Form of Government Emerges from the Character of the People

In the last chapters of book Ⅲ of the Politics, Aristotle concludes his discussion of the monarchical form of government.


He begins by bringing up the natural/unnatural distinction that was so important to his analysis back in book Ⅰ (see ♇ 30 November 2018). He has already noted the good forms of government by the one, the several, and the many (kingship, aristocracy, and polity) and their corresponding bad forms (tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy). He now points out that the good forms are “natural” while the bad forms are “deviations… [that] develop contrary to nature.”

I’m not sure how to reconcile this with how he uses the natural/unnatural distinction elsewhere. But for the purposes of these chapters, he means that certain ways of evaluating “natural” states (are they “ ‘just’ and ‘expedient’ ” for instance) are inapplicable to unnatural states, in the same way, I suppose, that a distinction like “is this tree deciduous or coniferous” would not apply to an artificial tree made out of aluminum.

I believe Aristotle will go into details later on in the Politics about how states decay from one form of government into another, so we may learn more about what happens to a natural state to make it an unnatural one there.

Next, Aristotle says that the variety of government of a state naturally emerges from the sort of people that are in it. Some populations and cultures, apparently, naturally concentrate the virtues necessary to leadership into a small number of people — a ruling family or an aristocracy — while others distribute those virtues more widely among the propertied class. When you see where these virtues are concentrated in a society, you simultaneously see which of the “good” varieties of government ought naturally to grow within them.

While a distributed rule, shared among equals, is a good ideal to strive for, if you find in your society that a particular person or family is head-and-shoulders above the rest, it makes more sense to make them royalty than to try to force a more egalitarian system. Submit to superiority where you find it, whether it be in a person, an aristocracy, or the wisdom of the crowd.

Finally, Aristotle briefly mentions how a healthy polis can maintain its health. This depends on the virtues of those with political authority (“citizens,” whether these be many or few). Since “in the best state… the virtue of a man and of a citizen are identical,” Aristotle says, to make the best citizens is more or less the same process as to make the best men: education and training in the virtues, as spelled out in The Nicomachean Ethics.

This suggests that it is as important for democracy (in the positive sense in which people most often use the word today) that virtue be distributed widely as it is that power be distributed widely. If you do the latter before the former, you end up with a dumpster fire. In a society where there is neither an authoritative person, class, nor population that possesses the virtues, and the virtues are more or less completely neglected in education and training, it may not matter much how democratic things are, it will be a mess no matter what.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics