Aristotle Says Government Serves the Leisure Class

Having critiqued the political theories of Plato, Phaleas, and Hippodamus, Aristotle next begins to take a look at a variety of real-world constitutions to see if they have anything to teach us.


The word “constitution” is used in the translation I am referring to, and in others, but today that word implies a written document that regulates the structure and authority of the government. I think Aristotle’s use of the word is more flexible than this, and may just refer to the customary, understood ways of doing things, or how the structures of a society work whether or not they are formally documented.

Aristotle famously led a research project in which he studied the constitutions of over a hundred then-existing societies. However, in the discussions that follow, he concentrates on three: the Lacedaemonian (Spartan), Cretan, and Carthaginian — “all of which justly earn our respect,” he says later on (though in his discussions of them he seems mostly to concentrate on their flaws).

Today I’ll begin to review the chapter in which he discusses the first of these three.

He begins by noting that “it is agreed that a necessity for any state which is to operate a good constitution is freedom from drudgery.” In other words, the ruling class establishes a state in part as a way of making sure they will not have to do the dirty work, but will be freed up for a life of leisure. Aristotle assumes as a matter-of-fact that establishing and laying down the law for states is done on behalf of the elites, something that seems refreshingly honest when compared to the Hobbsean mythologizing of egalitarian grounds for the state that followed.

Of course Hobbes was mythologizing because he felt uncomfortable with the idea that the state is set up primarily for the benefit of those who rule it, whereas Aristotle seems utterly untroubled by this.

It’s tempting to be aghast at this, and to forget how typical it is. The Constitution of the nation I’m subject to was written up by a convention half of whose members were slaveholders. Certainly no slaves were represented there to have their interests spoken for. Most of the men who declared in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and that “it is the Right of the People… to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness,” were slave-owners. They meant “Us, of course, not them” when they used words like “all men” and “the People,” in the same way that when Aristotle says “it is agreed that a necessity for any state which is to operate a good constitution is freedom from drudgery,” he doesn’t mean freedom for everyone, but for the ruling class, those among whom “it is agreed.” It almost goes without saying.

But Aristotle goes ahead and spells it out. One of the big problems that naturally arises when you and your buddies in the ruling class decide to set up a state for your benefit is how to handle all of those people the state is not set up to benefit. How do you keep them doing the drudgery and defending your borders and paying your taxes without too much grumbling? Aristotle acknowledges that this is a difficult question, and that the ruling classes have yet to strike upon a fail-safe solution. Even if your underclass isn’t rebellious from being a conquered and resentful people or from being enticed to rebellion by hostile foreign powers, “there is still the effort of management, of finding the right way to live with a subject population. If they are allowed too much license, they become arrogant and begin to claim equal rights with their masters; if they are badly treated, they become resentful and rebellious.”

I expect he will also address this in future chapters. Here he mostly leaves it hanging as an unanswered question. He does say in a later section of this chapter that one of the few beneficial points of “The Board of Ephors,” which was elected annually by and from the whole population of citizens (not just the elite, though citizenship is itself is something of a badge of elitehood), is that “the people are kept quiet because it gives them a share of the highest office,” even though “the present method of election is quite childish.” He says that “if a constitution is to have a good prospect of stability, it must be such that all sections of the state accept it and want it to go on in the same way as before” and so you have to throw a bone like this to the underclass now and again.

I thought I was going to get through the discussion of Sparta in one go, but this is getting more long-winded than I expected. I’ll continue from here tomorrow.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics