Aristotle's Politics Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Aristotle's Politics: Book 4

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In this book Aristotle turns to practical considerations. He argues that political theorists must not only be concerned with theory, but what we can do to create regimes that are best in the circumstances. So we must examine four kinds of constitution. First, we must examine the ideal constitution, theoretically a utopian form of government exactly as we would wish regardless of circumstances. Second, we must examine the “best in the circumstances,” suited to the particular persons that make up the state. Third, we must examine constitutions that already exist in the circumstances and consider how they came about and how they can be improved. And fourth, we must consider the sort of constitution that would pretty much suit all states.


Rather than always thinking of the very best constitution, we must think about introducing a system which the people involved are likely to accept and could be easily introduced, starting from the system they actually have. But to do this we must know how many forms of constitution there are. There are many differences between constitutions: there is not just one type of democracy or oligarchy, but many. With this sort of practical wisdom we can more clearly see what laws will suit each one best, because we must lay down laws that fit the constitution, not the reverse.    


So far we have examined the three right constitutions – kingship, aristocracy and polity. Now we have to examine in more detail the three deviations from each of these in turn – tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. Which of these is worse is obvious: that which is a deviation from the best. Kingship is the best and most divine, so tyranny as its deviation is the worst; oligarchy, the deviation from aristocracy, is the second worst; and democracy is the most moderate of the deviations.


At this point Aristotle explains why there are several different kinds of constitution. To every state there are different parts (households, professional groups, social classes, etc.,) and within each there are varying social and economic conditions. In addition to wealth there are differences of family, virtue and so on. All of this inevitably produces a variety of constitutions. But some people are accustomed to group these under just two categories, democracy and oligarchy, assuming that aristocracy is some form of oligarchy and polity is democracy.


It is a common mistake to describe democracy and oligarchy in terms that are too simple and absolute. In themselves numbers are not decisive. Democracy is not just rule by the majority, because in every regime the majority has authority. Democracy occurs whenever the free are sovereign and oligarchy when the rich are sovereign. But in fact what also occurs is that “the former are many, the latter few: many are free, few are rich” (p. 245, 1290a 47-8). Nevertheless, these factors still might not be adequate to describe constitutions. Whenever the free are not numerous, but rule over the majority who are not free, we would still not describe this as a democracy, nor would we describe it as an oligarchy, where the rich rule by virtue of their superior numbers. A democracy exists whenever those who are free and not well off, being a majority, rule. An oligarchy is when control lies with the few who are rich and better off.


Constitutions are of various kinds because they are composed of different parts, all of which can be combined in different ways. Aristotle breaks the state down into five constituent parts: farmers, who are concerned with food production; the mechanical class, concerned with making the state habitable; the commercial class, who buy and sell; the hired laborers; and the military. But then he adds more that are essential to the state: the judicial element, those who deliberate and give decisions on matters of justice; the well-to-do; and the officials, who render public service.


It is often the case that one man will perform more than one function, but no man can be both rich and poor. So it is easy to assume that the fundamental division in the state is between the small numbers of the rich and the large numbers of the poor, so that constitutions are thought to be either democracies or oligarchies. There are, in fact, several forms of democracy and oligarchy depending on the type of individual that dominates in each – farmers, craftsmen, traders, fishermen, etc.


Aristotle then describes five types of democracy. In the first everyone, rich and poor alike, is equal before the law. The majority rule regardless of wealth or possessions. In contrast, in the second type there is a property qualification to hold office, albeit a moderate one. In the third all citizens share in public offices, unless they fail to show they are of noble birth. In the fourth everyone who is a citizen shares offices and, like the other types, the law is sovereign. In contrast, in the last type anyone can hold office and the public, rather than the law, is sovereign. This type can easily take the form of a tyranny, in which the people are swayed in their opinions by a popular demagogue and everything is decided by popular decree without the rule of law. Such a democracy is not a constitution at all. Where laws do not rule, there is no constitution.   


Aristotle then turns to oligarchies and describes four types. In the first access to office is restricted to those who pass a property qualification, which excludes the not so well-off. In the second there is a high property qualification and the current holders of offices select new officers. In the third offices are hereditary and the same is true of the fourth, only in this type of oligarchy officials rule, not the law. This type of oligarchy he describes as a tyranny of a “power-group.”


Nevertheless, Aristotle points out that despite these types often a state might be democratic according to the constitution, but because of the people’s customs and training they are, in fact, oligarchic. This is also true of oligarchies by constitution, which in practice operate as democracies. This is particularly true after a change of constitution. Citizens don’t find it easy to change their accustomed ways.


Aristotle then outlines in more detail several types of democracy and oligarchy. Underlying his analysis is the principle that there is an inverse ratio between the amount of property owned by those who are politically dominant and the rule of law. The more wealth people possess the more leisure they have to devote to public office and, therefore, the less willing they are to allow the law to rule. No matter whether it is an oligarchy or democracy the principle still applies. States tend towards more extreme forms of government in which office holders, rather than the law, are sovereign. In extreme democracies office holders receive a salary out of state revenues, allowing the control of government by the poorer sections of the population.   


In contrast to democracies and oligarchies, aristocracies are a form of government which is composed of the best in virtue: those who are both good men and good citizens without qualification. Nevertheless, the term is often used loosely to describe any constitution that attaches importance to choosing what they regard as the best men. In fact, these might be oligarchies in their pursuit of wealth or democracies in their concern for the common people. Such constitutions have a mixture of aims, although they are not formally mixed constitutional governments like polity. At this point Aristotle warns against the common mistake of confusing oligarchies, which are chosen on the basis of wealth, with aristocracies chosen on the basis of virtue or merit.  


To make this clearer, Aristotle attempts to present polity or constitutional government as a mixture of oligarchy and democracy, which confer benefits both on the masses and the wealthy. This is distinct from aristocracy, because it does not discriminate on the basis of virtue or merit. Aristocracies are easily confused with oligarchies, because education and good birth belong more to the wealthy. A state cannot be well run unless it is governed by the best, in other words, aristocratically. Government by good laws implies two things: that citizens obey the laws laid down and the laws are well-enacted. Virtue is the definitive principle of aristocracy, as wealth is of oligarchies, and freedom is of democracies. Since there are three grounds for claiming equality in a constitution – freedom, wealth and virtue – the term “polity” should be applied to the mixture of wealth and freedom, and aristocracy kept for the mixture of all three. This is the most genuine of aristocracies, after the “true and primary” (in other words, that which pays regard to virtue alone). 


Now Aristotle gives us some practical advice on how to establish a polity by mixing oligarchy and democracy. There are three ways of doing this. First, we can combine the law of both. Second, we can take neither one’s law as it stands, but bring about compromise, a mean between the two. The third way is to select parts of the law from each. In a well-mixed democracy and oligarchy it is possible to describe the same constitution as either a democracy or as an oligarchy.


Aristotle then discusses tyranny in relation to kingship. Two types of tyranny overlap with kingship in that they are both forms of rule according to law. For example, even though they hold absolute personal power, some are elected. Both forms of tyranny are king-like, because they are according to law and are over willing subjects. But the third type of tyranny is an unaccountable ruler, who rules over subjects who are equal to him, and pursues his own interests not theirs. This sort of rule is endured unwillingly.


He now returns to the mixed constitution and considers it from the point of view of the conditions necessary to make it acceptable and stable. He justifies the constitution on the same terms that he explains the virtuous life of a good man in Nicomachean Ethics. Virtue, for the individual, is the mean between two extremes. The same is true of constitutions. There are three social groups in a state: the very wealthy, the very poor and those in the middle. Since the mean is the best, the most virtuous and happiest, there should be a large number of citizens with moderate and adequate property, less than the very rich and more than the very poor. If most citizens are equal and similar this is likely to diminish conflict between the rich and the poor, and prevent the constitution becoming an extreme one. Those occupying the middle rarely engage in factional conflict and, therefore, states with a large middle element are more stable. 


The type of regime a state adopts will depend largely on the composition of its people. If the poor are predominant, it will be a democracy; if it is the wealthy, then it will be an oligarchy. But whichever group is the stronger they should always accommodate the “middle people.” In this way the stronger will become even stronger and the constitution more stable. Without this the constitution is of no advantage to the stronger element. Cultivating the middle ground is in the interests of the stronger in making their ‘extreme’ constitution more stable. The better a constitution is mixed the longer it will last. Indeed, this is a mistake often made even by those creating an aristocratic constitution, who not only give preponderance to the rich, but cheat the people. 


Aristotle then goes on to explain five tricks that can be used to make oligarchies more attractive to the people. These concern the Assembly, the offices of power, the law-courts, the carrying of arms and physical training.


He explains that, whatever the form of government, there must be three elements the lawgiver must provide: the deliberative to discuss and decide what is to be done; the officials to carry out the policy; and the judicial system. He explains the various ways in which these can be appointed and the complex relationships between them. To organize a state democratically everyone can make a decision on common matters by having the people take turns making decisions, having all of them decide at once or having officials make preliminary decisions and then give the people a vote on them.


In oligarchies, on the other hand, arrangements are made so that the people can participate in deliberation without being able to set aside any of the provisions of the constitution. Alternatively, they can pass resolutions that are not inconsistent with the recommendations of the lawgivers or they are given only advisory powers, reserving full deliberative powers to the officials. 


Aristotle now turns to examine the second of the two elements of government: the executive. But in deciding the nature and types of offices a state should have, we should first decide what we mean by “official” and what is to be considered as office. Aristotle raises a number of questions: what kinds of officials are there; who appoints them; from who are they appointed and how are they appointed; what is their tenure of office; what are their functions and powers; how do the various officials operate in relation to each other? He also asks what type of officials, their modes of appointment, powers, tenure, etc., are appropriate for different constitutions? The number and type depend on the type of regime, the size of the state and its composition. 


In the final chapter of this book Aristotle considers the third element: the judicial system. This follows the same pattern as the previous two chapters that dealt with the deliberative and executive elements. He sets about to determine from whom the judges are selected, how they are selected and on what matters they can judge. He analyses the types of court and explains how jurymen are appointed. He suggests which modes of appointment suit which constitution. He lists eight types of court corresponding to the eight main types of suit. He concludes that the most important of these is political matters, because mishandling factional conflicts can lead to revolution.




In Book 3 Aristotle’s discussion was developed on a theoretical level, now he turns to practicality. He believes theoretically aristocracy is the best system of government, because it is rule by those who are the wisest, have most merit and lead virtuous lives. But he realizes this sets an impossible standard. In practice the best regime for each society depends on the type of society it is, its culture, economy and its people. So in this book he analyses democracy and oligarchy the two most systems, classifying their different types and recommending ways in which they could both be made to work best in different situations. He explains that the best solution, a polity, is a mixed regime, combining elements of democracy and oligarchy. He then goes on to describe three ways in which this could be done.  


In practical terms the most durable solution, the most acceptable and stable regime is that which has a mixed constitution. His justification draws upon the arguments he developed in Nicomachean Ethics to explain the virtuous life of a good man. Virtue, for the individual, is the mean between two extremes. The same is true of constitutions. There are three social groups in a state: the very wealthy, the very poor and those in the middle. Since the mean is the best, the most virtuous and happiest, there should be a large number of citizens with moderate and adequate property. If most citizens are equal and similar this is likely to diminish conflict between the rich and the poor, and prevent the constitution becoming an extreme one. Those occupying the middle rarely engage in factional conflict and, therefore, states with a large middle element are more stable. 


To some it may seem curious that Aristotle returns repeatedly to his assertion that in the best constitutions it is the law that rules. This may seem odd, when surely it is men who have to deliberate and make decisions in how to apply the law to specific cases. But while in some Greek states governments were not free to break or change the law, Aristotle has in mine those states in which governments have ultimate sovereignty. In these, where society is largely composed of the rich who have plenty of leisure time to devote to politics, governments gain greater powers as they do in poorer societies where the mass of people have little leisure time to invest in active politics and leave it to others.


This poses a very modern problem, of which Aristotle shows himself to be acutely aware. In the 1930s the totalitarianism of the regimes in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany claimed to exercise the sovereignty of all as if it were just one will interpreted by the charismatic leader, the father of the nation, who could point the way forward with complete accuracy. As Arthur Koestler described the leader in Darkness at Noon, he was the ‘infallible pointsman’.


In one stroke the two problems facing all systems of government, the extent and legitimacy of their power, were resolved in totalitarian regimes. Not only was the state legitimate in what it did, because the leader was infallible and he reflected accurately the one true general will of the people, but it had no need to limit its powers. As Giovanni Gentile explains in Genesis and Structure of Society,


            … since legitimate authority cannot extend beyond the actual will of the

             individual, authority is resolved completely in liberty. Lo and behold,

absolutism is overturned and appears to have changed into its opposite, and the true absolute democracy is not that which seeks a limited state but that which sets no limit to the state that develops in the inmost heart of the individual, conferring on his will the absolutely universal force of law.


Why limit the powers of the state when it is only a form of self-government? As Rousseau points out, the individual will not voluntarily “forge fetters” for himself. Given this, totalitarian regimes systematically subjugated the legal order, the institutions and procedures that could have limited these powers by holding the leader accountable. There were, then, no limits to the power of the leader who invaded all areas of life, even the private moral life of individuals.


Aristotle saw the dangers of subjugating the legal order in this way with remarkable insight. He says,


When states are democratically governed according to the law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people becomes a  monarch, one person composed of many, for the many are sovereign, not as individuals but as an aggregate…such a people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master, giving honour to those who curry its favour. (pp. 250-1, 1292a 8-20)




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