Aristotle: Pixabay

Earlier we saw that Plato believed that democracy would inevitably lead to tyranny.  He believed this because he believed that the nature of man was immutable, and that the those in the ‘iron and bronze’ levels of society would be driven by their desire for the accumulation of wealth, and that those in the ‘gold and silver’ levels of society would try, in vain, to bring the opposition back to virtue and order.  Democracies were susceptible to the ‘tyranny of the majority’, or two lions and a lamb voting on what is for dinner.  The less affluent would see that the democratic system seemed to only work for those with wealth, and that jealousy would result in the election of a populist tyrant.  Eventually such a form of government would not even be able to wage war as it would fear arming its citizens because they would be as much of a threat to the stability of the country as would an external enemy.  He predicted that the poor would seek a ruler that would protect them and that the ruler would see the mob as his protection.  That symbiotic relationship results in full blown tyranny.  In “The Republic” he argued that a benign philosopher king would be the best form of government.  


Plato was likely echoing some of the thoughts of his mentor Socrates.  Socrates’ thoughts were either never recorded, or possibly were destroyed by the rulers in Athens after his self-execution.  The treatment of Socrates so upset Plato that he left Athens for 10 years of self-imposed exile.  When he returned, he formed the Academy and began his work on “The Republic”.  It is helpful here to understand what Plato thought perfection in a society entailed.  He believed that the role of government was to provide a just society where there was no crime and where people could live in peace without the fear of oppression.  The philosopher king would be responsible for making learned and just decisions because the masses could not be trusted to do so.  This ruler would, by necessity, be a philosopher because only a philosopher possessed the required wisdom. The defense against the rise of tyranny was the law.  In fact, in one of his discussions on law, Plato imagines a conversation between his condemned mentor Socrates and Crito.  Crito offered Socrates a way out of his execution but Socrates responds that when a citizen lives in a state there is an implied contract that the citizen will live under the laws of that state.  Plato summarizes his view on the law thusly, “Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.”  But again, an inspired monarchy was still his preferred form of government.  


One of Plato’s students was Aristotle.  After spending time as the tutor to Alexander the Great (before he was “the Great”) Aristotle formed his own school called the Lyceum.  Aristotle wrote his own series of essays on the subject of proper government entitled “Politics”.  The fundamental difference between Plato’s philosophy and that of his student, was that Aristotle believed that Plato’s view of the proper benign monarchy was a bit too theoretical.  He believed in observation and that it would be more useful to explore the possible rather than the theoretical perfect.  When you hear that “Politics is the art of the possible” you now know where that idea comes from.  Aristotle had some misgivings about Plato’s ideal state.  The first was the division of citizens into the artisans and guardians.  Aristotle felt that this division would create an internal conflict between those two groups that would be just as dangerous as the external conflict between states. In Plato’s ideal state only the guardians were to be educated.  Aristotle believed that education of everyone was necessary for an ordered society.  A well-educated society would only need fundamental laws because the population would possess the wisdom to be self-controlled.  


In Aristotle’s view, the best forms of government “have a regard to the common interest (and) are constituted in accordance with strict principles of justice, and are therefore true forms; but those which regard only the interest of the rulers are all defective and perverted forms, for they are despotic.”  This elevation of “justice” is a critical departure from Plato’s placing of “wisdom” at the top.  Plato’s inspired ruler may be ideal but, as Aristotle observed, that ideal is more theoretical than practical.  Man’s nature makes that a difficult position to fill.  He looked at the ideal government, which he categorized as either “true” or “despotic” in the following matrix:


Number of Rulers “True Form” “Despotic”
One Monarchy Tyranny
Few Aristocracy Oligarchy
Many Polity Democracy


Any form of government that has the interest of the “whole” rather than the leaders as the goal is “true”.  Everything else is “despotic”.  While Plato believed in the usefulness of law, Aristotle believed that the law must be supreme and that the laws must be just.  Laws that favor one group over another are a sign of “perverted forms of government”.  


Both Plato and Aristotle had misgivings about democracy and oligarchy.  They both believed that those forms of government pitted the haves against the have nots.  Where Aristotle differed was in that he felt the rule of law, and just laws, were the defense against both oligarchy and democracy.  “[H]e 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. The law is reason unaffected by desire.”  While this “rule of law” seems reasonable to us today it was a radical thought at the time.  Remember that the Magna Carta, the document whereby King John of England was subject to the rule of law, was not signed until 1215, and he only did so because he was forced to do so by a church and baron’s revolt. Aristotle was writing in the 4th century BC.   


In the words of Aristotle, “arbitrary power of an individual . . . responsible to no one, [which] governs . . . with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects, and therefore against their will.” And that, “No freeman, if he can escape from it, will endure such a government.

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1 thought on “Aristotle”

  1. Excellent series.
    The issues discussed by Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, are still the issues today on how to govern.
    Joey the Big Guy thinks he is a philospher king who can rule by executive orders.

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