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The best practicable regime according to Aristotle

Aristotle claimed that Plato, who focused on ideal political system, failed to provide accessible form of knowledge that statesmen need. Aristotle applied inductive and rationalist approach to studying human beings as political animals, unity of polis and the best practicable political regıme. Aristotle aim was to limit social conflicts and advise how to advance the quality of political life by communication and action.

Plato and Aristotle
Plato directing his hand up means ideal regime. Aristotle pointing the ground means the best practicable regime

Firstly, Aristotle offers teleological account of political community. Polis is natural creation and humans are by nature political animals (Aristotle, I: 1252a2-3; 1253a25). Humans have an instinctive social impulse to friendship, cooperation and solidarity. This means that human beings have natural instinct toward political community and participation in this community, which completes human development in such a way as to make good life possible. Man appears in groups larger than the household and continue to live together even if they do not have need to support each other (Aristotle, III: 1278b19-20). Those who are without state are “clanless, lawless and heartless”. Man without polis is either too good or too bad, lower animal or a god (Aristotle, I: 1253a1-5). By nature man and woman form a household that fulfil the needs of self- preservation and reproduction. Families form village and several villages form polis to achieve self- sufficiency. The natural inclination to reject solitude and to seek for association with others may be expressed also by stating that human beings are sociable animals. Women and slaves also avoid isolation but only men are political and have impetus to participate in civil life (Kraut, 2002: 248-9).

The reason that it is natural for human beings to form political community is distinctive human ability to speech. Human beings are political animals because they have capacity for phronesis, which means practical reasoning, deliberating about how to act well, or having good judgment. Mere voice of pain have all animals but the power of speech is characteristic of man. The speech is to talk about the sense of good life, what means to live well, what is evil, what is functioning well as a man, what is just and unjust (Aristotle, I: 1253a10-15). This social discourse is an ethical and political discourse. Social conversation is a consequence of ordered societies. Moreover, without the possibility of communication about what is right and what is wrong the individual is no man (Coleman, 2004: 189) Free men have equal ability for speech and reasoning, therefore there is equality in political community. However, women and slaves do not have the same ability for speech and reasoning. Males are by nature superior and females inferior (Aristotle, I: 1254b15-20). Women possess capacity to speech and deliberation but their capacity lacks “authority” (Aristotle, I, 1260a12). Slaves do not have this capacity at all. Further, children are immature but they should receive education to grow up as citizens (Aristotle, I: 1260b15-20). Consequently, women and slaves are not equipped to engage into the activity of politics. Only men take action praxis in political life.

Aristotle explains that nobody is born morally virtuous and with character. However, men are habituated to moral virtues and to know the limits. Laws and justice are needed, otherwise man is the worst of all (Aristotle, I: 1253a30). However, social impulse is not a by-product of laws and positive justice (Coleman, 2004). Polis is about sharing particular perception of the good or right way of life. Those who care about the good of the city must give careful attention to political virtue and vice. Polis must be understood as existing for the sake not of living but of living well, nobly and happily (Aristotle, III: 1280a24-81a6). That social experience and discourse foster political evolution. The aim is to improve the action, cultivation of practical wisdom or prudence. Polis gives actualized possibility of communication concerning perception of the human good. People think and act and manifest through practice. Realization of speech in an association “principle of order” is the administration of justice (Aristotle, I: 1253a37-9). Dialectical argumentation shows the spirit of Platonic dialogue. However, reasoning about political matters is closer to reasoning of practical or prudential thinking of ordinary citizens, rooted in peculiarities of everyday experience (Lord, 1987: 120).

Aristotle’s polis is not simply plurality of men but a plurality of different men. Polis is a partnership of human beings who are free and equal and “different in kind” and diverse in economic specialization (Aristotle, II: 1261a22-34). Aristotle expresses criticism of Plato’s extreme unification by saying that state cannot be made out of men who are all alike (Aristotle, II: 1261e22). Aristotle disagrees that to achieve unity people should live the same life, share the same concerns and pains, property, partners and children. Plato’s communism fails to appreciate the differentiation of persons (Lord, 1987: 135). Unity by common partners and property does not strengthen friendship. In opposite, it destroys family attachments. Polis should not replicate the unity of the family. The unity of polis is achieved by plurality and through education and laws (Aristotle, II: 1263b3-40). Laws have special importance because their role is to encourage speech and action, which will lead to development of distinctive human capacities. Education must be provided to all people. This challenges Plato’s vision that only rulers and soldiers should receive education (Aristotle, II: 1266b30; 1267b4). Moreover, Aristotle criticizes Plato’s ideal state because he thinks that the same people would rule constantly. The “gold quality” cannot transfer to others. It is in the interest of all citizens to participate, cooperate and support polis. Good citizen obey the law in disordered state but he is not a good man (Aristotle, III: 1276b33). To be both man must voluntarily do deliberative actions and the setting of the best correct constitution. Free deliberation engages ruling rather than being ruled, actively exercising moral and intellectual virtue in public office. Law is wisdom without desire for passion corrupt the rule even at the best of men (III, 1287a19). Justice is the principle of order and bond of men in political society (Aristotle, I: 1253a35). Plato would compromise the rulers’ and soldiers’ happiness for the sake of common good. Aristotle answers by saying that “the whole cannot be happy unless most or some of its parts enjoy happiness” (Aristotle, II: 1264b15-20). State is formed as a partnership to enable its members in households to live well by living full and independent life (Aristotle, III: 1294a3).

Aristotle argues against Plato’s vision of abolishing private property for the ruling class. People should have a right to private property because sharing property in impractical. Land, money, and property are means to engage in activities and to serve public wealth. Lack of property, takes the pleasure of enjoying owning things and leads to conflicts. When people share property, they do not care about it because it does not belong exclusively to them. They expect others to take care of it. When men have distinct interest, they will not complain about others. They will make more progress because they will be occupied with doing their own business (Aristotle, II: 1263a25-30). In Plato’s type commune, people would quarrel (Aristotle, II: 1263b20-25). Consequently, this would lead to polarization among people. Nevertheless, Aristotle claims that property should be private but used commonly to some extent (Aristotle, II: 1263a35). Similarly, sharing children would lead to parental negligence. Finally, since people would share partners, love would disappear from people’s relationships (Aristotle, II: 1262b15).

According to Aristotle, there are six types of regimes. Those systems where power is in hands of one, few or many that look only to their private or sectional interests and not at the good of the whole community are deviant regimes. Tyranny is a rule by one deviated from monarchy, oligarchy rule by the rich deviated from aristocracy, and democracy rule by the poor deviated from polis (Aristotle, IV: 1278b4). In contract, monarchy is justified if the ruler was a man of superior moral virtue but it is extremely difficult to find such a man (Aristotle, III: 1284a2-12). Aristocracy is justified because it is rule by the few who are the best, morally virtuous men. They rule accordingly to what is best for state and citizens (Aristotle, IV: 1293a35). In fact, virtue is the sole defining principle of true aristocracy. Aristocrats are more virtuous than others and have capability of being a good leaders (Aristotle, III: 1288a10). However, true aristocracy is not an achievement open to most states.

Unlike Plato who seeks to offer the ideal regime, Aristotle proposes the best practicable regime. Aristotle’s polity politeia is a mixed regime, which is a solution to diminish the conflict between the rich and the poor (Lord, 1987: 144). Aristotle focuses on wealth or its absence in comprehending the most practicable regime because it differs the ways of life and conceptions of justice. Oligarchs and democrats agree on the distributive justice but they have different visions of what is equality in men. Aristocracy assumes that unequal wealth gives the right to treat people unequally in general, while democracy requires equality in freedom and requires equal treatment in all respects (Lord, 1987:140).

Polity based on mixture of oligarchy/ aristocracy (rich) and democracy (many and poor), introduces practice of filling public office by electing officials. It is similar to aristocracy because election to office is based on merit and wealth (Aristotle, IV: 1293a35). From democracy, it takes the right of all free men regardless wealth to attend Assembly (Aristotle, IV: 1294bb12-13). The rule devoted to pursuit of the virtue places mixed regime closer to aristocracy. Polity is the best practicable constitutions that can be achieved in most of circumstances and suits most of the states. Aristotle’s polity is not simple military pact to provide mutual security. It must be concerned with moral virtue (Aristotle, III: 1288a13). Mix of the rich and the poor who are wealthy enough to bear arms. Offices are distributed on the basis of free birth, wealth and virtue of military courage. This is proportionate equality because it takes into account freedom, wealth, merit where merit. Since its stability would be maintained by the rich and the poor, no section would wish to have a different constitution (Aristotle, IV: 1294a30). Another way would be to establish mix legislation of both oligarchy and democracy such as jury system “fine the rich and pay the poor” (IV, 1294a35- 1294b13). Aristotle seems not to provide detail information about institutional arrangements of the polity. According to one of the arguments, “If Aristotle seems strangely silent concerning the political arrangements of the best regime, it is precisely because the best regime does not face the normal political conflicts characterizing regimes that consists of heterogeneous groups of free citizens” (Lord, 1987: 147).
Polity is the best way to provide the best life for the majority of states and the majority of men because of rule in terms of common good. The laws would be the constitutional rule made by the many. In regime like this speech, action, phronesis develops because of the principle of taking turns in ruling.

Aristotle argues that polity with majority of the middle sort of people and minority of the rich and minority of the poor would satisfy the aim to consist the state of those who are similar and equal. The middle class is between extremes and it has potential political role because it is like a buffer to prevent factions (Aristotle, IV: 1269a10). It is more secure to have large middle element because they do not desire possessions of others like the poor, and do not have wealth like the rich so they tend to obey reason. They do not avoid their duties and do not covet office. They tend to think of the interest of all (Aristotle, IV: 1295b28-1296b12). They are well equipped to rule and to be ruled. In contrast, the rich can never be ready to be ruled and the poor do not know how to rule well. Acts of injustice are committed either through arrogance or malice of those two groups. Conflicting relation between the rich and the poor might lead either into narrow oligarchy or into tyranny of the poor. When the middle class is strong, divisive conflicts are reduced to minimum and regime is more stable. Their function could be preservation of the political partnership. What Aristotle says is not that the middle class possess virtues but they do not possess vices and they pose fertile ground for the virtue or gentlemenship. It is easier to find middle people in democracy than oligarchy (Aristotle, IV: 1296s15-16). Aristotle’s account of class conflicts is not universal like Marx’s class conflicts. Aristotelian class conflict is relevant only to members of political community. These are “political friends” who become “class enemies”. Those conflicts do not extent to slaves and women (Yack, 1993: 210). Aristotle emphasises importance of economic conditions for politics because the wealth or its lack is the main source of conflicts (Lord, 1987: 146).

In conclusions, the most significant contribution of Aristotle is theory of mixed regime, which aim is to reduce the conflicts between the rich and the poor. Moreover, the participation of all men allows for cooperation and development. Aristotle helps to realize the importance of action and laws in political system. Aristotle should be particularly appreciated for his emphasis on the power of speech. It is about deliberation, persuasion and reason. Similarly, to Plato’s ideal state, in Aristotle’s system there is no place for individualism. No individual formation can happen in isolation from society- common human life. Nevertheless, Aristotle focuses only on political communities. Are there, according to Aristotle, other than political communities such as social organizations? Is there anything beyond political community that could allow comparison? Further, Aristotle excludes women from political life by saying that although they have capacity for speech they “lack authority”. Aristotle general approach to women suggest that women are naturally incapable of being political. However, relating their incapacity to lack of authority might suggest conditional inferiority. Aristotle claims that children should receive education in order to become citizens. The author does not differentiate between boys and girls tough. Does Aristotle see only boys receiving education or both boys and girls? Would the same education make help women to develop their speech and reason? Aristotle correctly recognizes many flaws of Plato’s ideal state. However, the weakest criticism is that Plato excludes producers from ruling, who pose considerable part of the society, while Aristotle himself excludes women and slaves from his “best practicable constitution” that seeks to accommodate all and to reduce conflicts. Plato seems to explain better his reasons for exclusion of particular groups than Aristotle.

Aristotle (1996) The Politics and the Constitution of Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Coleman J (2004) Political Thought. From Ancient Greece to Early Christianity. UK: Blackwell Publishers.
Kraut R (2002) Aristotle: Political Philosophy. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
Lord C (1987) Aristotle in Strauss L and Cropsey J History of Political Philosophy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press: 118-154
Yack B (1993) Problems of Political Animal. Community, Justice, and Conflict in Aristotelian Political Thought. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

3 thoughts on “The best practicable regime according to Aristotle

  1. Nice effort and summary! We hope you have enjoyed Aristotle class, with the good translation! he is much fun once one gains entry to his living thought. The Ethics is beautiful absolutely!

    Plato writes of the “Best” regime (Beltion, I think), while “ideals” are Hegelian, and assume a rejection of the best that is by nature. The Best regime, as Allan Bloom shows, is constructed in speech in order to see justice in the soul, not in order that legislators try to make such a thing, which is not a “blueprint” for an actual regime, but shows the principle connecting psychology and politics.

    Even there, community of property and women is only in the guardian class. People who do not care about the body, like the Apostles in Acts, do not need private property, though, as Aristotle writes, “what is held in common gets less care.”


  2. Well, things haven’t changed a bit since Aristotle’s day doesn’t it?
    Our so much vaunted democracy still at the prey of Oligarchs, and plutocrats, who want to decrease the power of the middle classes, and have the poor under their thumb.
    Not even Aristotle could escape it, having to serve, as the Tutor of Alexander.

    The Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea describes the school in sections 7-8 of his Life of Alexander.

    7.5] It would appear that Alexander received from him not only his doctrines of Morals and of Politics, but also something of those more abstruse and profound theories which these philosophers, by the very names they gave them, professed to reserve for oral communication to the initiated, and did not allow many to become acquainted with.

    [7.6] For when he was in Asia, and heard Aristotle had published some treatises of that kind, he wrote to him, using very plain language to him in behalf of philosophy, the following letter.

    [7.7] Alexander to Aristotle, greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.
    [7.8] And Aristotle, soothing this passion for pre-eminence, speaks, in his excuse for himself, of these doctrines as in fact both published and not published:

    [7.9] as indeed, to say the truth, his books on metaphysics are written in a style which makes them useless for ordinary teaching, and instructive only, in the way of memoranda, for those who have been already conversant in that sort of learning.

    [8.1] Doubtless also it was to Aristotle that he owed the inclination he had, not to the theory only, but likewise to the practice of the art of medicine. For when any of his friends were sick, he would often prescribe them their course of diet, and medicines proper to their disease, as we may find in his epistles.

    [8.2] He was naturally a great lover of all kinds of learning and reading; and Onesicritus informs us that he constantly laid Homer’s Iliad, according to the copy corrected by Aristotle, called the casket copy, with his dagger under his pillow, declaring that he esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge.

    [8.3] When he was in the upper Asia, being destitute of other books, he ordered Harpalus to send him some; who furnished him with Philistus’ History, a great many of the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and some dithyrambic odes, composed by Telestes and Philoxenus.

    [8.4] For a while he loved and cherished Aristotle no less, as he was wont to say himself, than if he had been his father, giving this reason for it, that as he had received life from the one, so the other had taught him to live well.

    [8.5] But afterwards, upon some mistrust of him, yet not so great as to make him do him any hurt, his familiarity and friendly kindness to him abated so much of its former force and affection, as to make it evident he was alienated from him. However, his violent thirst after and passion for learning, which were once implanted, still grew up with him, and never decayed.

    So much for teaching a Tyrant!
    It seems that Virtue, and power are always at odds, with each other.

    I enjoyed your post, thank you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. People living alone are frequently the opposite of heartless — they are involved in the healing and fine arts, and find the average current hominid relationship to be so beset with falseness as to be anathema to their treasured peace of mind.

    In plenty of cultures, parenting is indeed spread among the community, and by all reports those children are far better parented than our own.

    Free love is to be desired. What are these shackles and chains of ownership that give us the right to deny happiness of any kind to those we are supposed to wish most to be happy?

    Societal stability? WHAT societal stability? All our selfishness, conformity and self-superiority have gotten us is only 3% of our wildlife and 5% of our forests remaining, and “leaders” with their thumbs over the incendiary button, while fully one quarter of our world’s children go hungry and one third of the planet’s food is wasted.

    Leave the fancy and well accepted theories in the dust, girlfriend, and go feed one homeless person today.


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