Political Science Is Not Just About Constructing Utopias

In book Ⅳ of the The Politics Aristotle considers the tasks of the political scientist, and concludes that the practical, real-world variety is neglected, while the temptation to build utopias has carried its practitioners away.


The topics of political science, says Aristotle, are roughly these:

  1. What are the possible varieties of constitution, and which of these would be the ideally best political system?
  2. What would be the best state for a particular real-world population, given its present circumstances and capabilities?
  3. What are the dynamics of actual states as we find them (e.g. their rises and falls and transformations), and how can we effect these?
  4. Are there one-size-fits-all constitutional forms that can be recommended?

Aristotle thinks that the study of actual existing states, and their dynamics and how they can be improved, has been neglected by the political philosophers of his time. It’s as though philosophers of medicine have occupied themselves with the characteristics of the perfect healthy body to the extent that they have not come up with anything useful to offer people who suffer disease or injury, or indeed even to ordinary people.

He then carefully draws a distinction between laws and constitutions. It isn’t immediately clear what use he will make of this, but I’ll note it here:

a constitution
“is the arrangement which a state adopts for the distribution of offices, and for the determination of sovereignty in the constitution and of the end which the particular association aims at realizing”
the laws
“are those according to which the rulers shall rule and shall watch out for those that transgress them”

Laws are meant to fit constitutions, not constitutions to fit laws, he says. And so a different set of laws will be best depending on what sort of constitution they are meant to fit.

Aristotle next gives his opinion as to which sorts of constitutions are the best. Polity takes the top prize, followed by aristocracy and monarchy. The decadent forms of these come next, with democracy the least bad of these, followed by oligarchy and then tyranny taking up the rear. He contrasts his view on this with the more nuanced opinion of “one of my predecessors” (Plato perhaps) who thought that democracy was the worst of the worse, typically, though because oligarchy and tyranny had a broader range of terribleness, certain examples of either could be worse than the typical democracy.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics