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Aristotle on Coercion - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 304
Coercion/Plato/Aristotle/Keyt/Miller: The two major political thinkers of antiquity, Plato
and Aristotle, though no less hostile to despotic rule over free men than Athenian democrats (Aristotle, Poi. 111.6.1279a19-21; Plato, Laws V111.832c), travel a different road. ((s) Cf. >Coercion/Ancient philosophy).
They are unimpressed by the democratic argument for two reasons.
1) First of all, they understand freedom differently. Following Socrates' lead (Xenophon, Mem. I.3. I l), they define it as rational, rather than unimpeded, agency: a man who is enslaved to a passion but whose activity is unimpeded is free in one sense of the word but not in the other (Plato, Rep. IX.577d, 579d—e; Aristotle, Metaph. XII.10.1075a18-23).
2) Second, they think that Athenian democracy, being in practice if not in theory the rule by force of the mass over the wealthy, is itself despotic (Plato, Laws VIII.832c; Aristotle, Pol. 111.6.1279a19-21 together with 7.1279b4—6). Wishing to maintain rather than to minimize or eliminate the distance between ruler and ruled, they are led to distinguish different sorts of rule and in particular to distinguish the rule of the wise and the virtuous from despotic rule (Plato, Laws
111.689e-690d; Aristotle, Poi. 111.4.1277a33-b11).
(The response of Greek intellectuals to Athenian democracy is the theme of Ober, 1996(1) and 1998(2); Saxonhouse, 1996(3); and Veyne, 1983(4).)
Gaus I 313
Coercion/Aristotle: the concept of natural existence paves the way for the notion of an unnatural condition, and along with it an account of the opposition between force and persuasion. Only a natural entity can be in a natural or an unnatural condition: a horse can be blind and deaf, but not a statue of a horse (see Pol. I.5.1254a34-b9). Furthermore, Aristotle identifies what is contrary to nature with what is forced (Cael. 1.2.300a23). He also thinks that natural entities, unlike artifacts, are unified wholes by nature and not by force (Metaph. X. 1.1052a22-5). It follows, then, that it is unnatural for a polis, which in Aristotle's view is a natural entity, to be a unified whole by force. This means that coercion and brute force are alien to a polis in a natural condition (the
ramifications of this point are explored in Keyt, 1996)(5). In a political setting the alternative to force is its antithesis, persuasion, the source of willing obedience (for the opposition see EE II.8.1224a39). Aristotle devotes an entire treatise to this subject, and addresses the question of political persuasion specifically (Rhet. I.4, 8). >Persuasion/Aristotle.

EE: Aristotle Eudemian Ethics
Pol: Aristotle Politics
Metaph.: Aristotle Metaphysics
Cael.: Aristotle de Caelo



1. Ober, Josiah, ed. (1996) The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
2. Ober, Josiah (1998) Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
3. Saxonhouse, Arlene W. (1996) Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists. Notre Dame, In: University of Notre Dame Press.
4. Veyne, Paul (1983) 'Did the Greeks invent democracy?' Diogenes, 124: 1-32.
5. Keyt, David (1996) 'Aristotle and the ancient roots of anarchism'. Topoi, 15: 129-42.

Keyt, David and Miller, Fred D. jr. 2004. „Ancient Greek Political Thought“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Concept/Author], [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] resp. "problem:"/"solution:", "old:"/"new:" and "thesis:" is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.

Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2022-01-18
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