Who Should Rule? Should Outstanding People Be Ruled at All?

What sort of person should be in charge? Those of noble birth? Those of property who contribute to the state treasury? Those with better education and virtue? Or should the majority rule?


Aristotle notes (in chapter ⅹⅲ of book Ⅲ of the Politics) that each of these has arguments in its favor, and he’s already noted that people tend to have greater sympathy for arguments whose conclusions are in their best interests. So the rich, for instance, will argue with great sincerity that their experience managing wealth gives them better insight into the prosperity of the state, and besides they pay more in taxes and so deserve to have more of a say. The majority, or members of “noble” families like say the Clintons or the Bushes, or people with doctorates in political science or who work at think-tanks will also have their sincerely-held reasons why people like them ought to be running the show.

Aristotle says that the arguments in favor of any of these groups in particular tend to run into absurdities when taken to their logical extremes.

(There’s also the question of for whose benefit the state ought to enact its policies. For the majority? For “the better sort”? How does the state strike a balance between what is most just and what, say, contributes to economic growth and the prosperity of the state as a whole? Aristotle notes this tension, but puts it aside for now.)

Imagine a person of superior virtue. He’s got the complete set of Aristotelian virtues, nearly-perfectly balanced in the golden mean in every category of life. Wouldn’t this person be the ideal ruler?

Aristotle thinks not. He thinks such a person has transcended the political order entirely. “[S]uch men we must take not to be part of the state… [T]here is no law that embraces men of that calibre: they are themselves law.” Indeed, a state might be wise to ostracize and exile such people so that they do not come to dominate the polis. Cutting outstanding citizens down to size, Aristotle says, can be a useful (if disturbingly Machiavellian) tactic for removing sources of political instability. If a source of power, whether it be great wealth or great pubic esteem, appears outside of the constitutional order, Aristotle recommends, stunt it or remove it (and maybe put new laws in place to prevent it happening again).

(In the real world, however — Aristotle notes parenthetically — this sort of power is typically exercised in partisan ways and not in order to sustain the constitutional order.)

If the polis does not have the wherewithal to banish or ostracize men of outstanding virtue, nor the hubris to try to rule over them, they will probably end up being ruled by them and installing them as their de facto kings.

Meanwhile they’re sort of outside the law. I’m reminded here of Ammon Hennacy’s definition: “An anarchist is someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave.”

In the next chapter, Aristotle will look into varieties of monarchy.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics