Aristotle's Politics: Book 5

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In this book Aristotle discusses the causes of constitutional change: why some constitutions more than others are susceptible to change and how to preserve them. Although he mentions minor changes to constitutions his focus is mainly on revolutions carried through either by violence or trickery. The root cause of revolutions, he believes, can be found in the factional conflicts that develop out of different conceptions of distributive justice. This, in turn, develops out of the different perceptions of social equality and how to measure it.


This type of discontent is a constant threat to stability, but equality is greater in democracies than in oligarchies, so democracies tend to be more stable. In oligarchies inequality of wealth implies political inequality, so competing factions are likely to develop, each attempting to change the constitution to its own advantage. Those who argue that justice should be in proportion to merit or birth are in such small numbers that they are unlikely to form powerful factions.  


There are two kinds of equality: numerical equality and equality in value or merit. Neither absolute oligarchy nor absolute democracy are stable in the long run, so Aristotle recommends a compromise between numerical equality and equality of value or merit. He concludes that a constitution of the middle social group is nearer to democracy than a constitution of the few and is, therefore, the most stable.


As for the causes of factional conflict and constitutional change, there are three aspects to this. First, there is the state of mind that motivates men to form factions, which is largely a deep-rooted discontent at the lack of equality and justice. Second, there is the cause, the thing that is to be gained by forming a faction, usually honor and profit. And third, there are the social causes that lead to the state of mind, in which men decide to force change by forming factions. These include the unjust gains made by others in honor and profit as well as fear, ill-treatment and contempt.


Aristotle then lists eleven influences that are likely to induce men to form factions. He describes how these influences work to bring about instability. When those who hold public office appear arrogant and use their position for their own advantage, factions and conflict develop. Similarly, some people occupy such a pre-eminent position that people react to this by forming factions.


Another reason why people engage in factional conflict is fear, particularly when someone is frightened of paying a penalty for an injustice. Geography, too, can influence factional conflict. There may be a disproportionate growth in one part of the state poorer than the rest, or more democratic. But perhaps the most significant division is between virtue and vice, then comes wealth and poverty, and then the rest in varying degrees of significance. The, finally, comes geography.    


However, although the causes of factions may involve important issues, the immediate trigger may be quite trivial, like a quarrel between powerful people, which raises the tension between opposing sides and ultimately involves the whole state. If one group in the state gains excessive predominance, this may cause conflict even though the reasons for that predominance have nothing to do with the faction that ultimately provokes conflict. But then, by contrast, in some circumstances when opposing parts of the state, like rich and poor, are equal in number, this too can result in factional conflict, indeed they are more likely to engage in conflict than if there were only a few in one group and many in the other.


Next, Aristotle moves on to consider the causes of revolution that are specific to particular constitutions. Those that are specific to democracies, which are likely to bring about its overthrow, centre on the internal excesses of popular leaders. In order to generate and maintain the support of the common people, they take stringent measures against the wealthy and then, in so doing, provoke them into violent resistance. The result is often oligarchy.


As for oligarchies, the causes of revolution can be divided between those that are external and those that are internal to the government. The external causes can develop out of the mistreatment of the poor and others excluded from government until they finally fight back. However the distinction between internal and external causes is not always so clear. Rivals among the contenders for power among the oligarchy may appeal to their popular support among the masses, thereby encouraging them to bring external pressure to bear. However, while recognizing that internal and external causes react to each other in different, complex ways, Aristotle considers this ultimately to be an internal cause. Such personal animosities and infighting within the oligarchy, along with the impoverishment of some internal factions, can result in an inner, even more exclusive, circle of power.


Alternatively, power may shift as a result of the growing wealth of the state, particularly if public offices are allotted on the basis of property assessment. As a result a greater number of people become eligible for office having met the property qualification. He concludes by again drawing attention to the complexity of the situation: oligarchies and democracies not only change into one another, but also into different forms of each other. 


As for aristocracies, although these are a form of oligarchy in that they too are the rule of an elite, it is rule by the virtuous, not the wealthy. Aristotle has already shown his preference for “polity,” a mixed constitution and a form of aristocracy, which is, nevertheless, more democratic than oligarchic. So the danger that aristocracies face is the elite becoming too narrow with only a few sharing honors. Nevertheless, revolutions in polities and aristocracies most often occur as a result of the regime departing from standards of justice. The changes in aristocracies take place unobserved, because their dissolution is a gradual process. Moreover, change can come about as a result of external forces, particularly powerful neighbors with different constitutions, which they impose on the conquered state, using their superior force.


Next Aristotle presents practical advice on how these three constitutions (democracy, oligarchy and aristocracy) can prevent their dissolution and establish some stability. First, he advises that ruling parties should ensure that laws are enforced and there is no lawlessness. Second, in aristocracies and oligarchies rulers should avoid deceiving the masses, those who have no share in ruling, and acting unjustly towards them. Similarly, it is important to avoid infighting within the ruling elite.  


He then turns his attention to the sort of prudent adjustments that need to be made continuously to the constitution to avoid any one part of the state feeling alienated or one part becoming so predominant that it distorts the balance of the constitution. For example, to prevent revolution where public offices are conferred on the basis of property qualifications a mechanism should be installed adjusting assessments in line with the changing economic conditions affecting citizens. In all regimes it is important to safeguard against any one person becoming overly powerful in a short time, otherwise they may become corrupted. In a similar way be cautious about a social class that is on the rise and try to balance their influence by giving power to the opposing class or the middle class. 


He advocates measures to prevent the holding of public office becoming a source of profit. In this way the poor will not want to acquire them, because there will be no money in them. This will leave the wealthy in power, while the poor work to become wealthier. But in line with his other advice about balancing the constitution and avoiding alienating social groups, he recommends that in democracies the wealthy should be treated well, in particular their property should not be redistributed. Similarly, in oligarchies the poor should be treated well by giving them opportunities to become wealthy. Give special consideration to those who participate least in regimes: the poor in oligarchies and the wealthy in democracies. 


Those who hold office should not only be loyal to the constitution, but should be virtuous and possess the abilities necessary for ruling. Extremism of whatever form is best tackled by promoting the middle ground. It’s important that the majority should be in favor of the constitution, but this, in turn, should not become too extreme. This means incorporating elements of the opposing regime. So, for example, if a democracy pursues democratic measures without this sort of compromise, it is likely to incite a reaction from the wealthy, unless some attention is paid to their interests.


However, the most important influence promoting stability is education, which must ensure that people are educated in the values and spirit of the constitution. Still, in some democracies people are poorly educated in the meaning of liberty. They are led to believe it means doing what you want to do. It ought not to be regarded as slavery to live according to the constitution, but self-preservation. 


Aristotle then turns his attention to the origins and causes of the downfall of monarchy. Literally this means “the rule of one,” so it embraces both kingships and tyranny. Aristotle begins by describing the difference between the two. The key distinction is that whereas a tyrant seeks to satisfy his own interests, a king seeks noble aims. The differences between the two allows Aristotle to apply much of what he has already said about non-monarchies to monarchies in that kingship reflects aristocracy in so far as they both involve rule of the best directed at achieving benefits for all. Likewise the most extreme and harmful effects of oligarchy and democracy apply equally well to tyrannies.


He then explains the four causes of the overthrow of monarchies and tyrannies: the sense of injustice that often develops from being treated with insufferable arrogance; anger, hatred and fear; contempt; and finally ambition and the desire for profit. In other words, with the exception of the fourth cause, the factors that lead to the overthrow of monarchies are largely driven by personal animosity. This is significant and similar to the worst forms of oligarchy and democracy. Like them, tyrannies can be destroyed by internal and external forces, and the internal forces are generally moral and psychological in the form of hatred and animosity for significant groups and individuals, which generates factional conflict. As for the external forces, tyrannies can be destroyed by a superior regime, whereas, in contrast, kingships, which are more durable, are rarely destroyed by external forces. 


At this point Aristotle turns his attention to what monarchies and, in particular, tyrannies can do to preserve themselves by preventing revolution. The distinction he draws between the two is that, while monarchies are based on consent, tyrannies are based on and maintained through force. So, while monarchies are best preserved by limiting their powers and pursuing a policy of moderation, tyrannies, he concludes, are best preserved by adopting certain features of kingship, which, being based on consent, tend to be more stable. 


Aristotle sets out these two methods – force and cultivating consent – in some detail. The strategy of force is based on the assumption that subjects are necessarily hostile towards the monarch or tyrant, so it is necessary to make it difficult for them to conspire against him by repressing them, by generating mistrust between them and rendering them incapable of action against him.


As for the second strategy, here the aim is not necessarily to make them incapable of action against him, but unwilling to rise up against him. The aim is to make people content by thinking about the general good. He should spend public funds judiciously in such a way as not to raise indignation by bestowing gifts on his favorites, which is funded by their hard labor. Similarly, he should moderate his own indulgences and extravagancies and make sure he and his entourage don’t abuse youth and women. In all matters moderation is best, or at least it is best to make sure that indulgence is not in full view of others.


He should cultivate the reputation of one who is deeply respectful of religion. Men are less fearful of being treated illegally by such a person and are less willing to plot against someone they believe has the gods on his side. He should honor personally those who have a marked capacity for anything, but leave punishments to others. Similarly, he should not side with one of the two sides that make up the state: those who have property and those who don’t. Both sides ought to feel they owe their safety to the regime, which ought to embrace them so that it has their support. In other words, he should appear like a king, not out for his own gain, but as a mere trustee of the affairs of others with whom he makes friends. In this way his rule will be long-lasting.


Nevertheless, despite this advice to tyrants, Aristotle completes this book by acknowledging that tyrannies and oligarchies tend to be short-lived. He also criticizes Plato’s account in the Republic of the way constitutions can change. Typically distrustful of such generalizations, he argues that the causes of such change are far more various and complex than Plato explains. First, there is no reason why there should be a cyclical pattern of change for regimes and Plato doesn’t explain why change should particularly affect what he describes as the best constitution any more than any other. Second, all constitutions more often change into their opposites than into those like them.




As Aristotle discusses what each ruler must do to ensure the stability of their respective regimes one thing becomes clear: the importance that he places on the influence of education. As we have seen before, in Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle maintains that a virtuous life is lived by the man that uses his reason to govern his actions and feelings in accordance with the mean between the two extremes, excess and deficiency. To achieve this and enjoy complete fulfillment and happiness, the individual must learn the importance of functioning correctly as a human being. And, as man is essentially rational, this implies he must learn to use his reason to reveal the mean in his actions and expressions of feelings.


One way of describing this in practical terms is that it involves moderation in all that we do, so that we can see the complete picture – not just our own feelings and interests, but those of all who are affected. In this book, as he discusses the stability of each regime, he is tackling the same problem. Rulers and citizens act unwisely and destabilize their regimes, when they fail to see the whole picture beyond their own interests. They ignore and neglect the interests of other dissident groups and sow the seeds of revolution.


As we saw in book 3, the central concern of a state is to promote virtue, the common good and justice, the most complete expression of all virtue. But both rich and poor conceive of justice exclusively in terms of their own partial interests. And so do regimes: the deviant regimes (tyranny, oligarchy and democracy) all have a partial view of justice as they pursue the interests of those who hold power. So the importance of education lies in educating citizens to have sympathy for all the competing claims to justice.


As for regimes, the one way that the rulers of these deviant regimes can guarantee stability for their power is learn to moderate their regimes, so that they become less partial, exclusively pursuing the interests of those who hold power. In effect, this means learning from, and becoming more like, the better regimes – kingship, aristocracy and polity. If the ruling elite can moderate its extremism, it is less likely to alienate those outside the power structure and avoid factions forming within it. So, while Aristotle is making practical suggestions about how regimes can ensure their stability, he is, in effect, subversively teaching them to become less deviant and more like the best regimes in serving not their own interests, but the interests of all. 

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