Aristotle's Politics Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Aristotle's Politics: Book 3

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This book contains some of Aristotle’s best and most interesting work. Its main focus is the nature of different constitutions, but Aristotle argues that before we discuss this we must define what a citizen is, because, after all, a state is made up of citizens. Although there is much different opinion about this, we must attempt it before we can talk about constitutions that, in essence, set out the relationship between the state and the citizen. However, he cautions that although this suggests we should be able to lay down a universal definition that applies to all citizens, in fact the description of a citizen will vary as different regimes define it in different ways.


Nevertheless, Aristotle does suggest that a citizen is one who is distinguished from others by his “participation in giving judgment and in holding office” (p. 169, 1275a 23-4). He argues it is not enough to say a citizen is someone who lives in the state and has access to the courts, since these rights are open to those we would not regard as citizens, like resident aliens and slaves. Still, he acknowledges that his first definition, which includes anyone who is involved in the administration of justice and holds public office, is probably too narrow as it only applies to individuals living in democracies. So he broadens his definition to include anyone who is entitled to participate in a deliberative or judicial office, even if he doesn’t actually do so.   


We normally refer to a citizen as someone whose parents are both citizens or someone who has been granted citizenship by a public official. However, there can be practical problems with this legalistic, formal definition, particularly in establishing the citizenship of distant ancestors and justifying the citizenship of those who gained it as a result of constitutional change, like the overthrow of tyrants. It is far better to stick to the functional definition outlined above, in other words, those we describe as “citizens” are those that are entitled to share in the deliberative and judicial offices.  


Those who are made citizens under a different constitution raise another serious problem: can a new government under a new constitution repudiate the debts and commitments of the previous constitution on the grounds that as the constitution has changed it is a different state? What is it that establishes the continuity of a state between one constitution and another? Should a state be identified exclusively with its constitution?


First, Aristotle considers whether the state should be defined in terms of its territory or its inhabitants, but dismisses this on the grounds that territory or the people could be split up into two states. A more serious solution is whether the state remains the same so long as there is continuity of race among the population, so that even though as individuals that make up the state change as one generation replaces another there is still continuity of race, much like a river is still said to be the same, even though the water changes.


The answer, he suggests, is that a state is defined by its constitution: even though the people remain the same as a result of, say, a revolution, they are associated differently as a result of the different constitution. Some or all of those who are citizens under one constitution may not be citizens under the succeeding constitution, so they are different states. However, he doesn’t resolve the problem of whether a new state is bound by the contractual obligations of the old one and should honor its debts, insisting that there is more to be said about this.


Aristotle asks the question whether the virtue of a good man is the same as the virtue of a good citizen. To answer this he recognizes that he needs to spell out the virtues of a good citizen. Someone is a good citizen to the extent that he contributes to the stability and well-being of the constitution. But as there are different kinds of constitution, so the virtue of a good citizen will be different depending on the constitution under which he lives. So it is possible to be a good citizen without being a good man, because there is only one standard of perfect virtue by which to be a good man, but many forms of a good citizen. Even in the best states the different functions performed by different people means that most cannot be identical with the perfect virtue of a good man.


In some circumstances they will coincide, when the good man is also ruling well. In this situation he is able to use his wisdom, which is essential to the perfect virtue of a good man. But a good citizen is someone who can not only rule, but be ruled, which doesn’t require wisdom, whereas the virtue of a good man is simply to rule. Only then is the virtue of a good citizen identical to that of a good man. Even so, it is not possible to be a good ruler without first having been ruled. A good citizen needs to understand the government of free men from both points of view.


A good man must use all his faculties to be good, but when he is ruled he has suspended his rational faculties and merely obeys orders: he doesn’t exercise his judgment or decision making powers. Therefore he cannot be a good man, even though he is a good citizen. The virtue of a good man will take different forms depending upon whether he is ruling or being ruled. The only virtue special to a ruler is practical wisdom; all the others must be possessed by both ruler and ruled. In contrast, the virtue of someone being ruled is just correct opinion.    


But who, then, is to be a citizen? In particular should mechanics and manual laborers be citizens? If they are to be citizens, as they don’t share in government the virtue of the citizen will no longer be possessed by all citizens. They are necessary to the running of the state, along with slaves and freed slaves, but not everyone who is necessary to a state can be a citizen. Good citizenship demands that a person should be free from the necessary tasks of ordinary life. So the best state will not make mechanics citizens.


However, there are different types of constitution, so there will be several that make mechanics and laborers citizens. In oligarchies citizenship is determined by wealth, so this will usually exclude them, unless they can accumulate sufficient wealth as many mechanics do. But in an aristocracy it will be impossible, because honor depends on merit and virtue and a mechanic is not occupied by things that virtue demands. In some democracies that have a dearth of citizens the sons of citizen mothers, illegitimate children and others are allowed citizenship. But as soon as the population increases, they begin dropping these categories and confine citizenship to those of citizen birth on both sides.


So there are several kinds of citizen, but in the fullest sense it is one who has a share in honors and can fulfill the essential functions of a citizen to rule and be ruled. In one type of state the virtue of a good man will coincide with that of a good citizen, but in another it will be different.


We said earlier that man is a political animal. Therefore, he desires to live with others to benefit from their help and contribute to the common good. Still, men also form political associations to meet the needs of life itself. But it is necessary to distinguish between the different styles of authority exerted in associations. First, there is the rule of master over slave pursued primarily for the interests of the master and only incidentally for the slave. This is in contrast to political authority that is exercised in the interests of the ruled. The key difference between the two is that political authority is exercised over citizens who are all equal. Those who rule are not superior to the ruled, whereas the slave is inferior to his master, so the master’s interests are paramount. From this it follows that those constitutions which serve the common good are right and just, but those which aim only at the good of the rulers are wrong and unjust.   


On this basis it is possible to distinguish three ‘correct’ constitutions and three “deviations.” The sovereign power within the different types of constitution resides either with a single man, a small group or with the many. When each of these rule for the common good they are correct, but if they look to private advantage to the one, few or the many, they are deviations. The usual names for right constitutions are monarchy (rule by one in the common interest), aristocracy (rule by a small group – the best in the state) and “polity” (control by the mass of the population in the common interest). The corresponding deviations out of these three are respectively tyranny (rule directed at the sole interests of the ruler), oligarchy (directed at the sole interests of the wealthy) and democracy (directed at the sole interests of the poor). None of these aim to promote the common good.


This classification, however, is based on the aims and numbers of the rulers, perhaps the important criterion for classification is an economic one. Tyranny is monarchy exercised as a form of mastership. Oligarchy occurs when power is in the hands of those who possess wealth, while democracy is rule by the poor. In practice oligarchy involves the rule of the few, while democracy involves rule by the many. It just happens that everywhere the rich are few, while the poor are many. Their respective claims to the constitution are based on the fact that regardless of whether they are wealthy or poor all share freedom alike.


However, a more important criterion for the basis of a state is justice. All advocates of different types of government are ultimately arguing about their concept of what is just: the oligarchic view of justice or the democratic view of justice. But they don’t get beyond this point to consider justice in the complete sense. Justice, it is thought, is equality for all, but it is only for those who are equal. This is our fundamental error: to neglect the “for whom” when we decide what is just. People are poor judges in matters that concern themselves.


These differences are also the result of talking about justice in a limited sense. Supporters of oligarchy assume that because people are unequal in one sense – wealth – they are unequal in all, while democrats believe that because they are equal in one sense, they are equal in all. But the state’s purpose that these two imply is to ensure the good life, not just a living. This means a virtuous life that is, in consequence, one that is happy.   


A state is not just designed to guarantee security to facilitate mutual acquaintance and trade. That which is genuinely called a state must be concerned with virtue, otherwise it is nothing more than a group of people living in the same place protected by a military alliance from outside aggression with laws prohibiting injustice in their transactions between one another. A state is an association intended to enable their members to live perfect and self-sufficient lives, and this means living happily and nobly. A state exists not just so that people can live together, but so that they can perform good and noble actions. Therefore, those who contribute most to this are entitled to a larger share in the state than those who are equal or may be even superior in wealth or family, but are inferior in the virtues that are important to a citizen.


The next question is where the power of the state should reside: with the masses of the people, with the rich, the respectable, with one man, the best of all, a tyrant, or the law? If the majority had power, they might distribute the wealth of the few and destroy the state. If power were held by a tyrant, then actions he would take would be considered to be just. But actual sovereignty doesn’t mean that anything the sovereign does will be just, even if in the first place it is just that he possesses sovereignty. If it were the wealthy and the few, they would merely plunder the property of the masses. In all of these three cases (the majority, the tyrant and the wealthy) the state of affairs is bad and unjust.


If sovereignty were to go to the respectable, this would mean that everyone else would lack esteem, debarred from the honor of holding office. Equally, if one man, the most worthy, were to hold power, this would be oligarchic, because it would leave large numbers without honor. Of course, it could be objected that any one person is going to be influenced by his feelings and passions in his decisions, so sovereign power should be reserved for the law. But this still doesn’t solve the problem. The law itself may be biased towards the oligarchy or democracy, so the same results will ensue.


Even so, having dismissed the rule of the masses, there is still some truth in it in so far as many individuals taken together can be better than the few in that they can collectively see more of the truth. Each individual may have some share of virtue and practical wisdom, so that when they are brought together they can be superior to the few in character and intelligence. Although this is not the case in every large collection of people, there is still some truth in this argument. 


The question is in what sphere of government should this sovereignty be exercised? Giving an individual from the masses high office is to take a risk. His unjust standards may result in injustice and poor individual judgment in error. But, on the other hand, there is a risk in alienating this large group from a share in honors and participation in decisions. Such a huge hostile element in the state could destabilize it. So it should still be left open for them to participate in deliberating and judging: in choosing officials and holding them accountable. 


However, one problem, of course, is that the person best qualified to judge what another is doing is someone who is himself involved in the same work. If the masses are not suitable individually to be involved in high office, then they are not the best judges and shouldn’t choose officials and hold them to account. Still, as we’ve already said, collectively they may have sufficient wisdom and judgment to be better than the experts. What’s more, in some circumstances you can still be a good judge of the final product even though you haven’t the skills to produce something, as in the case, for example, of house-building. You may not have the skills to build a house, but you are a good judge of what makes a good house.   


Nevertheless, one thing is beyond dispute that the laws, if correctly established, must be sovereign and officials should have the power to act in various ways about which the laws fail to give detailed guidance, because it is not easy to frame general laws covering every particular detail. But whether or not a law is correctly established depends on the constitution and as these vary it will depend upon the type of political system that enacts them. However, if a law is established in accordance with one of the right types of constitution, they will be just, whereas those established under deviant a constitution will be unjust.


Every kind of knowledge and skill is used to bring about some good. Politics and the state aims to bring about justice, in other words, that which is the benefit for the whole community. We all believe justice is equality in some sense, that it is relative and that equality must be equal for equals. So now we need to know equality in what sort of things? In matters relating to the state we should only consider as relevant those differences between people which contribute to the functioning and well-being of the state. Therefore, those who claim noble birth or who are free can lay a claim, since members of the state must be free and have taxable property. But something more that this is needed: the justice and virtue that is important to a citizen. Without these it’s not possible for a state to be managed.


While all men have some kind of justice to their claim this is only partial or relative justice; none have justice in an absolute sense. Each one claims exclusive consideration at the expense of all the rest: the wealthy, the free and well-born, the virtuous and the masses who are the majority. Whichever is adopted, someone with excellence in that one respect would have to be given power, even if he were inferior in all the rest. As long as we adopt one claim in preference to the rest it will be socially divisive.    


Aristotle concludes that the only claim that is absolutely just is that of virtue: citizens who rule and are ruled in turn in the interests of the whole state and not just to promote their own partial claims. If there were one man or a few that possessed the moral and intellectual abilities essential to statecraft, he or they would reasonably be viewed as gods among men. They would not be part of the state, because to judge them as worthy of mere equality with the rest would be an injustice. Indeed, by the same token, they would be above the law, because legislation must apply only to equals, but there is no law that embraces men of such caliber.  


It is for this reason that democratic states have instituted the practice of ostracizing such people. In view of the fact that it is for the common good, ostracism does appear to have a degree of political justice, although it is better if the state can organize itself in such a way as to make it unnecessary. So in the deviation forms of constitutions ostracism may be just, although only in a limited sense. When it comes to the best type of constitution, it is best to let nature take its course. Such men will become permanent kings in their states and citizens will gladly obey them.


Aristotle next turns his attention to kingship (one of the “right” forms of constitution). He finds that there are several types of limited, as opposed to absolute, monarchy. The first is generalship tenable for life, which may be acquired by either birth or election. The second is legally established and ancestral. It is a “master-like” rule over willing subjects. The third is an “elective tyranny,” which is subject to law and not ancestral. It is elective and exercised over willing subjects. Rulers hold office sometimes for life, sometimes for a stated period, or until certain things are accomplished. The fourth type existed in “heroic times.” It is ancestral, subject to law and willingly accepted by its subjects. A fifth type involves one man single-handedly in sovereign control of everything. It is similar to household management in that household management is the kingship of the household. This kingship is the household management of the state.


From this analysis it’s clear there are only two broad classes of kingship: the first four types are restricted, while the latter is unrestricted, a form of absolute monarchy. This raises the question whether it is better to be ruled by the best man or by the best laws. The best man cannot do without general principles that are free of the biases of individual feeling, but laws are by their nature general, whereas a single individual can deliberate about individual cases. A king is more adaptable to such individual cases, although a single individual cannot possibly deal with all the state’s affairs.


Consequently, it is better to have a larger body whose combined wisdom is likely to be superior to the single ruler. What’s more, a large group is less susceptible to corruption. A single individual is much more likely to be corrupted by a bad temper or strong feelings about an issue. Given the importance of impartiality, a larger group is preferable to a single individual in making day-to-day decisions. However, it is possible that within a large body there may be factional conflicts. The answer to this is to make sure that this larger body is made up of “sound souls,” good men of outstanding virtue, as in an aristocracy. So, Aristotle concludes, an aristocracy is preferable to kingship.    


With absolute monarchy the problem is that the sovereign is above the law: the king rules over everything according to his own volitions. Problems arise with this when the man who is sovereign rules over persons who are equal to the ruler, when the state is made up of persons who are alike: “those who are by nature alike must get the same natural justice and deserts” (p. 226, 1287a 13-14). The only solution is to rule and be ruled in turn: “Justice therefore demands that no one should do more ruling than being ruled, but that all should have their turn” (p. 226, 1287a 17-19).


Thus, it is preferable that the law should rule rather than a single citizen as sovereign. And even if it is better that certain persons rule, these should act as the guardians of the laws as their servants. The law ruling is like having God and intelligence ruling and no-one else. When you ask a human being to rule it is like asking a wild beast to rule, because you are importing his feelings and desires, which pervert the judgment of even the best of men. Law is intelligence without desires. The search for what is just is in effect the search for the mean, because the law is the mean.  


As for those matters that can’t be dealt with in laws, these are the subjects of deliberation by men, but where it is preferable to have rule by one good man, it is obviously more preferable to have rule by two or more good men. So, while we can’t deny the inevitability of men making such decisions, it is better that they should be made not by one man but many. An individual ruler with good education will make decisions, but he will only have one pair of eyes and ears, and feet and hands. These are the arguments of opponents of kingship. 


However, it may be that these observations are not valid in all cases. While it is clear that it is not just for one man to rule over others who are equal and alike, for some people kingship would be the best type of rule. This is the case in ‘royal’ societies where circumstances produce a breed of individuals, a family, of such outstanding virtue that fits them for leadership of the state. The way we produce such a citizen is identical to the means and methods we use to produce a sound man. The education and morals that make a man sound are those that make him fit to play the part of a statesman or a king. 




In this book many of Aristotle’s most important ideas make their first and definitive appearance. The focus of it is the question, what is a citizen, but this also has implications for the other key elements of Aristotle’s political theory. To answer this is to define what qualities a person should possess to qualify as a citizen and what rights and duties citizens have. However, this in turn is shaped by our understanding of the best and worst regimes and, more generally, the nature of politics.


For Aristotle, the purpose of the state is to ensure the good life, which entails the exercise of all human virtues and, in turn, the complete happiness of its citizens. So, citizenship has a transactional qualification: someone qualifies as a citizen depending on their contribution to the good life. Those regimes that base citizenship on partial qualifications, like wealth as in oligarchies or being free-born and equal as in democracies, fail to meet the defining goal of the state. He lists birth and the ownership of property as qualifications, but the key quality is merit and moral virtue that comes from culture and education and, of course, in this respect not all men are equal. Those states that ignore this, emphasizing instead equality or wealth, are “deviations.” Right or “correct” constitutions seek to achieve the common good, whereas “deviated” constitutions give precedence to the interests of one section of the population over the rest.    


So citizenship is not just the legalistic qualification defined by age that we are used to in modern politics. It has very specific rights, duties and obligations. It involves more than paying taxes, obeying laws and voting at periodic elections. Essentially a citizen has the responsibility to rule the state and enter into the continuous debate and deliberation on the key issue of justice, which Aristotle describes in Nicomachean Ethics as the most complete expression of all virtue. But still, as Aristotle points out, there is a difference between the good citizen and the good man. The virtue of a good citizen is that which leads to the preservation and stability of the state. Nevertheless, in the best regimes the virtue of a citizen matches that of a good man in that he possesses the moral character, the merit, not only to live a virtuous life himself, but to promote the common good and happiness of all.


From this you begin to see Aristotle’s understanding of the nature of politics. It involves all citizens ruling and being ruled in turn. So, a kingship in which only one person rules, leaving no room for citizens, cannot be politics in the strict sense. Moreover, as a “correct” constitution has as its defining objective the pursuit of the common good, it cannot be for the advantage of the individual ruler. That would amount to “mastery,” resembling the relationship between the master and the slave in which the slave is exclusively used to promote the interests of the master. The same applies, as we’ve seen, to oligarchies and democracies: they, too, promote the particular interests of a group (the wealthy or the poor) and not the common good.


Pursuing these partial goals means that deviant regimes have a distorted notion of justice. Promoting the good life means promoting all the human virtues, but a state can only do this to the extent that it is just: justice is the most complete expression of all virtue. So, not only is the state’s central concern that of promoting virtue and the common good, but justice too. But if a state only serves the partial interests of a particular group, it will have only a partial claim to justice. He argues that people are bad judges when serving their own particular interests.         



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