Law and Justice – Citizen and State – 8.7 Aristotle and Constitutional Thought
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Law and Justice – Citizen and State – 8.7 Aristotle and Constitutional Thought

>>>>Aristotle’s “Politics” offers one of the
most influential accounts of constitutional theory in all of history. Aristotle is a great
philosopher about the nature of constitutions, and he’s a great observer of the experiments
in constitutionalism that had taken place across the Greek world in the classical period.
And his “Politics” reflects on those experiences, to outline a theory of constitutional justice.
Aristotle’s constitutional theory focuses on the forms and the functions of the constitution.
Aristotle says that there are three different forms of the constitution: there are constitutions
in which the rule is held by one, in which it’s held by a few, in which it’s held by
the many. Rule by the individual is a kind of monarchy. Rule by the few is an aristocracy,
and rule by the many is what Aristotle calls a polity. Aristotle says each of these forms
also has a deviant version. That is, Aristotle says that there’s a version of these in which
the rule has gone wrong. And so rule by a single individual when it’s functioning appropriately
is a monarchy, but when it becomes deviant or incorrect, then it’s a tyranny. Rule by
the few is an aristocracy, unless it turns deviant, and then it’s an oligarchy. Rule
by the many is a polity unless it turns deviant, and then, as we’ve noted, it’s called a democracy–a
word that has negative connotations. Now for Aristotle, the difference turns on whether
or not the rule is held in the interest of the common good. And so a king that rules
for the common good is a true monarch, but one who rules for his own self-interest is
a tyrant. Similarly, when a few rule for the common good–that’s an aristocracy. But when
a few rule for their own interests, that’s an oligarchy. When the many rule for the common
good, that’s a polity. When they rule for their own interests, that’s a democracy. Aristotle
talks about the forms of the constitution at length, and these are kind of ideal types.
Aristotle recognizes that there are different forms. That even within the category of democracies,
there are extreme and radical democracies and there are more mixed democracies. He recognizes
there are three different elements of a constitution. There’s the, what we would call the executive
power, there’s the legislative or deliberative power, and there’s the judicial power. And
so Aristotle has something that presages the kind of theory of the different kinds of powers
within a constitution. And he recognizes that no constitution is pure, that there are different
kinds of mixture that takes place with the constitutions. And so Aristotle says that
these kinds of constitutions are differently suited to different kinds of societies, and
Aristotle talks about the best form of the constitution. And it’s in fact difficult to
tell what Aristotle thinks is the best form of constitutional organization. In some places,
he seems to think that the ideal form of a constitution would in fact be a monarchy–when
one supremely virtuous individual ruled over the entire society for the common good. But,
in other places, Aristotle seems to say that the highest form of constitution is in fact
an aristocracy. And I want us to think about what aristocracy means for Aristotle, because
as he recognizes, aristocracy can mean different things. In fact, he says there are three different
ways to think about the criteria for what an aristocracy is. In Greek, aristocracy simply
means rule by the best, “aristos” is the best. And aristocracy is rule by those who are best.
Well, best on what grounds? Aristotle says that it might mean the best, those who are
wellborn. And when we hear aristocracy as Americans, that’s the primary connotation–aristocracy
are those who are wellborn. Aristotle says it can also mean simply those who are rich.
And this too, has some resonance with us, that the aristocracy is simply those who have
money. And Aristotle in fact says that a true aristocracy is not rule by those who are from
a class of elite families or those who are simply wealthy, but those who are, in fact,
the best–those who are the most virtuous. And this is why Aristotle is an aristocrat.
He thinks that society should be ruled by those who are best, that those who deserve
power, those who deserve rule, those who deserve office and honor are those who are most worthy,
those who have the highest degree of human excellence. And so for us, it might be better
to think of aristocracy, when we read it in Aristotle’s “Politics,” as meritocracy: A
horrible English word that was coined in the mid-20th century that means rule by those
who are deserving. Aristotle’s version of aristocracy means rule by those who are most
morally virtuous, because for Aristotle, those who are truly excellent are the ones that
deserve rule in a political constitution.


  • Christoph Mahler

    Well presented summary of Aristotle's fragments … with questionable interpretations :

    1. a "common good" (often translated as 'commonwealth', 'general welfare' – all hinting to the economy and some notion of 'equal outcome') is a term in the tradition of platonic idealism (Aristotle was taught by Plato, but critized core concepts of platonic thinking).
    Just as James Buchanan did in the 20th century, Aristotle would ask at some point the critical question:

    "good to whom" ?

    In regard to Aristotle, 'Good' may be translated rather as an individualized, immanent 'interest' (e.g. 'equal opportunites' and a critical exchange of ideas/'public discourse' as a means towards a meaningful life ), instead of some universal, trancending 'value'/'ideal' (e.g. Athenian 'welfare state', 'idealism' or Spartan tradition).

    2. The term aristos – 'exellency' implied hereditary talents (respected genealogy) and noble upbringing (martial exercise), but also the leisure time for rhethorical and philosophical studies in the social context of subsistence farming and slavery. Interpreting aristos in the sense of the rather modern concept of 'meritocracy' – although exercised since ancient Chinese bureaucracy with it's entrance exams for imperial service – is certainly thought provoking, but it also ignores another trait of Aristotelian thought:

    the concept of 'moderation' .

    To Aristotle it may not have mattered if a 'polis' is ruled by wealthy oligarchs (striving for the accumulation of more wealth) or literally by a pauper democrat (striving for majority rule – and advocating a rather anarchic liberty) as long as the ruling interest group restrains itself from oppressing the other – which would give justification for the the wide-spread escalation into civil war , an ill of the hellenistic world ebentually pacified by an 'imperialistic' Makedonian and Roman rule.

    This aspect quite refutes the Anglo-American fetishization of 'constitutional diagrams' which never empirically meassure the actual forces of the political process .

    "Oligarchy or democracy, although a departure from the most perfect form, may yet be a good enough government, but if any one attempts to push the principles of either to an extreme , he will begin by spoiling the government and end by having none at all. Wherefore the legislator and the statesman ought to know what democratical measures save and what destroy a democracy , and what oligarchical measures save or destroy an oligarchy . For neither the one nor the other can exist or continue to exist unless both rich and poor are included in it."
    (Aristotle. Politics. Book V, part IX)

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