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Aristotle of Stagira

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"For every virtue there is a vice."

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INTRODUCTION TO Aristotle's Politics

Although it is a bit later than the Republic of Plato, the Politics of Aristotle is is commonly seen as the first ever book to deal with politics as a practical science. It follows-on from his Ethics, and is said to have resulted from Aristotle's study of the constitutions of over a hundred of the little Greek States.

His work is a foundation of the subject of politics even to the present day; and, if some of his doctrines are interesting primarily as illustrating the difference in the conditions of the ancient world, others are as true to-day as they were of the City States of ancient Greece. This may suggest that, in two and a half thousand years, people haven't changed all that much.

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SquaPo has got Aristotle's Ethics and Politics, and nice little abridgements of works by his predecessors Plato and Socrates such as The Republic.


This is the abridged version first published under the editorship of John Hammerton in 1919. It leaves much to be desired.


Aristotle of Stagira, c310BC

"For every virtue there is a vice."

The State arises from the natural division of power in the family and in trading relations.
The virtue of a ruler is the same as the virtue of a good man, combining moral virtue with 'prudence'.
The normal forms of government, which aim at the good of the community, are called kingship, aristocracy (the rule of the best) and constitutional government. The abnormal deviations which seek the benefit of the rulers, are called tyranny, oligarchy (domination of the rich over the poor) and democracy (domination of the poor over the rich).
The ideal polity, like the ideal of individual life, lies not with happiness or goods but in the exercise of virtue, which we Greeks are ideally situated to find.
A State obviously needs husbandmen, mechanics, an army, a propertied class, a government, a judicial body and a priesthood. There is also benefit in common meals, but land should be in part public, and in part private; and the actual cultivators a servile population. Legislation should begin by regulating marriage. Cripples, if born, ought not to be reared. Education should be a State affair.
In any state, individuals who are too richly endowed tend to wax arrogant; those at the other extreme tend to knavery.
The best chance for constitutionalism is in the state with a decently satisfied large middle class otherwise the relation between rulers and ruled becomes that of masters and slaves.
Revolutions arise from inequalities, and can lead to worse, but neither tyrannies nor oligarchies have proved long-lived.

The Squashed Philosophers Edition of...

Aristotle of Stagira
Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes © 2011


THE natures of various forms of rule are not identical. To ascertain the fundamental differences let us begin at the beginning, with the genesis, or coming into being, of the state.

Starting with the household, three relations are implied - of parents and children, husband and wife, master and slaves. Slaves are a form of property, defined as an aggregate of the instruments conducive to life; animate instruments of action.

From the slave as property arises the general question of property, its acquisition and application. Naturally, necessary things are acquired by simple processes - hunting, fishing, husbandry, etc. But there is a further and differing art of acquisition by way of exchange. The simple barter of necessaries is also natural; but exchange becomes so no longer when it is made in terms of a standard medium, the currency. To the acquisition of property, as defined, and its employment there is a limit; but to the acquisition of money, which is only potentially property, there is none.

It is with this kind of accumulation that finance is concerned, while domestic economy has to do with actual property. Finance is in any case non-natural; it is most unnatural in the form of usury. Simple acquisition of property is natural and involves knowledge of agriculture and live-stock. Finance proper covers the commercial field. Between these is the production of what conduces only indirectly to life. Incidentally, we note that the most effective of financial devices is that of capturing a monopoly of the supply.

Returning to the government of the household, the moral virtues are demanded of the ruler; we do not deny them to its other members, whether women, slaves, or children; but the virtues of these are not identical with those of the head, their functions being different.

Turning to Plato's ideal commonwealth, our first criticism is that Plato's aim is to produce uniformity, whereas uniformity is destructive of the state, which depends on diversity of service rendered. We should maintain that diversity.

Secondly, the Platonic communism, especially of wives and children, fails of its purpose; joint ownership produces not harmony, but discord, besides reducing the individual's interest in what is merely shared. All the force of family affections is watered away, and there are boundless ugly possibilities arising from the actual ignorance of relationships.

Common possession of other goods, too, generally leads to quarrels. Voluntary or regulated sharing of distinctively private property is another thing. If the scheme had been in any way practicable, someone would have tried it before now.

Thirdly, Socrates never explains how far the ordinary citizens fall under the same rules as the guardians; unity among them is not provided for, nor subordination. To which three main criticisms other minor ones may, of course, be added.

Plato's variations from the Republic in his Laws help us little - e.g. there he puts his professional soldiery at 5,000, an incredibly large proportion for any state deserving the name. He omits foreign relations altogether; says nothing of how the population is to be kept within bounds; and the total result seems to be a polity professing to be a cross between democracy and despotism, and actually more of an oligarchy than anything else.

From the theorists we turn to known practical constitutions; and, first, to that of Sparta. The plan of securing leisure for the free citizen by having a large subject population involves danger from servile revolts. The licence allowed to women - an important factor in a military state - is a corrupting influence. The absorption of the land in a very few hands - women's, to a very disproportionate degree - brought down the Spartiate population almost to vanishing point. The ephors, the real rulers, are elected from the whole free population by a childish method; so are the senators. As for the kings, the law emphasises the fact that they are distrusted. Poor and rich alike contribute to the common meals, which is unfair to the poor. Militarism is too obviously the one aim of the whole system, and the financial regulations foster avarice.

TRADITION says that the Spartan polity was borrowed from the Cretan, which differs from it in minor points of detail but has practically the same defects in the main. The polity of Carthage is akin to these two, with variations which are in its favour. It aims at securing a larger influence for merit as against chance in elections, but tends to find merit in wealth to a dangerous extent.

At Athens, Solon's legislation displaced the old oligarchy, strengthened the aristocratic element by the manner of election to offices of state, and introduced a democratic element by the judical system. It was the later demagogues who reduced the Solonian Constitution to the democracy we know. Of some half-dozen other legislators the names and a brief note are sufficient record.


THE virtue of a citizen as such differs from that of a good man as such in being specifically relative to the polity; hence it is not uniform, but varies as the polity varies. The virtue of a ruler is the virtue of a good man, combining moral virtue with what we name 'prudence' in the Ethics. But the citizen who is not a ruler does not, as such, require prudence. The citizen should, no doubt, have the capacity both for rule and for subjection - the subjection of a free man, not of a slave; but the virtues in the two spheres differ.

We classify politics as the seat of government is in one person, in few, or in the masses. The normal forms, which aim at the good of the community, are called kingship, aristocracy (the rule of the best) and constitutional government; the abnormal deviations which seek the benefit of the rulers, are called tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. Of these last the second means the domination of the rich over the poor, the third the domination of the poor over the rich. In one sense equality is just; in another, inequality; the democrat recognizes the first, but not the second; the oligarch the second, but not the first. Superior wealth does not constitute fundamental superiority; nor equality in freedom, as the others think, equality in all respects. It is by virtue that the distribution of political power should be regulated.

As to which is superior, the few or the many, there is force in the view that the many collectively strike a sounder average judgement than the few; and their collective interests are the more extensive. The masses should not be indiscriminately admitted to office, but should collectively choose the officers.

There are several qualities which go to good administration; superiority in one quality or another, such as birth or wealth, must not be assumed to involve superiority in the rest and treated as the sole criterion of inequality. The pre-eminence of a class in one of these qualities does not confer the right to rule; and, in the aggregate, the masses collectively seem to have the pre- eminence over any class.

The Greek kingship exemplified in Sparta is not a despotism, but supreme and permanent military command. The essential difference of tyranny is that the forces at command are mercenary, while the king's forces are armed subjects. Beside these stand the non-Greek forms of monarchy, which would be tyrannies if they were not hereditary, and the Aesymnetes, the elective tyranny, which would be kingship but that it is not hereditary. The kings of the heroic period, with larger powers than the Spartan, made those powers - acquired by personal prowess- -hereditary; but they were gradually curtailed. Historically, aristocracy displaced monarchy; oligarchy aristocracy; tyranny the oligarchies, and democracy the tyrannies. Finally, there is the absolute monarch.

The vital objection to absolutism is that, besides being non-natural, the individual is arbitrary and corruptible, and the law is not. It may be held that even discretion in dealing with the law may be more safely vested in several persons than in one.


THE ideal polity is bound up with the ideal of individual life; and we have ascertained that individual happiness lies not in external goods but in the exercise of virtue. Further, the virtues, and therefore the happiness, of the state, are identical with those of the individual. Is it desirable for the individual that he should participate in affairs of state? Or for the state that all individuals should participate in its affairs? Mere desire of the individual or of the state to lord it over others is not right, though this is a common view. To accept responsibility for a due share in guiding and controlling others is quite distinct from this, and involves a corresponding readiness to accept control and guidance.

For the state, as for the individual, adequate external conditions are needed. Mere magnitude is not an advantage. A degree of magnitude is essential, as without it the state cannot be self-sufficing and independent; the limit is, that it must not be too big for all the citizens to have personal knowledge of each other, and to be gathered in a single controllable assembly.

As to situation, it requires communication with the sea, both for strategical and commercial reasons; but not so that the foreign element, which is found in all ports, may affect the citizens injuriously. The Greeks are happily situated in such a position as to develop both enterprise and intellectuality; whereas the Asiatics are intellectual but not enterprising, and the European barbarians enterprising but not intellectual. The union of the Greeks in one polity might secure them universal dominion.

Now, it is indispensable that the state should produce food, requiring husbandmen, provide mechanical arts, requiring mechanics, an army, a propertied class, a government, a judicial body and a priesthood.

The non-citizens alone will not be allowed to hold property. The distinction between citizens and non-citizens is permanent; between classes of citizens only temporary, though there is something to be said for the caste system. There is also benefit in common meals maintained by the state; but property should not be in common. Land should be in part public, and in part private; and the actual cultivators a servile population.

The situation of the city should be healthy and strategically adapted for defence, and it should be properly fortified; the details of arrangement for common meals and public buildings should accord with the convenience of the classes of citizens in the discharge of their public duties, and so with the extra-mural public buildings.

The external circumstances which condition happiness must be assumed. Given these, happiness lies in the habit of virtuous activity, attainable by natural disposition, habituation and reason. The application of these two is the business of education.

For obvious reasons education begins with care of the body, proceeds with the non-rational part of the soul, and works up to the rational. Legislation should begin by regulating marriage, so as to ensure that the parents are physically fit. Cripples, if born, ought not to be reared.

Should education be on a fixed system? Conducted privately, or by the state? And what should the character of the system be?

Clearly, to the state the formation in its citizens of the character appropriate to the polity is of the highest importance. It should be a state affair, not controlled by private caprices. But the best methods are very disputable. Should useful pursuits, or moral training, or intellectual development be aimed at? Such useful pursuits as are not cramping to mind and morals may be taught. Reading, writing, design, gymnastic and music are the recognized curriculum; the first four on utilitarian grounds, the last apparently as a training in the right use of leisure, as distinct from strictly recreative amusement. Moreover, the aforesaid utilitarian subjects have ends other than utilitarian.

First comes gymnastic, which is apt to be mistakenly conducted on brutalising lines. Brutality does not imply valour.

MUSIC is, in the first place, an amusement both recreative and pleasurable; also, it has a direct moral influence. For children, the acquisition of musical skill is beneficial, as well as merely learning to appreciate music by listening to it; but not with instruments which tend to make them mechanical or check their progress in other ways. Moreover, only harmonies which have an ethical character should be admitted into education.


THE study of political science demands examination of the polity ideally best; of the best practicable for a particular state; of the best practicable for the generality of states; and of the best attainable under certain hypothetical conditions. Government by the best, whether one or more - the ideal - we have discussed. There remain the varieties of oligarchy and democracy, which are many, and tyranny.

All variations are due to the differences of the parties or classes in the state. Popularly, they are grouped in two sets - democracy, including constitutional government; and oligarchy, including aristocracy. The former involves the domination of a poor majority over a rich minority, the latter of a rich minority over a poor majority. The classes are the agricultural, the mechanical, the trading, and the workers for hire; then the military, the priestly, the propertied, the executive, the deliberative and the judical. The personnel of these divisions may overlap.

In theory, the root principle of democracy is equality. A low property qualification for those admitted to equality, i.e. to office, is characteristic of some forms of democracy; the most vital differentiation is between those where the law is supreme, and those where it is at the mercy of a popular decree - for which the demagogues are responsible. This last cannot be recognized as a constitutional form of government at all.

A high property qualification produces an oligarchy - the domination of the wealthy minority. A variation places nomination to office in the hands of the executive; another makes office hereditary; and in a fourth, the executive overrides the law. Custom, however, may make what is in form democratic actually oligarchical; and vice versa.

In democracies, for the most part, practical considerations limit the candidature though not eligibility for office. In oligarchies, where virtue is a factor, the name of aristocracy is popularly misapplied to them.

Constitutional rule is really a fusion of democracy and oligarchy. It fixes a triple criterion for equality - of freedom, of wealth and of virtue. It approximates to aristocracy. It combines counteracting characteristics from oligarchy and democracy; or strikes a mean between them. Hence, according to the point of view, it is sometimes called one sometimes the other.

Of tyranny, or despotism, we noted two semi-regal kinds, the oriental and the elective or aesymnetic. Besides these there is the tyranny absolute.

IN any state, individuals who are too richly endowed tend to wax arrogant; those at the other extreme tend to knavery. The best chance for constitutionalism is in the state where the largest body is intermediate; otherwise the relation between rulers and ruled becomes that of masters and slaves. A decently satisfied large middle class is a guarantee of order; where it is weak, oligarchy or democracy prevails.

Oligarchies employ misleading artifices - penalising the wealthy, but for failure to bear their share in the practices of public life whereby the oligarchical power is maintained. Similarly democracies proceed by offering the poor inducements to take their corresponding share in public life. Under a constitution, the two methods should be combined, keeping both poor and rich up to the mark; and citizenship and carrying heavy armour should go together. The only rule as to property qualification is that it should be low enough to admit a majority.

The original constitutional governments, historically speaking, admitted only men who could mount themselves; then those who could bear arms as heavy infantry.

Every state has three departments - deliberative, executive, judicial. The first controls war and peace, and elections, as well as legislation. In a democracy, the whole body of citizens performs the whole deliberative function, or delegates fragments of it. As the exercise of that function is limited by high property qualification or otherwise, an oligarchy more or less pronounced is established. The power of veto, but not that of positive enactment, should be vested in the masses.

EXECUTIVE office should mean offices involving independent deliberation, decision, and especially command. In a small state several of the necessary duties may be concentrated in the hands of one official. Offices, and especially official boards, appropriate to one form of polity are not necessarily appropriate to another. Thus, a preliminary council which submits the measures to the deliberative council is essentially oligarchic.

In the case of the judicial body, there is the question of limiting fields of jurisdiction to several courts; from the discussion whereof we gather information as to the diversities of procedure in the Greek states.

Democracies vary as the populations are husbandmen, mechanics, or hired labourers, or combinations, their institutions varying correspondingly. Their common principle is liberty in the senses of (a) personal liberty; and (b) sharing in the government - which involves alternating between ruling and being ruled, everyone being eligible and everyone an elector; appointments by lot; non-recurrence of tenure; and other corollaries.

Equality of heads and numerical control make the root theory. Thus, democracy finds justice in the decision of the arithmetical majority, oligarchy finds it in that of the wealthy. One would potentially prove wholesale spoliation just, the other tyranny (if there were one supremely wealthy individual). Whereas if rich and poor are antagonistic, justice would really hold the scales between them.

THE best democratic population is agricultural or pastoral; being less degraded than mechanics, tradesmen, or hired labourers; and also having more difficulty in participating actively in public affairs. The most fatal form is where there is manhood suffrage. For the continuity of democracy, the wealthy must be reconciled to it by release from public services in consideration of cash, which will be used to relieve the burdens of the poor and keep them from schemes of spoliation. The rich also should be protected against wanton persecutions.

Oligarchy is nearest to constitutional government when most offices are open. As these are more and more restricted to the wealthy, it approximates to tyranny. An oligarchy should not be too exclusive in the admission of new members.

The executive, or officers of state, consist of the council which controls legislation, military-commanders and the civil service generally; officers and teachers of religion and priests; and also sundry special officials to be found in particular localities.


REVOLUTIONS arise from inequalities, numerical or qualitative - from a numerical mass claiming an equality denied them, or from a minority claiming a superiority denied them. A revolution may result either in a complete change of polity, or only in a modification of the existing one. An oligarchy is less permanent than a democracy, owing to factions within the oligarchical body.

In all revolutions, the conditions which leads up to them is the desire of the many for equality, and the desire of the minority for effective superiority. The purposes with which they are set on foot are profit, honour, or avoidance of loss or dishonour. The inciting occasions are many; jealousy of those who have wealth and honour, official arrogance, fear of the law or of its abuse, personal rivalries, failure of the middle class to maintain a balance, race antagonisms, antagonism of localities, and others.

In democracies, revolutions are due mainly to demagogic attacks on wealth, leading the wealthy to combine, and they result in the establishment of an oligarchy or of a tyranny, a 'popular' military chief seizing the power for himself; or sometimes in replacing a moderate by an extreme democracy.

In oligarchies they spring from the oppressive conduct of the oligarchy, or from dissensions among the oligarchical body - e.g. exclusion of those who think themselves entitled to membership; attraction of the role of demagogue for individual members of the oligarchy; employment of mercenary troops, whose captain seizes power.

IN aristocracies they arise from the jealousy of those excluded from power, personal ambitions, great inequality of wealth. In these, and in constitutional governments - the most stable of all - the main cause is the incomplete fusion of the three criteria, wealth, numbers and merit. The comparative stability of constitutions comes from the greater relative weight of numbers. They are, however, more liable to be revolutionised by external pressure. Equality in proportion to merit and security of rights are the true conditions of permanence.

For the preservation of polities, minor illegalities must be particularly guarded against: in oligarchies, personal rivalries, abuse of power by individuals (making short tenures of office advisable), insolence of privilege, tricks to deceive the masses; in oligarchies and constitutional states, excessive concentration of power in individuals or classes; oppression of the wealthy minority in democracies, and of the poor majority in oligarchies.

OF monarchy, the two types are the regal and the tyrannic. The king is the protector of the wealthy against spoliation, of the poor against arrogance. His own or his family's virtues or services have given him the kingship; his aim is excellence, and his authority is maintained by a citizen bodyguard. The tyrant is not a protector; his aim is his personal gratification.

Under monarchies, injustice and arrogance are the causes of insurrection, or fear, or contempt for incompetence, coupled with ambition. Tyrannies are overthrown by collision with external forces, or by private intrigues in the tyrant's entourage, and generally in the same sort of way as extreme oligarchies or extreme democracies. Kingships are endangered by intrigues in the royal family, by the King's personal incompetence, or by his developing tyrannical attributes. Hereditary monarchies are in particular danger from incompetents succeeding. But in a complex society, kingship proper is all but impossible.

A kingship is maintained by the royal self-restraint. The tyrant relies on the material and moral degradation, incapacity and lack of mutual confidence among his subjects, which he fosters by espionage, executions, taxation and the encouragement of licence. Occasionally, the tyrant will seek to secure his position by playing the part and assuming the attributes of a king proper. The shrewd tyrant sees to it that he has the favour of the rich or of the poor.

Neither tyrannies nor oligarchies have proved long-lived.

Aristotle of Stagira
Aristotle died at Chalcis in Euboea (above)
His last resting place is unknown.

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