Summary of The Politics by Aristotle

ALTHOUGH preceded by the Republic of Plato, the Politics of Aristotle is the earliest extant treatise in which the subject is dealt with as a specific branch of practical science, and in obtaining data Aristotle examined the constitutions of over a hundred Greek states; to him, as to all Greeks, the city-state was the only state highly enough organized to deserve the name. His work substantially holds the field to the present day; and, if some of his doctrines are interesting primarily as illustrating the difference in the conditions of the ancient and modern world, others are as true of Europe to-day as they were of ancient Greece.


THE natures of various forms of rule are not identical. To ascertain the fundamental differences let us begin at the beginning, with the genesis, or coming into being, of the state.

Starting with the household, three relations are implied--of parents and children, husband and wife, master and slaves. Slaves are a form of property, defined as an aggregate of the instruments conducive to life; animate instruments of action.

From the slave as property arises the general question of property, its acquisition and application. Naturally, necessary things are acquired by simple processes--hunting, fishing, husbandry, etc. But there is a further and differing art of acquisition by way of exchange. The simple barter of necessaries is also natural; but exchange becomes so no longer when it is made in terms of a standard medium, the currency. To the acquisition of property, as defined, and its employment there is a limit; but to the acquisition of money, which is only potentially property, there is none.

It is with this kind of accumulation that finance is concerned, while domestic economy has to do with actual property. Finance is in any case non-natural; it is most unnatural in the form of usury. Simple acquisition of property is natural and involves knowledge of agriculture and live-stock. Finance proper covers the commercial field. Between these is the production of what conduces only indirectly to life. Incidentally, we note that the most effective of financial devices is that of capturing a monopoly of the supply.

Returning to the government of the household, the moral virtues are demanded of the ruler; we do not deny them to its other members, whether women, slaves, or children; but the virtues of these are not identical with those of the head, their functions being different.

Turning to Plato's ideal commonwealth, our first criticism is that Plato's aim is to produce uniformity, whereas uniformity is destructive of the state, which depends on diversity of service rendered. We should maintain that diversity.

Secondly, the Platonic communism, especially of wives and children, fails of its purpose; joint ownership produces not harmony, but discord, besides reducing the individual's interest in what is merely shared. All the force of family affections is watered away, and there are boundless ugly possibilities arising from the actual ignorance of relationships.

Common possession of other goods, too, generally leads to quarrels. Voluntary or regulated sharing of distinctively private property is another thing. If the scheme had been in any way practicable, someone would have tried it before now.

Thirdly, Socrates never explains how far the ordinary citizens fall under the same rules as the guardians; unity among them is not provided for, nor subordination. To which three main criticisms other minor ones may, of course, be added.

Plato's variations from the Republic in his Laws help us little--e.g. there he puts his professional soldiery at 5,000, an incredibly large proportion for any state deserving the name. He omits foreign relations altogether; says nothing of how the population is to be kept within bounds; and the total result seems to be a polity professing to be a cross between democracy and despotism, and actually more of an oligarchy than anything else.

From the theorists we turn to known practical constitutions; and, first, to that of Sparta. The plan of securing leisure for the free citizen by having a large subject population involves danger from servile revolts. The licence allowed to women--an important factor in a military state--is a corrupting influence. The absorption of the land in a very few hands--women's, to a very disproportionate degree--brought down the Spartiate population almost to vanishing point. The ephors, the real rulers, are elected from the whole free population by a childish method; so are the senators. As for the kings, the law emphasizes the fact that they are distrusted. Poor and rich alike contribute to the common meals, which is unfair to the poor. Militarism is too obviously the one aim of the whole system, and the financial regulations foster avarice.

TRADITION says that the Spartan polity was borrowed from the Cretan, which differs from it in minor points of detail but has practically the same defects in the main. The polity of Carthage is akin to these two, with variations which are in its favour. It aims at securing a larger influence for merit as against chance in elections, but tends to find merit in wealth to a dangerous extent.

At Athens, Solon's legislation displaced the old oligarchy, strengthened the aristocratic element by the manner of election to offices of state, and introduced a democratic element by the judical system. It was the later demagogues who reduced the Solonian Constitution to the democracy we know. Of some half-dozen other legislators the names and a brief note are sufficient record.


THE virtue of a citizen as such differs from that of a good man as such in being specifically relative to the polity; hence it is not uniform, but varies as the polity varies. The virtue of a ruler is the virtue of a good man, combining moral virtue with what we name 'prudence' in the Ethics. But the citizen who is not a ruler does not, as such, require prudence. The citizen should, no doubt, have the capacity both for rule and for subjection--the subjection of a free man, not of a slave; but the virtues in the two spheres differ.

We classify politics as the seat of government is in one person, in few, or in the masses. The normal forms, which aim at the good of the community, are called kingship, aristocracy (the rule of the best) and constitutional government; the abnormal deviations which seek the benefit of the rulers, are called tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. Of these last the second means the domination of the rich over the poor, the third the domination of the poor over the rich. In one sense equality is just; in another, inequality; the democrat recognizes the first, but not the second; the oligarch the second, but not the first. Superior wealth does not constitute fundamental superiority; nor equality in freedom, as the others think, equality in all respects. It is by virtue that the distribution of political power should be regulated.

As to which is superior, the few or the many, there is force in the view that the many collectively strike a sounder average judgement than the few; and their collective interests are the more extensive. The masses should not be indiscriminately admitted to office, but should collectively choose the officers.

There are several qualities which go to good administration; superiority in one quality or another, such as birth or wealth, must not be assumed to involve superiority in the rest and treated as the sole criterion of inequality. The pre-eminence of a class in one of these qualities does not confer the right to rule; and, in the aggregate, the masses collectively seem to have the pre-eminence over any class.

The Greek kingship exemplified in Sparta is not a despotism, but supreme and permanent military command. The essential difference of tyranny is that the forces at command are mercenary, while the king's forces are armed subjects. Beside these stand the non-Greek forms of monarchy, which would be tyrannies if they were not hereditary, and the Aesymnetes, the elective tyranny, which would be kingship but that it is not hereditary. The kings of the heroic period, with larger powers than the Spartan, made those powers--acquired by personal prowess--hereditary; but they were gradually curtailed. Historically, aristocracy displaced monarchy; oligarchy aristocracy; tyranny the oligarchies, and democracy the tyrannies. Finally, there is the absolute monarch.

The vital objection to absolutism is that, besides being non-natural, the individual is arbitrary and corruptible, and the law is not. It may be held that even discretion in dealing with the law may be more safely vested in several persons than in one.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I