Aristotle Examines Varieties of Monarchy

Aristotle next looks at more specialized varieties of monarchy and tyranny (the good and bad forms of one-person rule of a polis).


For instance, Spartan kings were apparently of the commander-in-chief variety: absolute rulers in military policy and discipline, but subject to other constitutional limitations elsewhere.

Aristotle also mentions a sort of monarchy found among some non-Greeks that is essentially tyrannical, but because it has a firm traditional foundation and is ancestral, is more stable than arbitrary tyrannies. (He notes that you can distinguish royal tyrannies of this sort because their bodyguards come from their own citizenry; ordinary tyrants cannot trust their citizens and so use foreign hirelings as their bodyguards and for internal security.)

There is also a sort of elected, term-limited monarchy — sometimes a temporary one meant to last only during a war or crisis. This is more monarchical than tyrannical to the extent that it is the result of an election and the extent that the monarch does not exceed the limits of his appointment.

A fourth variety Aristotle calls “heroic” and says existed in bygone times. Extraordinary individuals who had accomplished great things and had exceptional wisdom and so became kings, judges, and religious patriarchs by a sort of popular acclaim, and sometimes founded royal houses with hereditary rulers.

Aristotle briefly mentions a final category “in which one man single-handed is in sovereign control of everything,” — a sort of l’état, c’est moi maybe. In such a state, the king is like the head of the household and the rest of the country is his estate. It is the most absolute and unrestrained tyranny of those Aristotle mentions.

These varieties are so briefly noted here (chapter ⅹⅳ of book Ⅲ) that it is hard to distinguish, for instance, the second and fifth. Suffice it to note, I guess, that there are several sorts of monarchy/tyranny distinguished by things like how absolute the king’s rule is, and how well-supported by tradition and popularity the monarchy is.

Constitutional Monarchies

Aristotle begins the next chapter by comparing constitutional monarchies — in which the king rules, but within an established legal framework that fences in his authority somewhat — with absolute monarchies in which the king’s word is law. Is it better to be ruled by a good king or by good laws?

Aristotle is of the opinion that written laws are not flexible enough or prescient enough to react skillfully to future events, so some human judgment is necessary. On the other hand, human judgment is fallible, so having some “general principle” to guide the ruler in the heat of the moment is also a good thing.

He concludes that it’s good to lay down laws and then to stick to their guidance… except in rare cases when “they go awry” — that is, “when the law either cannot decide at all or will only decide badly.” He thinks such cases are best decided by juries of citizens (see his “wisdom of crowds” chapter for the reasoning here, but in short, a single individual may get carried away by strong feelings and lose judgment; this is less likely to happen to a huge mass of people all at once), and that this is a point in favor of aristocracies over monarchies.

Law is impartial and unemotional, while people are not. “[H]e who asks law to rule is asking God and intelligence and no others to rule; while he who asks for the rule of a human being is importing a wild beast too; for desire is like a wild beast, and anger perverts rulers and the very best of men. Hence law is intelligence without appetition.”

Should monarchies be hereditary? Aristotle thinks that the many examples of unfit heirs-to-the-throne rules this out as a good option.

How much of an internal security/law-enforcement force ought the King to command? One “strong enough to overpower one man or a band of men, but not the multitude” in order to make sure the king still fears the wrath of the population at large, Aristotle recommends.

Absolute Monarchies

What of the merits of those monarchs who rule without law, where the constitution in effect is “what His Royal Highness says, goes”? This is the more pure form of this sort of government. If the monarch is limited by law or by other institutions, then perhaps he really just holds a strong executive position in an otherwise non-monarchic government.

Aristotle acknowledges the arguments that absolute monarchy is an insult to the equality of the citizenry, that citizens should take turns in office, and that those offices should be subservient to the law, not the law subservient to the officials.

And on the other side, he considers the argument that the judgment of a single human monarch is more flexible, adaptable, and able to consider the specifics of the case, than are general-purpose laws. Would you rather be treated by a skilled physician, or someone following a flowchart in a textbook?

In response, Aristotle reiterates his arguments about the fallibility of spontaneous human judgment, and also notes that when people act on their own, they are less spontaneous and flexible than they may at first appear — being constrained by habits and customs that are law-like in their inflexibility, but are less-prone to examination and reform.

Aristotle notes that because nobody really has the capability to observe, judge, and act on all matters of state, even an “absolute” monarch will be forced to delegate authority to others. If this is the case, it is only an implementation detail whether these other people are appointed by the king or through some other mechanism: when it comes down to it, they are a distinct locus of political power. And this, Aristotle thinks, is good. Several people attending to matters of state will probably do a better job than one person trying to do it all himself.

The Natural Lifecycle of States

In a tangent, Aristotle toys with the idea that there is a sort of natural lifecycle of states: A state begins when it is founded by an outstanding individual, capable of conferring benefits on others, who becomes the monarch. As more people of good character emerge in the state, they begin to agitate for more political power, and an aristocracy emerges. But corruption then sets in as the aristocracy leverages their political power over the commons for economic gain. Oligarchy sets in, followed by tyranny, and then democracy. Nowadays “one might say that it is hard to avoid having a democratic constitution.”

This is reminiscent of Plato’s similar speculation about the lifecycle of the state in book Ⅷ of the Republic. Plato believed that states could begin with an aristocracy of the wise, but that this would be replaced in turn by a limited popular “timocratic” government, which would be succeeded by an oligarchy, a democracy, and finally a tyranny.

Both philosophers seemed convinced that the natural path of government was a descent into greater corruption and wickedness. It seems to me, though I have yet to notice either of them say it, that by this reasoning it would be best to establish states frequently and abolish them just about as fast, before they decay.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics