Aristotle on the Sources of Instability in Government

Once you’ve got your polis up and running under some constitution or other, preferably a wisely-chosen one, you can’t just rest on your laurels, says Aristotle. There’s an ever-present risk of factionalism that can divide and destabilize things. Aristotle begins book Ⅴ of the Politics by examining the causes of factionalism.


While people tend to agree on political “equality” in a vague way, they differ on the details. Those with democratic leanings think that a level equality across all citizens in all things ought to be the standard to judge the system against. People with exceptional attributes of one sort or another (wealth, property, heritage, reputation) easily contrive good reasons why political power should be distributed in proportion to those attributes instead.

And so factions form and intrigue to change or defend the existing constitutional order in order to secure more power for themselves.

Aristotle describes this as people sincerely striving to obtain or defend the “equality” they believe they deserve (though they may be disingenuous in the self-interested ways they define “equality”) — not as a self-consciously machiavellian power struggle.

He thinks that letting either the oligarchs or the democrats have their way 100% is a recipe for trouble. Of the two, democracy is safer, he says, as he believes it is less prone to factionalism. Oligarchy, in contrast, leads to struggles between different groups who think that they should be the oligarchs. Aristotle doesn’t seem to anticipate the sort of democratic partisanship that we see around us today (or perhaps he would consider it safely contained by the constitutional order, or, alternately, might see it as an oligarchical power struggle being perpetrated by quasi-democratic means).

The causes of destabilizing factionalism, according to Aristotle, are as follows:

  1. The feeling of being treated inequitably, of not getting your fair share.
  2. The pursuit of profit and honor (and the avoidance of loss and dishonor) to the extent that political power is necessary for this.
  3. Any of the following, or several in combination:
    1. noticing unjust distribution of profit in society
    2. noticing unjust distribution of honor in society
    3. being ill-treated or treated haughtily by the ruling class
    4. fear; the sense of being backed into a corner (e.g. we’d better seize power now before the government can exile or imprison us)
    5. when some people acquire disproportionate political power
    6. contempt for the laws or constitution
    7. demographic changes (e.g. a rise in the proportion of the population who are poor, or a rise in the proportion of wealth held by the rich)
    8. electioneering, political grandstanding
    9. lack of vigilance over the government by the people, allowing people hostile to the constitution into power
    10. gradual changes that go unnoticed but slowly undermine the state
    11. ethnic tensions between dissimilar sub-populations
    12. geographical isolation of part of the population

The fault lines can form just about anywhere. Noting the “Star-Bellied Sneeches” capriciousness of human alliances, Aristotle says “it seems that every distinction leads to division.”

As Aristotle discusses these things, he pragmatically takes the point of view of a physician trying to diagnose and cure an unhealthy constitution in order to make it stronger and more resilient. But some constitutions, as he’s already noted, are pathological despotisms and we would be better off without them. So while these chapters are written as diagnostic manuals for the physician, they can also be given an esoteric reading as recipes for the poisoner. Aristotle, who was brought up on tales of the trial and execution of Socrates, and who himself would retreat from Athens into self-imposed exile from fear of political persecution, understood that philosophers who threatened the political order were treading on dangerous ground and wisely left that interpretation subtextual.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics