Aristotle’s polity in his Politics
The defining point of Aristotle’s polity is that it should be possible for it to be spoken of as either a democracy or an oligarchy. There’s a tension in the polity between the desire for excellence (particularly of virtue), and the desire for equality. Aristotle wants to strike a balance for the common good of the city, which is just. There is an ambiguity in whether justice is for the sake of the common good, or the common good is what is just. In any event, Aristotle sets up this tension as a balancing factor to prevent the descent of the regime into the unjust forms of oligarchy or democracy, and from there into tyranny. (135)
The inclusion of democracy in this best practicable regime would seem problematic. Throughout the Politics runs a theme of virtue as what is best for a person and for the city. The city will not make a common person a citizen because “it is impossible to live a life of virtue when one is a vulgar person or a laborer.” (93) In a democracy, however, all people are citizens, vulgar and wellborn alike, and the vulgar are almost certain to be the majority. Now, regimes that look to the common advantage are the just, but regimes that look to the advantage of the rulers “are errant . . . for they involve mastery . . .” (95) Democracy is an errant regime because it is for the advantage of the poor, and not for common gain. (96) Democratically run cities ostracize the pre-eminent in wealth, friends or political strength for the sake of equality. (107) This is an act of mastery, and isn’t for the common good of all the people since it excludes the good of the pre-eminent for the advantage of those who aren’t.
Despite this, Aristotle still includes it in the mixture of the polity because it is a balancing factor. He also does so because it enhances the justness of the city, in that it broadens the base for the common good, thereby enabling a greater common good, a greater justice, to be achieved. The vagaries of democracy are mitigated by the elements of oligarchy that allow for the rule of the pre-eminent, which would otherwise tend to be expelled from the city. The element of rule by the virtuous allowed by the oligarchic tendencies in the regime tempers the desire for equality with a moral and political leadership that can act for the best of the city. So, the virtuous are for the best of the city in that they make just and wise choices, and the equality of the people is for the best of the city in that it includes more in the city, making a greater common good to be achieved.
A large middling element improves the mixed regime. First of all, Aristotle says that a happy life is a virtuous and unimpeded life, and virtue is a mean, a middle way. This makes the middling life the best kind. (133) Those who have a “ middling possession and fortune” will be the best citizens. They will be the most reasonable because those on either extreme will either tend to be arrogant if rich, or malicious if poor, and “ . . . acts of injustice are committed either through arrogance or through malice.” (134) The middling element will also be less likely to avoid ruling or have an ambition to rule, both of which are dangerous to the city. The rich don’t want to be ruled and don’t know how to be ruled, spoiled by a luxurious lifestyle. The poor are excessively humble, and don’t know how to rule. A large middling element helps the city be composed of equal citizens to a larger extent, which is what the city “wishes.” The middle class also, according to Aristotle, don’t desire the possessions of others as the poor do of the rich. Nor do others desire what they have. This results in stability. (134)
A large middling element that surpasses each of the other two in number will particularly ensure a well-governed city, but as long as it outnumbers one of the two other classes it can still have a balancing effect. (134-135) Where the middling class is large, factions and conflicts are the least likely to happen, as well as the more extreme regimes of democracy, oligarchy, which may lead to tyranny. (135)
This best practicable regime represents somewhat of a retreat from what Aristotle sees as the highest aspirations of political life. In chapter two of book 1 of the Politics, Aristotle says the good life is self-sufficient. A city is a partnership to the end of households and families living this life. “This,” Aristotle says, “ . . . is living happily and finely. The political partnership must be regarded, therefore, as being for the sake of noble actions, not for the sake of living together.” (99) Aristotle’s polity retreats from this in that such a regime can’t be focused entirely on noble actions which come from virtue, because only part of the authority of the regime derives from those who are able, in Aristotle’s view, to pursue these noble actions. It can’t be fully devoted to this nobility by its very definition. Furthermore Aristotle says that in the best regime, someone who is pre-eminent in virtue would be obeyed gladly, making them permanent kings in the city. (108) This could not happen in Aristotle’s polity, again by definition. Aristotle seems to have abandoned his highest hopes for the regime because he recognizes that such cases are the ideal, and that in reality one can’t expect situations favourable to such things to arise very frequently.
This is a short essay from a political theory class I took at the University of Toronto this past year.
All citations from: Aristotle: The Politics, translated by Carnes Lord, University of Chicago Press, 1985