, and the other objects worthy of affection–the unqualified good and the unqualified pleasant–are also found in it, and these are the highest objects worthy of affection. It is, therefore, in the friendship of good men that feelings of affection and friendship exist in their highest and best form.[23]

It is important to note that, as Aristotle sees the matter, the relationship of the husband and wife does not meet the qualifications for the highest, most ideal friendship. This is because the husband and wife are not equals, according to Aristotle’s schema. According to his account, the husband and the wife do not give each other the same things. (We will see shortly why it might be that Aristotle believes this to be the case.)

Suppose that the husband and wife are unable to give each other the same things: this is problematic because of the role that justice plays in Aristotle’s conception of true friendship. He says that “It is natural that the element of justice increases with [the closeness of] the friendship, since friendship and what is just exist in the same relationship and are coextensive in range.”[24] Now, the pure form of reciprocal justice (which is the sort of justice concerned with exchange) involves an equal exchange, and an unequal exchange constitutes an injustice.[25] So it would seem that friendship is impossible between two people who cannot make an “equal exchange.”

Nevertheless, Aristotle believes that the relationship between the husband and the wife is a friendship—but that it is a special case of friendship in which one of the partners is superior to the other. (Father-son and ruler-subject pairs are other kinds of friendships of inequality.) About these various kinds of relationships between unequals, Aristotle says:

These kinds of friendship are different [not only from those which involve equality, but] also from one another…. For in each of these cases, the virtue or excellence and the function of each partner is different, and the cause of their affection, too, is different. Therefore, the affection and friendship they feel are correspondingly different. It is clear that the partners do not receive the same thing from one another and should not seek to receive it….[26]

The question still remains, how can we consider these relationships to be friendships, when this inequality is believed to exist between the partners? It would seem to be a sort of injustice, or, at the very least, grossly unfitting, considering what we have already seen of Aristotle’s notions about the role of equality in true friendship. There is, however, a way in which this difficulty can be seen to be resolved:

In all friendships which involve the superiority of one of the partners, the affection, too, must be proportionate: the better and more useful partner should receive more affection than he gives, and similarly for the superior partner in each case. For when the affection is proportionate to the merit of each partner, there is in some sense equality between them. And equality, as we have seen, seems to be a part of friendship.[27]

Now, because the relationship is one of a superior to an inferior, it will of necessity involve rule, as well as friendship—as will all other relationships between unequals. According to Aristotle’s account, the husband, as the superior partner, rules over his wife. But it is important to note that there are different kinds of rule. The husband does not rule over his wife in the same way that he rules over, say, his slaves.

For that which can foresee by the exercise of the mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and that which can with its body give effect to such foresight is a subject, and by nature a slave; hence master and slave have the same interest. Now nature has distinguished between the female and the slave. For she is not niggardly, like the smith who fashions the Delphian knife for many uses; she makes each thing for a single use, and every instrument is best made when intended for one and not for many uses. But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female….[28]

So the wife does not blindly carry out her husband’s wishes, as the slave carries out the will of the master (because the slave’s rational principle is, in fact, external and present in the master). If, then, the wife has the capacity for reason (which would seem to be what distinguishes her from the slave), why does she need someone to rule over her? What is it that renders her inferior?

A bit later in the Politics, Aristotle addresses this very question:

…Almost all things rule and are ruled according to nature. But the kind of rule differs;—the freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature. So it must necessarily be supposed to be with the moral virtues also; all should partake of them, but only in such manner and degree as is required by each for the fulfillment of his duty. Hence the ruler ought to have moral virtue in perfection, for his function, taken absolutely, demands a master artificer, and rational principle is such an artificer; the subjects, on the other hand, require only that measure of virtue which is proper to each of them. Clearly, then, moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained, the same…. And this holds of all other virtues….[29]

Thus, the inequality between the husband and the wife, as Aristotle sees it, is not a matter of convention or “cultural conditioning.” The male and the female are simply not capable of giving each other the same things—their virtues and abilities are not the same. Of course, they can pervert their activities so as to not follow from the character of their respective sexes, but this does not change the fact of what they are naturally capable of giving each other as man and as woman. At any rate, the fact that they do not give each other the same things turns out (as we shall see) to be for the good of the household.

But how to understand the subtleties of the husband-wife relationship? Surely there is more to say about Aristotle’s position on the matter than merely that he feels the husband is superior to his wife on the basis of the fact that he possesses the authority necessary for rule, and she does not.

Indeed, Aristotle does take pains to develop a clearer picture of the way the relationship between the husband and the wife works. In both the Ethics and the Politics, he compares the relationship between the husband and wife to forms of political rule. (He also compares the other relationships in the household to types of political rule, but we will wait until we discuss those relationships to discuss those analogies.)

The first comparison of the husband-wife relationship to a form of political rule is in Book VIII of the Ethics:

Resemblances to these forms of government—models, as it were—can be found in the household…. The association of husband and wife is evidently aristocratic. For the husband’s rule depends on his worth or merit, and the sphere of his rule is that which is proper to a man. Whatever is more suited to a woman he turns over to his wife. But whenever the husband takes authority over all [household] matters into his hand, he transforms the association into an oligarchy, since in doing so he violates the principle of merit and does not rule by virtue of his superiority. Sometimes the wife rules because she is an heiress. But of course this kind of rule is not in terms of excellence or virtue, but is based on wealth and power, just as in oligarchies.[30]

Here, Aristotle has likened marriage to an aristocracy because both in marriage and in aristocracy, superiority on the basis of worth or merit determines who is to rule. One can also see here that Aristotle believes men and women to have “sphere[s]” of activity which are proper to them. Failure to recognize the distinction between these two spheres of activity (as when a husband insists on managing everything, even those things in which he should delegate his authority to his wife, or when the wife rules over her husband) constitutes a perversion of the natural order. (Just as the three good forms of the state are true states,[31] and their corresponding perversions are not, so too are male-female relationships which pervert the natural order not true marriages.)

Soon after the passage cited above, Aristotle again compares the relationship between spouses to an aristocracy:

The friendship between husband and wife is the same as that in an aristocracy. It is based on excellence or virtue: the superior partner gets a larger share of good, and each gets what is suited to him, and the same relationship holds for what is just.[32]

In an aristocracy, what the state has to offer is distributed according to the merit of the citizens.[33] Thus, just as a true aristocracy (one based on genuine merit) is a just form of government, so is a true marriage a just exchange of the particular gifts and abilities men and women are given, respectively.

But, like all analogies, the comparison of marriage to an aristocracy falls short of fully illuminating its subject. It is perhaps to flesh out our understanding of the husband-wife relationship that Aristotle compares marriage to a second form of political rule in Book I of his Politics:

A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature. But in most constitutional states the citizens rule and are ruled by turns, for the idea of a constitutional state implies that the natures of the citizens are equal, and do not differ at all. Nevertheless, when one rules and the other is ruled we endeavor to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect, which may be illustrated by the saying of Amasis about his foot-pan. The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent.[34]

Here, Aristotle points out the fact that the wife and children are “both free,” and that the conception of a constitutional state implies that “the natures of the citizens are equal.” Later in the Politics, Aristotle defines constitutional rule as that “…which is exercised over freemen and equals by birth….”[35] This comparison of the husband-wife relationship to a second type of rule illustrates the fact that, although the husband merits a certain position in the household (and is in that sense superior to his wife), both parties are nevertheless equal, under another consideration: they are both rational human beings, and as such are freemen. The wife is no less a human being than her husband is.[36]

The story about Amasis and the foot-pan (which Aristotle references in the last paragraph cited above) may help to illustrate the fact that the husband and wife are equal in this respect. This story (which can be found in Herodotus[37]) tells of an Egyptian king who, when his common birth was spoken of disparagingly, secretly had a golden foot-pan melted down and made into an idol. When his subjects began to worship the idol, he revealed its humble origins, saying that he himself was like that footbath. The husband and the wife are both human—just as the foot-pan and the idol were both gold—but the form which each takes (their respective sexes) determines the role each is to have. (Most literally, in generation, but also, as a result, in their common endeavors within the household.)

We have seen, then, that Aristotle believes that the husband merits rule over his wife by virtue of his having an authority that is uniquely male, and that this authority is permanent, but that they are nonetheless both equal in their dignity as freemen, on account of their rational nature. It was stated above that the wife does not blindly follow her husband’s orders as the slave does. It can now be said that since the wife has the “deliberative faculty,” she is free to deliberate as to the best means to achieving the ends her husband has chosen with authority. Because she has this deliberative element, she is a suitable partner and counsel for her husband, and can contribute to the decisions he makes concerning his family and property.

It is their ability to reason that distinguishes the husband and the wife (and, in potency, their children) from the slave, and characterizes them as freemen. Their rational capacities allow them to have an understanding of the end of the state in which they live, and this understanding enables them to knowingly direct their actions to that end, and so have a role in the life of their state.

Now that we have discussed the ways in which the husband and the wife are said to be both unequal and equal, we can examine more closely the ways in which these considerations bear upon their actions. It was pointed out above that virtue is not the same for the male and the female, and that they each have their own virtues and abilities. These differences between the husband and the wife would seem to flow from the respective roles they play in generation—not merely in the act of generation, but also the different roles they play with respect to the rearing of their children. (Remember that it is this common endeavor that is the reason for their union in the first place, and thus constitutes the essence of their lives together.) The characteristics of their respective sexes render them suited to distinct but complementary sets of activities.

But what are these complementary activities, and how do they follow from the respective sexes of the husband and the wife? The roles that both the man and the woman play in generation are fixed and determined by nature and so, to a certain extent, are the roles they play in the raising of their child once he is born. Before he is born, the child grows within and is nourished by the body of his mother. In his infancy, his mother continues to nourish him with her body. Both the child’s growth within his mother’s body before birth and his being nourished by that same body after birth contribute to their relationship having a specific character. The character of the mother-child relationship is distinct from the character of the father-child relationship—it is not insignificant that the father’s relationship with the child in a sense can be said to begin only after birth, and that, even then, the relationship is significantly more removed than that of the mother to her child. The differences between these two relationships could be said to contribute to the fact that the mother takes a different sort of interest in the child as an individual than his father does (and has a different and necessary sort of affection for him), and the relative distance between the father and the child contributes to his ability to fairly discipline the child—he is able to be more objective in his judgments. The roles of the parents in generation and child-rearing are certainly different, but they are undoubtedly complementary. The child needs both sorts of relationships to become a whole, well-ordered individual, and the parents’ distinct experiences of their child each inform the other.

The matter of the husband’s capacity for authority is a difficult one (and thus, we will not be able to fully address it within the confines of this paper), but it is fair to say that the husband’s unique possession of authority may ultimately be said to be for the good of the relationship. On the subject of rule, Aristotle says in Book I of the Politics:

For whatever is constituted out of a number of things–whether continuous or discrete–and becomes a single common thing always displays a ruling and a ruled element; this is something that animate things derive from all of nature, for even in things that do not share in life there is a sort of rule, for example in a harmony.[38]

Certainly, the husband and wife have, as a result of their common endeavor, joined together to form “a single common thing,” and as such, is a necessity for one element to rule over the others. The fact that the wife has the deliberative element means that their endeavor is truly a common one, but ultimately, order is secured (and conflict is prevented) by the fact that, within a properly ordered household, only one party rules. So the fact that there is one—and only one—element that is capable of ruling over the others within the household would seem to be both advantageous and ideal.

It is particularly difficult to see why it must be the husband who rules, and what he derives his authority from. Within the Ethics and the Politics, Aristotle seems to assume the husband’s authority as a principle (and thus does not argue to it), but there is still some basis for conjecture about the subject. First, there is the consideration we made above about the husband’s relative distance from the children—this allows him not only a sort of objectivity in the rearing of his children, but also the ability to have a life apart from them: not only with regard to the other elements of the household, but outside of the household and within the state. This life outside of the household gives him a better picture of not only what is best for his children, but for his household as a whole. Further, he is better able to see the relationship between his household and the state, and make decisions concerning his family that correspond to the way in which the state endeavors to order its citizens.

A second consideration that might contribute to Aristotle’s claim about the superiority of the husband to the wife may be found in Book VII of the Politics, when Aristotle states that “spiritedness is a thing expert at ruling and indomitable.””[39] Unfortunately, he does not expand upon what he means by spiritedness, but it would seem that he means some sort of dominance peculiar to male animals. After all, he says in the first book of the Politics that “The relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled. The same must of necessity hold in the case of human beings generally.”[40]

True, natural marriage comes about when both partners realize their true and proper sphere of activity and the purpose of their union, and act as nature intended them to act. This alone makes harmonious partnership possible.

The friendship between man and wife seems to be inherent in us by nature. For man is by nature more inclined to live in couples than to live as a social and political being, inasmuch as the household is earlier and more indispensable than the state, and to the extent that procreation is a bond more universal to all living things [than living in a state]. In the case of other animals, the association goes no further than this. But human beings live together not merely for procreation, but also to secure the needs of life. There is division of labor from the very beginning and different functions for man and wife. Thus they satisfy one another’s needs by contributing each his own to the common store.[41]

It seems clear, then, that in every marriage there will be a division of labor, that each will contribute “his own to the common store,” and that their actions will follow from the different characters of their respective sexes. But it would also seem that, since there is an inequality, their actions would also have to do with “rectifying” that inequality. In what way do the actions of the husband and wife serve to rectify the inequality between them, so that friendship may occur?

In those friendships, too, in which one partner is superior to the other, disagreements occur. Each partner thinks that he is entitled to more than the other, and when he gets it the friendship ends. If one partner is better than the other, he thinks he has more than the other coming to him, since the larger share ought to be assigned to the good. The same thing happens when one of the partners is more useful than the other; people say that a useless man should not have as large a share [as a useful person]. A friendship becomes a public service if what the man gets out of his friendship is not what he deserves on the basis of his contribution. The usual view is that a friendship should be like a business partnership: those who contribute more should also take more of the proceeds. The inferior partner who stands in need takes the reverse position. It is the mark of a good friend, he argues, to come to the aid of the needy. What is the use of being a friend of a man of high moral standards or power, they ask, if you are to get nothing out of it?

Now it seems that both partners are right in their claims: each is entitled to get a larger share from the friendship, but not a larger share of the same thing. The superior partner ought to be given a larger share of honor and the needy partner a larger share of profit. For the reward of excellence and beneficence is honor, whereas profit is the [form taken by] assistance to one in need.[42]

How does the wife profit by the relationship? First of all, there is the obvious fact that she profits materially. Since she does not have an income, she is supported entirely by the work of her husband. But let us not forget about the issue of the husband’s having the authority his wife lacks. This authority allows the husband to take the initiative that creates the marriage in the first place. Thus, though both parties need each other to realize their own ends, only the husband can create the union that makes possible the realization of those ends.[43]

And what does it mean for the wife to “honor” her husband? The wife is entrusted with management of the household matters that her husband delegates to her, as well as with the upbringing of the children. Aristotle says in Book III of the Politics that “…Household management differs for a man and a woman as well, for it is the work of the man to acquire and the woman to guard.”[44] The wife is entrusted not only with her husband’s material possessions, but also with the protection of his reputation. One of the ways in which she does this is by always acting in the way her husband would with regards to the duties that are delegated to her. Not only is she never to act in such a way that might cause his integrity to be doubted, but she is to strive to act in such a way that she (and by extension, her husband) is praised for her virtue.

It is important to note that though Aristotle thinks the inequality between the husband and wife results in their possessing distinct virtues, this does not preclude their having a friendship based upon those virtues. Indeed, because they satisfy each other’s needs by contributing to the common store,

…This kind of friendship brings both usefulness and pleasantness with it, and if the partners are good, it may even be based on virtue or excellence. For each partner has his own peculiar existence and they find joy in that fact.[45]

Within a properly ordered marriage, the husband and wife realize that their actions are complementary, and they love each other on account of the good each possesses. This is the source of the affection that is a part of what they exchange,[46] and that affection strengthens the relationship between the two. And this is no small thing, for the husband-wife relationship is one of the two relationships from which the household arises, and its strength is the strength of the household as a whole.

[Continue reading here.]


[1] Aristotle, Ethics. Martin Ostwald, trans. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. Book I, Chapter 3, 1094b14.

[2] Aristotle uses the Greek word polis, which more literally means “city-state.” Although this paper uses the word “state” (since English has no direct equivalent to polis), it is understood that the “state” we are discussing here (since we are examining Aristotle’s thought) is a community closer to the modern idea of the city than to the modern idea of the state or nation. (See Aristotle’s Politics, Book VII, Chapter 4.)

[3] Aristotle, Politics. Benjamin Jowett, trans. (From The Basic Works of Aristotle, Richard McKeon, ed.) New York: Random House, 1941. Book I, Chapter 2, 1253a19.

[4] Ibid., I.2, 1252b12

[5] Aristotle, Politics. Carnes Lord, trans. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984. Book II, Chapter 9, 1280a31.

[6] Ibid., I.3, 1253b4.

[7] Aristotle, Ethics. IX.9, 1169b12; 1170a2; 1170a7; X.8, 1178b4.

[8] Among others, Aristotle’s Ethics VI.13, 1145a6 suggests that intellectual virtue will presuppose moral virtue.

[9] Ibid., X.7, 1177a12; 1177b27.

[10] Ibid., X.6, 1176b5.

[11] Ibid., X.7, 1177a27, 1177b.

[12] Ibid., X.7, 1177a35.

[13] Ibid., X.9, 1180a14.

[14] Ibid., X.9, 1181a25.

[15] Ibid., X.9, 1181b15.

[16] See also Aristotle, Politics, III.9, 1280a31. (Jowett)

[17] Ibid., I.2, 1252a26.

[18] Ibid., I.2, 1253a19.

[19] Aristotle, Ethics. VIII.2, 1156a3. (Brackets mine.)

[20] Ibid., VIII.3, 1156a8.

[21] Ibid., VIII.3, 1156a17.

[22] Ibid., VIII.3, 1156b7.

[23] Ibid., VIII.3, 1156b22.

[24] Ibid., VIII.9, 1160a7.

[25] “Now, the just in transactions is also something equal (and the unjust something unequal)….” (Aristotle, Ethics. V.4, 1131b32.)

[26] Ibid., VIII.7, 1158b12.

[27] Ibid., VIII.7, 1158b23.

[28] Aristotle, Politics. I.2, 1252a32. (Jowett)

[29] Ibid., I.13, 1260a7.

[30] Aristotle, Ethics. VIII.10, 1160b24.

[31] Ibid., VIII.10, 1160a31.

[32] Ibid., VIII.11, 1161a22.

[33] Ibid., VIII.10, 1160b12.

[34] Aristotle, Politics. I.12, 1259a39. (Jowett)

[35] Ibid., III.4, 1277b9.

[36] Cf. “…Others suppose that if they are equal in a certain thing, such as freedom, they are equal generally.” (Aristotle, Politics III.9, 1280a23, Lord.)

[37] Herodotus, II.172

[38] Aristotle, Politics. I.5, 1254a27. (Lord)

[39] Ibid., VII.7, 1328a5.

[40] Ibid., I.5, 1254b12.

[41] Aristotle, Ethics. VIII.12, 1162a17.

[42] Ibid., VIII.14, 1163a23.

[43] Remember that, on Aristotle’s account, any authority that the wife holds in the management of the household is received through her husband.

[44] Aristotle, Politics. III.4, 1277b23. (Lord)

[45] Aristotle, Ethics. VIII.12, 1162a24.

[46] Ibid., VIII.7, 1158b12.