Understanding Aristotle’s Account of the Relationship of the Household to the State (Part II)

This is the second part of an investigation Aristotle’s account of the relation of the Household and the state. Part One can be found here. A printable version of the whole essay can be found here.

Part Two

IV. Relationships Within the Household: Parents and Children

Now that we have addressed the first ruler-ruled pair within the household, we move on to that which naturally flows from it: the parent-child relationship. Now, it was mentioned above that the relationship between parents and children is also a relationship between unequals, but that it differs in kind from the other relationships between unequals.[1]

As with the relationship between husband and wife, Aristotle chooses to first illuminate the relationship between fathers and children by analogy to a form of political rule (in this case, kingship):

…The friendship of a king for those who live under his rule depends on his superior ability to do good. He confers benefits upon his subjects, since he is good and cares for them in order to promote their welfare, just as a shepherd cares for his sheep. Hence, Homer spoke of Agamemnon as “shepherd of the people.” The friendship of a father [for his children] is of the same kind, but it differs in the magnitude of benefits bestowed. For he is the author of their being, which is regarded as the greatest good, and he is responsible for maintaining and educating them….Furthermore, it is by nature that a father rules over his children, ancestors over their descendants, and a king over his subjects. These kinds of friendship depend on superiority, and that is why we [do not only love but] also honor our parents. Accordingly, in those relationships the same thing is not just for both partners, but what is just depends on worth or merit, and the same is true for friendship.[2]

So once again we are presented with a conundrum: we know that the relationship between parent and child is a relationship between unequals, and thus they cannot give each other the same things. But in order for there to be a friendship at all, there must be some exchange of what each is able to give, and what each owes to the other, in order to make right the inequality between them, to the extent that this is possible. So now we must investigate what it is that is given and exchanged, if we are to know anything further about the relationship between the two.

We have already seen that the father, as the author of the child’s being, gives him a good that is regarded by some as the greatest good, and one which is certainly impossible to repay. Further, he is responsible for the education and maintenance of his children. So what is it that the child can possibly give his parents in return? About this Aristotle says the following:

Friendship demands the possible; it does not demand what the giver deserves. In some cases, in fact, it is impossible to make the kind of return which the giver deserves, for instance, in the honors we pay to the gods and to our parents. Here no one could ever make a worthy return, and we regard a man as good if he serves them to the best of his ability.[3]

Thus, what is expected of the child is that he honor his parents as much as is possible (because honor is what he is capable of giving), never forgetting that they have given him his very being, without which none of the other things which he enjoys would even be possible.[4]

The parents’ responsibility for their child’s education refers not just to his formal education, but also to his moral education. The moral education of the child could even be said to be the parents’ primary duty towards their children. For indeed, the formal education of the child begins comparatively late in his development—say, at age seven or so. But the parents’ role in the moral education of their child could be said to begin almost as soon as the child is born. Children begin to absorb information quite early, even before they are really capable of communicating. The family environment—the character of which is determined entirely by the parents—has a tremendous influence on the child’s later outlook on life.

The parents are responsible for the discipline of their children, and this lays the foundation for the child’s moral life. During the child’s journey towards full rationality, he relies on his parents to direct his passions where he lacks the rationality to do so. The parents’ punishment of the child (corporal or otherwise) helps the child to develop the proper attitudes towards pleasure and pain, which are integral to the development of the habit of virtue. And the example of the child’s virtuous parents provides him with models for his own development. A child who grows up within a strong, properly ordered marriage and household, in which all of the adult members aim at the good, has a significant advantage when it comes time for him to devote himself to the art of household management.

It seems that for the parent who is himself virtuous, and thus correctly understands that the end of man, the desire to “create something in his own image”[5] extends further than merely producing offspring. Rather, he desires for his child to reach maturity and realize his own end as a rational animal. A parent is grief-stricken when his child dies before reaching maturity not merely because he has lost his child, but also because that child died before he was able to have children of his own and enjoy the rational perfection that is attainable only in adulthood.

At any rate, while the virtuous parent cannot attain moral perfection for his child, he will understand the importance of laying the proper foundation for the child’s later moral development. In short, he does as much to ensure his child’s mature happiness as he possibly can.

V. Relationships Within the Household: Master and Slave

At the very beginning of the Politics, Aristotle says that household arises out of two relationships: the relationship between man and woman and the relationship between master and slave.[6] We have already examined the relationship between man and woman, and the parent-child relationship which stems from the marriage of man and woman. Now we turn to the master-slave relationship.

Just as man and woman cannot exist without each other, but must unite so that the human race may continue, so must there be a union of master and slave, “that both may be preserved.”[7]

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.[8]

 Hence, the slave is a “living instrument,” by which the will of the master is effected. This is not to the master’s advantage in such a way that is detrimental to the slave. It is according to nature, and thus, it is to the advantage of both. For “Ruling and being ruled belong not only among things necessary but also among things advantageous.”[9]

In this particular case, it is clear that the advantage of the ruler lies in receiving the services of his slave. If the household exists to secure the necessary advantages of life, it would seem that the nuclear family will require more than slight assistance in doing so, and the employment of slave labor makes this possible. The advantage to the slave is more difficult to see. Aristotle puts it thus:

Accordingly, those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast–and they are in this state if their work is the use of the body, and if this is the best that can come from them–are slaves by nature. For them it is better to be ruled in accordance with this sort of rule, if such is the case for the other things mentioned. For he is a slave by nature who is capable of belonging to another–which is also why he belongs to another–and who participates in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does not have it. (The other animals, not perceiving reason, obey their passions.)[10]

Without his master, the slave would be left in the thrall of his passions. He would neither see the proper ends nor the means for reaching those ends.

Now it is obvious that it will be better for a man to be enslaved only if his relationship to his master is according to nature, and the master desires to direct the slave towards his proper end. Further, the fact that Aristotle’s conception of natural slavery is of mutual advantage to both master and slave does not mean that he believes all slavery to be just. If one were to enslave someone perfectly capable of determining the proper ends and the means for reaching them, one would do a grave injustice.

We should not neglect to note here that, as with the other ruler-ruled relationships within the household, Aristotle compares the master-slave to a form of political rule: “The association of master and slave, too, is tyrannical, since it is the master’s advantage which is accomplished in it.”[11] Despite the fact that Aristotle elsewhere condemns tyranny as an unjust form of rule, he says immediately after this last quote that the tyranny of masters over slaves is a “correct” form of tyranny—undoubtedly because, as we can see from what has been cited above, he believes that the slave does in fact exist for the sake of the master, almost as a part of part of his own body. This is as opposed to political tyranny, in which a free man perfectly capable of deliberation and choice is forced to live for the sake of another–a grave injustice, and contrary to nature, as was discussed above.

This is, perhaps, one of Aristotle’s most controversial doctrines, but it is not within the scope of this thesis to discuss whether or not natural slaves actually exist. Rather, it has been sufficient for our purposes to merely outline what Aristotle says about natural slaves, so that we can develop a comprehensive idea of what Aristotle believes the household to consist of, and so that we may see that he believes the household to be able to incorporate and order all the members of society.

VI. Other Selves and Commonness Within the Household

Now that we have discussed the basic aspects of all of the ruler-ruled relationships within the household, we will turn our attention to how the household relates to the state. One of the primary ways in which the household prepares those within it for their life in the state is through friendship within the family. The household is peculiarly able to develop its members’ idea of friendship: not merely because it provides one’s first experience of companionship, but because the experience of “another self” within the household is had in a unique way and the experience of a common life is thorough-going. And it would seem that these two things are fundamental to friendship, and that a good understanding of them (which a well-ordered household can provide) will be essential to a full conception of the meaning of friendship outside the household.

Though the idea of the “other self” and the having of things in common are present to a greater or lesser extent in all of the relationships within the household, this paper will closely examine their role in only two relationships: the parent-child and fraternal friendships.[12] Not only are the idea of the “other self” and commonness perhaps more apparent in these two relationships than in the others, but it would seem that it is in these two relationships that these elements play the most significant role in developing those involved. Because the parent sees his child as another self, he has a bond with the child that strengthens his ability to contribute to the child’s formation. Likewise, the child is more easily formed by his parent because he will eventually in turn see his parent as another self. Finally, the high degree of commonness within the household (especially between brothers) contributes to the proper development of the child’s understanding of what is essential to friendship—an understanding that will influence the formation of his mature friendships within the state.

First, we will address Aristotle’s idea that in the ideal friendship, each party will look upon the other as an “other self.” He says in the Ethics that: “The perfect form of friendship is that between good men who are alike in excellence or virtue.”[13] So he establishes the idea of likeness, which is important because, as he reminds us:

[Friendship between virtuous equals], then, is perfect and complete friendship, both in terms of time and in all other respects, and each partner receives in all matters what he gives the other, in the same or in a similar form; that is what friends should be able to count on.[14]

The idea of the other self is explicitly established in Book IX of the Ethics:

We count as a friend a person who wishes for and does what is good or what appears to him to be good for his friend’s sake; or a person who wishes for the existence and life of his friend for his friend’s sake…. We regard as friend also a person who spends his time in our company and whose desires are the same as ours, or a person who shares sorrow and joy with his friend….

…A good man has every one of these sentiments towards himself…he has the same attitude toward his friend as he does toward himself, for his friend really is another self….[15]

In Aristotle’s account of the matter, the other self in the friendship of the good man is not a clone, but an extension of one’s self.[16] As such, the good of the other self is in some sense the good of the individual himself. And while the other selves found within the family are of necessity somewhat different from those found in the perfect friendship of virtuous equals, the other selves within the family make particularly manifest this idea of the extension of self, since the idea could be said to be less analogous within the family than elsewhere.

It would seem that since the child is from his parents, that the parent would see the child as another self. It would also seem that, given the child’s imperfect understanding of the world around him, it would take longer for the child to see the parent as another self, and even then, that it would be to a lesser degree. Aristotle discusses the parent-child relationship while discussing how all of the friendships between kinsmen seem to depend on parental friendship.

For parents love their children as something which belongs to them, while children love their parents because they owe their being to them. But parents know better that the offspring is theirs than children know that they are their parents’ offspring, and the bond which ties the begetter to the begotten is closer than that which ties the generated to its author. For that which has sprung from a thing belongs to its source, for example, a tooth, a hair, and so forth belongs to its source, but the source does not belong at all—or only to a lesser degree—to that which has sprung from it.[17]

The parents’ role in the creation of the child, their awareness of themselves and their action as cause of the child’s being, and of his being as the particular individual that he is, with a specific material form, contributes to their seeing the child as an “other self.” He has his father’s eyes, his mother’s nose, sets his jaw like his father when angry, and has his mother’s love of animals. It is the parents who provide the matter which individuates the child and makes him the particular human being that he is. As such, he resembles them in innumerable ways, but particularly in his appearance and temperament. Further, since they are the first people he knows, and it is within their home that he grows toward adulthood, he will resemble them in his speech (i.e., vocabulary and idiom) and mannerisms and opinions—the things that are learned.

The child springs from the union of his parents, but as soon as he is born he begins to make continuous progress towards the point at which he will be completely independent of them. It is always clear to the parent that the child is of their union, and belongs to them even in his very form, but the parents do not belong to the child in the same way.

Moreover, [there is also a difference between the love of parents and the love of children] in point of time: parents love their children as soon as they are born, but children love their parents only as, with the passage of time, they acquire understanding or perception. This also explains why affection felt by mothers is greater [than that of fathers].[18]

As we discussed earlier, the child comes into existence within his mother’s body, during which time the child is continuous with her, and then, after she is delivered of the child, she nourishes him with her own body. There is never any question that the child is of herself. The father, not having the same physical connection with the child, will probably only begin to feel a strong attachment for the child as his own when the child is born, when he can begin to see that the child is like him and when he begins to form him after himself by teaching him what he knows.

The child, on the other hand, needs to acquire an understanding of his parents as a cause of himself, needs time to realize his particular connection to them, and to discover the various ways in which he resembles his parents. As this knowledge unfolds, he will begin to ask his parents questions about what they were like at the corresponding stages of their development, and see that they can give him better advice because of their similar experiences—not just as human beings, but as human beings with similar personalities. That is to say, he begins to recognize the fact that his parents have selves like his own.

Brothers, too, see each other as “other selves.”

…While brothers love one another because they were born of the same parents: the identical relation they have with their parents makes them identical with one another. This is the origin of expressions like “of the same blood,” “of the same stock,” and so forth. Brothers are, therefore, in a sense identical, though the identity resides in separate persons. Of great importance to friendship is common upbringing and closeness in age….[19]

The sharing of parents means more than a common experience, more than merely being raised in the same household: everything that is meant by the child having a formal resemblance to the parent is also implied here. Brothers are similar in appearance and in tendencies—they share in a lineage and upbringing that shapes their identity and their experience of the world.

This emphasis on the role of the “other self” is not to imply, however, that the “having of things in common” (both materially and in terms of having a common experience) is of lesser importance to the relationships within the family. Aristotle addresses this specifically in the Ethics:

Friendship is present to the extent that men share something in common, for that is also the extent to which they share a view of what is just. And the proverb “friends hold in common what they have” is correct, for friendship consists in community. Brothers and bosom companions hold everything in common, while all others only hold certain definite things in common—some more and others less, since some friends are more intense than others.[20]

The having of things in common takes place to the greatest extent within the family. Not only do the members of the family share in the “necessaries of life,” as well as a in common experience and a common end, but they have these things in common with people who are “other selves.” Further, because every family springs from the union of unique individuals, the character of every family is different, even amongst families that alike understand the proper aim of the family and are properly ordered. These differences between families create a unique environment and experience for those within the family.

Aristotle believes that, in fact, the relationships within the family are more pleasant and more useful because of the high degree of commonness.

But [the friendship between children and parents] has also a higher degree of what is pleasant and useful than does friendship with persons outside the family, inasmuch as the partners have more of their life in common. Friendship between brothers has elements which are also found in friendship between bosom companions. It has them in a higher degree when the brothers are good men and, in general, when they are like on another, inasmuch as they are more closely linked together and have been loving one another since birth, and inasmuch as children of the same parents, who have been brought up together and have received a similar education, are more alike in character. Also, there is the test of time to which brothers are subjected more thoroughly and reliably than anyone else.[21]

It is only difference in age which causes inequality between brothers within the same family, and this inequality is only temporary—it will cease to exist when they reach maturity. Thus, the high degree of commonness between brothers likens their friendship to the friendship between equal bosom companions. Further, commonness develops a trust and familiarity between brothers which contributes to the strength of their unique bond. The “test of time” that Aristotle refers to at the end of the last quote brings to mind something he says earlier in the Ethics, about the ideal friendship between virtuous men:

Such friendships [between men alike in excellence or virtue] are of course rare, since such men are few. Moreover, time and familiarity are required. For, as the proverb has it, people cannot know each other until they have eaten the specified salt together. One cannot extend friendship to or be a friend of another person until each partner has impressed the other that he is worthy of affection, and until each has won the other’s confidence.[22]

The closeness between family members, which has to do with both the idea of the “other self” and commonness, is especially important to the formation of the children. Firstly, it makes possible the bond between parents and children that both moves the parent to care for his child’s formation, and which disposes the child towards being formed by his parents. Secondly, it provides the child’s first experience of love and companionship, and as such is the standard by which all of his subsequent friendships outside of the family will be measured. It is important that the children have this standard because, as we have seen, it is the best and most ideal friendships, the friendships between virtuous equals, which (outside the household) place the greatest emphasis on “other-self-ness” and commonness, and which most resemble brotherhood. The more an individual desires these things in a friendship, and the more inclined he is to require them, and the more likely he is to form pure, lasting friendships in which both parties aim at the good, both for each other and universally. Just as the moral virtues properly order and dispose the soul to aim at the good (and so cultivate and perfect the intellectual virtues), so do healthy friendships within the family dispose one to seek the right things in extra-familial relationships.

It is these friendships between virtuous equals which are necessary both to the development of the moral virtues (for a man is said to be just in relation to his fellow men) and to the development of the intellectual virtues (by making discourse possible)—and which are, as a result, ultimately necessary to man’s complete happiness. Of course, these friendships are both impossible without the state and are integral to its aim, to its end of securing the happiness of its citizens. Now that we have seen what a key role properly ordered friendships within the family play in the health of mature, adult friendships within the state, we have a better idea of the importance of the health of the family to the effectiveness of the state in achieving its end.

VII. The Development of Moral Virtue Within the Household

We now turn to a consideration of the ways in which the household can be said to form its members with regard to moral virtue.[23] We have already touched on the fact that the parents’ approach towards the raising of the children must be one which results in the children having the proper attitude towards pleasure and pain. (Remember that the moral virtues, for Aristotle, are of necessity concerned with pleasure and pain.[24]) The parents’ discipline of the children, whether corporal or otherwise, should be such that the child is brought to take pleasure in his right actions, and find his wrong actions causative of pain. Since these attitudes towards pleasure and pain would seem to be more malleable during childhood than they are later in life, the parent must take especial care with the child’s moral education.

But it is not only the children who have their moral formation within the household. Recall that Aristotle divides household mastery into three parts: expertise in mastery [over slaves], expertise in marital [rule], and expertise in parental rule. Having addressed each of these three kinds of rule in the Politics, he observes that:

…It is clear that household management attends more to men than to the acquisition of inanimate things, and to human excellence more than the excellence of property which we call wealth….[25]

Concluding that the excellence of all of the household’s members is of primary importance to its head, Aristotle asks whether slaves, women and children can be said to be virtuous. Ultimately, he concludes that they can in fact be said to be virtuous, but that each group has a peculiar virtue suited to its peculiar character. So, then, the head of the household is responsible for a moral formation of those whom he rules over. (We have already seen, of course, that in each of the relationships within the household it is the head of the household—the husband, father and master—who is the ruler, though the ruled and the character of the rule are different in each relationship.)

In ensuring that there is a proper relationship between ruler and ruled in each of these relationships, the ruler orders things correctly, according to the order of nature. It is a reflection of the social nature of human existence (to say nothing of Aristotle’s idea of virtue) that the members of the household do not achieve excellence independently of each other. Rather, the idea of each one’s excellence is inextricably linked to his relationship with the other members of the household.

But why is this excellence important to the health of the state? Why should it concern us in our inquiry into the relationship of the household to the city-state? Aristotle concludes the section of the Politics in which he discusses the particular virtues of women, children and slaves with this statement:

For, inasmuch as every family is part of the state, and these relationships are parts of a family, and the virtue of the part must have regard to the virtue of the whole, women and children must be trained by education with an eye to the constitution, if the virtues of either of them are supposed to make any difference in the virtue of the state. And they must make a difference: for the children grow up to be citizens, and half the free persons in the state are women.[26]

Simply put, then, the virtuousness of the state (which exists for the sake of its citizens living well) is dependent on the virtuousness of its individual members. And this is not merely the concern of the ruler and lawgiver, but also of those who are charged with household management, because it is clear that the ordering nature of rule has the ability to make the ruled excellent. (We remember that moral virtue is itself a correct ordering of the parts of the soul.) Further, ruling well is itself an excellence. So the work of perfect virtue, though not necessarily completed within the home, can at least be said to be begun there.

The degree to which the perfection of an individual is effected within the household differs, depending on the individual’s role within the household. For the head of the household, who is a mature male, the fulfillment of his duties within the household forms only a part of his perfection. His excellence as husband, father and master is certainly necessary to his possessing the full complement of the moral virtues—to his being a just man. But he has obligations outside of the household, and friendships outside of the household, and so one could not say that all that is required of him lies within the confines of his estate. If he is truly to be just, he must also be excellent with regard to his relationships outside of the household.

The wife and mother can be said to be perfected within the household, as can the slave. This is because on Aristotle’s view, neither of these can properly said to have duties outside of the household. The mother is concerned with her husband, her children and her husband’s property (which includes management of the slaves, through the authority delegated to her by her husband). Though the fact that she is rational (and therefore free) allows her to knowingly act for the good of the state (as in, say, the raising of her children), her work with regard to the state remains within the context of the household. And the slaves, as we have said, exist solely to carry out the will of their master with regards to the management of his household and property. As his instruments, they cannot have any legitimate concern with anything that is not their master’s.

Finally, the children can in no way become perfect within the household, since, as children, they are imperfect, and thus so must their virtue be imperfect. The male children will ultimately be perfected in adulthood, both through becoming heads of their own households and having a life within the state, outside of their own households. The female children will reach maturity and become wives and mothers, and thus be perfected inside of a household distinct from the one they were born into. Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done with the children, as we have addressed above. Besides their moral formation, their parents are to be concerned with cultivating their sense of wonder (so that they might have a foundation for the intellectual virtues), as well as with communicating to them a sense of the importance of civic virtue, with an eye towards their future as citizens of the state. In all of these things, the example of the parents is of equal importance to direct instruction and discipline.

VIII. Development of Civic Virtue Within the Family

The household can also be seen to contribute to the development of its members’ perfection in civic virtue—a particular sort of virtue with regard to one’s participation in the political life. One way in which the household can be seen to develop this particular virtue is with regard to the parents. If the end of the particular state that they live within is truly the good for man, they will of course desire to contribute to the perpetuation of that state, so that it may continue to accomplish its end. As such, they will bring forth offspring with an eye towards those children participating in the life of the state, and they will educate their children such that the children have a correct understanding of the regime and its aim.

The children are prepared for the life within the state not only by their parents’ instruction, but also by participating (both directly and through observation) in the types of political rule modeled in the relationships within the household. These help them not only to better understand the particular regime under which they live, but also political rule generally.

Finally, all of the freemen within the household (even those who are only properly freemen in potency, as are the children) are brought to a better understanding of the common life and end of the state by their experience of the common endeavor of the household. The household, as that which is better known to all of its members, provides a foundation for understanding the life of the freeman within the state, and as such, plays an ineffable role in the strength of the state as a whole.

IX. Necessity of the Household

Now that we have made a beginning in the investigation into Aristotle’s conception of the household and the ways in which it prepares and perfects its members for their life within the state, it is important to consider the fact that the family is a natural institution and, as such, a necessary one. Not only is the work of the family, when properly realized, complementary to the work of the state, but the role that the household plays in the perfection of its members is a role that only the household can play. To destroy the household is to destroy the state.

The first way in which this can be seen to be the case has to do with our earlier discussion of the peculiar nature of both the other-self relationship and commonness within the family. Man has a natural desire to perpetuate his species, a desire which corresponds to the animal aspect of his nature. Parents know their child as a thing which has sprung from them, and they see that child as another self, forming a bond between the parent and the child that could never exist between that child and the state. The fact that the child is “another self” to his parents gives his parents a unique interest in his moral and personal formation—they desire that he realize his end. Further, the parent has a knowledge of his child that enables him to better form that child.[27]

Further, the commonness that occurs within the family contributes to the particular bond that family members have, a bond which, as we have seen, is integral to the moral formation of the members of the household. This particular bond cannot be reproduced outside the household, for the state can give children material things in common, and even a common upbringing and a common end, but it cannot give them the sort of commonness that arises from the knowledge of having sprung from one’s parents as from a common source, and from having had alike a personal, formative relationship with those same parents, and with others from the same source.

The second way in which the household plays a particular and irreplaceable role in the state has to do with the ordering nature of the ruler-ruled relationships within the household.[28] Here, it will be helpful to look at Aristotle’s general treatment of rule, at the beginning of Chapter 5 of the Politics:

Ruling and being ruled belong not only among things necessary but also among things advantageous. And immediately from birth certain things diverge, some toward being ruled, others towards ruling. There are many kinds both of ruling and ruled, and the better rule is always that over ruled that are better, for example over a human being rather than a beast; for the work performed by the better is better, and wherever something rules and something is ruled there is a certain work belonging to these together.[29]

For Aristotle, then, the members of the household will properly be either ruling or ruled beings, by nature and from birth. Not only will they have this character, but if they neglect it, there will be disorder and unhappiness. For if ruling and being ruled are not only necessary, but advantageous, and there is a certain work that belongs to ruler and ruled together, then both will be at a disadvantage if that work is not taken up.

Of course, the members of the household may be rulers in some respects and ruled in others, as the head of the household may rule all within, but may himself be subject to a monarch, when considered as citizen. Further, they may be suited to be ruled for a time—as children are—but at some point (say, as children do, upon reaching maturity) become themselves capable of rule. What is important to see here is that a given individual must be properly ordered in every area of his life in which there can be said to be a ruler-ruled relationship.

In order to better understand this, it will be helpful to see examples of the various ruler-ruled relationships which a given individual might be expected to order himself in relation to. Just after the general discussion of rule quoted above, Aristotle goes on to give specific examples of various ruler-ruled relationships.

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…. But an animal is the first thing constituted of soul and body, of which the one thing is the ruling element by nature, the other the ruled….

It is then in an animal, as we were saying, that one can first discern both the sort of rule characteristic of a master and political rule. For the soul rules the body with the rule characteristic of a master, while intellect rules appetite with political and kingly rule; and this makes it evident that it is according to nature and advantageous for the body to be ruled by the soul, and the passionate part by intellect and the part having reason, while it is harmful to both if the relation is equal or reversed….Further, 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.[30]

Here, Aristotle begins with what is most fundamental: the fact that the body is properly ruled by the soul. And the soul itself is divided into the rational and irrational parts, and according to nature, the rational is to rule the irrational. Finally, he gives an example of human beings ruling each other, saying that nature also dictates that the male rule the female.

So we can see that an individual man will have many ruler-ruled relationships that he must account for, both within himself and between himself and others. Since all of these exist according to nature, it is clear that the proper ordering of each of them is to his advantage. Further, if any one of them were to be neglected or perverted, the ordering of his entire being (necessary for moral and intellectual virtue, and thus, for the attainment of his highest end) would be adversely affected. Thus, the household is necessary to the complete ordering and perfection of the individual.

Finally, Aristotle can be seen to argue for the necessity of the family in Book II of the Politics, but from a different perspective: not from the nature of the family, but from the nature of the state. He does so in addressing the errors of Socrates’ view of the state:

Further, with respect to the end which he asserts the city should have, it is, as has just been said, impossible; but how one should distinguish [a sense in which it is possible] is not discussed. I mean, that it is best for the city to be as far as possible entirely one; for this is the presupposition Socrates adopts. And yet it is evident that as it becomes increasingly one it will no longer be a city. For the city is in its nature a sort of multitude, and as it becomes more a unity it will be a household instead of a city, and a human being instead of a household; for we would surely say that the household is more of a unity than the city, and the individual than the household. So even if one were able to do this, one ought not to do it, as it would destroy the city. Now the city is made up not only of a number of human beings, but also of human beings differing in kind: a city does not arise from persons who are similar.[31]

Now, we have already established the benefits of the citizens of the state being alike in ideal virtue, and how this makes possible the sort of friendship necessary to their ultimate perfection. So it is clear that when Aristotle says that the city is not constituted of people who are similar, he wants to emphasize the fact that they must have complementary skills and intellectual abilities to offer each other. Indeed, he says soon afterward that:

It is evident in another way as well that to seek to unify the city excessively is not good. For a household is more self-sufficient than one person, and a city than a household; and a city tends to come into being at a point when the partnership formed by a multitude is self-sufficient. If therefore, the more self-sufficient is more choiceworthy, what is less a unity is more choiceworthy than what is more a unity.[32]

It is, then, the diversity of the contributions of its citizens that makes a polity self-sufficient. These diverse contributions are made possible primarily by the fact that the state consists of different classes of people,[33] but also by the fact that the state is composed of a multitude of households, each of which will have a unique character (derived partly from the fact that it stems from the partnerships of unique individuals) even within a given class, and which will produce citizens with complementary perspectives and abilities. To eliminate the household is to destroy an aspect of the plurality of the state, and so also to destroy its self-sufficiency.

X. Conclusion

It is true to say that the end of the household is properly “the supply of men’s everyday wants,” because this is what the family is able to bring about completely. But we have also seen that, in various ways, the household makes a beginning in the state’s project of perfecting its citizens, and that it is the only institution which can play this most necessary role. The fact that the household cannot complete the process of perfection which it begins returns us to our earlier inquiry into the nature of the state’s priority to the household. Only the state, because it is self-sufficient and lacking in nothing, can secure man’s perfection. Thus, though we are not able to make a comprehensive inquiry into the state’s priority, we may ascribe priority to the state at least on the basis of its self-sufficiency, for “…To be self-sufficing is the end and best.”[34] And this understanding of the priority of the state to the household would seem to inform our primary discussion of the ordering of the household to the state. For if the members of the household are to find the perfection and happiness that they seek, they must realize that only the state can perfect them.


[1] “…The friendship which parents have for their children is not the same as that which a ruler has for his subjects, and even the friendship of a father for his son is different from that of the son for his father….” (Ibid., VIII.7, 1158b14.)

[2] Ibid., VIII.11, 1161a11.

[3] Ibid., VIII.14, 1163b15.

[4] The gift of one’s being is so great that the debt which the child owes to his parents is even owed to the parent who neglects the child in other respects—say, formal education. The parent who neglects his responsibility to his child has still given the child his being, and thus deserves the respect of the child.

[5] See Aristotle, Politics. I.2, 1252a30. (Jowett)

[6] Ibid., I.2, 1252ab9.

[7] Ibid., I.2, 1252a31.

[8] Ibid., I.2, 1252a32.

[9] Aristotle, Politics. I.5, 1254a21. (Lord)

[10] Ibid., I.5, 1254b16.

[11] Aristotle, Ethics. VIII.10, 1160b29.

[12] Of course, the strength of the relationship between the husband and the wife—which is also based on the idea of the “other self” and on commonness—is presupposed to the strength of the parent-child and fraternal relationships.

[13] Aristotle, Ethics. VIII.3, 1156b7.

[14] Ibid., VIII.4, 1156b33.

[15] Ibid., IX.4, 1166a3.

[16] “For, as we have stated, all friendly feelings toward others are an extension of the friendly feelings a person has for himself.” (Ibid., IX.8, 1168b5.)

[17] Ibid., VIII.12, 1161b18.

[18] Ibid., VIII.12, 1161b30.

[19] Ibid., VIII.12, 1162a8.

[20] Ibid., VIII.9, 1159b29.

[21] Ibid., VIII.12, 1162a8.

[22] Ibid., VIII.4, 1156b26.

[23] Though it is true to say that the household can give the child a foundation for intellectual virtue—say, through the development of the child’s sense of wonder—the child’s formal education is, on Aristotle’s account, properly the province of the state. Further, intellectual perfection will be attained through the friendships one forms within the state.  It is important to remember that since moral virtue is presupposed to intellectual virtue, and since the household is ordered towards the perfection of all of its members, the household’s development of the moral virtue of its members is done with an eye towards the formation of intellectual virtue.

[24] See (among others) Aristotle’s Ethics, 1104b2-1105a17, 1153b12, and 1153b25.

[25] Aristotle, Politics. I.11, 1259b17. (Jowett)

[26] Ibid., I.13, 1260b12.

[27] The fact that nature imposes limits on the number of children a woman can give birth to contributes to the personal nature of the upbringing one receives within a family.

[28] Remember that that Aristotle says that expertise in household mastery has to do with the three kinds of rule: mastery, marital rule and parental rule. (Aristotle, Politics. I.5, 1253b8, Lord.)

[29] Ibid., I.5, 1254a21.

[30] Ibid., I.5, 1254a28.

[31] Ibid., II.2, 1261a13.

[32] Ibid., II.2, 1261b10.

[33] See Aristotle’s Politics, 1277a4 and 1289b27.

[34] Aristotle, Politics. I.2, 1252b34. (Jowett)