(CONTINUED FROM  28/10/10 )
Aristotle’s Political Theory

3. General Theory of Constitutions and Citizenship

Aristotle states that “the politician and lawgiver is wholly occupied with the city-state, and the constitution is a certain way of organizing those who inhabit the city-state” (III.1.1274b36-8). His general theory of constitutions is set forth in Politics III. He begins with a definition of the citizen (politês), since the city-state is by nature a collective entity, a multitude of citizens. Citizens are distinguished from other inhabitants, such as resident aliens and slaves; and even children and seniors are not unqualified citizens (nor are most ordinary workers). After further analysis he defines the citizen as a person who has the right (exousia) to participate in deliberative or judicial office (1275b18-21). In Athens, for example, citizens had the right to attend the assembly, the council, and other bodies, or to sit on juries. The Athenian system differed from a modern representative democracy in that the citizens were more directly involved in governing. Although full citizenship tended to be restricted in the Greek city-states (with women, slaves, foreigners, and some others excluded), the citizens were more deeply enfranchised than in modern representative democracies because they were more directly involved in governing. This is reflected in Aristotle’s definition of the citizen (without qualification). Further, he defines the city-state (in the unqualified sense) as a multitude of such citizens which is adequate for a self-sufficient life (1275b20-21).

Aristotle defines the constitution as a way of organizing the offices of the city-state, particularly the sovereign office (III.6.1278b8-10; cf. IV.1.1289a15-18). The constitution thus defines the governing body, which takes different forms: for example, in a democracy it is the people, and in an oligarchy it is a select few (the wealthy or well born). Before attempting to distinguish and evaluate various constitutions Aristotle considers two questions. First, why does a city-state come into being? He recalls the thesis, defended in Politics I.2, that human beings are by nature political animals, who naturally want to live together. For a further discussion of this topic, see the following  *

He then adds that “the common advantage also brings them together insofar as they each attain the noble life. This is above all the end for all both in common and separately.” (III.6.1278b19-24) Second, what are the different forms of rule by which one individual or group can rule over another? Aristotle distinguishes several types. He first considers despotic rule, which is exemplified in the master-slave relationship. Aristotle thinks that this form of rule is justified in the case of natural slaves who (he asserts without evidence) lack a deliberative faculty and thus need a natural master to direct them (I.13.1260a12; slavery is defended at length in Politics I.4-8). Although a natural slave allegedly benefits from having a master, despotic rule is still primarily for the sake of the master and only incidentally for the slave (III.6.1278b32-7). (Aristotle provides no argument for this: if some persons are congenitally incapable of self-governance, why should they not be ruled primarily for their own sakes?) He next considers paternal and marital rule, which he also views as defensible: “the male is by nature more capable of leadership than the female, unless he is constituted in some way contrary to nature, and the elder and perfect [is by nature more capable of leadership] than the younger and imperfect.” (I.12.1259a39-b4) Aristotle is persuasive when he argues that children need adult supervision because their rationality is “imperfect” (ateles) or immature. But he also alleges (without substantiation) that, although women have a deliberative faculty, it is “without authority” (akuron), so that females require male leadership (I.13.1260a13-14). (Aristotle’s arguments about slaves and women appear so weak that some commentators take them to be ironic. However, what is obvious to a modern reader need not have been so to an ancient Greek, so that it is not necessary to suppose that Aristotle’s discussion is ironic.) It is noteworthy, however, that paternal and marital rule are properly practiced for the sake of the ruled (for the sake of the child and of the wife respectively), just as arts like medicine or gymnastics are practiced for the sake of the patient (III.6.1278b37-1279a1). In this respect they resemble political rule, which involves equal and similar citizens taking turns in ruling for one another’s advantage (1279a8-13). This sets the stage for the fundamental claim of Aristotle’s constitutional theory: “constitutions which aim at the common advantage are correct and just without qualification, whereas those which aim only at the advantage of the rulers are deviant and unjust, because they involve despotic rule which is inappropriate for a community of free persons” (1279a17-21).

The distinction between correct and deviant constitutions is combined with the observation that the government may consist of one person, a few, or a multitude. Hence, there are six possible constitutional forms (Politics I.7):

This six-fold classification (which is adapted from Plato’s Statesman) sets the stage for Aristotle’s inquiry into the best constitution, although it is modified in various ways throughout the Politics. For example, he observes that the dominant class in oligarchy (literally rule of the oligoi, i.e., few) is typically the wealthy, whereas in democracy (literally rule of the dêmos, i.e., people) it is the poor, so that these economic classes should be included in the definition of these forms (see Politics III.8, IV.4, and VI.2 for alternative accounts). Also, polity is later characterized as a kind of “mixed” constitution typified by rule of the “middle” group of citizens, a moderately wealthy class between the rich and poor (Politics IV.11).

Aristotle turns to arguments for and against the different constitutions, which he views as different applications of the principle of distributive justice (III.9.1280a7-22). Everyone agrees, he says, that justice involves treating equal persons equally, and treating unequal persons unequally, but they do not agree on the standard by which individuals are deemed to be equally (or unequally) meritorious or deserving. He assumes his own analysis of distributive justice set forth in Nicomachean Ethics V.3: Justice requires that benefits be distributed to individuals in proportion to their merit or desert. The oligarchs mistakenly think that those who are superior in wealth should also have superior political rights, whereas the democrats hold that those who are equal in free birth should also have equal political rights. Both of these conceptions of political justice are mistaken in Aristotle’s view, because they assume a false conception of the ultimate end of the city-state. The city-state is neither a business association to maximize wealth (as the oligarchs suppose) nor an agency to promote liberty and equality (as the democrats maintain). Instead, Aristotle argues, “the good life is the end of the city-state,” that is, a life consisting of noble actions (1280b39-1281a4). Hence, the correct conception of justice is aristocratic, assigning political rights to those who make a full contribution to the political community, that is, to those with virtue as well as property and freedom (1281a4-8). This is what Aristotle understands by an “aristocratic” constitution: literally, the rule of the aristoi, i.e., best persons. Aristotle explores the implications of this argument in the remainder of Politics III, considering the rival claims of the rule of law and the rule of a supremely virtuous individual. Here absolute kingship is a limiting case of aristocracy. Again, in books VII-VIII, Aristotle describes the ideal constitution in which the citizens are fully virtuous.

4. Study of Specific Constitutions

The purpose of political science is to guide “the good lawgiver and the true politician” (IV.1.1288b27). Like any complete science or craft, it must study a range of issues concerning its subject matter. For example, gymnastics (physical training) studies what sort of training is advantageous for what sort of body, what sort of training is best or adapted to the body that is naturally the best, what sort of training is best for most bodies, and what capacity is appropriate for someone who does not want the condition or knowledge appropriate for athletic contests. Political science studies a comparable range of constitutions (1288b21-35): first, the constitution which is best without qualification, i.e., “most according to our prayers with no external impediment”; second, the constitution that is best under the circumstances “for it is probably impossible for many persons to attain the best constitution”; third, the constitution which serves the aim a given city-state population happens to have, i.e., the one that is best “based on a hypothesis”: “for [the political scientist] ought to be able to study a given constitution, both how it might originally come to be, and, when it has come to be, in what manner it might be preserved for the longest time; I mean, for example, if a particular city happens neither to be governed by the best constitution, nor to be equipped even with necessary things, nor to be the [best] possible under existing circumstances, but to be a baser sort.”

Hence, Aristotelian political science is not confined to the ideal system, but also investigates the second-best constitution, the one which is the best that most city-states are capable of supporting. For it is the closest approximation to full political justice which the lawgiver can attain under the circumstances. Although Aristotle’s political views were influenced by his teacher Plato, he is very critical of the ideal city-state set forth in Plato’s Republic on the grounds that it overvalues political unity, it embraces a system of communism that is impractical and inimical to human nature, and it neglects the happiness of the individual citizens (Politics II.1-5). In contrast, in Aristotle’s own “best constitution” (described in Politics VII-VIII) each and every citizen will possess moral virtue and the equipment to carry it out in practice, and thereby attain a life of excellence and complete happiness (see VII.13.1332a32-8). All of the citizens will hold political office and possess private property because “one should call the city-state happy not by looking at a part of it but at all the citizens.” (VII.9.1329a22-3). Moreover, there will be a common system of education for all the citizens, because they share the same end (Pol. VIII.1). But if (as is the case with most city-states) the population lacks the capacities and resources for complete happiness, the lawgiver must be content with fashioning a suitable constitution (Politics IV.11). The second-best system typically takes the form of a polity (in which citizens possess an inferior, more common grade of virtue) or mixed constitution (combining features of democracy, oligarchy, and aristocracy, so that no group of citizens is in a position to abuse its rights).

In addition, the political scientist must understand existing constitutions even when they are bad. Aristotle adds that “to reform a constitution is no less a task [of politics] than it is to establish one from the beginning,” and in this way “the politician should also help existing constitutions.” (IV.1.1289a1-7) The political scientist should also be cognizant of forces of political change which can undermine an existing regime. Aristotle criticizes his predecessors for excessive utopianism and neglect of the practical duties of a political theorist. However, he is no Machiavellian. The best constitution still serves as a regulative ideal by which to evaluate existing systems.

These topics occupy the remainder of the Politics. Books IV-VI are concerned with the existing constitutions: that is, the three deviant constitutions, as well as polity or the mixed constitution, the best attainable under most circumstances (IV.2.1289a26-38). The whole of book V investigates political change and revolution. Books VII-VIII are devoted to the ideal constitution. As might be expected, Aristotle’s attempt to carry out this program involves many difficulties, and scholars disagree about how the two series of books (IV-VI and VII-VIII) are related to each other: for example, which were written first, which were intended to be read first, and whether they are ultimately consistent with each other. For a further discussion of this topic, see the following supplementary document **

Aristotle’s Politics did not have an immediate impact because it defended the Greek city-state, which was already becoming obsolete in his own lifetime. (As mentioned above, the Greek city-states permanently lost their independence due to the conquest by the kings of Macedon.) For similar reasons much of his discussion of particular political institutions is not directly applicable to modern nation-states (apart from his objectionable defenses of slavery, female subservience, and disenfranchisement of the working classes). Even so, Aristotle’s Politics has had a deep influence on political philosophy until the present day, because it contains deep and thought-provoking discussions of perennial concerns of political philosophy: the role of human nature in politics, the relation of the individual to the state, the place of morality in politics, the theory of political justice, the rule of law, the analysis and evaluation of constitutions, the relevance of ideals to practical politics, the causes and cures of political change and revolution, and the importance of a morally educated citizenry.

Glossary of Aristotelian Terms

  • action: praxis
  • citizen: politês
  • city-state: polis
  • community: koinônia)
  • constitution: politeia
  • excellence: aretê(also ‘virtue’)
  • free: eleutheros
  • good: agathos
  • happiness: eudaimonia
  • happy: eudaimôn
  • justice: dikaiosunê
  • law: nomos
  • lawgiver: nomothetês
  • master: despotês
  • nature: phusis
  • noble: kalon(also ‘beautiful’)
  • political: politikos (of, or pertaining to, the polis)
  • political science: politikê epistêmê
  • practical: praktikos
  • practical wisdom: phronêsis
  • right: exousia
  • ruler: archôn
  • self-sufficient: autarkês
  • sovereign: kurios
  • without qualification: haplôs(also ‘absolute’)
  • without authority: akuron


  • Ernest Barker, rev. by Richard Stalley (Oxford, 1995).
  • Benjamin Jowett, rev. Jonathan Barnes (in The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 2, Princeton, 1984).
  • Carnes Lord (Chicago, 1984).
  • C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis, 1998).
  • Peter L. P. Simpson (Chapel Hill, 1996).
  • T. A. Sinclair, rev. Trevor J. Saunders (Harmondsworth, 1983).
  • The Clarendon Aristotle Series (Oxford University Press) will include translation and commentary of the Politicsin four volumes:
    • Trevor J. Saunders, PoliticsI-II (1995).
    • Richard Robinson with a supplementary essay by David Keyt, PoliticsIII-IV (1995).
    • David Keyt, PoliticsV-VI (1999).
    • Richard Kraut, Politics VII-VIII (1997).
Scholarly literature
  • Jonathan Barnes et al., eds., Articles on Aristotle, vol. 2, Ethics and Politics (London, 1977).
  • Richard Bodéüs, The Political Dimensions of Aristotle’s Ethics(Albany, 1993).
  • Otfried Höffe, ed., Aristoteles Politik(Berlin, 2001).
  • David Keyt and Fred D. Miller, Jr., eds., A Companion to Aristotle’s Politics(Oxford, 1991).
  • Richard Kraut, Aristotle: Political Philosophy(Oxford, 2002).
  • Carnes Lord and David O’Connor, eds., Essays on the Foundations of Aristotelian Political Science(Berkeley, 1991).
  • Fred D. Miller, Jr., Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics(Oxford, 1995).
  • Richard G. Mulgan, Aristotle’s Political Theory(Oxford, 1977).
  • W. L. Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1887-1902).
  • Mary Nichols, Citizens and Statesmen: A Study of Aristotle’s Politics(Savage, Md., 1992).
  • Günther Patzig, ed., Aristoteles’ Politik(Göttingen, 1990).
  • Stephen G. Salkever, Finding the Mean: Theory and Practice in Aristotelian Political Philosophy(Princeton, 1990).
  • Peter Simpson, A Philosophical Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle(Chapel Hill, 1998).
  • Judith A. Swanson, The Public and the Private in Aristotle’s Political Philosophy(Ithaca, 1991).
  • Bernard Yack, The Problems of a Political Animal: Community, Justice, and Conflict in Aristotelian Political Thought (Berkeley, 1993).

by  Fred Miller

First published Wed Jul 1, 1998; substantive revision Fri Jul 19, 2002

SOURCE  http://plato.stanford.edu/

*Political Naturalism

Aristotle lays the foundations for his political theory in Politics book I by arguing that the city-state and political rule are “natural.” The argument begins with a schematic, quasi-historical account of the development of the city-state out of simpler communities. First, individual human beings combined in pairs because they could not exist apart. The male and female joined in order to reproduce, and the master and slave came together for self-preservation. The natural master uses his intellect to rule, and the natural slave uses his body to labor. Second, the household arose naturally from these primitive communities in order to serve everyday needs. Third, when several households combined for other needs a village emerged also according to nature. Finally, “the complete community, formed from several villages, is a city-state, which at once attains the limit of self-sufficiency, roughly speaking. It comes to be for the sake of life, and exists for the sake of the good life.” (I.2.1252b27-30)

Aristotle defends three claims about nature and the city-state: First, the city-state exists by nature, because it comes to be out of the more primitive natural associations and it serves as their end, because only it attains self-sufficiency (1252b30-1253a1). Second, human beings are by nature political animals, because nature, which does nothing in vain, has equipped them with speech, which enables them to communicate moral concepts such as justice which are formative of the household and city-state (1253a1-18). Third, the city-state is naturally prior to the individuals, because individuals cannot perform their natural functions apart from the city-state, since they are not self-sufficient (1253a18-29). However, these three claims are immediately followed by a fourth: the city-state is a creation of human intelligence. “Therefore, everyone naturally has the impulse for such a [political] community, but the person who first established [it] is the cause of very great benefits.” This great benefactor is evidently the lawgiver, for the legal system of the city-state makes human beings just and virtuous and lifts them from the savagery in which they would otherwise languish (1253a29-39).

Aristotle’s political naturalism presents the difficulty that he does not explain how he is using the term “nature” (phusis). In the Physics nature is understood as an internal principle of motion or rest (see III.1.192b8-15). (For discussion of nature see Aristotle’s Physics.) If the city-state were natural in this sense, it would resemble a plant or an animal which grows naturally to maturity out of a seed. However, this cannot be reconciled with the important role which Aristotle also assigns to the lawgiver as the one who established the city-state. For on Aristotle’s theory a thing either exists by nature or by craft; it cannot do both. (This difficulty is posed by David Keyt.) Aristotle can seemingly escape this dilemma only if it is supposed that he speaks of the city-state as “natural” in another sense of the term. For example, he might mean that it is “natural” in the extended sense that it arises from human natural inclinations (to live in communities) for the sake of human natural ends, but that it remains unfinished until a lawgiver provides it with a constitution. (This solution was proposed by Ernest Barker and is defended more recently by Fred Miller and Trevor Saunders.)

**Characteristics and Problems of Aristotle’s Politics

The work which has come down to us under this name appears to be less an integrated treatise than a collection of essays on various topics in political philosophy, which may have been compiled by a later editor rather than by Aristotle. The following topics are discussed in the eight books:

I Naturalness of the city-state and of the household

II Critique of ostensibly best constitutions

III General theory of constitutions

IV Inferior constitutions

V Preservation and destruction of constitutions

VI Further discussion of democracy and oligarchy

VII-VIII Blueprint of the best constitution

This ordering of the books reflects, very roughly, the program for the study of constitutions which concludes the Nicomachean Ethics:

First, then, if any particular point has been treated well by those who have gone before us, we must try to review it; then from the constitutions that have been collected we must try to see what it is that preserves and destroys each of the constitutions, and for what reasons some city-states are well governed and others the reverse. For when these things have been examined, we will perhaps better understand what sort of constitution is best, and how each is structured, and which laws and customs it uses. Let us then begin our discussion. [X.9.1181b15-23]

However, scholars have raised problems with the Politics as we have it. The first concerns the intended order of its eight books. Some (including W. L. Newman) have questioned the traditional ordering, arguing that the discussion of the best constitution (books VII-VIII) should follow directly after book III. Indeed, book III concludes with a transition to a discussion of the best constitution (although this may be due to a later editor). However, cross-references between various passages of the Politics indicate that books IV-V-VI form a connected series, as do books VII-VIII, but these series do not refer to each other. However, both series refer back to book III which in turn refers to book I. With some oversimplification, the Politics is comparable to a tree trunk supporting two separate branches: the root system is I, the trunk is II-III, and the branches are IV-V-VI and VII-VIII. (The summary in Nicomachean Ethics X.9 describes only the visible part of the tree.)

The second problem concerns the order in which the books were actually written. If they were composed at very different dates, they might represent discordant stages in the development of Aristotle’s political philosophy. For example, Werner Jaeger argued that books VII-VIII contain a youthful utopianism, motivating Aristotle to emulate his teacher Plato in erecting “an ideal state by logical construction.” In contrast, books IV-VI are based on “sober empirical study.” Other scholars have seen a more pragmatic, even Machiavellian approach to politics in books IV-VI. A difficulty for this interpretation is that in book IV Aristotle regards the business of constructing ideal constitutions as perfectly compatible with that of addressing actual political problems. Although much ink has been spilled since Jaeger attempted to discern different chronological strata in the Politics, it has not resulted in a clear scholarly consensus. Because there is no explicit evidence of the dates at which the various books of the Politics were written, argument has turned on alleged inconsistencies between different passages.

This leads to the third problem, whether there are major inconsistencies of doctrine or method in the Politics. For example, Aristotle’s account of the best constitution assumes his theory of justice, a moral standard which cannot be met by the actual political systems (democracies and oligarchies) of his own day. He does discuss practical political reforms in books IV-VI but more in terms of stability than justice. This raises the question of whether books IV-VI mark a radical departure from the political philosophy of the other books. Resolution of this problem requires careful study of the Politics as a whole.

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