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Author: Barry Stocker

Aristotle is one of the main thinkers in world history. Together with his teacher Plato, he established the main outlines of the philosophical tradition, and many other areas of human knowledge. He was a tutor to the young Alexander the Great at the court of King Philip II of Macedon, and also an enthusiast for the self-governing institutions of the city-state of Athens where he studied, taught and wrote.

As a Macedonian born outside Athens, he was often an object of suspicion to the Athenians, because he was a foreigner and because the Macedonian monarchy had destroyed the independence of the Greek states. Aristotle avoided the worst consequences by living for two major periods outside Athens. The first period included his time teaching Alexander and a 2 years in Assos, Ionia (now the Aegean coast of Turkey). Athens, in its ‘Golden Age’ at that time, represented a peak of individualistic commercial democracy, accompanied by some of the most distinguished drama, poetry, historiography, architecture, sculpture and philosophy ever produced.

The individualism, however, was very lacking by our standards. Conformity to majority opinion and state rituals was strong, as we see in Aristotle’s exile and the condemnation to death of Socrates, the teacher of Aristotle’s teacher Plato; slavery and the second class status of women were unchallenged fundamentals of the society. Nevertheless, Athens was a great step forward for the Ancient world, and Aristotle was a large part of that. The Ancient republics of Greece and Rome strongly influenced early modern freedom movements from the Italian city state republics to the French and American Revolutions; and Athens was the symbol of a commercial individualistic understanding of that tradition. Aristotle represents a step towards liberalism compared with his teacher Plato, though we should look beyond the mid-Twentieth Century pop philosophy misunderstanding of Plato as the prophet of totalitarianism. This was never accepted by Plato scholars, and is slowly receding, not fast enough to avoid continuing confusion though.

Whatever aspects of Plato are unacceptable from a modern liberal point of view, his position is based on the idea of a state based on law not force; and of a human individual with the capacity to subordinate immediate desires to reason in a healthy self-governing character. Aristotle builds on these ideas in The Politics, while distancing himself from Plato’s suggestion of a class of philosopher rulers, sharing their property in a life devoted to wisdom. Aristotle argues that property must be privately held in order for it to be used properly and its benefits realised. Though he does not criticise slavery for ‘natural’ slaves he presumes that most people in a society should be free citizens, and that they should have equal legal and political rights.

The best state for Aristotle is a city, rather than a large territorial monarchy. In a city, the citizens can be friends and can share the government in the city through a system based on law and agreement, not coercion to maintain the power of one person at the top. Since the capacity for political affairs is a basic human capacity, all citizens should have some role in government. Aristotle concedes that there could be good government, government moderated by law and virtue, giving power to one individual (a monarchy) or a minority group (an aristocracy), but the quality of this government depends very much on the quality of individuals and so is always close to collapse into the tyrannical rule of one, or the self-interested rule of an oligarchy.

The best kind of constitution is that of a ‘political state’, the natural form of the state. In that kind of state, the people as whole have power assembled as a whole in a public assembly, as was normal in ancient city republics. If that is the only source of decision making, that is pure democracy which Aristotle worries is vulnerable to manipulation by those who appeal to majority opinion of the moment. He associates democracy with the rule of the poorest, in an unrestrained way, vulnerable to manipulation, just as the rule of the richest is self-interested. The government should be administered by people in the middle (presumably the less wealthy landowners), who are less influenced by extremes.

The extremes of democracy are restrained by courts and governmental bodies which are elected or are appointed, as opposed to mass assembly or selection by lottery to service on government bodies. It is this structure which prevents the state becoming too powerful, and going beyond law. In this best political system democracy is mixed with aristocracy and oligarchy, so that laws and decisions are made in the common interests, and the equal rights of all citizens are recognised. Where the right balances and restraints are lacking, pure democracy emerges which tends to threaten law and property, leading to tyranny in order to stabilise the situation; or oligarchy emerges in which the rich destroy the rights of the majority. These mixed nature of the best political constitution prevents the destruction of individual rights, as when the Athenians voted the least popular citizen out of the state, in fear that the city could be undermined, or taken over, by one or a few people.