Which Offices Are Necessary to a Polis?

In the concluding chapter of book Ⅵ of the Politics, Aristotle describes the bureaucracy of a polis, continuing an inquiry he started in book Ⅳ when he examined the executive branch of government (see ♇ 30 December 2018).


A polis needs officials in charge of:

  • religion (temple management, ritual supervision)
  • defense and war
  • the treasury
  • commerce (keeps the marketplace in good order and ensures honesty in its workings)
  • public works (keeps streets in good order, repairs dilapidated public buildings and walls and harbors, fixes property boundaries)
  • land management (similar responsibilities, but covers the territory outside the urban center)
  • the courts
  • records (keeps track of contracts, legal decisions, and other documents)
  • law enforcement (enforces judgments, imprisons offenders)
  • audits (scrutinizes the accounts of the various offices and the conduct of officials)
  • presiding (sets the agenda and presides over the governing bodies; represents the polis in secular rituals)

Law enforcement, Aristotle says, is particularly grueling. The people it is directed against naturally resent it, and so it’s a slog. You have to pay people well to take on such a job, but without them you might as well not have laws and judgments, so it’s necessary. It is best that the enforcers be different people from those who handed down the judgment being enforced, as the resentment will be less and so the process will go easier.

Respectable people avoid becoming law enforcement officers, which leads the office to be peopled by the worst sort “who are themselves more in need of guarding than capable of guarding others.” For this reason, Aristotle recommends that instead of having professional law enforcement officers, these people be chosen from among the ranks of those doing militia duty in any particular year, and then rotate out of that duty at the end of their annual service.

Sometimes, Aristotle notes, some of these responsibilities are divided up into multiple offices. For instance, jailers and bailiffs might be in different departments rather than subsumed under a single law enforcement office, or the department of public works may be distinct from the harbor patrol or the assessment office.

In larger and more prosperous poleis, additional offices may be needed, covering matters like:

  • control of women & children
  • guardianship of the laws
  • management of gymnasia
  • supervision of contests (athletic & dramatic) and other public spectacles

This concludes my summary of book Ⅵ of the Politics.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics

While I wasn’t paying attention, the IRS released its preliminary tax year income tax filing figures. These show, among other things, estimates of the number and percentage of “lucky duckies” who file tax returns showing that they owed no federal income tax all year. So I’ve added another line at the bottom of the table:

Tax YearNumber of Zero-Tax FilersZero-Tax Filers as a Percent of All Filers