It may come as a surprise to modern readers that Aristotle, one of the founders of Western thought, does not include democracy as one of his correct or ideal forms of government, but places it in his corrupt or deviant forms.
In this article it will be argued that our modern democracies are not correspondent to what Aristotle calls democracy in his model; rather, the Solonian Constitution, called Timocracy (and later Polity), is closer to the democracies inspired by the ideals of the French and American revolutions.
The city state and man as a political animal
Aristotle makes the city-state the focus of his study of government, as he believed that such a society is the natural outcome of the nature of man as a political animal. By living in cities, people form associations and need to be organized and ruled.
The dynamic of these relationships is defined in his three forms of ideal government, all of which have a common characteristic: that those governing are the best (aristoi). As he puts it (Aristot. Pol. 1.1253a):
From these things therefore it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune cityless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it（like the “clanless, lawless, hearthless” man reviled by Homer [Hom. Il. 9.63;], for one by nature unsocial is also ‘a lover of war’ inasmuch as he is solitary) (…).
The Aristotelian constitutional model, derived from Book III in the Politics, is effectively illustrated in this simple diagram, adapted from Fred Miller’s article, “Aristotle’s Political Theory” (see the Further Reading).
Solonian Constitution (Timocracy) or Polity (mixed constitution)
As we can see, the different constitutions are categorized by the number of men that govern (Aristotle noted the anomaly of Spartan’s dual kingship, see below). He further subdivided kingship into five types:
- Heroic: the king whose function as warrior priest and judge was willingly accepted by the people.
- Barbarian monarchy: hereditary despotisms bound by law, typically found in Asia.
- Elective tyranny: such as when the people of Mytilene elected the philosopher Pittacus to govern them.
- Spartan kingship: the dual kingship of Sparta, which Aristotle described “simply as an hereditary generalship held for life” (Aristot. Pol. 3.1285b). Spartan kingship was later compared to the dual Roman consulship.
- Absolute kingship (pambasileia): total control of a people in all aspects. Aristotle’s pupil Alexander the Great is seen by commentators as an example of this form of kingship.
The influence of Plato
Paul Vallely reminds us that Aristotle’s political theory was influenced by his teacher, Plato. Plato had witnessed the execution of his own teacher, Socrates, by the Athenian democracy, which alone gave him much reason to feel bitterness towards the Athenian system.
In this Magazine, Lauren E. Dorsey discusses the death of Socrates and the famous accusation against him of “the corruption of youth” in the context of the importance of two of his pupils, Alcibiades (who betrayed Athens) and Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants installed by Sparta to govern Athens after the Peloponnesian War. Critias was related to Plato and appears as a character in two of his dialogues, Charmides and Protagoras (but not the one that bears his name).
Aristotle too was critical of the Athenian democracy and in his Politics he cites the manipulation of its institutions during the time of Pericles (Aristotle, Politics 2.1274a):
For this he [Solon] is actually blamed by some persons, as having dissolved the power of the other parts of the community by making the law-court, which was elected by lot, all-powerful. For as the law-court grew strong, men courted favour with the people as with a tyrant, and so brought the constitution to the present democracy; and Ephialtes and Pericles docked the power of the Council on the Areopagus, while Pericles instituted payment for serving in the law-courts, and in this manner finally the successive leaders of the people led them on by growing stages to the present democracy. But this does not seem to have come about in accordance with the intention of Solon, but rather as a result of accident (for the common people having been the cause of the naval victories at the time of the Persian invasion became proud and adopted bad men as popular leaders when the respectable classes opposed their policy).
Thucydides, speaking of the time of Pericles, comments that he commanded full power and it was only in name that Athens was at that time a democracy: “Thus Athens, though still in name a democracy, was in fact ruled by her greatest citizen” (Thucydides 2.65).
Furthermore, Aristotle derived his model of political systems from Plato, (Statesman, 302c–d). The beginning of the relevant passage is given below:
Stranger: Well then, you may say that of the three forms, the same is both the hardest and the easiest.
Younger Socrates: What do you mean?
Stranger: Just this: I mean that there are three forms of government, as we said at the beginning of the discussion which has now flowed in upon us—monarchy, the rule of the few, and the rule of the many.
Younger Socrates: Yes, there were those three.
Stranger: Let us, then, by dividing each of these into two parts, make six, and by distinguishing the right government from these, a seventh.
Younger Socrates: How shall we make the division?
Stranger: We said that monarchy comprised royalty and tyranny, and the rule of the few comprised aristocracy, which has a name of good omen, and oligarchy; but to the rule of the many we gave then only a single name, democracy; now, however, that also must be divided.
Younger Socrates: How? On what principle shall we divide that?
The Solonian Constitution
Timocracy, more commonly referred to today as Polity, was introduced by Solon as a result of his socio-economic reforms known as Seisachtheia, which relieved the burden of debt (wiping out outstanding debts) and serfdom for many Athenians. The new system included four classes of citizens classified by wealth rather than parentage.
These were: the highest class known as Pentacosiomedimnoi (those who could produce 500 medimnoi per year in dry or liquid produce, e.g. corn, oil or wine); Hippeis, the cavalry or Knights (worth 300 medimnoi per year); Zeugitae, who could serve as hoplites (worth 200 medimnoi per year and could afford a yoke of oxen), and Thetes, who worked for wages (made less than 200 medimnoi annually).
These four classes could be admitted to public office according to their stature. Solon also introduced a graduated tax system. We know from Plutarch that the Hippeis paid a horse tax, hence the name: “the second class was composed of those who were able to keep a horse (…) they paid a Knight’s tax” (Plutarch, Life of Solon 18).
Aristotle includes Timocracy as one of his ideal forms of government. In his Nicomachean Ethics he states (Aristot. Nic. Eth. 1160b):
Timocracy passes into Democracy, there being an affinity between them, inasmuch as the ideal of Timocracy also is government by the mass of the citizens, and within the property qualification all are equal. Democracy is the least bad of the perversions, for it is only a very small deviation from the constitutional form of government.
Modern democracies and Aristotelian polity
Modern commentators have debated the importance of Aristotelian political theory in our own times. The philosopher Julian Baggini argues that our modern democracies are not democracies in Aristotle’s sense but polities: “our cherished forms of government are (…) polities (…) good forms of government in which the many rule over themselves”.
Paul Vallely points out that there is another term related to democracy that can be described as a deviant form: ochlocracy, from ochlos (the mob) + kratos (power, rule) meaning the rule of the mob. Both Baggini and Vallely offer treatments of Aristotle’s political ideas in a modern context.
Modern thinkers who place democracy in the correct category of government in the place of polity, might also put ochlocracy as its deviant form. There is another possibility though which, while forgotten, has nothing to do with the fickleness of the mob but with the practicalities of complex operations: polyarkhia or polyarchy.
There was a fear in the ancient world about indecision and lack of effectiveness in rulership, especially in matters of urgency such as military decisions and operations. This is the concept of polyarkhia, the uncoordinated rule of many.
Thucydides mentions it in his narration of the Sicilian Campaign in Book 6: “Another great source of weakness had been the number of generals (there were fifteen of them); the division of authority (polyarkhia) had produced disorganisation and disorder among the troops (6.72).
A similar mention can be found in Xenophon’s Anabasis: “They came to the conclusion, therefore, that if they should choose one commander, that one man would be able to handle the army better, whether by night or day, than a number of commanders (polyarkhia)” (6.1. 18).
Virtue, wealth, nobility and freedom
Aristotle’s statement that the constitution “governed by the best men (i.e. governed by the aristoi) must necessarily be the best” (Aristot. Pol. 3.1288) introduced the concept of the aristoi as not only confined within the system of aristocracy, but also into any of his three ideal systems.
The ideal basileus (king) has to be aristos (i.e. “the best”), the ideal group of princes or elders also have to be aristoi and, in the case of the mixed constitution all involved will have to be aristoi for the success of their self-government.
When the basileus is not aristos he is a tyrant. When the group of rulers are not aristoi they are oligarchs. And when the polity is not run by a public of aristoi it is the deviant form, which he calls democracy, the rule of the demos.
The ideal or correct forms require that the governors are the best, aristoi. Once the power falls to people less than excellent, the form of government becomes corrupt or deviant.
Aristocracy in particular is for Aristotle a merit-based system: “But aristocracy in the fullest sense seems to consist in the distribution of the honours according to virtue; for virtue is the defining factor of aristocracy, as wealth is of oligarchy, and freedom of democracy.”
Therefore his ideal is a mixed constitution (constitutional government) made up of “a mixture of elements from both oligarchy [i.e. the rule of the few – used in a general sense here] and democracy [i.e. the rule of the many]”.
Incidentally he deals with nobility too, as a combination of received wealth and virtue: “nobility, accompanies the two latter—nobility means ancient wealth and virtue” (Aristot. Pol. 4.1294a). So for Aristotle aristocracy and nobility are not one and the same thing.
Excellence and virtue
The final section of this article looks beyond political theory and links Aristotle’s model of government to his ideas of virtue and ethics, guiding the reader towards a further exploration of the topic.
Aristotle explores what makes a man good absolutely in relation with what makes one good to govern and be governed, namely his education and habits: “a man becomes good in the same way and by the same means as one might establish an aristocratically or monarchically governed state, so that it will be almost the same education and habits that make a man good and that make him capable as a citizen or a king” (Aristot. Pol. 3.1288).
The Aristotelian ideal of virtue is based on his concept of the Virtuous Mean. Because the idea of aristocracy is based on the rule of the aristoi, there is a connection between his discussion of best government and his virtue ethics.
Aristotle names twelve virtues in his Nicomachean Ethics, all of which have one common characteristic: their measure of moderation (the Virtuous Mean). For example, in terms of military virtue, Courage is seen as the Virtuous Mean, Cowardice as the Vice of Deficiency and Rashness as the Vice of Excess. In terms of excellence Aristotle is influenced in his approach by the Homeric ideal and the military virtue of Homeric heroes.
I discuss the concept of aristos (excellent in battle) in a previous article, “Aristeia and philotimia: two key concepts of the ancient Greek world”. For a discussion of aristocracy including Greek and Roman elites, distinction in burial and reference to medieval models, see Josho Brouwers, “Ancient aristocracy”.
Classical texts mentioned in this article are available in the original and in English translation from the Perseus Digital Library. An overview:
- Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Loeb Classical Library. See especially Vol. 19 (Nicomachean Ethics), transl. H. Rackham, 1934; Vol. 21 (Politics), transl. H. Rackham, 1944, and; Vol. 20 (Athenian Constitution), transl. H. Rackham, 1952.
- Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 12 (including Statesman) translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.
- Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives with an English Translation by Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
- Thucydides translated into English; with introduction, marginal analysis, notes, and indices. Volume 1. Thucydides. Benjamin Jowett. translator. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1881.
- Pseudo-Xenophon, Constitution of the Athenians, in: Xenophon Scripta minora, VII, eds. E.C. Marchant, and G.W. Bowersock. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.
- Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vol. 3. Carleton L. Brownson. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1922.
- Julian Baggini, “Aristotle’s thinking on democracy has more relevance than ever”, Prospect (2018).
- Josho Brouwers, “Ancient aristocracy”, Ancient World Magazine (2015).
- Lauren E. Dorsey, “Trial of Socrates”, Ancient World Magazine (2020).
- Fred Miller, “Aristotle’s Political Theory”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
- Eugenia Russell, “Aristeia and philotimia: two key concepts of the ancient Greek world”, Ancient World Magazine (2018)
- Paul Vallely, “Democracy: Whose idea was this?”, The Independent (2011).
And suggestions for further reading:
- Ernest Barker, The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle (2009).
- Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction (2000).
- Jonathan Barnes (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle (1995).
- Clifford Angell Bates Jr., Aristotle’s “Best Regime”: Kingship, Democracy, and the Rule of Law, Political Traditions in Foreign Policy (2002).
- Edward Clayton, “Aristotle: Politics”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (n.d.).
- Justin Humphreys, “Aristotle (384 B.C.E.-322 B.C.E.)”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (n.d.).
- Fred Miller, “Aristotle’s Political Theory”, in: Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition).