How Do Good and Bad Constitutions Differ?

Aristotle has been doing a lot of work to define his terms and map out his subject matter and review prior work in the arena of politics, and now, in chapter ⅳ of book Ⅲ of the Politics he says he will begin to get down to brass tacks about which sort or sorts of constitutions are the best.

Aristotle

By “constitution” he doesn’t mean a written charter necessarily, but just however the authority structures of the state are organized, and which people have authority within those structures (which, by his prior discussion, is also how “citizenship” is defined). Aristotle accepts the then-popular categorizations of constitutions into forms like democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy — based on whether the many, the few, or the one rule — as a good starting place for analysis.

As he has said before, man is a political animal; the polis is his natural habitat and where he is most apt to thrive. The minimum successful polis will be one that promotes and protects the lives of those who associate in it. Better yet will be that polis that promotes the good life (particularly the virtue of justice for which a healthy constitution is so important).

What is the relationship between a state and its citizens? Is it like the relationship between a master and his slaves, which is meant to serve the master and in which the slave is only benefited incidentally if at all? Or is it more like the relationship between a man and his family, which is for the benefit of everyone in the family?

This a good way of distinguishing good and bad states, it turns out. In good ones, the rulers rule in the interest of the common good; in bad ones, for the benefit of the rulers themselves. But this division cuts orthogonally to the division of states into the categories of democratic, oligarchical, or monarchic. States in any of those categories can be either of a good or bad form in this light.

(Along the way, Aristotle again puts in a plug for the sort of government in which an equality among citizens is respected by allowing each of them to serve in turn in political office. This, he says, makes them more likely to respect the common good because of a spirit of reciprocity — they hope that the next occupier of the office will also respect the common good rather than try to milk the authority for their own benefit. He contrasts this with how “nowadays” office-holders get great personal benefit from holding office and so they greedily try to hold onto their posts. “They could hardly be more zealous in their place-hunting,” he says, “if they were ill and their recovery depended on securing office.”)

Aristotle gives names to the good and bad forms of these varieties of constitution, as shown in the following table as T.A. Sinclair translates them:

Who Rules?Good FormBad Form
onekingshiptyranny
fewaristocracyoligarchy
manypolitydemocracy

Those are the translations I’ll use going forward as I continue exploring Aristotle’s Politics.

He pauses to wonder if his definitions are necessarily true or only accidentally true of the societies that have come to his notice. Isn’t an important difference between an oligarchy and a democracy is that in the former the wealthy rule, and in the latter the poor rule? What would happen if the poor were in the minority, but somehow captured power through strength and desperation. Would they then be an oligarchy? Or if the rich were numerous and ran a democracy for their benefit by sheer power of majority, would that still be a democracy?

He says that if the wealthy rule the state for their benefit, it should be considered an oligarchy whether they are a majority or a minority, and so his definitions may not be entirely valid. But he thinks they’re good enough for our purposes, as in all of the states he knows about the wealthy are few and the poor are numerous.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics
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