Summing Up Book Ⅲ of Aristotle’s “Politics”

Today I’ll try to sum up what Aristotle was saying about citizenship and political authority in book Ⅲ of the Politics.


Aristotle defines a citizen as a member of the polis who exercises political authority, at least some of the time. Under different sorts of government, different numbers of people can be considered citizens, but don’t be fooled by the name: nominal citizens aren’t really citizens unless they are part of the power structure. So, for example, the sort of “citizenship” we argue about when we talk about, say, U.S. citizenship, isn’t what Aristotle has in mind.

In the best sort of state, the task of being a good citizen and of being a good person are in close alignment: the state most thrives when its citizens are practicing the virtues, and the highest purpose of such a state is to help nurture the virtues in its citizenry and to help them to flourish. However, in general, the virtues of citizenship are a sort of stunted subset of the virtues of a good person: just those virtues required to serve the state well. The ruling class has need for, and exercise of, a larger set of virtues than the subject class.

What to do with the mass of subjects who aren’t citizens is a bit of a trick. You don’t want to give them much political power, because they aren’t likely to use it wisely. But if you don’t give them enough power, they get restive and cause trouble. Luckily, even if the individuals in the unwashed masses are none-too-bright or -virtuous, as an agglomeration they can sometimes be counted on to make good decisions thanks to the “wisdom of the crowd.” For this reason, it can be safe to give them power in groups, such as in the form of voting assemblies or juries, when it would be unsafe to give any of them individual authority.

Political power in a polis can be constituted in many ways. These ways can be categorized by how many people hold political authority: one, few, or many. Each of those categories has a good and bad form; in good constitutions the rulers rule for the benefit of the polis, while in the bad ones they rule for their own benefit. The good forms are called kingship, aristocracy, and polity; the bad are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. This isn’t a perfect categorization, and there are important variations in each category, but it’s a good place to start.

Which sort of constitution distributes power most justly? There is a value in distributing power equally but only among those who are equal to begin with — that is, those who equally share in the virtues. But who decides who gets to join this exclusive club? People will seize on criteria that favor them and those like them. The best criterion, Aristotle thinks (though he gives little indication of how to measure it), is that the most authority ought to be given to those who contribute the most to the improvement of the polis as an association of people living together for the sake of noble action.

Whoever ends up with political authority, whether what they do with that authority is just is independent of whether it was done legally or according to the governing constitutional form. A decision is only just when it contributes to the health of the polis, which, when the polis is at its best, means contributing to the flourishing of those in it.

Extremely outstanding persons — those who practice all the virtues to an exceptional degree — are perhaps good candidates for monarchical rule. But it’s also possible that they are above and beyond the polis — a “law unto themselves.” In any case, it’s absurd to subject them to the law, even if they don’t take charge of it. Indeed, it might be wisest to send them into exile so they don’t unbalance the constitution.

Speaking of monarchies, these come in several varieties, distinguished by how absolute their rule is, whether it is limited in duration or scope, how it is passed from ruler to ruler, and whether the rule is exercised with the general consent of the subject population or wholly against their consent.

States may follow a predictable path of decay: they are founded by an outstanding person who is a sort of natural monarch, an aristocracy of noble people emerges and takes on more authority, this aristocracy becomes corrupted by exploiting the commons for economic gain and becomes an oligarchy, this then dissolves into tyranny which is eventually overtaken by democracy.

The form of government that a polis has emerges naturally out of the character of the people in it. If there is a single dominant person or family who stands head-and-shoulders above the rest in virtue, a monarchy is the natural result. If instead there is a small virtuous subset of people who amongst themselves are more-or-less equal, an aristocracy will bloom. If the virtues are widespread, a polity of equal citizens will share authority and power. The way to the healthiest, best sort of constitution, is to educate and train the citizenry (whether that encompasses a large or small group) well in the virtues.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics
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