Order, Symmetry and Limit: Beauty as a Regulative Ideal in Aristotle’s Politics
As an individual whole made up of parts, one of the regulative ideals for the design of a city for Aristotle is its to kalon. What I want to defend in this paper is that many times in the Politics, it is appropriate to translate kalon as “beautiful”. I will begin by exploring what the beautiful means for the Ancient Greeks and how it differs from the modern aesthetic meaning of beauty. Because of this, we should look farther afield than just the Poetics to a more organic reading of beauty . Human fabrication attempts to reproduce nature (Phys. II.8 199a15-19) because it is in nature that Aristotle’s three criteria of beauty (order, symmetry and limit) are the most perfectly fulfilled. For Aristotle, the polis can be analogized with a substance and among the composite wholes found in the sublunary realm, nothing is both more naturally perfect and paradigmatic of substances than the living organism.
My framework is to start by appropriating Mariska Leunissen’s conceptual separation of Primary and Secondary teleology in animals and the polis. I will use this schema as a way to articulate how the concept of beauty helps statecraft combine the need to secure life, the primary end, with the secondary end of the polis, to provide its citizens the opportunity to live well. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle argues that the three criteria of beauty are, order [taxis], symmetry [summetria] and limit [to horismenon]
(1078a36). I will show how Aristotle uses these three criteria to design the city. My plan is to go through, one at a time, the different criteria of beauty to show the conceptual impact of each criterion in the primary teleological work of keeping a city whole, but also the conceptual impact of each criterion in allowing the rulers and citizens to live well.
First, order as law primarily arranges the multitude into parts in relation to the whole but also ensures that the multitude is educated with enough proper judgement to rule and be ruled over well. Secondly, symmetry makes it so that even in deviant regimes, secondary teleology , in the form of virtue, is still relevant. Citizens must not become too habituated to deviant laws to completely corrupt their characters. Yet, Aristotle puts so much importance on symmetry that even virtue is not safe from the criteria of proportion: if a person emerges as too virtuous but is not the supreme ruler, this existentially
threatens the regime. And so for the sake of primary teleology, this person may have to be ostracized or killed. Thirdly, limit ensures that a city is not too large to be totally ungovernable by law nor too small that it no longer resembles a self-sufficient community, a polis, but instead a family. I will conclude by showing how a musical education allows beauty to be a factor in the deliberation of rulers.