Defining Politics from Scratch


aristotleIf Plato’s Republic is a third-grade civics primer of limited value in a democracy, Aristotle’s Politics is fundamental source material for PoliSci 101. About a third of it is dedicated to quietly dismantling most of The Republic with understated common sense, and it’s probably unnecessary for a modern audience to bother with (unless that audience has plowed through Plato’s simple-minded and unworkable ideas and feels it has earned the reward of seeing this philosophical “giant” get a well-deserved drubbing) but the other two thirds are Required Reading for anyone interested in how we got where we are. And maybe where we go from here.

Aristotle, a mathematician and scientist (mostly a biologist), supplants Plato’s childhood wishful thinking with a quasi-scientific examination of the types of governments he saw in the ancient world. Like a scientist, he first defines each of them according to their salient or dominant characteristics, then classifies them by which characteristics they share, and finally, after all that, (sort of) begins the process of comparing them as to which might be better for men to adopt.

Like a scientist, he does his best to be objective. Though in the course of reading this book it isn’t hard to figure out which sort of govt he favors, he bends over backward to keep from defaming those not his favorites, arguing over and over again from the beginning of the book that each of his govt types might be best for some people in some place at some time and that our job as citizens is to decide which form would suit us best. It’s a refreshing change from Plato’s one-size-fits-all autocracy.

Once Plato’s silly concept of a republic is disposed of, Aristotle begins by examining the “constitutions” of existing states (“constitution” is taken here in its most basic sense – as the rules of a state and its organizational patterns). There is, of course, Sparta and its two kings. In Aristotle’s time Sparta was on a definite downslide and he found that its unworkable two-king model was one of the key reasons for its demise. Then there were individuals like Hippodamus, “he who invented the division of cities into quarters” and “was the first to discourse about the Best State”.

Hippodamus planned a city with a population of ten thousand, divided into three parts, one of skilled workers, one of agriculturalists, and one third to bear arms and secure defense. The territory also was to be divided into three parts, a sacred, a public, and a private; the worship of the gods would be maintained out of the produce of the sacred land, the defenders out of the common land, the agriculturalists out of the private.

Having given a fair precis of Hippdamus’ proposal, analyst Aristotle then points out a couple of flaws.

My first criticism is the division of the whole body of citizens into three. For they all, skilled workers, agriculturalists, and those who carry arms, share in full citizenship; the farmers have no arms, the workers have neither land nor arms; this makes them virtually the servants of those who do possess arms. In these circumstances the equal sharing of offices and honours become an impossibility.

No kidding. Nice to read a Greek philosopher with a sense of humor, however dry. (BTW, some may question the translator’s use of semi-colons in the above quote but they’re genuine – Aristotle invented them and, naturally, used them liberally.)

Having looked at examples of what exists or has existed, Aristotle then goes on to define and categorize what he has described, breaking them down into three main classifications:

(1) One man rule aiming at the common good – Kingship

(2) Rule of one man but only a few – Aristocracy

(3) Rule exercised by the bulk of the citizens  for the good of the whole community – Polity [Democracy]

If that seems trite to a modern reader, it’s just the beginning. He goes on to describe the three main perversions of the above – tyranny, oligarchy, and despotism – and then continues into long and fairly complex discussions of various mixes of the six basic forms. For example, of a govt where a king’s power is checked by an active aristocracy, or a govt where political decisions are made democratically but financial decisions are kept in the hands of an oligarchy, and so 0n. In this exhaustive survey you’ll find near every possible combination with some interesting comments from Aristotle on what such an animal might look like or what its problems might be.

Interesting but not always helpful. Aristotle was born into the Greek aristocracy, the son of King Amyntas’ physician, and has the usual prejudices of his class: slavery is the natural order of things (Southerners have been using Aristotle’s explanation of The Good That Is Slavery since well before the Civil War), pure democracy may be the worst possible choice for governing since it is little more than mob rule, and women’s role is to run the household and keep their mouths shut. You can’t expect modern attitudes it has taken the rest of us 6000 yrs to embrace from a 2400-yr-old conservative, but to give him credit, Aristotle is less xenophobic, less racist, less pigheaded than, say, James Inhofe, any day in the week.

But what I found most intriguing was the assumption that there was a “Best State” to begin with, and that Aristotle realized thousands of years before anyone else that “Best” was in the eye of the beholder and that under certain circumstances (and he recounts a few of them) a democracy might choose to become a tyranny or a tyranny give way to a democracy because conditions had changed and each was right for the times and trials the citizenry faced. Despite his own preferences – which are clearly for aristocratic rule – Aristotle condemned only the “extremes” of absolute tyranny and pure democracy. For the rest, he saw hope and use in all of them and thought that men could thrive under any of them given the right conditions.

I hope he’s right because with our democracy devolving into an oligarchy, I’d like to believe we have some sort of future left.

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