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Aristotle’s Best Form of Government

Aristotle

Aristotle

Aristotle’s politics begins with his study and comparison of a household and state. He uses observation, his scientific tool and examines how household, communities, states and other associations of humans come to being. Then he moves on taking into consideration different subjects like function of a state, slavery, women’s role in nature, art of getting wealth and finally steps into his Book III of Politics. In the first few chapters of Politics Book III, Aristotle answers a few questions about the citizens of a state. Exactly, in the chapter 6 of Book III he starts addressing the forms of the government.

The first question he answers here is; what is a constitution? For Aristotle, a constitution or government is the arrangement of powers in a state. Looking at the structure of a household and state, we can assume that man is a political animal for Aristotle and man, by nature, depends on other men. Men require help from each other which is why they desire to live together. Aristotle says “Men cling to life even in the midst of misfortune, seeming to find in it a natural sweetness and happiness.”[1]

The very important point that Aristotle raises here is that the mutual or common interest of men is what brings them together. So one of the purposes of a state is to work as a body that respects the common interests of the citizens that reside there. Hence, it can be said that common interest is what brings people together to help each other. Another definition of Aristotle is one that he gives in chapter 12 where he says that the highest science of all is political science and the good of this science is justice or common sense in other words. Aristotle then moved towards the function of a state. He believed that the function of a state is to ensure supreme good of people, in the moral and intellectual sense. Happiness comes from virtue and it is the ultimate goal of mankind. State is the agency that helps men to achieve their ultimate goal.[2]

Aristotle says that a master and a slave come to live in an association and they both share common interests but without a slave the master has no status at all. Hence, they have common interests and the system has landed them in a manner that the division of power or constitution has declared one the master and the other, the slave. A true constitution would be one where the master uses power for their common interest. However, if the master manipulates the power he is entitled to, for his own interest and not the common interest of the two then his constitution is perverted, according to Aristotle. [3]

So, true forms of government, for Aristotle, are the ones that are constituted according to the principles of justice and regard the common interest of the people. And the governmental constitutions that only regard for the interests of the rulers are perverted and deteriorated forms of the true constitutions. [4]

The ruler of the state can be one, few or many but this ruler or ruling body has to be working for the common interest of the men of the state in a true constitution. Perversions of these true forms may also have one, few or many as rulers but they govern with a private, selfish interest.[5] From amongst the true constitutional forms there is kingship where one rules, aristocracy (the rule of the best) in which a few rule and the rule of the many is simply called constitutional government or polity by Aristotle. Aristotle’s constitutional government is of citizens that have arms and government that has fighting men. This is because Aristotle believes that increasing the number of rulers decreases the chances of a virtuous state. So if there has to be many rulers there needs to be a military virtue in the state, this is how he justifies his polity by many.[6] However, in chapter 15 of Book III Aristotle says the quite opposite of what he says here. Aristotle asserts that one ruler is more easily corruptible than many. So a constitution with a few good men ruling is better than a monarchy or one man rule.[7] Aristocracy can thus be considered his personal favourite.[8]

Kingship, aristocracy and constitutional government are the true constitutional forms but they all have perversions that come to being when the rulers of these governments are catering self-interest instead of the common interest. Kingship turns to tyranny when perverted, aristocracy turns to oligarchy and democracy is the perversion of the constitutional government of many. Democracy is the rule of the many poor who work for the interest of the needy while oligarchy is the rule of the few rich that take only their interest in account as rulers. And tyranny, the perversion of monarchy is a constitution formed for the interest of the one tyrannical ruler. Hence, none of these perversions are in common interest of all.[9]

Aristotle rejects oligarchy and democracy on the basis of inequality and a constitution that cannot keep justice is not a true constitution. He says that democracy is only equal in respect to free birth and oligarchy is considered unequal because of wealth. Wealth and birth are not enough to determine equality; the element of moral and intellectual virtue is what these constitutions do not promote at all.[10] Aristotle thinks equality is an important element as it stabilizes a constitution.

Aristotle speaks of mixed governments and considers that a mixture of oligarchy and democracy is what makes a polity.[11] He gives detailed accounts of different types of monarchies, tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies with particular examples. This is the method of his study; he observes the different constitutions of history as well as some contemporary governments to give us all the theories and explanations of the types of different constitutions that exist.[12] According to Aristotle, a number of factors, like the size of the state, natural resources, number of citizens, affect the constitution and every constitution is adapted considering all of these factors.[13] Aristotle states that the best government is one in which every man acts the best and is the happiest.[14]

Aristotle’s state is not just an agreement for security against injustice or an organization formed for the economics of the world. Good governments take states towards virtue and happiness, the ultimate goal of mankind. Law enforced by such a government helps making citizens good and just. So, a trade alliance and pact does not form a state. The perverse constitutions just bring about a law that gives surety to one another of justice and do nothing more. [15]

As we look deeper into Politics we find that Aristotle gave an easy account of three true forms of governments and three perversions in the very beginning. But as he takes the subject deeper his ideas evolve and he goes on to writing that maybe the best constitution is not as big an issue as it is being made. He writes in Book IV, at the very beginning, that what state’s need to look for is the best possible or attainable government.[16] It may even be a mixed government that is best for a particular state once we have taken all the other factors into consideration. Aristotle does not believe that a study of all the factors can be conducted that affect the state’s constitution which is why the best constitution should just promote virtue, justice and happiness, generally. The specifics of power distribution amongst one, few or many, or democracy, polity, monarchy and aristocracy are just not important. There can be different combinations, even new ones, and they may prove very successful.[17] However, he thinks that combinations of true constitutions like monarchy, aristocracy and polity can make a true mixed government. If the perverse constitutions join any government and establish a mixed constitution, it will be a perversion.

I have observed that with his scientific approach Aristotle did set off to give a blueprint of the best state running by the best government but he eventually decides that best form of government is not the big question. The factors involves make the nature of the state so complex that you cannot determine one excellent constitution. Also, the best constitution may not be achievable so we will have to settle for the best achievable government. This can be done keeping in mind the function of a government; guarding common interest of the people of the state and helping them with moral and intellectual virtue_ happiness.

Bibliography

Allan, D. J.. The philosophy of Aristotle. 2nd ed. London: Oxford U.P., 1970.

Bambrough, Renford. The philosophy of Aristotle: A Selection. New York, N.Y.: Signet Classic, 2003.

Barker, Ernest. The Politics of Aristotle,. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946.

Clayton, Edward . ”  Aristotle: Politics [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy].” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Version ISSN 12003-991. N.p., 27 July 2005. Web. 14 Jan. 2012. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-pol/&gt;.

Fred, Miller. “Aristotle’s Political Theory (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 15 Jan. 2012..

Jowett, Benjamin. Aristotle’s Politics,. New York: Modern library, 1943.

Lloyd, G. E. R.. Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought. London: Cambridge U. P., 1968.

Loomis, Louise Ropes. On man in the universe. Roslyn, N.Y.: Published for the Classics Club by Walter J. Black, 1943.

Stumpf, Samuel Enoch, and James Fieser. Socrates to Sartre and beyond: a history of philosophy. 8th ed. Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill, 2008.


[1] Louise Ropes Loomis. On man in the universe. (Roslyn, N.Y.: Published for the Classics Club by Walter J. Black, 1943). p. 294-295.

[2] Samuel Enoch Stumpf, and James Fieser. Socrates to Sartre and beyond: a history of philosophy. (Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill, 2008). p. 87.

[3] Louise Ropes Loomis. On man in the universe. (Roslyn, N.Y.: Published for the Classics Club by Walter J. Black, 1943). p. 295.

[4] Ibid., p. 296.

[5] Ibid., p. 297.

[6] Louise Ropes Loomis. On man in the universe. (Roslyn, N.Y.: Published for the Classics Club by Walter J. Black, 1943). p. 297.

[7] Ibid., p. 313.

[8] Samuel Enoch Stumpf, and James Fieser. Socrates to Sartre and beyond: a history of philosophy. (Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill, 2008). p. 87.

[9] Louise Ropes Loomis. On man in the universe. (Roslyn, N.Y.: Published for the Classics Club by Walter J. Black, 1943). p. 297-298.

[10] G.E.R. Lloyd. Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought. (London: Cambridge U. P., 1968). p. 260.

[11] Ibid., p. 255.

[12] Ibid., p. 257.

[13] Ibid., p.263.

[14] Louise Ropes Loomis. On man in the universe. (Roslyn, N.Y.: Published for the Classics Club by Walter J. Black, 1943). p. 298.

[15]Ibid., p.299.

[16] G.E.R. Lloyd. Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought. (London: Cambridge U. P., 1968). p. 258.

[17] Ibid., p. 260.

2 comments on “Aristotle’s Best Form of Government

  1. stephenpruis
    September 20, 2013

    Aristotle was a very bright man. What he didn’t include in his thinking, though, was that the vast majority of people had no status in his systems, that they just wanted to be left alone and if they had a need for government, it was to defend all from the rapciousness of others. Too often an appeal to the systems of government meant that individuals were at a distinct disadvantage and the government was merely the instrument that better placed people used to disadvantage them.

    Using examples of constitutions of governments to make points one way or another cannot be successful as the ideas of whaty these systems were get shaped by the intellegencia without questioning ordinary people.

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This entry was posted on April 7, 2012 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , .
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