In Aristotle’s Politics

In Aristotle’s Politics, he outlines three different governments and their perversions, ultimately providing his remedies for dysfunctional systems. Essentially, Aristotle proposes that when those in power govern with a view to common interest, a state is pure. However, when those in power no longer rule for the good of the community, the state becomes perverted. According to Aristotle, democracy is a perverted form of government because it is equated with chaotic mob rule, where the system is unregulated and lacks control of the masses. Specifically, he places democracy among the perversions because it gives too much unchecked power to the poor and needy. Although he has reservations about democracy, he does express a tolerance towards it, admitting that popular rule can be effective. For example, he realizes if each person in the community is partly virtuous in some way, then a collection of individuals will naturally enact better rule than a single citizen. Thus, he ranks democracy higher than tyranny and oligarchy, the other perverted forms of government. While Aristotle recognizes the value of democracy, he recommends practices such as moderation of wealth to remedy its defects. Additionally, because this system presents severe problems like demagoguery, he stresses the importance of education in an ideal state. Some might argue that a polis reformed in these ways would devolve into a different regime; however, Aristotle stresses the opposite, by detailing the power of the middle class and emphasizing the democratic factors at play in his strategies.
Aristotle opens Politics by broadly defining the citizen and city-state, explaining that “a city-state is a partnership of citizens in a system of government” (Aristotle, Politics, 1276b). He further develops this idea when he discusses the three “straight” systems of government: kingship, aristocracy, and polity (1289a). As established earlier in the book, Aristotle distinguishes these forms as superior because of their commitment to serving the common interest, regardless of whether the few or many hold power. Accordingly, he illustrates democracy as “diverging from polity,” while tyranny and oligarchy diverge from kingship and aristocracy (1279b). His core argument establishes that each diverging system is structured to operate in favor of the ruler’s interests, rather than the common good. For instance, rule in a democracy, as defined by Aristotle, directly advantages the poor. Despite the principle of freedom in this system, the people, or “demos,” have unrestrained authority. By nature, these perverted types of government do not aim for the profit of every citizen. Thus, Aristotle implies that democracy exhibits elements of despotism, because it no longer protects the partnership ideals of a city-state.
Although he places it among the three forms of unjust rule, Aristotle recognizes democracy as the best system, at least in relation to the other perversions. Primarily, he points out its practical value, in that democracy appears to be safer and less liable to revolution than oligarchy or tyranny. He extrapolates that desire for equality is the chief cause of revolutionary feeling. Through this idea, Aristotle implies that the political inequality necessitated by the other perverted systems would create a desire for the poor to effect structural change and disobey laws. In a democracy, however, the poor classes hold the most power, preventing significant instability. Revolutions in democracies are generally caused instead by demagogues, which is an issue with the structure that Aristotle addresses later in the book. He continues his defense of democracy by granting that “individually,” none of “the many” is virtuous or knowledgeable enough to rule. Nevertheless, the multitude can, “when joined together, be better” than even the wisest or most excellent few (1283a, 83b, 86a). He likens this concept to a feast, in which meals “contributed by many” excel those from a “single expenditure.” Additionally, the widespread equality makes it more difficult to corrupt those in power, as the large population balances these evil forces in a way that the elite few cannot. To elaborate on this idea, Aristotle may be implying that each individual in the partnership of the city-state offers some distinct virtue, like parts to a whole body. While no single citizen excels in any distinguishable way, the multitude may compile each individual’s knowledge and experience to make better, less rash decisions. Thus, he ranks democracy as a better form of government than tyranny or oligarchy. This idea directly contrasts Aristotle’s initial objections to democracy, in which he stresses the likelihood of majoritarianism of the poor and their despotic rule over the wealthy. Here lies the key tension between his conflicting arguments, and this clash persists throughout the remainder of his writing.
Throughout Politics, Aristotle searches for political mixing and balance between collective superiority and merit-based power. In his view, the best way to remedy the defects of democracy and find this balance is to employ moderation. He states that “a city ought to be composed, as far as possible, of equals” (1295b). Aristotle believes the middle class is generally the class of similars in a city-state. While the wealthy cannot submit to authority, and the poor constantly crave others’ goods, the middle class offers a solution to the two extremes (1309b). The middle class provides security and stability in democratic institutions. This point easily connects to Aristotle’s earlier ideas, which further develop the distinction between democracy and other perverted forms of government. In these sections, Aristotle states that “the real difference between democracy and oligarchy is between poverty and wealth” (1279b). Essentially, democracy is when every free citizen has the right to authority, while an oligarchy is when only the rich have it. Naturally, a system where the wealthy hold power generally constitutes minority rule, because only the few may be rich. In a democracy, however, the authority of poor and free men constitutes majority rule. Because every citizen may take turns holding political power in a democracy, it makes sense that the middle class and the moderation of wealth should be such defining characteristics in properly reducing its faults.
While moderation certainly appears to be the best way to restrain rule of the poor, it does not necessarily align with the traditional structure and sentiment of democracy. Some might assume that reforming a polis in the ways described by Aristotle would create a different regime altogether. However, Aristotle presents counterarguments to this idea by reiterating that rule by the people developed from an initial sense of equality. He continues by stating that since they are all free in like manner, they think they are quite simply equal (1301a). The founding principles of democracy heavily rely on freedom and equality; in this way, moderation of wealth in order to create similarity is justified. Additionally, Aristotle establishes that a state “may not be democratic in terms of its laws, but is still governed democratically on account of the habit and upbringing of the citizens” (1292b). This point matches earlier assumptions on equality in democratic communities.
Aristotle continues his discussion on remedies by elaborating on ways to preserve democracy. For example, he stresses the importance of political and public education, stating that the statesman himself “should be able to find remedies for the existing defects of existing constitutions” (1309b). The citizen cannot fulfill this task unless he knows the forms of government and their characteristics. The prioritization of education will, in effect, contribute to the permanence of the constitution, as each generation trains to be good citizens. In addition, education stimulates intellectual thought and promotes trust in society; by nature, this prevents tyranny, as the citizens rely on each other to live well. Aristotle’s arguments point to a bigger picture, as education may be seen as the unifying factor in democratic institutions. Moreover, Aristotle builds on his promotion of moderation and humility through his emphasis on equal citizens taking turns fulfilling public duties. In a system with many people in government, term limits provide a way to ensure everyone who is alike may participate. Not only do these restrictions promote rotation of power, but they also keep the individuals from receiving too much honor. Consequently, term limits may contribute to prevention of demagoguery in the long run, partially resolving some of democracy’s flaws.
Another key solution Aristotle proposes concerns potential profit for those who hold office. He clearly stresses that every state should be administered so its magistrates cannot make money, and also that they are chosen partly by election and partly by lot (1308b, 09a). This policy ensures that the poor do not seek political office for their own selfish benefit, and will instead focus on their own work. As a result, the wealthy members of society gain an opportunity to hold power, because they have no need to earn money from public service. Aristotle furthers this sentiment through his stipulation that confiscation of property and public allocation of wealth occur only for sensible reasons. He elaborates that neither should occur as legal punishment, for redistribution to the poor, or for unnecessary sponsorships. Despite the poor possessing majority rule, this mandate allows for more balance and further secures stability of the democratic state.
Again, to safeguard this form of government, one should strive for measures that will preserve it for the longest time rather than strive to make it as democratic as possible (1319b). While his proposed laws are not necessarily the most democratic in nature, the core ideals of democracy, equality and freedom, are still present. Rather than creating a different regime altogether, these laws instead ensure the continued permanence of the established democracy. “Living according to one’s system of government should not be thought of as slavery, but rather as preservation” (1310a). In Aristotle’s own words, preservation is essential to guaranteeing a successful democracy, albeit a slightly limited one.
In conclusion, Aristotle’s Politics presents conflict between viewing democracy as a perverted government with obvious defects and understanding it as a practical political system with clear benefits. Although his classification of democracy as a diverged form of polity lends itself to a negative perspective on human nature, Aristotle’s emphasis on public education and participation in political office radiates as remarkably optimistic. His philosophy on moderation stresses the importance of partnership in a city-state, as well as balance between individual honor and social contract. Overall, Aristotle’s writings paint a complex image of human nature, simultaneously explaining both our selfish interests and our need for a collective society.


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