[1.3.16] Aristotle on Best Regimes and Constitutions

Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his book Politics (see also [1.3.15]) gives a typology of constitutions based on two attributes:

  • the number of people included in the power structures
  • the justice/injustice of the constitution

This way, he identifies six possible constitutional forms (adapted from Plato’s Statesman) – presented in the OntoUML diagram below. He argues that Kingship and Aristocracy are the best regimes, depending on the presence of o person with kingly virtue (who is like a god among man) in the City-State.

Aristotle on best regimes and constitutions
ClassDescriptionRelations
Constitution“The formal cause of the city-state is its constitution. Aristotle defines the constitution as ‘a certain ordering of the inhabitants of the city-state’… He also speaks of the constitution of a community as ‘the form of the compound’ and argues that whether the community is the same over time depends on whether it has the same constitution. The constitution is not a written document, but an immanent organizing principle, analogous to the soul of an organism. Hence, the constitution is also ‘the way of life’ of the citizens.”
Constitutional
Form
“Aristotle defines the constitution (politeia) as a way of organizing the offices of the city-state, particularly the sovereign office. The constitution thus defines the governing body, which takes different [constitutional] forms: for example, in a democracy it is the people, and in an oligarchy it is a select few (the wealthy or well born)…” characterizes Constitution
Kingship“absolute kingship is a limiting case of aristocracy”, when political power is exercised by one single person. Kingship is the best regime, when a ruler of kingly wirtue is present in the City-State. Aristotle suggests, that when such a person is present, “that in the case of the best regime it would be unjust to expel such men or force them to share ruling with others, so that the natural course is for everyone to accept them gladly as permanent kings.” (Vander Waerdt) is Constitutional
Form
Aristocracy“the correct conception of justice is aristocratic, assigning political rights to those who make a full contribution to the political community, that is, to those with virtue as well as property and freedom. This is what Aristotle understands by an ‘aristocratic’ constitution: literally, the rule of the aristoi, i.e., best persons.”
Aristotle proposes that the aristocrats should fulfill offices through rotation.
is Constitutional
Form
Politypolity is… a kind of “mixed” constitution typified by rule of the “middle” group of citizens, a moderately wealthy class between the rich and poor.”is Constitutional
Form
TirannyTyranny is power exercised by one person, who rules according to its own interests, not of his subjects.is Constitutional
Form
Oligarchy“the dominant class in oligarchy (literally rule of the oligoi, i.e., few) is typically the wealthy… The oligarchs mistakenly think that those who are superior in wealth should also have superior political rights…”
This approach of political justice is mistaken because assumes a false conception of the ultimate end of the city-state, which is not a “business enterprise to maximize wealth (as the oligarchs suppose)”. Instead, Aristotle argues, “the good life is the end of the city-state, that is, a life consisting of noble actions”.
is Constitutional
Form
Democracy“in democracy (literally rule of the dêmos, i.e., people) it is the poor, so that these economic classes should be included in the definition of these forms.”
Democracy is a deviant constitutional form because assumes a false conception of the ultimate end of the city-state, which is not an “association to promote liberty and equality (as the democrats maintain) “. Instead, Aristotle argues, “the good life is the end of the city-state, that is, a life consisting of noble actions”.
is Constitutional
Form
Correct“The conception of universal justice undergirds the distinction between correct (just) and deviant (unjust) constitutions.” characterizes Kingship, Aristocracy, Polity
DeviantDeviant constitution is unjust constitution.charaterizes Tiranny, Oligarchy, Democracy

Sources

  • All citations without explicit reference from: Miller, Fred, “Aristotle’s Political Theory“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • P. A. Vander Waerdt, “Kingship and Philosophy in Aristotle’s Best Regime”, in Ancient Philosophy 5 1985, (1):77-89.

First published: 17/10/2019

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