Trivial Sparks Can Set Constitutions Aflame, Says Aristotle

Yesterday Aristotle gave us some of the causes for instability and factionalism in the political order of a polis. Today, in chapter ⅳ of book Ⅴ of the Politics, he’ll talk about the sparks that lead to the collapse of the constitutional order once it has been undermined by such causes as those.


The spark, he says, is often something trivial and far removed from the underlying causes that are causing the constitution to decay. The nasty break-up of a couple of lovers who held office in Syracuse broke the camel’s back there; two brothers quarreling over an inheritance split Hestiaea; a broken engagement, and the subsequent framing of the faithless bridegroom broke up Dephi.

This sort of thing can still be seen today. For example, the suicide of a Tunisian street vendor in set off demonstrations that overthrew the regime there and led to the Arab Spring/Arab Winter disruptions of the constitutional order in several countries.

Aristotle rattles off several more examples like these from his day, and notes that by the time things had reached the stage where this sort of thing was enough to throw the polis into chaos, it was too late. He says it’s important for the political scientist/doctor to be on guard against instability and work to head it off early, before some minor crisis causes the authority of the state to collapse.

Another thing that can bring down a constitution is if some “committee or part of the state” acquires outsized power or authority with the public. This can happen in the aftermath of a war, for instance, when veterans or military officers cash in on patriotism and public gratitude to buy a bigger seat at the political table for them or their class.

Something else that can provoke instability is when there are two major factions in society that are closely matched, without a large group in-between to act as a buffer. This makes the odds of winning a power struggle appealing to each side.

“The important thing to remember,” says Aristotle, is that the ones who will be stirring up trouble and trying to use it to kindle political change will be those who stand to gain from such change. They will possibly use violence, and certainly trickery, and they cannot be counted on to keep the promises they made in order to win over the people, once they accomplish their aims.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics