Summing Up Book Ⅳ of Aristotle’s “Politics”

What can we take away from book Ⅳ of Aristotle’s Politics?


Aristotle takes for granted by now that people need to live in a well-governed polis in order to flourish as human beings. In this book he is concerned with exploring the elements and structure of a polis, in a similar way to which a doctor might study human anatomy. The Aristotelian political scientist is a sort of doctor of the constitution — diagnosing its imbalances and ailments and suggesting possible cures.

It’s important to keep in mind that the purpose of a polis is to incubate flourishing human beings, not just to ensure human survival and basic animal needs. The polis therefore should contribute to the eudaimonia of its residents (or its citizens at least), by promoting the virtues, or it’s not living up to its promise.

Different constitutions are best for different peoples at different times, depending on how they are constituted and what their history and traditions are. But whether in a monarchy, aristocracy, or timocracy, the important thing is that the rulers rule for the benefit of the polis and not merely for themselves or their class. Otherwise you end up with tyranny, oligarchy, or democracy, and things go downhill.

One test for this is to ask whether the ruling class are ruling within the law, or whether their rule is the law. If the latter, you’ve probably got an unhealthy despotism of some sort.

Aristotle strongly distrusts pure democracy, and is constantly recommending curbs of one sort or another to keep the poor masses from misusing the power of their majority to their advantage. Luckily the poor masses are usually too busy with other things to want to wield political power, but occasionally they can be whipped up by demagogues and cause trouble if you don’t respect their dignity.

Oligarchies have their own issues. (Aristotle occasionally nods at the desirability of an aristocracy of the virtuous, but apparently does not see this as likely, so concentrates on more vulgar oligarchies in this chapter.) They are prone to factionalism and corrupt exploitation of political power for personal economic gain.

So Aristotle recommends a balance of the two, and suggests several methods that constitutional doctors can use to maintain such a balance. This balanced constitution he calls “polity.” Polity thrives best in a polis with a large middle-class. If the rich grow too powerful, or the poor too numerous, it becomes harder to maintain the balance.

There are three main branches of government — the deliberative, executive, and judicial — which are not too different in Aristotle’s description from what you would find in a high school civics textbook today. This, I found odd. I wondered whether Aristotle was prophetic, whether modern constitutions slavishly follow the Aristotelian framework, or whether perhaps we are being misled by an oversimplification of the political system that has been passed down from textbook to textbook from time immemorial.

In the next chapter, having described the anatomy of a healthy polis, Aristotle will begin to analyze some of the diseases and imbalances a polis may be subject to, and how to treat them.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics