Friday, April 1, 2011

Aristotle and Democracy

Aristotle in his Politics lays out a thorough discussion of the various forms of government – monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. His focus is the character of men and their ability to govern rather than identifying the best political system.

In Book 2, he is harshly critical of Plato and his Republic. Plato envisioned a communist society where all citizens are alike. To Aristotle this is impossible because the differentiation of functions is a law of nature. Moreover, the abolition of property will produce dissension and not harmony. As Aristotle pointed out, the advantages expected from the communism of property would be better secured if private property were used in a liberal spirit to relieve the wants of others. Private property makes men happier and enables them to cultivate generosity.

In Book 3, Aristotle tackles the aims of the state and how they are represented in the various governmental models.

“A constitution is the arrangement of magistracies in a state, especially of the highest of all. The government is everywhere sovereign in the state, and the constitution is in fact the government. For example, in democracies the people are supreme, but in oligarchies, the few; and, therefore, we say that these two forms of government also are different: and so in other cases.”

No matter what the form of government, knowledge of its true forms is essential to be able to understand its perversions.

“The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one or of the few, or of the many, are perversions.

It’s not a great leap to see how this statement applies to the United States today, where the Congress and the people have gravitated to their own parochial interests and away from the common good.

The common good made the Polis successful. When it was ignored, the Golden Age came to an end.

Aristotle goes on (Book 3 Chapter 7) to describe the perversion of Democracy as the needy. What does he mean by this? When Democracy becomes extreme and the numerous poor control the state, they will not be good rulers because they do not have the skill. Better to limit their function to a deliberative one, such as participation in the courts.

“Our conclusion, then, is that political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship. Hence they who contribute most to such a society have a greater share in it than those who have the same or a greater freedom or nobility of birth but are inferior to them in political virtue; or than those who exceed them in wealth but are surpassed by them in virtue.”

This means that a successful political system must employ those possessing the greatest skill in its most important roles. But skill in itself is not enough, because power must be used for good.

“There is also a doubt as to what is to be the supreme power in the state: Is it the multitude, or the wealthy, or the good, or the one best man, or a tyrant? Any of these alternatives seems to involve disagreeable consequences.

If the poor, for example, because they are more in number, divide among themselves the property of the rich- is not this unjust? No, by heaven (will be the reply), for the supreme authority justly willed it. But if this is not injustice, pray what is? Again, when in the first division all has been taken, and the majority divide anew the property of the minority, is it not evident, if this goes on, that they will ruin the state? Yet surely, virtue is not the ruin of those who possess her, nor is justice destructive of a state; and therefore this law of confiscation clearly cannot be just. If it were, all the acts of a tyrant must of necessity be just; for he only coerces other men by superior power, just as the multitude coerce the rich. But is it just then that the few and the wealthy should be the rulers? And what if they, in like manner, rob and plunder the people- is this just? If so, the other case will likewise be just. But there can be no doubt that all these things are wrong and unjust.”

Doesn’t this property confiscation example sound amazingly similar to the Progressive agenda before us today in the United States – the leveling of wealth the current administration seeks? We must take care that social agendas do not break down our society for the wrong reasons. After all, human beings behave in ways that cannot be re-programmed into some kind of utopian construct.


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  2. But is it just then that the few and the wealthy should be the rulers? And what if they, in like manner, rob and plunder the people- is this just? If so, the other case will likewise be just.

    I think Aristotle would see the leveling of wealth you speak of as just, given the circumstances of American Capitalism in the past 20 years or so.

  3. Juancho,

    This has been a debate throughout history. When the few and wealthy govern wisely, a political system can prosper. When they become tyrants, they deserve to fall. The opposite is anarchy where there are no controls. Leveling by itself is not a good thing because it goes against the natural order of society, which is structured by the intelligence and motivation of some but not all men.