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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Aristotle on Constitutions and the Best Constitution

This lecture will be somewhat longer than usual, but will allow the next one to be shorter.

We are now ready for Book III and beyond. Aristotle’s investigation of the nature of the political association and his criticisms of other writers lead him to look into the types of constitutions that are possible and the ideas of justice each type embodies. We know that the polis is natural by virtue of the fact that, against other, lesser associations, it is the only one sufficient to practicing the good life. It exists for the sake of “noble” actions, fine and good actions. In Book III we will see that constitutions can be distinguished by the different conceptions of justice each embodies. We will see that, according to Aristotle, the two most common ideas of justice are inadequate, yet the claims of each cannot be ignored. We will also see that in the “best” of constitutions, all free men must participate in public decisions and actions, but not equally because “better” contributions should be recognized, encouraged and rewarded.

Book III contains a general discussion of the relation between moral virtue and civic activity. Aristotle will link moral virtue to types of civic activity by way of observable structures, which are the constitutions of specific regimes. But one of the first questions he addresses, one typical of a student of Plato’s, is whether the virtues of a citizen and a good man are identical.  The answer is no. This is because there are a variety of constitutions and therefore a variety of different kinds of civic virtue. To be a “good citizen” of some or most of these constitutions does not require that one be a (fully) “good man”. To be a “good man” in some of these constitutions may mean that one is in tension or contradiction with what it means to be a good citizen in them. There are many types of civic virtue, but only one moral virtue. A good citizen need not be wise (need not be a philosopher). He need only fulfill his function in the constitution of  the city. He need not necessarily do more than behave or obey. But, Aristotle says, the two – being a good man, and being a good citizen – can be identical. They will only be identical when the citizen is ruling and ruling well, that is wisely. Mere “good citizenship” seems, then, to be equivalent to being well-ruled.

Constitutions, for Aristotle, are the essential structures of an organization. They define what the parts of an organization are, what these parts do, and how the parts are related to each other. When it comes to the constitution of a polis, the crucial questions are who rules (and to what extent), and what are the purposes their rule embodies?  For these purposes, constitutions can be classified along two dimensions. One dimension has to do with the number (and type of person – wealthy? poor?) in the ruling group. The second dimension has to do with whether the ruling group follows aims that are “proper”, that is, intended for the good of all, or “perverted”, that is, only for the rulers’ benefit. This gives us Aristotle’s famous basic classification of constitutions:

  Proper  Perverted
One Monarchy Tyranny
Few Aristocracy Oligarchy
Many/All  “Polity”  Democracy

Every constitution embodies a certain conception of what justice is. But, according to Aristotle, there are two basic forms of justice, and both are inadequate (both are in some sense “extremes”). The first is the “democratic” conception of justice according to which justice is equality. According to Aristotle according to the democrat, since people can be found equal in some important respect (e.g. they may be born free), they should be treated equally in all respects. For Aristotle, this amounts to ignoring all the real and important differences among them, and is open to the damaging, if not fatal criticism that equality in one respect is not equal to equality in all respects. Real differences in people’s capacities, inclinations, abilities and so on exist and need to be taken into account in the constitution of a polis that will embody moral virtue. The other basic conception of justice is the “oligarchical” : because people are unequal in one respect (especially in wealth, and in what wealth either indicates about a person or what it allows that person to do/become), people should be treated unequally in all respects. The democratic and oligarchic conceptions are like flip-sides of each other.

In evaluating and choosing constitutions it is important, according to Aristotle, to know the ends of the association. The end of the polis is not to provide a living but to provide the conditions of a good life, to be a place where happiness as “eudaimonia” can be  exercised. The polis is no mere territorial, economic or defensive association (although it is all these as well). It exists instead for the sake of “noble” actions. And this is why, for Aristotle, the democratic idea of justice is supposed to be inadequate. Better and finer contributions to the state should be rewarded, marked and encouraged  with greater shares not only in honours, but in offices, responsibilities and powers. So all free men will participate, but they will do so unequally. The question is therefore, who will have the preponderance of power, or even sovereign power.

While still in Book III, Aristotle offers some hints and suggestions about a type of mixed constitution which should be the best.  In chapter 11, for example, he states that the many, taken collectively, have more wisdom than the few, even though each member of the many will not be as an individual wise enough. There is danger, therefore, in giving individual members of the lower, poorer classes offices of state. But there are risks as well in denying the lower orders as a whole any share in political power. Therefore, one should consider giving the many a share in deliberation, but not office holding.

In ch. 12, Aristotle goes on to note the sorts of requirements that must be kept in mind in order to aim at the best of the possible constitutions. You need to begin with a free people (not already used to being ruled from the outside); they should have adequate, but moderate wealth and should have developed the qualities of justice and virtue in managing that wealth. He goes on to assert that all individual claims to rule are deficient because of the diversity of people needed to form a polis.

In Ch. 13, Aristotle repeats that the only real title to rule is the desire and ability to benefit the whole state and the common interest. And in Ch. 17, he makes two more observations that indicate the direction he wants to take in building a set of practical directions for the best constitution. There he observes that there is no “natural” sense in which “just” or “expedient”  can be applied to the rule of a tyrant. And he also observes that certain kinds of social composition lead to certain kinds of rule suggests the possibility of a populace of statesmen – a “polity”. Polity turns out to mean self-rule, that is the rule of a free people over themselves, and it will mean a blending together of oligarchy and democracy. The citizens (not all the members; not all who belong to the polis) will be financially well-off. This is the oligarchic component of the polity. From this pool of citizens, office-holders will be drawn according to merit and not wealth. This will be the democratic component of the polity.

Aristotle’s elaboration of what makes a “Polity”, of what it’s essential structure is, appears in the middle of Book IV and Book IV is itself a discussion and  elaboration of different types of actually existing constitutions. Aristotle discovers that there actually are a variety of types of both democracy and of oligarchy. A constitution is a distribution of of different kinds of offices (we might call them powers) not only over raw numbers, but to different parts of the polis, that is to different social classes. His actual enumeration of these variant types of democracy and oligarchy does not concern us.  What is important to realize is that the “Polity” is an assignment of power (or the preponderance of power) to a certain socio-economic type, that is, to a certain class.

Why, however, include this type of constitution (or at least those actual mixed constitutions that begin to approach it) among a discussion of actually existing constitutions, if the Polity is to be considered the best.

To ask this question, when it comes to Aristotle, is almost to answer it. For something to really qualify as the best for Aristotle, we must already find it already existing in actual practice (although not necessarily fully perfected); or we must find something very closely resembling it. For Aristotle, as we’ve seen, nature always works for the best, and that which is natural is discovered by observation in what already actually exists. The study of politics as much as the study of biology must include the actual as much as the ideal. For Aristotle one cannot discover or distill the ideal simply by looking at what is around us (that will take some sort of extrapolation and conceptual refinement). But one must stick very close to actual practice in devising good constitutions. Aristotle is committed here, by his general method, to a form of gradualism (at most), to a situational conservatism. But this raises the important question of whether what we project as the best, or the ideal, or the natural is not simply an idealization of and rationalization for what already exists.

Aristotle (in Book IV, ch. 1) actually distinguishes between four different ranks of constitution: the first is the type Aristotle thinks we find in Plato, that is, the ideal or absolutely best constitution. Here, Aristotle’s method, based upon observation and committed in advance to gradualism, allows him not to pay too much attention to this (He has already criticized Plato’s version of an ideal/best possible constitution in Book I, and later on he will offer his own ideas on the absolutely best; at that point, one interesting question will be how different it is from his second best rank, and in what ways). The second ranking type of constitution would be not the ideal, but the best of the possible (already given certain sorts of people). Focusing our efforts on this rank makes clear that we are committed to a very modest scale of change. The third ranking types are those constitutions which are neither the best nor the best of the possible; and the lowest ranking would be the type that virtually any old polis could achieve without much effort – a sort of one size fits all.

According to Aristotle, most writers on constitutions fall down on the question of practicality, whereas what is really need is a system that could be legitimized and become stable on the basis of the circumstances that already exist. This is the essential subject of political science – for him.

Now this comes dangerously close to defining the most practical as the best (at least in practice). The best, the standard of what is good, the limit of possibility would be the closest improvement of what exists that is ready to hand. But, you might say, it is one thing to insist on the importance of practicality, because these would lead you further to looking into the prior conditions that might have to be reached before any proposal was attained. But it is a different thing to mix up the most easily attained, or “practical” in that sense, with the best. It may also be a mistake to equate what is practical with what already exists.

Aristotle --- finally --- gets down to his description of the “best of the possible” (i.e., 2nd rank) constitutions in ch. 11 of Book IV. It will, in some way, be a synthesis and mixture of democracy and oligarchy, and of their conceptions of justice, as these were described earlier. So the best of the possible constitutions will be made out of a combination of the two next best (or worst) of the “perverted” constitutions. Because that shouldn’t be too hard. Because, as with everything in Aristotle, the form is gradually working itself out – here the form of the constitution proper to a polis. In some way Aristotle is suggesting that it is difficult if not impossible to skip stages in the development of anything. And that the ideal development is almost never reached. The best of the possible – what he calls the “Polity” – is the best for most people, for the kind of society and economy already in existence, for the ordinary kinds of virtue and levels of education we might find in them.

It will be, he begins to specify, physically rather large (by current standards). It will not demand the virtues of a philosopher, but it will also not admit the rabble into political life. It should therefore have a fairly broad pattern of participation (but we already know now that it won’t be any kind of democracy). It represents, in politics, the rule of moderation, an expression of the process of working out by approximation a sort of “golden mean”, and does not represent perfect theoretical wisdom. It will only demand the ordinary sorts of virtue available to most men [which also means that it will only be an education in virtue up to a pretty modest point].

Getting further into specifics, Aristotle says that all citizens of the Polity should have a middling amount of property [but we already know that Aristotle is against schemes to redistribute property, so what this means is that only those who have already attained at least a middling amount of property will be admitted into citizenship, or full citizenship]. The Polity will therefore exclude the very wealthy and the poor from attaining a preponderance of power in the state. The wealthy will blocked in their designs by the larger number of non-wealthy; and the truly poor will be blocked by not being allowed in at all. Those who are not truly poor will also be blocked by the specific roles assigned to them, as we shall see. By doing this, the Polity will avoid the arrogance and criminality of the noble and the petty crimes of the poor. The high and the low both make bad citizens. The middle sort (those with moderate wealth) do not rush after office, but they do not have to be dragged in either (like the philosopher, who has to be dragged in). The middle class are those who are not all caught up in the pursuit of wealth for its own sake and are those, moreover, who have sufficient leisure at their disposal to develop virtue. It is they who will be the center of gravity of the Polity. What is more, such a state will be relatively free of factions, and in a large state there will be tend to be a larger proportion of the middle class.

The Polity has, broadly speaking, two structural principles: first is this restriction of  effective citizenship to the middle class, that is to what has been called “the independent country gentleman of independent means”. This is Aristotle’s “social” definition of the Polity, but there is also a “political” definition  and this, according to Aristotle, will be a synthesis of the two definitions of justice, the democratic and the oligarchic. As one reads again and again, especially in Book V which is a discussion of strife and revolution in the polis, political change and revolution are a result of factions (close to what a modern political scientist will refer to as “polarization”). Factions arise over disagreements over justice as it applies to the constitution. Democrats and oligarchs differ (extremely) over what constitutes justice. Democrats insist on numerical equality: all “people” (i.e. free adult males) are to be treated the same; the same rules will apply to all and all will have roughly the same chance when it comes to political matters, like being eligible for and holding office. Oligarchs, on the other hand, insist that “people” be treated differently, that only those with substantial wealth be allowed into the club. Oligarchs can argue that their wealth is both a sign of virtue and merit and a condition for the development of virtue and merit. But according to Aristotle, differences in wealth are not sufficient grounds for treating people unequally in all respects. (He is implying that they are sufficient for treating people unequally in some respects, perhaps some important respects, perhaps in the most important respects.)

Aristotle’s solution, therefore, and this is a part of his thinking that has come down through the ages and is still enshrined in different ways in many a present-day liberal-democratic regime, will be what he calls “proportionate equality” or “distributive justice”. Numerical equality, according to Aristotle, simply ignores real differences between people in terms of their merit and in terms of their virtue. It amounts to treating unequals equally. One should not, he says, treat free men and slaves in the same way. And in the same way, one should not treat poor and wealthy in the same way. So this second structural principle of the Polity, proportionate equality, involves fitting different shares in the state to different types of people according to their virtue, their ability to contribute to the state. Those who are wealthy (up to a point) have greater virtue, can contribute more, regularly do contribute more, etc… So inequality, or a “non-numerical equality” should be built into the distribution of offices. The way to do this is to have a wealth qualification that excludes those below the middle class (those without any landed property of their own – most people actually engaged in farming and almost everybody who worked as a craftsman or labourer) --- and then, superimpose the democratic numerical equality principle on this one. So, offices (and responsibility and power) will be distributed equally (more or less) to those who make it in by virtue of having a minimum amount of wealth (but a qualification of a minimum amount of wealth that would leave out most free adult males). What Aristotle calls “distributive justice” (it distributes some good equally because it gives like to like, not like to unlike, which is what you get with either numerical equality or oligarchic inequality) will be a blending of the democratic and oligarchic conceptions of justice by limiting numeric equality to those who pass the test of excellence on the basis of non-immoderate wealth. This non-immoderate wealth tends to cluster among those with the right occupations (gentleman farmers, not crass business types or crude and illiterate day-labourers), who also have the leisure to develop the virtues of character and the political virtues.

The rest of Book IV is concerned with  ways in which democratic and oligarchic regimes can adjust their characteristic features by adopting minor features from their opposite numbers in order to draw closer to the structure of the Polity. It is the same sort of advice Aristotle gives when dealing with the problem of revolution in Book V. There he lets on that proportional equality also has its problems. The virtue of the Polity is that it recognizes both equality and inequality. The problem arises when you try to decide what the appropriate values are, that is exactly which inequalities should be recognized as suitable for differential treatment. In a discussion of preventing revolution he says that it is safer to err on the side of democracy. The reason for this is that in oligarchies two sets of factions arise, oligarchs struggle against other oligarchs and democrats struggle against oligarchs. In democracies, on the other hand, there tends to be only a struggle of democrats against oligarchs.

The best of the possible states thus turns out to be something very close to the older type of more moderate “democracy”  practiced in Athens during the first part of the 6th Century after the reforms of Solon, or it is a revival of a very similar model. Solon’s reforms gave all the citizens the right to serve in the law courts, but preserved the higher offices of state for the aristocracy. This was set aside after 490 BCE in the reforms of Cleisthenes that threw open all the offices of state to all citizens. Those reforms were soon followed by others such as appointment by lot and the practice of compensating people for attending the assembly… Aristotle’s best of possible states has often been described as a limited democracy, but I seen no reason not to call it a limited oligarchy. In fact, it would be better to describe it in the latter terms. In that way it is not dissimilar to the actual practice of most Western liberal-democracies, which is itself a partial explanation for Aristotle’s popularity among middle-of-the-road political scientists and political thinkers.

The main problem with Aristotle’s best of possible states centers around this question: if, as Aristotle says, the best constitution is one where anyone may prosper and live the good life, why are most people (even most free adult males) excluded from that possibility? There seem to be two reasons: Aristotle’s class bias and, what almost amounts to the same thing, his method, the method that allows him (requires him?) to attribute to nature what are merely the effects of convention.

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