Non-Ideal Political Systems
A peculiar feature of Aristotle’s project is that he pays attention to political systems that aren’t necessarily ideal, but why?
Aristotle finds it fruitful to examine political systems that are not as desirable because he believes that political scientists ought to be aware of all the different kinds of government there are and the number of ways that they combine with one another to produce other kinds of governments.
These in turn help the ruler of the polis deal with conflicts by approaching an issue from a different perspective. Furthermore, if citizens are supposed to be good rulers and they recognize that some features of one political system might be better for their political system, then it is possible for them to make small adjustments to make the polis better. Thus an understanding of how other polities rule guides the rulers in knowing which parts of systems work and which ones fail.
Aristotle asserts that certain features of all political systems are universal, two of which are quality and quantity. According to Aristotle, some of the features of quality are “freedom, wealth, education, and noble birth” and for quantity, “superiority in numbers”.
Different political systems accentuate different qualities and quantities: for instance, oligarchies emphasize education and wealth while the people’s rule highlights freedom. Another universal factor is that each state has three distinct classes: wealthy, poor, and a middle class. Again, the quantity differs among the different political systems, but the general idea exists within each of them. While there are other attributes of different political systems that might be worth mentioning, these are the ones that Aristotle chooses to focus on within the context of this topic, so in the next paragraph, I explore some of the attributes of the political systems.
Aristotle argues that the absolute kingship is the best and the most divine political system while tyranny is the worst one. Out of the political systems, democracy is the branch that is most popular. Democracy is a blend of oligarchy and the people’s rule which Aristotle defines as a “government by a poor majority” whose foundation rests on the equality for all freemen.
Democracy is also built on a mathematical equality with the idea that classes should not dominate or control one another, but that all share an equal power. So what are oligarchy and the people’s rule based on? Oligarchies are based on the wealthy and their authority over the polis while the people’s rule is based on equality, or the fact that no group should have authority over another but that all groups are similar.
While there are various kinds of people’s rule and oligarchy, I address the general characteristics of each system to reveal their significance. Political systems vary depending on the types of citizens that exist within the polis. For instance, imagine that ancient Athens was a polis such that there was a good mix of upper-class citizens, middle-class citizens, and poor citizens. An oligarchy would not be a good political association, but why?
The poor people would rebel because the wealthy would try to keep them in a subordinated position while the wealthy would rule in high favor of the upper-class citizens. Likewise, the people’s rule would not serve as an adequate political system. The wealthy people would want to remain superior to all citizens, and in this rule the poor people dominate the politics because it would be based on a majority rule. In such a society there could be no justice because frequent disagreements between the social classes would arise, so the people’s rule would be inadequate for their polis. A ruler who has an understanding of both oligarchy and people’s rule could blend the benefits of both political systems in order to try and maintain good relations among all of the people in the polis. Hence a ruler should become familiar with all types of political systems.
Sometimes a form of government does not fit the polis and it needs to be changed. If such a change must occur, Aristotle recognizes that it is in the best interests of the polis to start a revolution. However, this should take place if tyrants become unruly to the point where the tyrant demands that its citizens perform shameful acts that go against the law.
Once the tyrants force its citizens to perform these acts, these orders should be disobeyed by the citizens and rebellion should occur. Aristotle notes a number of rationales that could provoke citizens to revolt. Citizens might rebel due to some of the following reasons: “gain, honor, insult, fear, superiority, contempt, disproportionate advance in standing, intrigues, carelessness, pettiness, dissimilarity”.
If the citizens and legislatures of the government create and refine a political system that eliminates most or all of these threats, then the polis would prosper and rebellions would not occur. One way to prevent rebellion is to “get the needy to mingle with the prosperous, or to increase the number of the middle class; for the result of this tends to do away with rebellions which arise because of inequality”. But if the current constitution is severely deficient in various areas, then its citizens should rebel and establish a new constitution.
Nonetheless, it is best for citizens of a polis to seek other ways to make the polis better, as rebellion is a last resort. Aristotle agrees with this, and there are two reasons why people should strive to maintain the current political system. First, it is unrealistic to completely transform the current regime to a different one. It would require a substantial amount of work, a drastic change of major policies, and a great deal of time.
It would be quite frustrating to install a completely new regime, especially when the problem can be solved in other, easier ways, which brings me to a second reason. In order to fix the political system, one must study it in order to understand it better. If the citizens continued to participate and be active within the community while the ruler studies all of the parts of the polis (the “political scientist) then its citizens and the ruler will know and understand the system and be able to make those necessary modifications so that the system functions better.
Another objection that Aristotle raises is the idea that some citizens might prefer a different constitution over another because theirs is not the most ideal. They might become jealous that other forms of government are better than theirs and desire to switch governments. Aristotle responds to this argument by proposing that there are ways to govern the polis “so that the character of the citizens is somewhat improved—though not so much that they become good citizens and their cities acquire good constitutions”. In some political systems, citizens can rise up and become better ones. In political systems dominated by a large middle-class, it is possible to do so because of the influence of the middle-class. They make excellent citizens because “the moderate and the mean are the best”.
In the Politics, Aristotle describes an ideal polis that could be realized. To show this, he paints a picture of the trajectory from household association to a full polis. Then he looks at some of the main features of an ideal polis such as unity, distribution of property, size and location. The role of the citizen is crucial to the polis because they determine how it runs and its overall ultimate success.
However, according to Aristotle, slaves and women are not seen as “citizens” even in an ideal polis because they lack the deliberative qualities. Not all polities function that way, and that is why rulers and citizens must familiarize themselves with non-ideal constitutions. Occasionally polities may require adjustments, and that is why citizens must be both virtuous and they must study other political regimes to see what is expedient for the community. These tactics do not always work, and a revolution may occur if the citizens cannot change the situation.
Aristotle holds the view that a revolution is the worst-case scenario because it is preferable to preserve the current political regime. This then should be a satisfactory broad account of Aristotle’s main ideas as stated in the Politics. However, one cannot simply examine each text: it is important to draw out some of the important connections between the Ethics and the Politics. Both the Ethics and the Politics contain important similarities that I address in the next chapter, as well as the purpose behind connecting these two important texts.