Aristotle and the Types of Constitutions

Aristotle: Pixabay

We already saw how Aristotle, and Plato before him, saw the possibility of arranging the city state with rule either of the entire population of citizens, the few, or a single person.  Each of these arrangements could be either good or bad.  In an organization of the many, democracy would naturally lead to tyranny while polity (rule by those in the middle who were neither rich nor poor). would be correct.  In an organization of the few, oligarchy would be rule by only those with wealth and only for their behalf, but aristocracy (rule by a select group with noble intent) would be correct.  Rule by a single person could be tyranny if it was imposed by the masses, or it could be an enlightened monarchy if the leader were noble minded and educated. 


Aristotle believed that the guiding principle of a constitution should be “justice”.  He would have defined that word as meaning the common good and the “happiness” of the community at large.  Because of this, each citizen should have access to both education and private property.  Remember that Aristotle understood that human nature would make an individual more likely to take care of property that they owned rather than that which was communal.  He believed that people should be treated “fairly” which is not the same as saying equally.  Unequal people should be treated unequally, the worthiness of the individual determines their treatment and that worthiness would be defined as having the largest benefit to the community as a whole.  This would apply to the allocation of resources as well.  In an ideal world, those who would use resources in the most productive way should have access to those same resources because the good of the city state would be maximized that way.  


The purpose of the constitution is to act as a guide to the good lawgiver and true politician in the most positive sense of political science, where political science is the study of the best way to organize citizens to maximize the advantage of the city state.  As always, Aristotle uses his observations of the world around him as an analogy.  A coach of gymnastics might study the best way to teach his top athlete, but he would also understand how to teach those who are less talented as well as those who just need help with basic movements.  In that sense, a constitution needs to be explored that might be best in an ideal situation, might be suitable to most situations, or might be designed for populations that are less advanced.  Unlike Plato, Aristotle wanted to study the practical elements of political design rather than just the theoretical ideal.  Aristotle criticizes his teacher Plato as well for believing that it was possible to have political unity and a communal constitution.  Political unity is impossible because it goes against human nature’s individual interests, while things like communal ownership of property and the communal raising of children, both espoused by Plato, went against human nature even as they may make sense in a perfect theoretical world.  In Aristotle’s ideal constitution, the “happiness” of all citizens is a paramount goal and one that, by necessity, must be different for different citizens.  He does acknowledge that universal education is necessary for every citizen to have a proper understanding of the laws, customs, and traditions that constitute the ideal constitution.  


Because it is likely that the citizens of a city state may not have all the right education to achieve an ideal constitution, Aristotle acknowledges that some compromises might need to be made.  Without the most virtuous population he proposes either a polity, rule by the middle, not the rich or poor, because he thought that those who had moderate possessions were the most likely to follow the rule of reason and least likely to cause divisions, especially as an alternative to rule by either the rich or poor.  This middle-class rule would also lead to more stability than rule by either extreme even as Aristotle acknowledges that, in a democracy, it might be possible for the best ideas of the many to float to the top.  In his mind the middle class was less likely to be driven either by the desire to acquire wealth or to fight those already wealthy.  


An alternative to rule by any individual group or person might be to mix aspects of each of the other forms of government, a bit of monarchy, a bit of aristocracy, and a bit of democracy.  This intentional division would prevent any one group from taking advantage of the others.  You can see in this concept the beginnings of the idea of a republic with one ruler, but with groups of people working to keep him in check. 


There is some confusion as to which constitution Aristotle finally decided was best because there is some confusion as to the order in which his books were written.  But I think that the important thing to note here is that Aristotle was looking carefully at all forms of governing a city state and that certain themes are consistent.  Like his predecessor Plato, he has a significant distrust for democracy.  Unlike polity, democracy inevitably leads to rule by tyrant because the poor will seek protection from the rich and a tyrant will be chosen to give them that protection. Like Plato, Aristotle believes that oligarchy is illegitimate because the rich will naturally govern in ways that makes them richer and that is not the proper role of the city state as well as a violation of the idea of justice.  Like Plato, Aristotle would like to see rulers of great wisdom but, unlike Plato, he believes that to be an unrealistic goal and that makes monarchy less attractive to him.  Like Plato he believes in education but he wanted everyone to understand and be taught, whereas Plato would have reserved education for a smaller group, exempting workers who were less likely to use knowledge correctly.  Aristotle believed that the city state was most noble whose goal it was to produce the most perfect life for its citizens.  Further, that these citizens would likely have different personal goals and that the city state should acknowledge that and not attempt to achieve conformity.  That “happiness” of the citizens was a noble goal because that “happiness” allowed for each individual citizen to define what it meant to them.  And over all this is the understanding that the constitution is not just the law, but includes also those customs and traditions that must be taught to all the citizens in order for them to understand how best to conduct themselves with limited interference from laws and rulers.

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