Aristotle on the Size of the Good City

In Book VII of his Politics, Aristotle says that the size of the polis should be limited by what is best able to achieve its civic concern (the good life, or self-sufficiency in terms of seeking virtue in community). The polis should not be too large, because large populations make it difficult to secure obedience to law. The creation of order is impossible when there are an extremely large number of people in a city. At the same time, a state should not be too small, lest it be unable to achieve self-sufficiency. Additionally, for there to be a truly political life – a life where free and equal people meet together and rationally deliberate about the just and unjust – the people must know each other’s characters. When the population is too large, this cannot be done and sound government and the pursuit of justice will suffer. For Aristotle, the maximum size of a city is defined as containing “the greatest surveyable number required for achieving a life of self-sufficiency” (Ernst Barker translation).

As to the amount of territory the city should have, here too, Aristotle counsels moderation. “The territory should be large enough to enable its inhabitants to live a life of leisure which combines liberality with temperance,” and it should also be “surveyable,” meaning able to be comprehended in terms of being able to plan and mount a successful defense.

Without trying to say whether Aristotle’s ideas are good or bad, or right or wrong, what do these principles show us about our own modern, industrialized, commerce-focused megalopolises full of strangers whose greatest concern seems to be just making it through today? What do Aristotle’s principles suggest about our modern understanding of “politics” and “democracy”? We don’t even know our neighbors most of the time, let alone our leaders, so is it any wonder that demagogues on television sway so many votes with shallow polemicizing against their opponents, flim-flam promises, and mere image? How do we create and maintain order in our sprawling megalopolises? (Think about how few police there are relative to the population of a huge metropolis, and ask yourself what it is that makes us all heed those flashing lights in our rearviews, anyway?)

Much interesting food for thought here!

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