Posts Tagged ‘Forms of Government’

Fifth Thesis Attributable to Aristotle: Which Form of Government is Best?

January 25, 2022

Which Form of Government is Best?

It is clear then that those constitutions which aim at the common good are right, as being in accord with absolute justice; while those which aim only at the good of the rulers are wrong.  They are all deviations from the right constitutions.  They are like the rule of a master over slave, whereas the state is an association of free men.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter vi, 1279a16

            What is the best form of government?  This was a real concern for Aristotle.  On the one hand, he was teaching in famously democratic Athens; on the other, his father had been physician to the king of Macedon, and Aristotle owed his own career to his connections to the Macedonian royal court.  He had also studied under Plato, who was an Athenian himself but born to the aristocracy, and distrusted democracy.  Aristotle preferred to observe the world, collect opinions from disparate sources, and then draw conclusions; and he had a wide range of experiences and philosophical influences from which to draw.  And while this gives his political philosophy a prima facie practicality that Plato’s rationalist idealism lacks, it may also explain the problem with answering this question; for before we can say which form of government is best, we have to know which forms there are, and Aristotle is not particularly consistent on that point.

            Aristotle describes six forms of government in his most intentional list.  Government, he says, can be rule by one, a few or the many; thus the three legitimate forms of government are monarchy, aristocracy or what he calls “polity.”  These are the three “correct” forms of government, when the governing body acts primarily for the welfare of the state and all the people.  For each of these, there is also a “deviation,” where the government acts not for the good of society but for the benefit of the governing power:  tyranny, oligarchy or democracy.  The deviations are also the forms where the government acts without constraint from laws or customs, at the whim of whomever controls the levers of power; these written and unwritten laws really are the state, so a government which seeks to preserve the state will obey the rule of law rather than any human or group.  A king is a single ruler who acts within the prerogatives of his office, with respect to custom and his council, for the good of the kingdom; a tyrant is a single ruler who acts in whatever way benefits him personally, without regard for any legal or institutional constraints.  Aristocracy is rule by “the best,” the wisest and most virtuous, the elite minority who act for the good of the whole; an oligarchy is government by the rich and for the rich.  Democracy, in Aristotle’s terms, is rule by the mob and demagogues, for the many (which means “the poor” since there are always more poor than rich), regarding anyone with any sort of superiority as an enemy, whether it be riches or noble birth or even virtue.[1]  A “polity,” by contrast, is rule by the majority, but with rule of law rather than rule of the mob, and with an eye for the welfare of all rather than what we’d call “class warfare.” 

            But having worked out this classification in Book III of The Politics, Aristotle doesn’t stick with it.  For one thing, these six are ideal types in a sense; many constitutions actually mix elements from two.  For example, Sparta was a monarchy, but the Ephors were elected by the people and had considerable power.  Aristotle himself favored a mixture of aristocracy and polity, so that both “the best” and “the many” had a voice and each side had to work with the other.  So if asked which of the six forms of government is best, it seems Aristotle’s answer is that none of them are; the best is a combination of the best elements of rule by the few and the many, so that neither the rich nor the poor might exploit the other but both should work together for the good of the state. 

            At other times, Aristotle seeks to simplify his discussion down to its barest essence.  In a sense, rule by “the one” or “the few” is just a matter of degrees, so at times he conflates them.  In any state, he says, the rich tend to favor oligarchy, since they benefit from rule by the richest few; the poor, being most numerous, favor democracy, since rule by “the many” favors them.  Both sides argue that they are the strongest and best able to govern the state, and thus deserve to rule.  When discussing this debate/power struggle, Aristotle writes as if there are essentially only two forms of government:  oligarchy or democracy, rule by the few (rich) or the many (poor).  But again, elsewhere he has extensive discussion of tyranny and the strategies of the tyrant/monarch, including different forms of tyranny. 

            So, Aristotle presents a formal classification of six forms of government, but at times lumps the “correct” and “deviations” together to make three, other times lists two, and still elsewhere discusses how actual city-states often don’t strictly conform to any of these types and thus present an indefinite number of “mixed” constitutions.  And he does not dismiss out of hand the claims of any to be the “just” form of government.  He writes:

            It has already been stated that while all men have some kind of justice in their claims, not all of them have a claim that is just in an absolute sense.  (a) The rich argue that they have a greater share in the land, and the land is of social interest; and further, that they are more to be relied upon to fulfill their contracts.  (b) The claims of the free and well-born are closely related:  the more nobly born are more fully citizens than the non-noble, good birth being held in esteem in every country; and the offspring of the better sort are likely to be better men, for good birth is excellence of stock.  (c) Next we shall mention the equally just claims of virtue, for we always speak of justice as a social virtue, and one which is sure to bring all the other virtues along with it.  (d) And surely the majority have a better claim than the minority, as being stronger, richer and better, if we balance the larger numbers against the smaller.[2]

Aristotle concedes that all of these have some claim to rule the state, but that only one has an absolute claim—and that one is humanly impossible:  rule by a person of the highest virtue.  A person of absolutely superior social virtue would be as a god among men, and “there is no law that embraces men of that caliber.”[3]  Such a leader is the law to themselves, and ought to be law to all the others.  If such a person, motivated entirely by the good of the society and with no personal ambition, could be found to run the government, of course we’d have a government that aimed at the common good.  Since the virtue of a citizen is both to rule and to be ruled, to order and to obey in turn, this absolute paragon of virtue would not be part of the citizen body since such a person would obey nothing but his own virtue; for the perfect person to obey anything else would be to obey the lesser. 

            However, such superior virtue is vanishingly rare, essentially nonexistent.  Instead, in the actual states we live in, we find a mixture of rich and poor, more and less virtuous, established families and obscure houses, a variety of claimants with some just claim to rule.  Therefore, the best state is going to be one that can accommodate all of these, balance their demands, and incorporate them into the government together.  A correct constitution is one that aims at the common good; and in the real world, that includes the welfare of rich, poor, superior, mediocre, as many different persons and backgrounds as possible.  For this reason, the best form of government is going to be a mixed constitution, neither purely oligarchic nor purely democratic, but giving enough to each side so that neither feels shut out or endangered and thus no one has reason to oppose the welfare and stability of the society.

            This idea is also behind our own Constitution.  We have a House of Representatives, which is designed to give “the people” the most direct representation practically possible.  With short terms of office and every member up for reelection, its members have to constantly appease the mob or be voted out of office.  The Senate has higher standards of membership, requiring thirty years of age and nine years of citizenship, as opposed to twenty-five years old and seven years’ citizenship for a Representative.  Its members serve longer, and turnover is staggered, allowing for greater stability.  There are fewer of them, which encourages more collegiality and discussion.  And essentially, Senators represent the states, not the people directly; for the first 125 years of this nation’s history, Senators were appointed by state governments rather than elected by the people.  Even today, with Senators elected by the people, they were always expected to be the thoughtful and dignified body, even if the House was comparatively more raucous and volatile.  The Senate is, by design, more oligarchic than the House, with the intention of giving both “the mob” and “their betters” a voice and a share in government.  The Founding Fathers didn’t want a monarchy, nor did they want an Athenian-style democracy with every matter decided directly by the people; they wanted a representative democracy with aristocratic elements to put a brake on runaway popular passion if need be.  Their historical model was an idealized version of “the People and Senate of Rome” from its republic, or more historically the English model with the House of Commons and House of Lords (with the “lords” replaced by patricians serving temporary terms of office). 

            Of course, for this system to work as intended, the Senate has to live up to that responsibility as the long-term, greater-common-good thinkers as opposed to the immediacy and parochialism expected of the House.  When people speak of “the breakdown of decorum in the Senate,” that is the real problem they are noticing.  The problem isn’t that Senators are being rude or even dishonest with one another; that’s only a symptom.  The problem is that instead of one legislative body of partisan demagogues, we have a political party of partisan demagogues in both Houses.  The fact that Secretary of State Clinton was targeted by eleven Benghazi investigations over the deaths of four people, while Republican Senators and House members join together to oppose any investigation into an armed mob overrunning the Capitol in an attempt to overthrow a duly elected President and impose minority rule, is all the evidence needed to show that many Senate Republicans have abandoned even the standards of responsible behavior they would have insisted upon just a few years ago.  Because of this, the Aristotelian idea of a détente between those who proclaim themselves “the best” and “the many” is breaking down; the former elite (White males, esp. with money) and the majority are losing trust in one another, with White male Republicans increasingly calling for a second Civil War rather than allow “liberals” to take control simply because they keep winning elections.  And in a sense, they’re right.  Tyranny of the majority is still a form of tyranny, and the increasingly minority, former majority White non-college males who dominate the Republican base, and the primarily White male billionaires who dominate the Republican donor list, have a right to demand protection from undue attacks.  That does not mean the rest have to accept their understanding of “undue,” but it does mean that reassurances and a commitment to consideration of their concerns is necessary.  Sometimes just showing some respect and listening to the other can go a long way.  Donald Trump largely won in 2016 by appealing to White rural voters, not because he’s one of them but because they felt that Democrats talked down to them.  Despite being a silver-spoon elite who’s said repeatedly that billionaires like himself are genetically superior to working-class drudges who lack ambition and vision, his language and his emotionalism seemed to be talking to and for them instead of down to them, while people like Hillary seemed condescending despite her own blue-collar roots because of her law-school background and numbers-heavy policy proposals.  No one is going to trust a government that seems to regard them as inferior, and most people will respond to feelings, such as a candidate who “speaks my language” at least as much as to what the candidate has actually said.

            For a government to fulfill its function, which is to support human flourishing and happiness (eudaimonia) by giving citizens a community that nurtures a good life, it has to be reasonably reasonable, supportive of the virtues while inhibiting vices such as corruption, and stable.  Aristotle says people need a certain kind of life to be fulfilled and content:  not just consumer goods and pleasures, and not just individual autonomy since that much they could have outside of a community.  These things are important, but they are not all, and excessive luxury or excessive individualism can be as destructive as the absence of these things.  Humans are social animals; they cannot fulfill their human nature without a community of individuals and households relating to each other, trading goods and services, discussing each others’ insights on life, marrying one another, and mutually working to determine the best ways to live together.  A state where people are generally content and mostly believe the government is fair will be stable, allowing such social goods to flourish; one where a great many of the citizens do not trust the state to treat them fairly or to provide such social goods will become increasingly volatile, and eventually liable to social strife and revolution.  Much of Aristotle’s advice centers on the chief causes of political instability, and how any form of government can prevent “a change of constitution.”  While changes of constitution can be gradual, too often they involve violence and chaos that render any real human happiness impossible.  His study of politics is thus not merely “academic;” it is a search for political stability.  The causes of the downfall of governments, and how to prevent these, will be the subject of the next chapters.


[1] Democracies such as Athens used to exile any citizen who seemed so powerful that he could possibly take over.  In Athens, all the free citizens voted, once a year, who should be exiled.  The story is told that one year an illiterate citizen wished to cast his vote to exile Aristides the Just, and approached a stranger on the street to write the name for him.  It just happened that the person he asked was Aristides the Just himself.  Aristides asked the citizen if Aristides had ever wronged him.  The man replied, “No, I don’t even know him.  I’m just tired of hearing ‘The Just’ all the time.”  So Aristides wrote his own name on the ballot and gave it back to the man, who cast his vote.  Enough other Athenians agreed with him, and Aristides the Just was sent into exile—for being too famously honest.

[2] Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter xiii, 1283a29

[3] 1284a3