Archive for July, 2022

Sixth Thesis Attributable to Aristotle: Aim for the Middle!

July 19, 2022

Sixth Thesis:  Aim for the Middle!

It is clear then both that the best partnership in a state is the one which operates through the middle people, and also that those states in which the middle element is large, and stronger if possible than the other two together, or at an y rate stronger than either of them alone, having every chance of having a well-run constitution.

—–Aristotle, Politics, Book IV, chapter xi, 1295b34

            I am just an interested amateur when it comes to Aristotle; I don’t read him in Greek.  My translation comes from Penguin Classics, translated by T.A. Sinclair and revised by Trevor J. Saunders.  I don’t know which of these two chose to translate Aristotle’s word for those who are neither rich nor poor as “the middle sort of people” or similar locutions,  but I understand the reasoning:  that “class” or “middle class” is an anachronistic phrase, with vaguely Marxist associations and other modern implications which are alien to Aristotle.  Nevertheless, “middle class” as it is commonly used fits pretty closely with what Aristotle apparently means.  He describes the political situation of the polis, the city-state, as a struggle between the rich and the poor, the oligarchic and the democratic elements.  In practice, this works out to rule by the few versus rule by the many, since there are more poor than there are rich; but essentially it is about different views of justice.  The poor argue that everyone should be equal, and thus everyone should be citizens, having a part in ruling the state; this tends towards democracy since the more citizens there are, the more power is shared and the more the state reflects the will of the majority (remember, Aristotle defines “citizen” as one who rules and is ruled in turn, who both makes and obeys the laws).  The rich argue that they are better, more educated, smarter, and that their wealth in fact pays for more of the functions of the state, and thus they should have a greater share in running it; essentially, the rich few will be the citizens, the others more residents who obey and are cared for, who contribute by their labor, but trust their betters to make the laws.  States where the well-off have more power will thus tend to be more oligarchic, while states where the poor have more clout will be more democratic.  Both groups will continue to eye each other suspiciously, however, fearing exploitation:  the rich fear confiscation of their property, while the poor fear oppressive laws and taxes that benefit only the rich and preserve their power.

            Such a situation obviously leads towards factionalism and thus towards instability, as each group vies for power over its opponents.  And instability, or worse yet, civil war and revolution is not good for anybody.  It is not good for the individual, who needs a stable and safe environment to survive and live a good life.  And it is not good for the state, since naturally every government wants to survive as long as possible. 

            Aristotle argues that a well-run, stable state will not pander to the poor or the rich, but will instead present itself as a servant of both.  A wise oligarchy will claim to be protecting the poor, and will do enough so that they can reasonably believe their interests are not being crushed; and a democracy will protect the rights of the rich and convince them that they have nothing to fear.[1]  But he further argues that both oligarchies and democracies should aim to strengthen the middle class.  First, if the oligarchs (rich) or the democrats (poor) want to convince the other side that they have their best interests at heart, they can’t have policies that overtly favor their own side.  You can’t say “eat the rich” and expect the rich to support your government; and you can’t expect the majority to trust you if, as Aristotle says of some oligarchs in his day, you vow “to be hostile to the people and do all I can against them.”  Of course a government is going to look to its own preservation and its own constituents; so an oligarchy is going to have policies approved by the rich few, while a democracy must have the approval of the many poor; but if a government wants stability and long-term survival, it must be seen as just by the majority, so that more people want it to continue than don’t.  So, whatever form of government prevails, if it is wise, it will govern in ways that will win approval from at least some of the other groups; and that means governing from the center.

            But even if the government seeks to avoid political divisions, Aristotle says they are inevitable.  In every state, he says, there are some who favor oligarchy and some who favor democracy.  There are always going to be rich and poor, and their interests will conflict no matter how much the ruling class may seek to mollify the other group.  Cultivating the “middle group” stabilizes the society by introducing a third group between the two extremes.[2]  When the oligarchic party threatens to seize total control and trample on the rights of the majority, the middle class will feel threatened and side with the poor; but if the radical democrats threaten to destroy the rich as a group, the middle class will feel its property rights threatened and side with the rich.  The result is that, instead of widely polarized and hostile factions, the two groups have a rough balance of power, with the middle shifting to preserve the status quo.  For this reason also, a society with a stronger, secure middle class is less prone to tyranny than either a pure oligarchy or radical democracy; “for tyranny often emerges from an over-enthusiastic democracy or from an oligarchy, but much more rarely from intermediate constitutions or from those close to them.”

            This search for stability preoccupies Aristotle’s political thinking.  A state, or a constitution, seeks its own long-term survival; and the greatest threat to a constitution is factionalism.  Oligarchies are thus innately unstable, as they generally have two sources of factions.  First, all states have a struggle of rich/oligarchic party versus poor/democratic party; in addition, an oligarchy generally has at least two rival parties even within the ruling class.  Families and allies struggle against each other to rule, while also struggling to prevent the majority from overthrowing all the oligarchs; and in this, one power-group within the oligarchy may even side with the disenfranchised majority, promising them greater power and prosperity in exchange for their support.  The road to stability is to have a middle class that can temper the extreme tendencies of the other groups and to mediate between them.  The constitution that favors this sort of “government from the middle” is what Aristotle calls “polity,” which combines democratic and oligarchic elements in a “mixed” constitution, governed by rule of law.

            But even more than the political advantages of a society with a strong middle, Aristotle argues that the “middle sort of people” have a moral superiority that supports social stability.[3]  He begins his argument by referring back to the Nichomachean Ethics, where “we stated that virtue is a mean, and that the happy life is a life without hindrance in its accordance with virtue.”  If this is so, he claims, then the moral life must be “the middle life, consisting in a mean which is open to men of every kind to attain.”  That is, the best, happy life is not reserved for the very rich or the destitute, the powerful or the powerless, the genius or the dolt, but is a balanced life, one with adequate but not excessive goods, with both active social engagement and time for quiet personal learning and philosophic contemplation, neglecting neither mind nor body.  He applies this ideal of balance and the mean to the state as a whole, “for the constitution of a state is in a sense the way it lives.”  And the state consists of people who are rich, poor, and somewhere in between.  The well-ordered, happy state will aim at that “in between.”  But the middle class is not best simply because they’re “the mean between the extremes” of wealth and poverty.  This economic condition tends to promote virtues which make them not only happier personally, but better citizens.  Aristotle says it is easier for them to obey reason than it is for either the rich or the impoverished.  The rich, he says, tend to be arrogant, ambitious, and never really get used to taking orders or following rules.  Even in childhood, whether at home or school, they never really learn to accept discipline, because they are used to having everything they want when they want it.  The poor, by contrast, are used to poverty and social weakness; they know all to well how to submit, but don’t learn how to rule.  As we saw earlier, a good citizen must be able to obey and to command, since to be a citizen is both to obey the laws and to take part in making them.  The one group is used to treating others as servants and slaves, the other to being treated as servants and slaves; so a state with only or primarily extremes in wealth and poverty will be a collection of masters and slaves, contemptuous rich and envious poor.  While a healthy society would be a partnership of friends bound by mutual sharing, a state with no middle class is nothing but enmity between the rulers and the ruled. 

            Not only does economic division divide the state and sow enmity among the people; it also corrupts them individually.  The rich, Aristotle says, are more likely to be driven to “crime on a large scale” due to their arrogant spirit.  They are eager to rule, and feel it is their due; and if their desire for power, or wealth or anything is thwarted, they are more likely to commit great crimes to get what they want.  Today we might imagine a man born rich, whose hunger for more wealth and fame leads him to repeated massive frauds, serial adulteries, ultimately perhaps even attempting to overthrow his own government, all utterly without shame because he feels entitled.  The poor, by contrast, Aristotle says are “more than averagely prone to wicked ways and petty crime” due to their customary “wickedness.”  Those who are neither rich nor impoverished, he says, are less inclined to either sort of vice; neither arrogance nor petty avarice drives them.  They neither seek honor for its own glory as the rich are inclined to do, nor avoid office if responsibility falls to them, as the poor might since they must work constantly just to eat; they can take the time from their own affairs to help run the state if called upon.  We see that today, in the comparatively low voting rates among the poor, and in the overweening desire of so many billionaires to either become politicians or to demand politicians act at their beck and call.  Aristotle argues that it is the middle class that knows how to obey and command, to serve responsibly and to exercise authority with restraint, and which is less inclined to crime because they suffer neither the need of the poor nor the decadence of the rich.  And Aristotle says that it is among the “middle sort” that we find that community of equals that he sees as the ideal state, an association of free person and equals.  The larger and more powerful this middle class is, therefore, the happier, better run, less corrupt, less lawless, and more mutually supportive and friendly the state will be.

            In our nation’s politics, candidates have long aimed at appealing to the middle class—rhetorically, at least.  Whether it’s Republican attacks on “elites” in defense of “real America,” or Democratic attacks on “the 1%,” both parties claim to be working to protect the middle class against the powerful; and Republican attacks on “illegal immigrants” or “urban” voters are likewise attempts to convince the middle class that it is under attack by the poor, which is more weakly echoed by Democratic attempts to stir up “suburban moms” against “rural” hordes of gun-loving White-supremacist “deplorables” who would impose their alleged bigotry on the majority.  Aristotle didn’t have to contend with mass media; in his day, if a politician wanted to lie to you, he had to do it to your face or at least in your general proximity.  It is often hard for voters to decide who is really representing “the middle people” and who is really promoting the interests of either the very rich or the poor.  While we have a larger percentage of “middle class” people than Aristotle could have imagined, that percentage has been shrinking, and the poorer class has been growing, while the power of the wealthy has only grown.  While there is room to argue whether we are still truly a representative democracy or have slipped into oligarchy, the trend is troubling, we are clearly moving towards a more oligarchic, more polarized, more extreme society, which Aristotle argues means greater instability and greater risk of eventual collapse.


[1] Politics Book V, chapter ix, 1310a2

[2] Politics, Book IV, chapter ix, 1295b34

[3] Politics, 1295a34-1295b28