01 April 2017

Aristotle's Three Governments

At the close of is essay Ethics, Aristotle anticipates what will follow in the continuation of that work which came be known as The Politics. Aristotle declared his intention to be the analyze various constitutions, evaluate assessments made by earlier thinkers, and consider “what influences are conservative and what are destructive of a state.” This statement serves as the most fundamental of conservative ideas; preservation of the fundamental political order. Aristotle's classifications of constitutions for the most part have defined the terms of political debate for the next 2,300 years.

He begins with one of his tentative and partial definitions of what constitutes the state. He defines it as a voluntary association to achieve a greater good than can be achieved by individuals alone. According to Aristotle, “Observation tells us that every state is an association, and that every association is formed a view to some good purpose. I say good, because in all their actions all men do in fact aim at that they think good.” Moreover, “the association which is the most sovereign among them all and embraces all others will aim highest, i.e. at the most sovereign of all goods,This is the association which we call the state, the association which is political.”

In contrast to the early modern theorists of the state like Hobbes and Locke, he sees the state in general as something natural rather than artificial. He bases this conclusion on his historical understanding of the origin of states. He suggests that to understand the state, “We shall, I think, in this as in other subject, get the best view of the matter if we look at the natural growth of things from the beginning.”

The state begins with family:

“The first point is that those which are incapable of existing without each other must be united as a pair. For example, the union of male and female is essential for reproduction; and this is not a matter of choice, but is due to the natural urge, which exist in the other animals too . . . To propagate one’s kind.”

This is the beginning of the household.

As families grow and establish kinship networks through marriage with other branches of the family or with others outside the family. These new households eventually develop into a village.

“The next stage is the village, the first association of at number of houses of the satisfaction of something more than daily needs. It comes into being through the processes of nature in the fullest sense, as offshoots of a household are set up by sons and grandsons.”

Finally, after establishment of several villages, comes the state.

“The final association, formed of several villages, is the state. For all practical purposes, the process is now complete: self-sufficiency has been reached and while the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life.  Therefore, every state exists by nature as the earlier associations too were natural”

Through this inquiry into the origin of the state, Aristotle concludes that it is natural.

“It follows that the state belong to the class of object which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.”

And what is the chief good brought about by the state? Justice.

“Among all men, then there is a natural impulse toward this kind of association; and the first man to construct a state deserves credit for conferring very great benefits.”

Aristotle sees justice as related to the exercise of the human virtues or excellencies that he delineated in Ethics. He writes that human beings have many excellencies that can be used for practical wisdom and virtue. Men too often lack virtues or use them for injustice. Aristotle sees the role of the state to inculcate virtue in its citizens so they will seek justice. In addition, the state seeks justice by awarding honor or roles based upon the virtue of individual citizens.

“For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorces from law and justice. Hence man without virtue is the most savage, the most unrighteous, and the worst in regard to sexual license and gluttony. The virtue of justice is a feature of a state.”

He turns to different ways that men have organized, or constituted the state.

Aristotle defined a constitution as “the organization of the offices, and in particular of the one that is sovereign over all the others.” This differs from the concept of constitution that we have today. Modern Americans think of a written document which specifically creates the arrangement of offices and describes the powers invested in each office. Aristotle defined constitution as the arrangement of the offices themselves, whether or not any written document created them.

In addition, Aristotle distinguished between correct and deviant constitutions. He wrote:

“It is clear then that those constitutions which aim at the common good are right, as being in accord with absolute justice; while those which aim only at the good of the rulers are wrong. They are all deviations from the right constitutions.”

Aristotle identified three general types of correct constitutions with operate for the common good:

--Rule by one, called monarchy, that aims at the common good.

--Rule by the few, called aristocracy, in which the best men, or most virtuous, men rule for what is best for the state.The most virtuous are those who have developed the human virtues or excellencies described in his earlier work Ethics.  Aristotle's virtues included such moral virtues as courage, temperance, generosity, and amiability. They included such intellectual virtues as knowledge, intuition, skill, prudence, and wisdom.  As might be expected, Aristotle believed that an aristocracy was the best government. It is, after all, government by the best, or most virtuous.

--Rule by the many, called polity, in which the mass of the populace exercise power in the common interest. In contrast to the many virtues of the aristocrats, the only virtue possessed by the masses is military virtue. That is why, according to Aristotle, the “defensive element is the most sovereign body, and those who share in the constitution are those who bear arms.”

Aristotle observed that different city-states developed many variations of these three basic types of governments. Much of his text explored the different varieties of democracies and aristocracies.

Aristotle noted, however, that these correct constitutions degenerate into deviant forms in which those with the sovereign power no longer exercise it for the common good or justice, but for the private good of the rulers. He defined three deviant constitutions:

--Rule by the one, called tyranny, or monarchy for the benefit of the monarch.

--Rule by the few, called oligarchy, for the benefit of men of means

--Rule by the many, called democracy, for the benefit of men without means.

Aristotle distinguished these constitutions by the ends that they serve, but Aristotle noted something in common when he elaborated on these constitutions from an economic perspective. Aristocracy is rule by "the best," but this usually means the rich. In this way it resembles an oligarchy. Polity is rule by the many, but  this usually means the poor. In this way, polity resembles a democracy. Correct and deviant constitutions resemble each other when compared economically. They differ dramatically when compared teleologically--what end or purpose do they serve.

What seems to be missing from his account?

A republic.

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