The Executive and Judicial Branches, According to Aristotle

At the end of book Ⅳ of his Politics, Aristotle takes us on a whirlwind tour of the main branches of government. Today, in chapters ⅹⅴ and ⅹⅵ, we explore the executive and judicial branches.


Aristotle remarks that there is a lot of variety in how the executive branch is conceived of and constructed in various constitutions and political theories. The following are some of the considerations that affect the structure of the executive branch:

  • which offices are necessary, and which are at least useful, to the running of a state
  • how many of those offices belong to this branch
  • of those offices, whether some are better divided into smaller areas of responsibility, and others better consolidated under a single official
  • which matters are best left to committees and which to single responsible individuals
  • which personnel count as “officials” as opposed to mere low-level bureaucrats
  • what the officials have authority over
  • the length of tenure of the officials
  • whether the same person may hold the office for multiple terms
  • which people qualify to hold office
  • how people are chosen for office
  • how the variety of constitution affects the structure of the bureaucracy; whether there some offices that are only appropriate under some sorts of constitutions

Aristotle introduces most of these questions only briefly, without attempting to give definitive recommendations or to go into detail about the alternatives.

He does go into some detail about the process of appointing officials. He says that permutations of the following options exhaust the possibilities (though sometimes different methods will be used for different offices within the same polis):

who appoints them
all citizens, or just some of them?
from whom they are drawn
all citizens, or just some of them (e.g. is there a property qualification)?
how they are chosen
for instance, by lot or by election

He describes these permutations in a whirl of confusing and seemingly unnecessary detail. I think all we really need to know is that there are these various options practiced by different states to fill different offices.

The more that offices are appointed from all the citizenry by lot or by election, the more democratic is the executive branch; the more that officers are appointed from a pre-selected subset of the citizenry and/or by exclusive boards, the more oligarchical.

With the judiciary, too, there are fundamental questions of who may be members and how they are chosen. Jurymen may be chosen by lot or by election, or some by one method and some by the other, or juries empaneled for different sorts of cases may be assembled in different ways; and they may be chosen from all of the citizens or only a certain subset.

There is also the question of over what they have jurisdiction. Aristotle identifies eight categories of cases, and suggests that each is to be heard by a court that specializes in such cases. These are:

  1. “scrutinies” (a sort of audit of the performance of an office-holder at the end of his term)
  2. “offenses against the public interest”
  3. “matters relating to the constitution”
  4. “disputes between officials and private persons about the imposition of fines”
  5. “private transactions of some magnitude” (contracts)
  6. “homicide”, and this in turn is divided into four courts:
    1. murder
    2. manslaughter
    3. (possibly) justifiable homicide
    4. appeals by those exiled for homicide
  7. “foreigners”, divided into:
    1. disputes between foreigners
    2. disputes between a citizen and a foreigner
  8. small claims

These concluding chapters read like outlines or sketches or maybe lecture notes. They introduce the topics but don’t delve into them much. It’s as though it were all Aristotle could do (in what survives of his political writing) to map out the breadth of the topic.

The next two books will be about how constitutions function, how they change over time, and how best to preserve them from the everpresent threat of decay. I expect the upcoming chapters will be more detailed and less superficial.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics