A Polity, Not a Democracy: Book IV of Aristotle’s Politics

Reading Aritotle’s Politics for me is akin to walking unexpectedly into a time machine set for the spring of 2010 and the place, Hillsdale College. There in our American Heritage classrooms we bright-eyed, young freshman listened eagerly as our professors explained how the Founders drew upon a host of classical writers and their ideas in order to create a strong political body for the new federation of states. Among the authors mentioned, Aristotle enjoyed a particular prominence for his ideas about moderation, the separation of powers, and how he played an effective and convincing role as an authority for the justification of a strict, clear understanding of the enumerated powers of the U.S. Constitution. Now, older, while I cannot say for certain that Book IV in particular was the guide to which the Founders looked for the best form of government for the new republic, many of the ideas contained in it appear to be exactly the same ideas which our professors pointed to as the particulars of Aristotle upon which the Founders drew.  Likewise, much of what Aristotle discusses in this particular book is immediately relevant to the political state of the U.S. today. I hope in the following post to identify and discuss these points and to provide a semi-competent, interesting commentary.

Thus far, Aristotle has been speaking about the various classifications of constitutions and by the end of Book III has wrapped up a lengthy and comprehensive look at the five kinds of Monarchy, drawing upon real-world examples of these varying kinds in order to give his readers a hands-on picture of what he means. At the beginning of Book IV, Aristotle steps out of his discussion on types of constitutions in order to visit the question of what objects the political science should study. For example, should political science explore the nature of the ideal yet unrealizable perfect state, as Plato does in his Republic, or should it concern itself only with the realistic and practical? Aristotle argues that any science is only complete when it considers all that pertains to that given subject. This sounds tautological at first, but there are many in our day who would argue that while comprehensive and complete knowledge is important in areas like physics and biology, knowledge of the perfect political state, of the finer distinctions in grammar, or of dead languages do not produce real results and are therefore not worthy objects of study. For Aristotle, one cannot truly understand a science unless one is willing to study all aspects of that science. Therefore, in order to understand the science of politics, one must study all of politics, even the idealistic, unrealizeable aspects of the science. I think Aristotle would argue, were one to challenge him on this point,  that just as in the exploration of the Good in the Nichomachean ethics it is important to know as best as possible the highest good (we, like archers after all, need something at which to aim), so too in the political realm it is best to know the most ideal or idealistic state so we may conform our states to that ideal as best as possible. Aristotle goes on to affirm practicality as the second object of political science: “The true legislator and statesman ought to be acquainted, not only with that which is best in the abstract, but also with that which is best relative to the circumstances.” Having firmly established the scope and reason for political science, Aristotle returns to his discussion of the various types of constitutions by looking at its last forms: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.

While the discussion of these types of governments have much to offer the reader, perhaps the most interesting point in the book appears just before 1293b, when Aristotle adds a fifth form of government to the ranks of monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, and aristocracy which he names “polity”, or “constitutional government”. This government is an amalgamation of oligarchy and democracy and in practice is the reconciliation of the freedom of the poor with the wealth of the rich into a kind of civil harmony. Aristotle argues that there are three legitimate grounds on which men can lay claim to an equal share of government, these being freedom, wealth, and virtue. Polity is the unification of the first two claims, and as such most governments are actually polities with another governmental type’s name slapped across their surface. The constitution of the state is organized in such a way that the various bodies of power represent the interests of the oligarchical and monarchical factions respectively and tend to offset one another, making it a de facto polity. For example, in the United States universal suffrage and the election of representatives is a democratic element of the constitution while the fact that the choices of suitable candidates for office most often consist of people of wealth, high standing, or influence in society is an oligarchical aspect (I should note that what I mean by “constitution” here is not the U.S. Constitution, but rather the broader, de facto environment in which we conduct politics).

If Aristotelian ethics can be summarized by the principle of “The Golden Mean”, that is to say, that every vice is an absence or excess of a particular virtue which occupies a roughly middle position in the scope of possible action or disposition, Aristotelian politics and what makes ideal state, in the thus far little space to which Aristotle has devoted any time to laying out a comprehensive plan of such a thing, consists of a city whose middle class wields significant influence and power: “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” (1295b, L. 29). As I would imagine it does for most of us, what makes the middle class the middle class for Aristotle is its level of wealth. Aristotle notes, however, that this condition creates in these citizens a tendency towards moderation in action and therefore a tendency towards the exercise of virtue. While a destitute mob has nothing to lose but their miserable lives and everything to gain by rebelling against the wealthy oligarchs, the middle class has enough for their comfort and therefore something to risk losing should they rebel. This moderates their political action in conjunction with the poor against the wealthy. Likewise, while a wealthy individual in the oligarchic party has the money and influence and therefore the temptation to plot against his fellow oligarchs and make their goods his own, the citizen of the middle class does not, generally speaking, desire his neighbor’s property nor plots against him. He stands nothing to gain from oppressing the poor and therefore is disinclined to work alongside the oligarchs to do so. The middle class then for Aristotle becomes the lynch pin which holds the state together in peace by culling through its own political power the excesses of the other classes. The state desiring longevity and peace ought to look to fostering its middle class.

One particular quote from Aristotle in this section on the middle class stands out: “The mean condition of states is clearly the best, for no other is free from faction; and where the middle class is large, there are least likely to be factions and dissensions.” One can certainly indite the U.S. as suffering from faction at this point in its history, but before having that discussion, it would be beneficial firstly to give some context. By faction, I do not take Aristotle to mean having two political parties or several different camps of random citizens all disagreeing about the solution to a particular problem. I think that when Aristotle speaks of faction he is talking about a quality bound within the very constitution of the state wherein those parts which makeup the state are naturally inclined to disagree. To give a silly example, a country consisting of fish-men and of bird-men would naturally be factious, as the fish-men’s desired political actions on the part of the state would be automatically opposed to the nature of the bird-men. To give a more serious example, a dichotomous state consisting of destitute plebs and their wealthy overseers will be prone to faction precisely because every political action which is good for the plebs is automatically bad for the overseers and vice-versa. Thus, Aristotle would not look at the U.S. and say that it is factious because it has Republicans and Democrats, nor would he look at the U.K. and say it is factious because it has Tories, Liberals, Lib-Dems (perhaps not so much), the SNP and UKIP. Rather, he would claim the U.S. is factious on the grounds of something more naturally factious like the much-discussed rift between rural and urban interests in the country. Some disagreements between the Republican and Democratic parties are the accidental effects of a more fundamental disagreement between City Mouse and Country Mouse which translate to disagreements between those political parties. Likewise, looking at the U.K., Aristotle would point to faction arising naturally from cultural and physical qualities. The Scots understand themselves to be a people separate from the English, and they have a geographic place which goes along with that cultural separation. The same could be said of the Welsh and the Irish. This naturally leads to faction in the British Parliament. It is from Aristotle’s discussion of faction that the Founders gained affirmation of their deep distaste for it and desire to avoid it wherever possible (indeed, to the then-freshman author, it seemed as though the fear of faction in the Federalist Papers on the part of Madison bordered on paranoia). Thus for Aristotle the ideal state, insofar as he speaks of one, consists of a large middle class disinclined to the excesses of the other classes, and the ideal state avoids fostering faction, which, one should note, engenders the passions and ideological fervor which lead to actions of excess.

In conclusion, Book V particularly puts forth several ideas germane to our understanding of politics today and to our understanding of our own constitution. It is particularly interesting to see the topics discussed by the Founders show up here on the pages of the Politics, and I think that, coupled with its relevance today speaks of the timelessness of this subject matter. Of all the books about which we have thus far posted, I think this one in particular shows the confluence in Aristotle’s understanding of the natures of the two sciences of politics and ethics whose very being, good, and perseverance are grounded in the idea of the middling way, the Golden Mean.


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