ARISTOTLE: Politics [Book III-V]

Politics by Aristotle

Book III

  • An ideal state is a body of citizens assembled together who strive for the common interests of the community. A citizen is one who has power to take part in the deliberative and judicial administration of a state.
  • A state is not merely a group of people within a certain border.
  • Government can be administered either by one, by a few, or by many. When the government is administered according to the interests of the state, then the government is just. The three forms of just government are kingship, aristocracy, and constitutional government. Perversions of the preceding governments are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.
  • Political society exists for the sake of a virtuous life, not for life itself.
  • A constitutional government is least likely to become perverted because it is far less likely that a mass of people will become corrupted by passion than an individual or a few individuals.
  • It is better to be ruled by the best laws than by the best man. Laws are not subject to passion; man is.
  • If there is a man of preeminent virtue, of which no comparison can be made between him and other citizens, he ought to be ostracized or established as king for life; for it would be absurd to place Zeus under the laws of men. Ostracism is a beneficial expedient to attain equality in a state. Equality is necessary for the formation and preservation of a good state. However, the practice of ostracism has been perverted. Instead of using this prerogative as a remedy for inequality, States has utilized it for factious purposes.


“Men cling to life even at the cost of enduring great misfortune, seeming to find in life a natural sweetness and happiness.”


“Whereas the law is passionless, passion must ever sway the heart of man.”


“The many are more incorruptible than the few; they are like the greater quantity of water which is less easily corrupted than a little. The individual is liable to be overcome by anger or by some other passion, and then his judgment is necessarily perverted; but it is hardly to be supposed that a great number of persons would all get into a passion and go wrong at the same moment.”


“Physicians, when they are sick, call in other physicians, and training-masters, when they are in training, other training-masters, as if they could not judge judge truly about their own case and might be influenced by their feelings.”


“He who bids the law rule may be deemed to bid God and Reason alone rule, but he who bids man rule adds an element of the beast; for desire is a wild beast, and passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men.”


In discussing the question whether it is better to be ruled by good laws or a good man, Aristotle addresses the argument made by the Stranger in Plato’s Statesman, viz. that it is impossible to propose a simple and universal law to account for particular circumstances, and therefore it is better that a State be ruled by a wise man. Aristotle counters this argument by stating that the law must not be cast away altogether; for the law contains basic principles that can be applied in some cases, and can be used in other cases to guide human judgment. The reason why Aristotle has a higher regard for law than for the judgment of men is because men are subject to passion while the law is impartial. In cases where the law cannot make a judgment, it is better for many men to deliberate and cast judgment than for one man; for one man is more readily corrupted than man.


Book IV

  • A Statesman ought to know the constitution of an ideal state, but also the constitution of the best possible State given particular circumstances.
  • The constitution is not the law. The constitution is the organization of government offices; it determines the composition of the governing body, and the end of each community. The laws are rules according to which the magistrates administer the State.
  • The perversion of kingship – tyranny – is the worst form of government.
  • The many forms of government arise from the varied elements of individual States. The elements of a State are the different social classes – i.e. poor, middle-class, rich.
  • If the poor prevails over the rich, a democracy is formed; if the rich prevail over the poor, an oligarchy is formed. There are different forms of democracies and oligarchies, which arise from the lifestyle of those in power. For example, in a State run by husbandman and others of moderate fortunes, then the State is administered according to law because the citizens have no leisure to assemble and deliberate and judge on every action. Law acts in their stead.
  • Polity, or constitutional government, is a fusion of democracy and oligarchy. It is the best form of government. The power of the state is held in common by all social classes, not just the rich and not just the poor.
  • There are two parts of a good government: 1) the obedience of citizens to the laws and 2) the goodness of laws.
  • A true union of democracy an oligarchy is found in States that can be termed either democracies or oligarchies.
  • Where there is no distinction between rich and poor, and where there is a large middle class, the State will likely be formed as a polity or constitutional government.
  • The good life is lived according to the mean between extremes – virtue. The good form of government is the mean between the extremes of democracy and oligarchy.
  • In all States there is a poor class, a middle class, and a rich class. A city ought to be composed of equals, and these are generally those of the middle class. A large middle class is conducive to good government; for class antagonisms arise among the rich and poor.
  • The elements of a good government are the deliberative assemblies, the magistrates, and the judges. In other words, there is the legislative, the executive, and the judicial.


“Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship in states than this: for good fellowship springs from friendship; when men are at enmity with one another, they would rather not even share the same path. But a city ought to be composed, as far as possible, of equals and similars; and these are generally the middle classes. Wherefore the city which is composed of middle-class citizens is necessarily best constituted in respect of the elements of which we say the fabric of the state naturally consists. And this is the class of citizens which is most secure in a state, for they do not, like the poor, covet their neighbors’ goods; nor do others covet theirs, as the poor covet the goods of the rich; and as they neither plot against others, nor are themselves plotted against, they pass through life safely.”


“Where the middle class is large, there are least likely to be factions and dissensions. The poor and the rich quarrel with one another, and whichever side gets the better, instead of establishing a just or popular government, regards political supremacy as the prize of victory, and the one party sets up a democracy and the other an oligarchy.”


In Book IV, Aristotle expresses a notion that is now commonly associated with Karl Marx – i.e. the notion of class struggle. Aristotle remarks that the poor and rich classes are in perpetual conflict with one another, and whichever class prevails over the other becomes the ruling class. This new ruling class does not establish a just government, but rather considers their victory to be an indication of their right to establish a society advantageous to their own interests. Thus, Aristotle concludes that the ideal State can only be formed and preserved where there is a large middle class; for the middle class is composed of equal individuals who do not attract the envy of the poor, nor possess the resentment and depraved morals that the burdens of poverty necessarily cause in the poor.


Marx advocated a revolution of the working class – i.e. the poor class in Aristotelian terms. Marx concluded that this revolution would ultimately result in the establishment of equality; and therefore to the ideal State. However, Aristotle claims that when the poor conquer the rich, and seize political power, they do not establish a just government, but rather a government that strives to satisfy the interests of the poor at the expense of the interests of the rich. It does not seek to attain the common interests of the State. Which man has been right thus far in history? Considering the history of the USSR and other Communist governments, it seems that Aristotle is correct. Instead of establishing equality of individuals in a comfortable middle-class condition, the communist governments have established a nation of similarly impoverished people. Of course, many Marxists will argue that the Communist regimes of history have not ascribed to Marxism, but are rather perverted ideologies that more nearly resemble the evil of capitalism and corrupting influence of power.


Book V

  • Alterations in government and revolutions arise because of inequality. This inequality arises from the sentiments of those who believe that because they are equal to another in one thing that they are equal to another in all things, and those who believe that because they are unequal to another in one thing that they are unequal to another in all things.
  • Men may alter the form of a government, or only alter particular offices.
  • Inequality is the occasion of seditions, and those who aim for equality are the causes of seditions.
  • Democracy is less liable to sedition than oligarchy. There has been no instance where the people have rebelled against themselves.
  • Men will be seditious when they believe that their equals have more than them, or when they believe that their inferiors have as much or more than them – i.e. more wealth and/or honor.
  • Constitutions are altered for a number of reasons: the arrogance of a ruler offends his subjects, a faction expects to profit from a constitutional change, a faction seeks honor or seeks to avoid disgrace, the ruling party has grown too strong, a faction fears punishment at the hands of the ruling class, a faction despises the ruling class, election processes are corrupted, people who are hostile towards the current constitution are elected to office, minor changes to the constitution result in a drastic change over time, immigrants give rise to numerous factions, quarrels between important magistrates.
  • A faction will only attempt to subvert the government if it believes that it is powerful enough to do so.
  • A democracy is most likely to be subverted by demagogues who lead attacks on the rich.
  • Oligarchies are subverted either by the poor who feel like they have been mistreated by the ruling class, or by quarrels between important magistrates.
  • To preserve the existence of a government, the ruling class ought to do the following; guard against lawlessness, never deceive the multitude, treat everyone within their jurisdiction well and justly, frequently involve the nation in wars so that the people are busy, prevent quarrels between the nobles, do not confer or withdraw great honors at once but rather by degrees, place the supreme power in the hands of the middle class or in the hands of the class that opposes the class on the rise in power.
  • Educating children to uphold the constitution is necessary for the preservation of a State, though no amount of education will prevent some men from being bad.
  • Aristotle advises tyrants to preserve their power by exiling men of merit and ability, prohibiting social gatherings, and employing spies. He also advises tyrants to bestow honors personally on his subjects, but to delegate the exacting of punishments to his subordinates.
  • Keeping subjects in poverty is advantageous to tyranny because the subjects will not have the leisure to conspire against the tyrant, rather they will be preoccupied with procuring the basic necessities of life.


“It is also advantageous for a tyranny that all those who are under it should be oppressed with poverty, that they may not be able to compose a guard; and that, being employed in procuring their daily bread, they may have no leisure to conspire against their tyrants.”


While reading this selection from Aristotle’s Politics, I remembered that Aristotle was Alexander the Great’s personal teacher. I think that it is interesting to consider that the very ideas Aristotle sets forth in these passages were likely related to Alexander the Great. I believe Aristotle’s opinion that a large State is more stable than a smaller one because there is a lesser chance of one faction being powerful enough to subvert the government likely induced Alexander to believe that establishing a large kingdom was not dangerous, but even desirable. I wonder whether Alexander believed that he was the preeminent man of virtue to whom the citizens of a State ought to willingly submit. I wonder whether Alexander would have established a ‘polity’ rather than a kingship if he had lived. I believe that Alexander likely wasn’t concerned with politics. He was much more interested in war. I believe that one reason why Alexander fought so many battles was not to expand his empire, but rather to attain evermore honor. His idol was Achilles after all. Even if Alexander lived for many more years, he would have spent them all in war. I think the idea of governing was almost offensive to him. From the teachings of Aristotle, he certainly would have understood the manifold dangers that accompany the title of ruler, and the inglorious nature of the position. I say that it is an inglorious position because odious demagogues could attain to such a position. Alexander would not likely wish to share a profession with such detestable people.

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