Parts of States and Types of States

Today I’ll summarize the chapters ⅲ–ⅶ and ⅹ of book Ⅳ of Aristotle’s Politics:


The Parts of a State

There are a number of useful ways in which you might divide a state up into its component parts. There is the division of citizens and non-citizens, for example, which Aristotle has made much of. The parts of a household are another: men, women, children, and slaves.

You might divide a population by production: agricultural, commercial, and mechanical. Or you might divide them by economic class. Those who are in or not in the military or military-reserve represent another possible dividing line. In societies in which the cavalry is vital to national survival, people might be divvied up by how many horses they own or whether they own any at all. For sea-going nations, ships may take the place of horses, and such societies will be further divided by whether their fleets are best put to use for transit, fishing, trade, piracy, or conquering.

What value a society places on such divisions will change the nature of its constitution. An aristocracy of the horse-owners is different from one of the military officers or one of the noble families. A democracy of equals may be of equal people, equal men, or equal property owners. Even in an oligarchy of the rich, things will be different if the rich are relatively rare than if they are relatively common.

There are also states that are nominally governed by some form of constitutional law but that when you look at them more closely are more of a democratic free-for-all; others that proclaim democratic ideals and have trappings of popular rule but are really run by an oligarchy behind the scenes.

States also have different ideas of the purpose of their governance. For example, in Carthage the constitution aims for “wealth, virtue, and the good of the people,” while in Sparta, “virtue and the good of the people” suffice. Such things as these result in different sorts of aristocracy or aristocracy/democracy blends.

It’s important to keep in mind the variety of possible states that can emerge under simple headings like “aristocracy” or “democracy”.

Essential Parts of a State

Another way of looking at this is to consider the parts of a state like the organs of a body, and how the various forms these organs can take describe the various species of polis that you might encounter. At minimum, a state, has such organs as these:

  • agricultural
  • mechanical (manufacturing)
  • commercial
  • labor
  • capital
  • military
  • judicial & deliberative/legislative
  • executive/bureaucratic

Aristotle chortles at Plato’s theory, in the Republic, book Ⅱ, that the essentials of a state were weavers, farmers, shoemakers, and builders, to which he then added metalworkers, livestock managers, traders, and merchants in order to make this minimal state self-sustaining. Aristotle finds this theory comes up short in several ways:

  1. It puts shoemakers on as high a level of necessity as farmers, which Aristotle evidently regards as preposterous; perhaps he had tough feet. (Aristotle seems to have had a high regard for farmers relative to other people not in the ruling class.)
  2. It does not recognize the vital need of military defense (evidently believing this to be something that doesn’t arise until the new polis develops expansionary ambitions).
  3. It does not have a place for the important judicial and deliberative elements.
  4. It assumes that the reason people form states is only to satisfy basic survival needs, and not from any higher purpose.

If people only needed to survive and breed, their instincts would be sufficient and they would not need the virtues. Similarly, if we formed cities for no nobler reasons than insects form hives, Plato’s essentials would be fine. But because we are humans, we need virtues; and because humans are political animals, our poleis need to respect our human nature and provide a place for us to thrive in the human, not merely animal, way.

Types of Democracy

Aristotle typically assumes that democracy is the rule of the poor, and that the poor will rule in their own interests (e.g. at the expense of the rich). But the first variety of democracy he considers here is one in which there is equality, but “the law interprets equality as meaning that the poor shall not enjoy any more advantage than the rich.” So a sort of limited, constitutional democracy, in which the rights of the poor majority over the rich minority are limited in some way.

He then briefly considers three other varieties in rapid succession: In the first two, citizenship is limited either by a modest property qualification or by some characteristic of birth, but in each case law continues to be sovereign over the arbitrary decisions of the majority. The third case could be any of the above varieties, but in this case the majority is absolutely sovereign and unrestrained by law.

Why does the majority in a democracy ever allow itself to be subordinated to the law? In part this is because in a democracy, the majority is busy making a living. They don’t have time to deliberate and judge cases, and so they’re happy, most of the time, to delegate these tasks to officials and to give them general guidelines (laws, that is) for how to do things the way they’d like them done.

He says that demagogues are responsible for the decay of law and the rise of majority power (that is, the emergence of that last variety) in democracies. Demagogues empower the people to run roughshod over the law, and then the people return the favor by empowering the demagogues. The result is similar to what happens when a monarchy flips into a tyranny; in this case the monarch that turns tyrant is the majority, and the demagogues have a similar place in such a democracy to the flattering toadies in the tyrant’s court (we call them “the adults in the room” today, I believe). The demagogue rules by giving free rein to the mob and then applying the reins lightly from time to time: flattering the mob’s freedom and wisdom while telling it what this freedom and wisdom rightly consists of, and that this freedom and wisdom is being unjustly restrained by the law and officials (we call them “the deep state” today, I believe). See also: my review of “Mario and the Magician”.

Democracies also have the power to vote themselves money out of the public treasury, which is a mighty temptation. Aristotle says that democracies would vote salaries to citizens who participate in governance, and this would turn things on their heads: instead of the aristocracy being the only ones with sufficient leisure time to govern, the poor suddenly have all the time time in the world to join in, while the wealthy find themselves too busy with other things. And so things continue to go downhill.

Types of Oligarchy

Four categories of oligarchy are as follows:

  1. Only those with sufficient property are citizens, and those who acquire enough property thereby become citizens.
  2. Only those with sufficient property are citizens, and they then choose whom else to let in the club — nouveaux riches or not.
  3. The oligarchy is hereditary, passed down from father to son.
  4. A hereditary oligarchy like #3, but where the oligarchy has an absolute rule without regard for legal precedent.

Variety #2 can be more aristocratic than oligarchical to the extent that citizenship is bestowed based on virtues and abilities to improve the state. Variety #4 in its decadent disregard for the law and for the common good is like the absolute democracy Aristotle mentioned above, and its monarchical analog, the tyranny.

Oligarchies have a similar mode of decay to democracies. At first, when economic inequality is not too great, and the oligarchs have plenty else to concern them, they are content to let laws and officials run things under their occasional deliberative guidance. But if the ruling class shrinks in size and grows in wealth, it becomes jealous of its power and makes it exclusive and hereditary. Eventually this group casts the law and independent officials aside and finds it can do best by ruling the state for its own benefit.

Types of Tyranny

Aristotle briefly addresses varieties of tyranny in chapter ⅹ. The chapter is largely a throw-away that does little but provide symmetry with the above arguments, as Aristotle already discussed varieties of monarchy at length earlier (see ♇ 21 December 2018). Some tyrannies operate within constitutional limits, and some do not; of those that do not, some are operated by tyrants who are superior to their subjects and act largely for the good of the state and over generally compliant subjects, others by inferior people who act largely in their own interest over unwilling subjects.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics
Find Out More!

For more information on the topic or topics below (organized as “topic → subtopic → sub-subtopic”), click on any of the ♦ symbols to see other pages on this site that cover the topic. Or browse the site’s topic index at the “Outline” page.