The purpose of this project was, on the one hand, to explicate the epistemic and normative aspects of the household in interpreting Aristotle’s Politics, Ethics and Poetics, and, on the other hand, trace a modern transformation of Aristotle’s notions of household-based community in 19th Century German philosophy.


The households which were the object of ancient theories of the πόλις were significantly different from the household as we conceive it today. The οἶκος of the ancient πόλις is supposed by ancient sources (and many modern scholars) to be a “self-sustaining joint enterprise, invariably agricultural, undertaken by husband and wife for the specific goal of the perpetuation of the oikos and the passing on of its resources to the next generation”. The modern household, in contrast, lacks this essential aspect of self-subsistence and autonomy: »without jobs from the disembedded, non-household economy, modern households could not exist”. The ancient household is not merely a business enterprise, but a moral, educational and religious institution of essentially public interest. This is illustrated, inter alia, by the well-known fact that a domain central to social function of the ancient household – education, particularly through poetry and art – is the object of sustained reflection is ancient political theory. The political-educational background to the evaluation of dramatic poetry and its effects must be understood against the background of the household as a normative and essentially public institution of the ancient πόλις.

The purpose of this project was to explicate precisely these epistemic and normative aspects of the household, aspects which Aristotle develops variously in his Politics, Ethics and Poetics. Furthermore, and in connection with a related, historical study of Aristotle’s theory, the background assumptions of the theory itself are to be critically examined with a view to the historical situation in the 4th Century BCE. The horizon of epistemic and normative questions connected to Aristotle’s theory of the household and the πόλις can be illustrated with regard to three central theses concerning households which we find in the Politics and Ethics:

(1) The πόλις is essentially a community of households, founded for purposes which cannot be defined solely by advantage (Pol. III 9, 1280 b 23 ff.). This thesis, developed in a longer discussion concerning puzzles regarding the identity of πόλεις, succinctly expresses a central normative claim in Aristotle’s political theory: though the πόλις is described as an aggregation of households, it is supposed to be a social entity with a purpose undefinable in terms of contractual and mercantile advantage – and is definitionally prior to the sum of households which comprise it. The normative basis for this theory of community must be sought in both the Politics and Ethics, for example here:

(2)  The household is a form of friendship (Eud. Eth. VII 10, 1242 a 22 ff.). Aristotle treats friendship at length in books VIII and IX of his Nicomachean Ethics. Here, Aristotle distinguishes morally inferior forms of friendship – friendship based upon pleasure or advantage – from friendship of the good, or virtue friendship. The concept of civic friendship, which Aristotle discusses in several different passages, sits ambiguously among these distinctions and its classification is cause for controversy among interpreters. The issue at stake here, and to be addressed in this project, is the question as to the moral quality of inter-citizen relations in an ideal polity. It also raises questions as to what it would mean to be a parasitic, non-moral citizen.

(3) The πόλις is by nature prior to the household and to each of us (Pol. I 2, 1253 a 19–20). This is a much-interpreted statement which has given rise, i.a., to the claim that Aristotle was a “communitarian”. Colin Guthrie King tried to interpret this thesis, instead, within the context of an Aristotelian theory of collective learning and intelligence, and in analogy to some of Aristotle’s claims concerning the communities of intelligent animals in his zoological works.