Aristotle’s Politics Book IV: Democracy and Oligarchy

Book IV seeks to discover the best “form of government.” In the same way that every art or kind of knowledge that does not come about naturally requires a certain level of training, we must look to and examine the best form of government -how it comes into being and how it might endure for the longest time. The goal is to find the best form of government that suits all cities. Unlike the “city in speech” in Plato’s Republic which is explicitly impossible, Aristotle seeks to find a form of government that is not only best but also possible. Likewise, it is also important to examine and judge the laws, for laws ought to be adapted to government, and not governments to laws.

Previously Aristotle has distinguished three “right” regimes: kingship, aristocracy, and constitutional rule; and three corresponding “deviations” from the right forms of government: tyranny (kingship), oligarchy (aristocracy), and democracy (constitutional rule, or republicanism). Of the worse regimes, democracy is the most “tolerable.” When all regimes are decent, democracy is the worst, when all are bad, democracy is the best choice (the Eleatic Stranger makes this case in Plato’s Statesman). Aristotle seems to dismiss this claim from Plato (not addressed by name) as he looks only for the best possible regime, not comparatively worse regimes.

Now, in each city there are households, and households differ in matters of wealth, business or trade, and there are also differences of family composition and virtue. Similarly, there are exactly as many kinds of governments as those reflecting the varieties of differences among and between people in a city. The form of government is like a species of animal or a body, there are many different particular bodies, but each in its nature and according to its virtue has eyes and a mouth and so on.

Next, Aristotle proceeds to discuss the characteristics of the distinctions between two of the worst regimes (moving upward from worse to better). First, Aristotle discusses the problems with democracy, as equality naturally becomes enforced. Democracy, then, becomes monarchical as the many act as a tyrant, acting like slave masters over the better people. Leaders become “servile flatterers.” Gradually laws cease to bear meaning, and thus the regime ceases to exist at all. This is the form of democracy.

Oligarchy is characterized by large property ownership by few men, while the many do not take part. Office-holding is only allowed for the wealthy property owners. Law does not rule, but rather rulers do. An oligarchy is a “confederacy of the powerful.”

This is in contrast to aristocracy, which is the rule of the best. Under an aristocracy honors are distributed according to virtue.

Next, he addresses constitutional rule and tyranny is spoken of last, since it is least of all a form of government.

Chapter 9 of Book III is perhaps most germane to the founding of the United States as Aristotle discusses how a constitutional rule comes about from democracy and oligarchy. It is a blending of other forms, trying to preserve the best. It takes certain oligarchic elements and blends them with democratic practices. The whole is a mixture of democracy and oligarchy.

Lastly, tyranny is a regime that rules over people like masters over slaves (similar but worse than barbarians ruled by their military commanders). No free person willingly puts up with tyrannical rule. Aristotle reveals himself as a philosopher of freedom and virtue.

In Chapter 11, Aristotle asks his crucial questions of Book IV:

“What is the best form of government, and what is the best life for most cities and most human beings?” (1295A 25-26).

This question is not intended to address some fabled “city in speech” that cannot exist, but rather it must be in reach of the city. In the Nicomachean Ethics, the happy life is one in accord with “unimpeded virtue” and virtue is a “mean” and these terms also apply to the city. And a city relies on friendship and affinities for its political association. The city that governs its middle portion best is desirable, and a balance or a mean is good. The political association that makes use of the middle group is best (one that avoids excesses of authority one way or the other). The regime that most free of faction is best.

Next, Aristotle asks what forms of government are advantageous to whom. Each city is composed of quality (freedom, wealth, education, and high birth) and quantity (number of people). Some occur in differing amounts among and between parts of a particular city.

The city should seek the advantage of its “middle” finding a balance and avoiding extremes of wealth or imbalance in power as these extremes breed factionalism. It will serve us well in the book of the Politics to examine this “factionalism” and what sows discord in the city, by nature of its derivative form of government.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Politics.

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