Aristotle's Politics: Book 6

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In this book Aristotle confronts the question how can constitutions be made to work best? It is necessary not only to show what sort of constitutions are best for different states, but how these ought to be constructed. For example, to do this it is necessary to look at all the features of popular rule to see how these can be combined to create different forms of democracy. There are two reasons why there are several kinds of democracy. First, societies differ: some have an economy that is largely agricultural, while others are dominated by manufacturing industries. Second, these different features can be combined in many different ways.


He begins his analysis by examining the “claims, the ethical standards, and the aims” (p361, 1371a 38-9) of democracy. At the heart of democracy lies the relationship between liberty and equality. Liberty can manifest itself in a constitution in two ways: ruling and being ruled in turn and living according to how one pleases. With the first one there is no conflict with equality, which justifies this interpretation on the grounds that all should have a share in ruling. This is also ensured by giving the people the right to choose who rules by its majority of “equal” votes. This implies equality before the law based on number, rather than merit. 


In contrast, the other interpretation of liberty as living according to how one pleases conflicts with the first interpretation in that ideally, if you were allowed to live as you please, you would probably prefer never to be ruled by someone else. Nevertheless, if government is necessary, then the best option is to be ruled and rule in turn. In this way it is possible to guarantee equality of ruling, so equality and liberty on these grounds do support each other.


On this basis the majority are sovereign, which means in most states the poor, who regard democracy as a system of government to promote and protect their interests. After listing the common characteristics of democracy, Aristotle argues that from a democracy based on simple numerical equality for all and common consent, there might spring the “most thorough-going democracy” (p. 364, 1318a 6-7), in which the poor do not have sovereignty and no more influence than the rich. In this sense, they could think of the constitution as possessing equality and liberty.


So how can equality be achieved in view of the conflicting views of the wealthy and the poor? While the poor and the advocates of democracy argue that justice lies in a numerical equality with each individual having equal voting power, the rich look towards an oligarchic solution, involving a “proportionate” equality that gives greater power to those who possess the greater wealth.


Aristotle suggests two alternatives: either there would be a property qualification, giving the wealthy more votes than the poor, or the state would be divided into two blocks representing each group and each block would have the same number of representatives. His solutions are grounded in the principle that, as there are two dominant groups in the state, whatever is accepted by a majority in both groups should be binding.


So in both alternatives the wealthy individual is given ‘weighting’, although the wealthy block is not: its power is no greater than the other block representing the poor. The problem, of course, is what to do when they disagree. The answer, he suggests, should be whatever is decided by the majority, in other words, those of the higher total property assessment. Although this seems to be an oligarchic solution, it does not amount to the rich exercising power alone, which oligarchic involves. In Aristotle’s proposals both sides have some voice in decision-making proportionate to their property.     


At this point Aristotle describes those conditions most conducive to the best democracy. He explains that there are different types of democracy distinguished by the type of people who are citizens. Democracy works best with an agricultural, rather than a rural, population made up of mechanics, shopkeepers and laborers. Those working in agriculture are usually too busy working to attend assemblies regularly and anyway they usually live some distance from the city centre. As long as they select officers, audit their accounts and are governed honestly, they are content to farm their lands, rather than stand for public office. Although the wealthy hold the offices, they are accountable to the population.


The worst type of population for democracies is that which is composed of urban dwellers: shopkeepers, mechanics and laborers. Crowded into the centre of towns, they take an active part in politics and can easily generate political activity and disturbances among the population.    


As this suggests, for a stable democracy leaders must pay special attention to the composition and size of the population. Aristotle returns to one of his popular recommendations that the best democracy is not extreme. Moderate or “mixed” constitutions are far more durable. In an agrarian democracy the “notable” or “middle people,” who have most leisure, have the responsibility of ruling the state, but they are subject to election and scrutiny by the poor. As a result, the wealthy will have no reason to be resentful of a state run largely in the interests of the poor, and they will bring their administrative experience and skills, along with their culture, to create stable and efficient government.


In order to create such a constitution the problem that faces the lawgiver is not how to establish it so much as how to ensure its preservation. Whatever the type of regime, it will thrive when it is pursued in moderation. Strict adherence to the type is likely to undermine the regime. Leaders should avoid trying to win popularity by confiscating the property of the rich. And they should pass laws ensuring that all property so confiscated is used for sacred purposes and not for the public exchequer. Ill-considered litigation against supposed wrongdoers should be restrained by imposing large penalties, because it is not their fellow citizens they bring to court, but notables.   


To maintain large turnouts at assembly meetings people should be paid to attend, but if there is insufficient revenue, there should be fewer and briefer assemblies, rather than increasing the taxes on the rich. On the other hand, if there are revenues available, one should not allow popular leaders to distribute the surplus in order to gain popularity. The duty of a true democrat is to ensure that the population is not destitute, because this is the cause of corrupt democracy. It is not enough to give the destitute handouts to live on: revenues should be used constructively to help people become independent.


As for the preservation of oligarchies, Aristotle makes the same recommendation as he did for democracies, that they should avoid becoming extreme; that moderate oligarchies are the most stable. Therefore, they should allow fairly large numbers of the population to “share in the constitution.” It should be a mixed oligarchy, very near to “polity.” Property qualifications should be organized to allow the poorer sections to hold the lower offices, while the wealthy still retained the higher offices. While a democracy can preserve its survival generally by maintaining a large population, oligarchies need to be well governed to survive.   


He then applies the same principles of blending the different demographics that he applied to democracies to the armed forces, arguing that sons of oligarchs ought to be enrolled in the democratically inclined light infantry and naval troops. Similarly, members of the populace can be given places in the governing body by opening them up to those who possess the right property qualification. The higher offices should carry the obligation to perform significant public service, thereby earning the admiration of the poor. These obligations would also be seen as a burden, so that only the best people will be willing to take them on.


Aristotle closes this book by reviewing officials and procedures. He considers the offices all states must have. He lists four that are indispensable to the day-to-day affairs of the state: control of the market-place; overseeing public and private property within the town; receiving and distributing public revenues; and carrying out the sentences of the courts, collecting money due to the state and keeping prisoners in custody. But there are others that are not only essential, but require certain qualities, skills and expertise: the defense of the state; control of finance; the “Pre-Council,” which prepares business for the deliberative assembly; and the director of religious matters.




Aristotle begins this book by analyzing the concepts of liberty and equality to see if there is any conflict between them. He outlines two interpretations of liberty: ruling and being ruled in turn and living according to how one pleases. While the first has no conflict with equality, the second does and in the process it gets us to the heart of the paramount issue for Aristotle’s philosophy: that a virtuous life is one ruled by reason.


As we have seen in previous books, a virtuous life is lived by the man that uses his reason to govern his actions and feelings in accordance with the mean. To do otherwise, to allow our feelings and passions to rule our behavior, is not only likely to err from the virtuous life, but it is also to lose one’s freedom. Instead, we would be controlled by impulses over which we exercise no rational control. This theme is picked up by Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century, who argues similarly that humans are free and rational. We should not, therefore, sacrifice this freedom by acting according to the dictates of our desires or inclinations. To act morally is to act in response to rational and self-imposed obligations: “categorical imperatives.”


In Aristotle and Kant we find the same argument. It is our freedom that distinguishes man from other creatures or from mere things. The behavior of other creatures is determined by laws of nature that are beyond their control. They are driven by desires, needs and inclinations over which they exercise no choice. In contrast, humans are free to choose, but this does not mean that we are free from laws. Freedom is not the absence of laws, but acting according to self-imposed laws: imposed not through our desires or other inclinations, but through the freedom of our own reason. In this lies the importance of reason: it is the guarantee of our freedom. But this is not the freedom to live according to how one pleases, but to rule and be ruled simultaneously: our reason determines what we should do, while at the same time we obey the dictates of our reason.   


Extend this to politics and Aristotle argues that man is a political animal, who can only find the fullest expression of his reason, the essential function of man that defines him, in the state. As freedom is only found through self-imposed rational obligations, in political life this means both ruling and being ruled. Citizens should not only have influence over the way the state is governed, but also agree to abide by its laws whether they agree with them or not.


It’s not that Aristotle disagrees with the definition of freedom as living as we please, according to what we want. Indeed, he himself argues exactly this when he claims that what we all want is happiness. This is our ultimate goal towards which all our actions, directly or indirectly, are aimed. But as happiness can only be achieved by living the virtuous life, ultimately this is the life we all want to live. And this, of course, means a life lived according to reason, which, as we have just seen, is the guarantee of freedom. So, it is not so much the goal, as stated, that is wrong, but the way we set out to achieve it, by satisfying our desires and inclinations without regard to reason. Ultimately it is reason that guarantees both freedom and the virtuous life: a life lived according to reason is not only free but is also virtuous.


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