Of History, Regimes, and their Laws

Bk. III contains the famous passage concerning the forms and cycles of political regimes. I would like to focus on how Aristotle’s analysis is at the same time historical, conceptual, and predictive in nature.

  1. Experience and Structure

His analysis is historical in the sense that it draws from accounts, stories, poems, and contemporary experience as being legitimate sources for data. We see him citing Homer, as well as accounts of political life in Sparta and Syracuse, and even analogies drawn from the practice of other arts like medicine. This forms the empirical element of Aristotle’s science of politics and we should note that unlike the ‘raw data’ of our modern physical or social sciences, for Aristotle the relevant data is already formed and informed within concrete genres of story-telling, travel literature, and the practical wisdom of day-to-day problem solving. But what governs this accumulation and relevance of this data?

I would offer that what guides Aristotle’s selection of data is the same principle which allows him to conceptualize it. Namely, the specific question he wants to answer about human organization. Ultimately, Bk. IV will take up the question of the ideal regime, but the comprehensive search for and comparison of political models is a natural prerequisite to this question. For Aristotle, the study of Greek constitutions is primarily a study of organizational models because ultimately the two are convertible realities. “So we are back again with law, for organization is law.”( γὰρ τάξις νόμος) These forms of organization are subjected to dialectical questioning which range from the weighing the relative merits of written laws or personal sovereignty, to the question of personal and communal vulnerability to corruption.

In the course of answering these questions, he presents reasons why he thinks some regimes are likely to follow others in way which is also historically viable. The prevalence of monarchy in ancient times is ascribed to the scarcity of virtuous men. When enough good men were living in the city, they demanded a more communal model or an aristocracy. From there we have the familiar list of aristocracy to oligarchy, oligarchy to tyranny, and tyranny to democracy. Each model or constitution has a degraded and noble form. But the particular degradations and successions of constitution do not happen randomly in Aristotle’s account. Each structure contains unique vulnerabilities that make the manner of its demise likely to happen in specific manner and likely to bring forth a specific alternative model.

My contention is that Aristotle intends this passage not as Just-So story for the purposes of historical reconstruction but as an explanatory schema for understanding and predicting the causes of political realities. I think that just as we understand the Nicomachean Ethics as theoretical elaboration meant to direct concrete ethical action, so also we should take the Politics as a unified theory for the sake of political action. I would even go so far as to call this passage an account of the laws of historical development inherent in political forms. These are not laws in the sense of geometrical demonstrations, but laws in the sense of directive tendencies inherent in organizational forms. As mentioned before, for Aristotle laws, constitutions, and organizations, and forms are convertible realities because they are reducible to various types of intelligibility. “Hence law is intelligence without appetition.”( διόπερ ἄνευ ὀρέξεως νοῦς  νόμος ἐστίν)

  1. Political Structure and Economics

Focusing on the transition from aristocracy for a moment, we find Aristotle’ account to be very specific.

But the good men did not remain good: they began to make money out of that which was the common property of all. And to some such development we may plausibly ascribe the origin of oligarchies, since men made wealth a thing of honor.

This should lead us to recall from Bk. I both the distinction between use-value and exchange-value as well as the distinction between managing the goods of the household and the art of acquiring wealth. Aristotle locates the downfall of aristocracy to be precisely this shift from valuing goods for concrete purposes to the valuing of wealth for its own sake. It is at the same time an ethical and political judgement. The things that are good are also the things that are necessary for political stability “for the struggle to get rich tended to reduce numbers” i.e. wealth was extremely concentrated in the hands of a few “and so increased the power of the multitude, who rose up and formed democracies.”

Aristotle thought that history contained the elements necessary for philosophical analysis of political structures. In turn, the material conditions these structures engender (concentrations of wealth, inequality, etc) have a natural directedness which we can use for predictive purposes. This, I think, should lead us to a greater appreciation for the Aristotelian roots of Karl Marx’s treatment of political economy. The secondary literature on this subject is wide-ranging (see Scott Meikle or Karl Polanyi) but even more importantly, Marx himself makes explicit use of Aristotle whom he calls the greatest of ancient philosophers. We must understand his approach of dialectical historical materialism within the tradition of Aristotle’s treatment of the sciences. The laws of history are, as in Aristotle, an analysis of social forms. It is no more deterministic to talk of the general law of accumulation in capitalism than it is to identify a structural vulnerability to wealth-accumulation in aristocracy. Materialism, when understood as primarily being defined by organization, law, and form, does not remove human agency, but rather allows the human spirit to enter the ethical and political realm with greater purpose and understanding.


Aristotle’s Politics Bk. 1

For my part, I’m envisioning these main posts as being part summary and part reflection. With that in mind, I’m indebted to my wife for pointing out that the Politics must be understood as a continuation of the Nichomachean Ethics. We see the reason for this in 10.9 of that famed moral discourse.

But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for virtue if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary. But it is surely not enough that when they are young they should get the right nurture and attention; since they must, even when they are grown up, practice and be habituated to them, we shall need laws for this as well, and generally speaking to cover the whole of life; for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than the sense of what is noble.

At the outset of the Politics then, is an assumption that is alien to our own. The life of virtue, in an Aristotelian model, is not under the control of the individual alone. Even having a virtuous household and family upbringing is insufficient. Without a virtuous regime (a.k.a. laws with the power of force to direct all toward the common good) personal virtue is unlikely or even impossible. This premise, I think, is worth quite a bit of discussion since it seems to be absent from both prevailing American political parties. But also, it may cause problems for Rod Dreher’s version of the Benedict Option since his embedded communities look a lot more like an extended household than a fully-fledged polis. If that is the case, the form of that community would be insufficient for inculcating virtue in Aristotle’s view.

Continuing in this vein, it is also worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on the opening lines:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which it thinks good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.

The vision here is of a gradated and interlocking function of parts ordered to a single unified end. Perhaps we might think of a metaphor from Aristotelian psychology where each lower form of soul (vegetative, animal) really subsists in the rational soul which provides the ultimate unifying principle for the person. There is no hint here of an antagonism between the individual and society, or between household and civil government. The practice of Aristotelian politics depends on each unit of human organization recognizing its place and role in relationship to its highest expression: the polis.

Very beautiful, and certainly more attractive than our current mash-up of Locke, Rawls, and Woodrow Wilson, but since this blog is on pilgrimage toward Benedictine resources, it would behoove us to make some Christian objections.

While the kingdom of heaven is not of this world, and difficult to make concrete (“Neither shall they say ‘Lo here!’ or ‘Lo there!’ for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you”) we may need to push back against the claim of any earthly organization to be the highest community aimed at the highest good. The mystery of the Church, while occupying a liminal space between earth and heaven, visible and invisible, does take the name ecclesia. She is the first-fruits of things to come and the threshold of beatitude. Can Aristotle’s system be brought in harmony or even co-existence with the radical demands of the apostolic kerygma of Christian society? We can begin that discussion here and continue to develop it as we go along.

More could be said, especially about Aristotle’s fairly hard-edged claims about natural slavery and the constitution of female rationality. Another point of interest could be the extended reflection on economics, the household, and the art of wealth-acquisition (a hot topic for Macintyre and other Neo-Aristotelians in political theory). But I leave that to you. What shall we take up first?