POL B70: Classic Texts of Political Theory I: Professor Lee
Lecture 5: Aristotle (continued)
Readings for this lecture: Aristotle, Politics
Book IV: Chapters 1 – 3 and 7 – 12
Book V: Chapters 1 – 6 and 8 – 9
Book VII: Chapters 1 – 3
Polis – an association [koinonia] to cultivate virtue [arête], to live the good life
[eudaimonia] which is its end/purpose [telos].
The early books of The Politics deal with assorted fundamental questions about the polis,
which we have already studied:
-How the polis differs from others kinds of association, such as the household
-Who the members (the ‘citizens’) of the polis are;
-Who governs the polis;
-Whether we should value the rule of law in governing the polis.
Ideal & Non-Ideal Political Theory
At the end of Book III, Aristotle promises to ‘describe how the best constitution naturally
comes about.’ But he postpones this until Books VII and VIII.
Recall (Nic. Eth.) that politics is an ethical matter for Aristotle. Political life
should be designed to make people virtuous and ‘better.’ What counts as a ‘good
constitution’ then really depends on what counts as the ‘good life.’
Book VII.3 is one of the most famous discussions in the Politics. What counts as
a ‘good life’ – is it a ‘contemplative life’ or an ‘active life’? Happiness is an
‘activity in accordance with virtue’ – but even contemplation can be ‘action’ of a
certain kind, when it is directed towards living-well.
Why the break in the text from III to VII? From Books IV – VI, Aristotle does not talk
about the ideal constitution, but instead talks about non-ideal constitutions.
Political theory can’t be just about understanding the best forms of constitution, but also
understanding the vast majority of constitutions that are not the best – just as other arts
and sciences treat not just ideal conditions, but also less than ideal conditions.
This is the core of Aristotle’s political science at work:
4.1: ‘We must consider not only the best constitution but also the possible, and
likewise that which is easier and more within the reach of all states.’ (notice the
difference from Plato)
1 Having already handled Kingship in Book III, Aristotle, therefore, focuses on the
remaining constitutional forms: Oligarchy, Democracy, Aristocracy, ‘Polity.’ And
Tyranny [remember that ‘polity’ or politeia has a double-meaning]
Explaining why there are so many different varieties of constitutions
Why are there so many different forms of constitution? Answer: Because there are so
many parts within a polis. This is almost like an axiom in Aristotle’s political theory – he
assumes that every polis will have these different parts or classes. Many different
categories to analyze the parts of a political community:
Different ways to categorize the parts of the polis
Poor – Middle Class – Rich
Armed – Unarmed
Agricultural – Commercial – Mechanic
4.3: ‘Sometimes all these parts have a share in the constitution [politeia], sometimes a
large number of them, sometimes fewer. It thus becomes clear that there must be
several constitutions differing in kind from each other, since the parts differ in
kind among themselves.’
Biological metaphor: The identity of an animal depends on the make-up or constitution
of its organs; similarly, a political constitution depends on the make-up of its political
organs or parts.
Two major forms of constitution
Given this background analysis, Aristotle thinks, in most cases, there are two chief types
of constitution (from Book III, the importance of rich and poor in political constitutions)
Democracy – a regime where those who are free, not wealthy, and in the
numerical majority are in control of the government.
Oligarchy – a regime where the wealthy, the higher family status, and in the
numerical minority are in control of the government.
Most existing constitutions (Aristotle thinks) fit into one of these two forms, or are
deviations or combinations of these two.
- Note how much more refined Aristotle thinks this approach is than the
simplistic 6-fold classification in Book III
- Political analysis is not simply about counting heads, but about assessing the
inner relationship between the different parts of the polis
Many different kinds of democracy and oligarchy. For example, Aristotle (in 4.6) thinks
there are several different kinds of democracy:
- property qualification – only those with a specified amount of property or
money can participate in politics
2 - universal participation – the very poor and very wealthy alike, as well as the
low-born and the well-born, can all participate in politics
Same with oligarchy:
- many small property-owners – so the citizen-body can potentially be quite
- hereditary – so the citizen body is hereditary and exclusive, where power is
concentrated in the hands of a few leading wealthy families, sometimes
You might think of democracy and oligarchy as two poles along a sliding scale that maps
onto the socioeconomic classes within the polis:
poor middle class wealthy
When the poor are dominant, you will have some sort of democracy. By contrast, when
the wealthy are generally in control, you will get some form of oligarchy. In both
arrangements (democracy and oligarchy), notice that the ‘middle class’ gets left out of
The special cases of Polity and Aristocracy
Up to now, Aristotle has mentioned ‘polity’ and ‘aristocracy’ without really saying much
about how it is organized and governed. He now begins to tell us more starting at 4.8.
For Aristotle, polity and aristocracy are actually not separate kinds of constitution –
rather they are merely different mixtures of democracy and oligarchy .
They are ‘mixed’ because they contain elements of both democracy and oligarchy – no
one is excluded from government, both the rich and the poor participate in politics.
- E.g., the wealthy assemble in one body, while the common people assemble
together in another body; the two bodies then might jointly try to govern together.
So there is a bit of constitutional ‘engineering’ or ‘chemistry’ involved. If you ‘mix’ the
different elements of polis you’ll actually get a new constitutional form. But this means
that no one class or group within the state can have a monopoly over power – there is no
single center of power, but multiple centers. Power has to be shared overlapping across
the different ‘parts’ of the state.
In 4.8, Aristotle tells us that if the mixed form resembles an oligarchy, it is an aristocracy.
If it approximates a democracy, then it is a polity. (not clear in practice what Aristotle
means specifically but his case studies may shed some light) But the major point is that
3 the middle class now begin to have a major vo