Aristotle’s Politics Book VI: On The Endurance of Democracies and Oligarchies

Book VI continues with Aristotle’s focus on the political associations of democracy and oligarchy, the most common regimes of his day. Aristotle seeks, for the purposes of rulers and legislators, things that are proper to the underlying principles of these forms of government. He looks to discuss their: guiding beliefs, character, and their aims.

According to the common viewpoint, an underlying principle of democracy is freedom. However freedom is present in other forms of government, as well. When the multitude have authority, justice is characterized by number, rather than by merit. Whatever is considered good by the majority is considered just. Since the needy outnumber the well off, their voice has more authority. These are the underlying assumptions of democratic rule.

Aristotle then lists the things suited to popular rule: choosing offices from among the people, people having authority that is not based on property, a popular council, elections by lots, and unlike oligarchy, democracy gives particular thought to those who lack noble family background, poverty, and lack of cultivation. Elections will not be long-lasting. The democratic form of justice: for “everyone to have a numerically equal share” (1318A 4-5). How shall they have equality? According to popular rule, equality is whatever seems best to the greatest number of people. The democrat calls this “just,” for it is always the weaker who “seek equality and justice” while the stronger pay no attention to them.

Aristotle distinguishes four types of democracies (by way of populations): farming and herding (which is the most ancient and best form of democracy), next is herders and people of livestock (both farmers and herders live healthy lives and are capable of serving in times of war). Town based democracies lack these noble virtues and can fall prey to mob rule. Then demagogues can take hold, promising to relax citizenship laws to increase this population, and the city becomes unruly, losing the support of its prominent citizens.

However, it is not sufficient to merely set up a government, but also one must see to its preservation. Democratic demagogues confiscate property to gratify the populace, and private lawsuits are common when democracies are in their late stages (ancient and modern) and they take in too many people, straining resources. Laws should be made to ensure lasting prosperity for the needy, rather than limitless charity from the public coffers -which is like a “leaky jar.” True care for the needy tries to prevent poverty:

“One who is a true advocate of the needy ought to see to it that the multitude is not too needy, since this is what is responsible for democracy’s being depraved” (1320A 33-36).

Aristotle leaves room for private citizens who are well off to give resources back to the demos: they ought to contribute their surpluses to the needy in lump sums. Philanthropy is thus integral to the endurance of democracy; a bulwark against corruption and mob rule.

Oligarchies are strong and successful when employing high and low property qualifications for offices of high and low authority. Oligarchies that free up property restrictions are more enduring. Oligarchies seek geographic terrains that can be well-defended, since wealth breeds resentment and war. Oligarchies attract rulers interested in enriching themselves, though they would be better served by rulers of honor (timocratic rulers).

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

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