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.

From Book I: Unpacking Aristotle’s Economics

In approaching Aristotle’s economics, one must keep in mind at all times that for Aristotle  man achieves his chief end, happiness, by living in accordance with nature. In Aristotelian ethics, the nature of a thing provides the key for its proper use. In Book I, Aristotle discusses the nature of wealth and its development in its complexity, paralleling his description of the development of the family into the village and from the village into the state, the arena in which man is most capable of living a good life. From his explanation of wealth and its proper use, it is clear that his conception of good economics contains several points at variance with modern economics and the disposing of wealth in our times.

Things, Aristotle explains, have two uses: what we will call the manufacted use, and a usefulness for exchange. The manufacted use of thing is that use for which the thing was specifically made and which the thing, owing to its particular qualities, can accomplish well. For example, a shoe has been made to fit my foot, to secure my comfort, and to protect my foot from harm. These are the proper uses of a shoe. However, a shoe has a second use, that of exchange. Exchange arises naturally, Aristotle points out, as a means by which men may secure the things which they lack. I, having in my possession two pairs of shoes and no coat can use one of those pairs to exchange with my neighbor for an extra coat. One should note that this exchange, and all other natural arising exchanges, uses the shoes to secure what is ultimately a manufacted use: that of the coat. The natural form of all exchange then is that kind of exchange whose ends are the fulfillment of the material purposes of the final goods secured by the exchange.

Economics comes from the Greek word oikonomía, meaning “management of a household”. Economics naturally begins for man at the level of his household – the day-to-day securing of his goods and disposing them to meet his needs and the needs of his family. Within the household, then, the natural form of what Aristotle terms “wealth-getting” arises. That wealth is natural and good which comes from a skilled and prudent oikonomía, and its end is the material comfort of the household. A well-run household will prosper and multiply a man’s material possessions, and by this natural means he increases his wealth. In order to facilitate this oikonomía, exchange came about when different households traded the material things they had in surplus for those of which they had a dearth. As towns and cities developed, men made use of metals as a means to better facilitate this exchange, giving rise to money. However, money’s object remained the same as bartered goods before: to secure some other object otherwise impossible or impractical to produce in the household/town/city. Where I once exchanged extra shoes for a coat that I might fulfill the material need satisfied by the coat, I now exchange coins for a coat, but still that I might fulfill the material need satisfied by the coat.

The prevalence of money introduced what Aristotle considers to be the second kind of wealth-getting: exchange. This is an unnatural form of acquiring wealth, as the object becomes not the needs and comforts of a man’s physical state but rather becomes money itself. The unnaturalness and indeed the vice of this type of wealth-getting lies in the fact that what was once a means to other ends becomes an end in and of itself, and an artificial and therefore unnatural end. Were I to acquire all the shoes and coats which I could, and did so not to wear them but rather just to possess them, this would clearly be an unvirtuous and absurd act. I do not own coats to have them; I own them to use them for their created purpose. If I acquire as many little pieces of metal, not so I can secure my needs or exercise the virtue of liberality, but rather that I may have lots of little pieces of metal, I have lost sight of the object and have acted outside of nature. Aristotle recognizes a class of people arising from the merchanting exchange of cities who make the second sort of wealth-getting their profession and chief end.

The final aspect of Aristotle’s economics which I would like to examine is that of charging interest. Aristotle views the charging of interest as a vice and as an unnatural act. In the act of lending, money whose natural object was exchange for the sake of other good things has been directed towards the end of gaining more money. If I lend my friend ten coins, it follows naturally that he could exchange those ten coins for something he needs. It does not follow naturally that those ten coins could multiply into fifteen or twenty, especially when the “agent” of that multiplication is mere time. Were I to lend a cow and a bull to my neighbor and a year later he returned to me a cow, a bull, and a calf, this multiplication of goods lent has clearly risen from something natural, but my ten coins are not copulating, and as such I cannot expect to have multiplied over time by any natural process. Indeed, Aristotle calls interest the birth of money by money, that is to say, the breading of money. Alas, were it that easy.

Such are Aristotle’s economics. Now, it would be interesting to place Aristotle in a room with a modern economist and hear how the former would respond to the idea that interest is not so much a multiplication or breeding of money as it is charging someone for the use of money, a rent, if you will, in exchange for the immediate benefit foregone by the lender. I cannot imagine that Aristotle would have been unaware of this argument or that someone in his day and age would not have tried to make that argument, but I do not see in his writings any indication that he had considered that possible definition of interest. Perhaps my fellow bloggers can enlighten me in those regards. I am inclined to disagree with Aristotle on the point of interest, as it seems perfectly natural to me to ask my neighbor to pay me for the use of my possessions. Likewise, his position of the unnaturalness inherent in interest seems logically to lead to the unnaturalness of any kind of rent, and I think that the “interest as the payment to the lender for giving up immediate benefit” argument to be a sufficient defense of the lending practice. Of course, one must also always keep in mind that our modern view of currency as fiat may cloud our judgment of Aristotle: we create money based on promise and goodwill, so of course we can create money by lending.