Aristotle's Politics Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Aristotle's Politics: Book 2

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In this book Aristotle’s aim is to look at different states, particularly those that pass good laws and are well governed. He begins by considering forms of government and their implications, the most important of which is that they involve some form of sharing. So, the question is how far should they go and this leads him to consider some of the most radical and well-known proposals made by Plato in the Republic. He explains that Plato recommends extensive sharing even holding in common children, wives and pieces of property. 


His main objection to Plato’s proposal to create as much unity as possible in the state in this way is that all states need diversity of people, opinion and the functions they perform. A state should be made up of members of different social classes, all making different contributions and performing different roles, otherwise it will fail to be self-sufficient. Without this it would resemble a household and the household in turn an individual representing just one particular opinion. So, even if it were possible to create such unity, it is doubtful whether this is desirable. There is not a natural unity to the state and striving for it is not a good thing. Instead, there should be “reciprocal equivalence” (p. 104, 1261a 34) between citizens. Free and equal, they should rule for an appointed term and then make way for others.


In particular Aristotle disapproves of Plato’s suggestion that wives should be shared and children raised collectively in nurseries. Not only is this not conducive to a feeling of solidarity, but it has undesirable consequences. People have less respect for common property. It is not their personal possession and they assume that someone else is taking care of it, so they need not do likewise. As for the raising of children, this calls for solid family ties. Without them people will care less for children and citizens will be less able to show friendship and love. 


Sharing women and holding children in common takes away the prohibition against doing harm to relatives and is likely to result in increased crime. Similarly, by removing certain inhibitions on undesirable behavior and certain incentives to desirable behavior, it is likely to create more incest as partners would simply not recognize each other as family members. Even more important for Socrates’ emphasis on unity within the state, it would in effect work against this, making for weaker, not stronger, ties. The existence of affectionate ties in the state is very important to states, but the most important means of developing this is through the close family ties that extend throughout all the relations of an extended family. By taking this away there would be less, not more, unity in the state.


Aristotle then turns his attention to property and whether or not it should be held in common. His concern is that common ownership would undermine the virtue of generosity. It is much better if people are allowed spontaneity in exercising generosity by sharing their property, rather than being compelled to distribute their property by law. Therefore, instead, Aristotle recommends private ownership combined with common use and an “ungrudging” distribution of produce. With private property people would not only take care of it, but share it with their friends. 


There has to be some unity in the state, but not the absolute total unity Socrates has in mind: “it is as if one were to reduce concord to unison or rhythm to a single beat” (p. 116, 1263b 34-5). It is far better that the state remains a plurality and education tackle the problems, like selfishness, broken contracts and so on, that are usually associated with private property. Through education we can promote the sense of unity Socrates wants.


What’s more, Socrates’ proposals will have the effect of dividing, not uniting, the state, which will be two states in one: on the one side the Guardians, on the other the farmers, craftsmen and the rest of the citizens. This can only lead to disputes, litigation and other evils. Even more, the plan to ensure that the same people always rule is likely to cause factional conflict. In this situation even the Guardians cannot be happy. Socrates says it is their duty to make the whole state happy, but it is impossible for the whole to be happy without the majority being happy, therefore, the Guardians cannot be happy. Thus, the whole state is not happy.  


At this point Aristotle turns to consider Plato’s Laws. The main thrust of his criticisms is that while it is fine to postulate utopias and ideal forms of government, they must at least be within the bounds of possibility. In the Laws there is to be 5,000 people bearing arms, to which we would need to add at least as many women and servants. For this we would need a huge territory to support them in idleness. This would, in turn, pose significant problems in maintaining safe and peaceful relations with neighboring territories.


Then there is the question of how much property is to be possessed. Plato suggests that each person should “live moderately” as if this is the good life. A much better answer is that men live moderately and liberally. Plato also says that property should be distributed equally and should be indivisible. But this ignores the problems that result from the increase in population. It would mean that all excess children would go without. Indeed it may be thought necessary to limit population growth to match the number of properties. Plato envisages a politeia, or balanced constitution, neither democracy nor oligarchy, but midway between the two. But in fact it has a bias towards oligarchy. 


Aristotle then turns his attention to other “ideal” constitutions. Phaleas of Chalcedon’s main proposal is that there should be equality in the possession of property, because he believed that property was the cause of discord and conflict. But Aristotle dismisses this as imprecise and simplistic. First, Phaleas doesn’t specify how much property should be possessed and in what form. Second, it is simplistic, because, although equality of property helps in solving the problem, equality of possessions alone doesn’t make people good. It needs to be combined with education to teach that happiness arises out of moderation. Legislators should not just equalize possessions, but take into account the circumstances and needs of individual citizens. They must fix the amount midway between luxury and penury to ensure all have moderate means. Equally, they must address through education the appetites of individuals for wealth and possessions to equalize these too.


Phaleas’ account also oversimplifies the causes of conflict, believing that crimes are the result of individuals attempting to acquire for themselves and their families the necessities of life. In fact they may commit crimes to acquire things beyond necessities: they want luxuries or honor. The cures are to ensure all have sufficient work, moderate possessions and a measure of self-control. If they just want self-sufficient lifestyles independent of others, they should pursue philosophy. As for major crimes committed by men pursuing extravagant aims, Phaleas’ constitution has nothing to say: it only offers protection against minor crimes.


Equality of possessions gives some security, both internal and external, from neighboring countries that may covet your wealth, but still some people may think that they have accomplished more and deserve more than an equal share. There is also no limit to the desires of man and most people spend their lives trying to satisfy them. The solution, therefore, lies in ensuring that reasonable people should not wish to acquire more than their share and the inferior and unreasonable should not be able to. This can be achieved by making sure they are weaker, although not unjustly treated.        


Aristotle then turns to consider an alternative utopian vision advocated by Hippodamus, whose model of government includes three classes, three divisions of land and three categories of law. The three classes include skilled workers, farmers and those who carry arms to maintain the state’s defenses. The territory was to be divided into the sacred, common and private land. As for the three categories of law, these related to the three grounds for lawsuits: outrage, damage and homicide. He advocated a single supreme court composed of selected elder persons. He also argued against the simple “yes,” “no” verdicts demanded by the courts. Instead he advocated a system in which each member of the court would present a tablet on which he would explain his verdict and sentence. More controversial was his proposal to bestow honors on all those who made discoveries advantageous to the state.  


Aristotle begins his criticism with the proposal to divide the population into three classes. This will cause greater conflict and discord, because the two classes that carry no arms would be the slaves of those who do. It is essential that those who hold high office should be appointed from those who carry arms; otherwise, if they do not share in the constitution by being citizens and enjoying its privileges, like being eligible for office, they are not likely to be well disposed towards it. Moreover, while the state needs skilled workers, farmers offer nothing for the maintenance of those who carry arms. They merely farm their lands to provide for their own needs. Aristotle dismisses these ideas on the grounds that they are confused and lack clarity.  


Similarly, he dismisses Hippodamus’ reforms of the courts in giving verdicts as unworkable. It would turn jurors into arbitrators. This will only produce confusion among jurors. But clearly his major concern is reserved for the law relating to innovation. Although innovation is not a bad thing, if we tamper with traditional law and the constitution, it is likely to lead to conflict and revolution if society is in constant change. It is clear, if we look back at past laws, many of them were unjust and unfair, indeed laughable. Now the law might be written down, but it doesn’t mean it is unchangeable. But we must be cautious. What we might gain by an improvement in the law might be outweighed by what we lose as we become accustomed to changing the law and disobeying authority. The law has no power to compel obedience, except in that it develops a habit of obeying and this takes a long time to develop.


At this point Aristotle turns his attention from utopian systems (Plato, Phaleas and Hippodamus) to consider constitutions that actually exist (Spartan, Cretan and Carthaginian) and particularly these three, because they are widely admired. He argues that in a well-governed state rulers need a certain amount of leisure time in which they are free from essential tasks, but when the state is badly managed too much of their time is taken up with the problem of trying to find the best way to live with a troublesome, subject population, particularly in Sparta’s case and the ‘Helots’ or state serfs. Allowed too much license and they become arrogant and demand equal rights with their masters.


The same is true of the freedom given to women in Sparta. As a result, they live intemperately, enjoying every license and luxury. And inevitably, as wealth goes to the most influential and esteemed in any state, this has resulted in women controlling a great deal of property, concentrating it into the hands of a few. This acute inequality of property-ownership has had a destabilizing effect. Two-fifths of the land is possessed by mainly women, because heiresses are numerous and dowries large. This has weakened the economy and left the state without effective military protection.


Aristotle is also critical of the Ephors or officials, who are elected annually by the citizens and control the conduct of the kings. As they are elected from among all the people, they include many of the poor who lack the wealth to insulate them from the rewards of bribery. They have virtually become tyrants with even the kings having to curry favor. This has damaged the constitution. It is more like a democracy than an aristocracy. However, it certainly keeps the constitution intact: people are quiet because they have a share in power. Still, the Ephors live a life of considerable ease, while the rest experience a lot of austerity. They also have considerable judicial powers in important cases, so they can give verdicts on their own judgments. It would be better if they were restricted to giving verdicts in accordance with written laws.


As for the board of elders, many are old with declining faculties, so it is questionable whether they should be given lifelong tenure. Many are also poorly educated and are open to bribes and to showing favoritism. For these reasons their proceedings should be open to scrutiny. As for their election, it is quite wrong that someone considered worthy of the office should himself seek it. The only criterion for office should be whether someone is fit to hold it, not how much they want and solicit it. As it stands, ambition and the desire to make money result in deliberate acts of injustice. Similar problems exist with the hereditary kings. They should, instead, be chosen on their merits and the quality of their personal lives.


The laws regulating common meals, whereby people are supposed to meet and exercise the democratic function, are also inadequate. Rather than promoting democracy, they restrict it, because each individual has to pay, even though some are quire poor and unable to meet the cost. It would be much better if the gathering were run at public expense.


The legal system has also attracted a lot of criticism. The principles underlying the whole system is that it is intended to promote military virtues, so while it was a stable system as the state engaged in military conquest, once this was over it went into decline, because no-one knew how to govern at leisure. They also wrongly believe that what they are fighting over is more important than virtue.


Their public finances are also poorly managed. They undertake large wars yet lack the revenue to finance them. As land is in the hands of the Spartan citizens themselves they don’t enquire too closely into each other’s contribution.


The Cretan system is similar to the Spartan system. They both have state serfs that do the farming and both have common meals. They also have the Cosmoi, which is a similar system to the Ephors, the officials, although there are ten of them, compared with five in the Spartan system. Cretans have a similar system to the Elders, although it is called the Council. They used to have a system of kingship, but they have done away with it. All Cretans are members of the Assembly, although all they can do is assent to measures already decided upon by the Elders and the Cosmoi. 


In contrast to Sparta, the Cretans organize the common meals far better with the cost being met from the public purse, so no-one is excluded because they cannot afford it. However, the Cosmoi is a significantly worse system than the Ephors. The problems associated with the Ephors derived from its indiscriminate composition. In Crete the same problem exists, only here they choose the Cosmoi not from everyone, but just from certain families and they elect the Elders from among those who have held the office of Cosmos. Like the Spartan Elders, these too are free from scrutiny and hold their privileges for life. So their privileges exceed their merits and they are free to take decisions according to their own judgments and not in accordance with written rules. So, while it has the appearance of a constitution, it is more like rule according to the arbitrary wishes of a powerful group. This means it is susceptible to feuds and factions, and it has remained stable largely thanks to its geographical isolation from other states.


Many aspects of the Carthaginian system of government work well. It is a good indication of this when people are content to abide by it and no serious factional strife or a tyrant emerges. In many respects the Carthaginian system resembles the previous constitutions that have been examined, but it is better in some ways. The members of the board corresponding to the Ephors are chosen on merit and not indiscriminately. The kings are not drawn from one family, or from any and every family. Election depends more on the eminence of one’s family, thereby avoiding poorly qualified people causing damage by making poor decisions about important issues.   


However, like the other systems, it departs from the best system, aristocracy, either by being oligarchic or democratic. The latter can be seen in the arrangement that allows the king and the Elders to refer a matter to the people as long as they are unanimous. The people then have the sovereign power to make decisions on them. As for the oligarchic features, the board that has supreme control over many things fills vacancies by co-opting people from the elite. Still, it is aristocratic in one sense, because they receive no pay and they are not chosen by lot.


However, the most oligarchic feature is that rulers are chosen on the grounds of wealth, because it is argued that without ample means a man cannot afford the leisure to be a good ruler. But this puts wealth ahead of virtue. It means the highest offices are for sale and the whole state is bent on making money, because the rest of the citizens will follow suit. People who invest large sums for these offices will expect good returns and others throughout society will follow their example. To be truly aristocratic, legislators ought to ensure leisure for rulers without selling offices to the wealthy. 


Another weakness of the system lies in allowing a man to hold more than one office at the same time, because it is best to ensure that one person is able to concentrate all his efforts on just one task. It is also more democratic and statesmanlike if a number of people share in the offices.


Still, although it is an oligarchy, it successfully avoids factional conflict by ensuring that a section of the people is allowed to grow wealthy by moving them to the states (probably the Carthaginian colonies or other territories under their control). In this way they make it easy for new groups of people to become wealthy, thereby maintaining the stability of the regime. 


It is said by some that Solon was a good lawgiver, because he abolished oligarchy, put an end to the enslavement of the people and established Athenian democracy by mixing an oligarchic element (the Court of the Areopagus), an aristocratic element (elected officials) and a democratic one (the courts). But much of this was the result of circumstances, rather than the intention of Solon. In fact Solon seems to have given only minimum power to the people: to elect officials and hold them to scrutiny.


Other lawgivers were Zaleucus, Charondas, Philolaus and Pittacus, who introduced a law imposing higher fines on drunken men if they commit an offence, than sober men. In fact men commit more acts of violence when they are drunk than when they are sober, so they should be pardoned more readily as a result. Instead, Pittacus chose to introduce legislation that would be more effective in maintaining order, than meet the demands of equity.  




Much of this chapter is given over to critical analysis of utopian ideas as to the best state and constitution, and of actual existing states. As a result, it’s not always clear exactly what Aristotle thinks would be the best state. One of the most curious aspects of the chapter is his unsympathetic criticisms, and at times misrepresentation, of Plato’s Republic. The sharing of wives and holding children in common was only to apply to the Guardians and Plato’s advocacy of unity was not the unison that Aristotle talks of, where all speak with the same voice holding the same opinions, but, more significantly, a consensus of moral values and sentiments. It is the sort of consensus that all states strive to create and maintain: a common acceptance of the legitimacy of political and government institutions and procedures.


Nevertheless, it is possible to see through these criticisms the difference in approach between the utopian idealism of Plato and Aristotle’s inductive practicality and skepticism. It’s also possible to see the importance Aristotle attaches to certain principles and aspects of government, which he develops in later books. Three of these are worth examining, even though he explores them later in more detail: his defense of private property, aristocracy and diversity of opinion.


Most of those he attacks are convinced that the only way to tackle greed and selfishness is to abolish private property, which appears to be their root cause. But Aristotle rejects such arguments using the same approach he developed in Nicomachean Ethics: that such vice is best dealt with by education and in the development moral habits. It’s worth noting that when he refers to education he means more than the influence of schools and colleges, but the whole of society, its institutions, laws and system of government. It’s not private property that is the cause of vice, but the weakness of man. Consequently, the abolition of private property will do little to tackle this.


Moreover, Aristotle is convinced that if man is denied the usual satisfaction of owning his own property this can only make him miserable and unhappy and so, in turn, the whole state. If people are equally wealthy they will become lazy and if equally poor will become discontented. There is no limit to the desires of man and most people spend their lives trying to satisfy them. The solution, therefore, lies in ensuring that reasonable people should not wish to acquire more than their share. The cure, he suggests, lies in ensuring that all have sufficient work, moderate possessions and a measure of self-control. Indeed, happiness arises out of moderation and he adds, helpfully, that if anybody just wants a self-sufficient lifestyle independent of others, he should pursue philosophy.


On the face of it this seems to be an endorsement of modern capitalism and a rejection of Marxism, but there is probably more to it than this. He clearly agrees with the negative, that people are not made happy by the abolition of private property alone, but there’s nothing insightful in that observation. On the other hand, like Marx, he believes that much crime is committed by men seeking to satisfy their craving for wealth that exceeds their needs. Marx’s solution, like Aristotle’s, lay in the education of man, freeing him from the ethics of acquisitiveness.


This is consistent with his belief that aristocracy, rule based on merit and virtue, is far superior to both democracy and oligarchy. Aristotle is convinced that one of the most serious errors of the Carthaginian system of government is to create an oligarchy by putting wealth ahead of virtue. As a result, the highest offices are bought and sold, citizens follow suit, and the whole state is consumed by the goal of making money. People who invest large sums for these offices will expect good returns and others throughout society will follow their example. He suggests that if legislators wanted to be truly aristocratic, they ought to ensure leisure for rulers without selling offices to the wealthy. 


Equally important is his insistence that states need diversity of people, opinion and the functions they perform. Rather than unity of opinion behind one voice, there should be plurality of opinion. A state should be made up of members of different social classes, all making different contributions and performing different roles, otherwise it will fail to be self-sufficient. Without this it would resemble a household and the household in turn an individual representing just one particular opinion. So, even if it were possible to create such unity, it is doubtful whether this is desirable. There is not a natural unity to the state and striving for it is not a good thing.


Aristotle’s argument rests on the conviction that such diversity is important not just politically, but economically too. As he says in Book 1, a state for the most part should be self-sufficient, so diversity in occupations and skills is essential if it is to meet citizens’ needs. Beyond that the larger political principle is that diversity of opinion is more likely to arrive at the best judgments that will attract greatest support among citizens and secure the stability of the state.  



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