Aristotle is our last stop in Ancient Greece for this blog. For context, he lived in 4th century BC Greece and was tutor to Alexander the Great. Like Plato, he believed in a divine natural order of things, but had a different view of what that natural order was. However, one did not need to be a philosopher to understand the natural order. It could be understood by observing how things are when they go well, including states. Unlike Plato he believed that things were generally as they seemed. Plato’s politics is theoretical like geometry, where Aristotle’s politics is biological – a form of natural history. Plato is a purist and a theorist, where Aristotle is comparatively practical and pragmatic.
Aristotle believed the nature of something depends on its goal, and the goal of politics is for people to live as good a life as possible together. As with Plato, justice is key to how we should live, but he had a different view of justice. It is the more modern sense of good and bad experiences distributed to people according to their due. Justice is only one virtue (rather than Plato’s umbrella term for all virtues), and we are more likely to be just if we follow the other virtues, such as generosity. Humans are not naturally selfish as some thought, but seek our own well-being. Virtuous people want what is good for them, but unvirtuous people sometimes want what isn’t good for them (a modern example being addictive drugs).
Aristotle explained what he saw around him by observing how and why it worked. It was natural for citizens to want the good life and participate in politics, and that meant they needed help with manual labour. Some people were naturally good slaves, so that should be their role. Those that were naturally best able to rule should do so, but it was better to have many heads than one. He describes three constitutional forms. Kingship (individual rule), Aristocracy (rule by the few) and ‘Politeia’ (rule by the many). Change is synonymous with decay so each pure form corrupts; Kingship to Tyranny, Aristocracy to Oligarchy, and Politeia to Democracy, where those that govern do so in their own interest. Democracy is dismissed as mob rule by Aristotle. The common labourer or slave does not have the time or natural ability to participate in politics (remembering that Greek citizens are occasional politicians not just voters), and their jealousy of the ruling elite would cause them to use power unjustly against the elite. As usual for Aristotle, here he believes compromise is best. The ruling class should be wide enough to prevent Oligarchy, but not so wide as to descend into Democracy. The result is Politeia, which is more like an expanded Aristocracy rather than Athenian direct Democracy.
Aristotle wrote about revolution (‘unconstitutional changes in constitution’ – including popular revolution and coup d-etat) and how to avoid them. Aristotle was happy to advise Tyrants that to prevent revolution they should firstly keep their opponents divided, and secondly behave moderately and virtuously. In addition, political stability is best achieved with a large middle class – too much to lose to ally with the poor, powerful enough to resist the rich. In addition, moderate wealth leads to a corresponding moderation in desires. This is the most practicable state, even if Aristocracy is the best. In an age of instability, Aristotle believed that politics could serve its citizens best by providing capable rulers and stable states.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: