Aristotle’s Book III of Politics is regarded by many as Aristotle’s best work on politics. The major part of this book is devoted to the analysis of constitutions and citizenship. These two discussions constitute the kernel of Greek political thought.
It begins with the observation of polis or state. He asks what is state? Polis or citizen and politeia or constitutions are the two constituent parts of state.
As regards the definition of state he observes that there is no unanimity of definition. Many people define it in their own way. The state, we have already pointed out, is a composite whole. Therefore, it has many parts and the citizen is one such part. Let us see how Aristotle has defined citizenship.
He who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of any state is said by us to be a citizen of that state; and, speaking generally, a state is a body of citizens sufficing for the purposes of life. Mere participation in the offices of the state is not a criterion of citizenship.
The constitutions of the states differ and also their nature and functions. Naturally, the citizenship is also bound to differ. According to Aristotle, the polis or state is not a mere assembly of persons at a certain place.
The state is a self-sufficient unit and this self-sufficiency is not for the purposes of life alone, but for good and noble life. Noble and good life is happy life.
Any analysis of Aristotle’s conception of citizenship reveals that the definition of citizenship centres around the exercise of political rights. That is, the citizens are a group of persons exercising the political rights.
No part of the community not possessing such rights comes within the purview of politics proper. But he raises a further question: Who ought to be citizens? Especially mechanics or labourers? His answer is negative.
The prime qualification for citizenship is the capacity both to rule and to be ruled and the cultivation of this two-fold capacity is indispensable. Freedom from concern about the necessities of life is indispensable to the proper performances of political duties.
The working classes are, indeed, essential to the state’s existence, but this does not constitute them as citizens.
In his discussion of citizenship, Aristotle has drawn a distinction between good man and good citizen. The excellence of a citizen is relative to the constitution. That is, the excellence must be judged in the background of a constitution. So, if there are several kinds of constitution, there can be several kinds of good citizen.
It means one excellence may not be found in every constitution. But in every constitution there is an absolute standard of goodness and when a man possesses it he will be regarded as a good man. It is thus clear that it is possible to be a good citizen without possessing the excellence which is the quality of a good man.
Aristotle’s theory of citizenship is not free from certain limitations. Working class, labourers and other ordinary people do not fall within the category of citizenship. This is unjust. It is a fact that the ability to take part in the deliberative, judicial and administrative affairs will qualify a man to be citizen.
But we fail to understand why the working class will not have that ability. Today we do not relate citizenship to the constitution. In modern times, there are various types of constitution. But analysis of citizenship does not consider it.
The modern criterion is allegiance to the constitution. That is, mere contribution to state affairs is not enough; he must show allegiance to the state or constitution.
2. Definition and Nature of Constitution:
Aristotle’s analysis of citizenship is directly related to the concept of the constitution. Constitution is the only factor which will adequately account for the identity of a state. Citizens share in the political functions-of citizenship and these functions are determined by the constitution.
Hence it is the constitution which determines the identity of a state, and when the constitution changes, the state also changes. We, therefore, see that in Aristotle’s view polis, citizenship and constitution are closely connected with each other.
The state is the supreme association and has certain purpose. He has defined constitution in the following words:
By the constitution we mean the organization of the various authorities and in particular the sovereign authority that is above all the others.
To put it in other words, according to Aristotle the constitution is nothing but the organisation of the sovereign authority. In democracy the demos, that is people, is sovereign.
In oligarchy the sovereign power is vested in the hands of a few. Therefore, constitutions of different states are not supposed to be identical.
In Book IV Chapter One Aristotle has given an elaborate definition of constitution. Constitution is the arrangement which states adopt for the distribution of offices of power, and for the determination of sovereignty and of the end which the whole social complex in each case aims at realizing.
He has distinguished laws from constitution. Laws prescribe the rules by which the rulers shall rule and shall restrain those that transgress the laws. Constitution is original and prime law for the distribution of offices and determination of sovereignty. Whereas laws regulate the day-to-day affairs of the administrators.
Aristotle has analyzed the constitution in the background of ethics. But, at the same time, he has not made any attempt to bypass the descriptive aspect. Every community has its own values, ideals objective and, in the light of these, a constitution is framed.
Therefore, the aims and values of particular constitution are not to be judged in any absolute sense but in the background of the membership of the constitution.
If the constitutions of different polities differ then it is a fact that the values and goodness will also differ. Again the goodness and values which the citizens uphold will also be of different kind. In this way, Aristotle has described the nature of a constitution.
3. Classification of Constitution:
Aristotle has classified the constitutions into two broad categories—right or ideal constitution or government, and wrong or perverted form of government. The constitutions which aim at the common interest or good are called the ideal or right constitutions. But there are many constitutions in which the holders of power give priority to private interests and want to hold office continuously.
These constitutions are called perverted or wrong constitutions. The purpose of classifying the constitution in this way is that the principle of political rule is the maximization of the benefit of the ruled—the people.
A man should not desire to hold power with an eye to his personal gain. This was the view not of Aristotle alone but of all leading Greek philosophers.
In Book III Chapter 7 Aristotle has further subdivided each category of constitution into three forms. Thus the normal or right or ideal form of government or constitution has three subdivisions. When a single man is at the helm of the government and looks to the common interest of the society, it is called kingship.
If few persons run the government with the same objective it is to be called aristocracy. Sometimes it is found that people at large govern the state and the purpose is common interest—it comes to be called polity.
When the administration is conducted for the sole benefit of the ruler the government is perverted. The corresponding forms are one-man rule—tyranny, rule of few—oligarchy, and the rule of many is democracy.
The basis of classification is not simply the common good criterion. There is another criterion which is called number. If a single man rules it may be tyranny or kingship and here there is no confusion. But what about the exact meaning of few and many?
How many persons will constitute the few? The term ‘many’ lacks exactness. These are relative terms and, unfortunately, Politics does not throw light on it.
In a developed or well-to-do society few will be rich. This contention is unacceptable. A large number of persons may be rich. There is another difficulty. How shall we define common good or interest? Some critics think that Aristotle has identified common interest with absolute justice which means complete social virtue. But the problem remains that how can the common interest of the many in polity or democracy be distinguished from that of the people at large?
The concept of common interest is full of ambiguities and its interpretation differs from person to person and changes from time to time. If a dispute arises regarding the interpretation of common interest who will settle it? Aristotle is silent on this matter.
4. Kingship and Tyranny:
According to Aristotle, both kingship and tyranny are rule of one and in spite of this basic similarity there is difference between the two.
The oft-repeated difference is: a king looks after the interest of his subjects and the tyrant considers his personal gain. But other differences are: a tyrant captures power by force, but the power of the king is based on law.
Tyrant’s power is exercised over the unwilling subjects. But people of the king are willing subjects. Even absolute power may be acquired either by heredity or by election.
In Book 3 Chapter 14 Aristotle has distinguished five different types of kingships. The first variety is Spartan kingship. This is not absolute monarchy. King’s power is limited. They are vested with the power to command in war. They have the right of dealing with matters of religious observance. They can be called constitutional kings with limited sovereignty.
The second type of kingship is common among the barbarians and is a mixture of kingship and tyranny. The kings have complete power equal to that of tyrannies but they are legally established and hereditary. The relationship between the ruler and the ruled is that of master and slave. The non-Greek kingships derive their stability from hereditary succession.
The third type is elected tyrant. It used to exist among the ancient Greeks and goes by the name of dictatorship (or aesymnetes). This is an elective form of tyranny. It differs from barbarian kingship. The rulers held office sometimes for life, sometimes for a fixed period. They had to discharge fixed duty.
The fourth type of kingship existed in heroic ages. It was both hereditary and legal and willingly accepted by subjects. These kings started their rule by launching welfare programmes and also making discoveries in arts and peace. These activities made the king popular among his subjects. Originally these kings enjoyed unlimited power but gradually their power eroded and ultimately their power was confined in discharging certain religious functions.
Aristotle speaks of a fifth type of monarchy and, in his opinion; it is different from other forms. The king is absolute and controls everything. Aristotle compares his rule to that of the head of a household.
He wants to mean that the absolute king has total and unfettered control over his community in the same way as the head of the household is the complete master of all the members. The absolute king claims to be superior to law.
Aristocracy as defined by Aristotle is the rule of the few best men. These few best men rule for the common interest of the people. They are generally virtuous and the virtues of good men and good citizens are identical. In Book 4, Chapter 7 Aristotle has described three forms of aristocracy on the basis of practical experience.
The first species combines both wealth and numbers. The second species is of Spartan type. It is the combination of virtue and democratic principle of freedom. The third includes those varieties of polity which incline more to oligarchy.
Some species combine oligarchic principle and democratic principle of wealth and freedom. But ultimately it gives weight to wealth.
His description of aristocracy suffers from certain problems. The ideal aristocracy and ideal kingship may be indistinguishable. Because, in both cases, virtue is the supreme quality. The only difference will be in number. But if in aristocracy one man takes the leading part and in kingship the king is advised by few virtuous persons, then what is aristocracy and what is kingship will be a problem. He is not clear about the true nature of ideal aristocracy. In several places he has discussed aristocracy. What is the ideal form we do not know.
Oligarchy is one of the perverted forms of government. The rulers of oligarchy always give priority to private interest and, as a result of it, common good is neglected. Another feature of oligarchy stated by him is that only the wealthy persons dominate the politics as well as administration of the state. Sometimes noble birth and education are regarded as features of oligarchy. But it is on rare occasions.
In Book 4 Chapter 5 Aristotle has described four different types of oligarchy. The first type of oligarchy is based on property qualification. But this is not restrictive. Participation in the affairs of the government is open to persons who acquire property. This property qualification is not very high.
The first type of oligarchy is nearer to polity. For second type of oligarchy a high property qualification has been recommended. In a sense, the rulers of the second form of oligarchy are richer and, naturally, fewer. When persons of high property qualification are not available, the deficiency is met by the process of co-option. The third type is narrower still and includes the further restriction that membership of the governing class is hereditary.
Finally, officials and not law exercise the sovereign power. An oligarchy of this type is sometimes called a “power group.”
In the perverted form of government there are three types and democracy is one of them. Both Plato and Aristotle did not see this form of government with favour. Both of them saw the degrading and pernicious features of this form of constitution.
However, democracy prevailed in Athens for over a century and Aristotle got the opportunity to see this form of government from a very close distance. So his observation of democracy is based on practical experience.
According to Aristotle, the foundation of democratic constitution is liberty. Everyone will have the freedom to rule and is legally entitled to all privileges. There is another principle. Democratic principle is based on numerical justice.
That is, the decision of the majority is final and to accept it is justice and its denial is injustice. To put it in other words, in democracy, people are sovereign.
Aristotle’s analysis reveals certain features and some are stated below:
(1) All citizens are eligible for all offices.
(2) Property shall not be a qualification for holding office.
(3) One person shall not be allowed to hold office very frequently.
(4) Tenure of the offices shall be very short so that all or large number of men can get opportunity to hold office.
(5) Jury courts shall be introduced.
(6) Assembly, whose members are elected by the people, shall be the sovereign authority.
(7) Birth, culture and wealth are not to be counted as qualification.
He also discusses four different types of democracy.
The first is moderate democracy which will involve certain amount of property qualification…
Secondly, all citizens, if not disqualified by birth, are eligible to hold office. Here, no property qualification is recommended.
Third form of democracy is, all citizens are eligible. But law is supreme. Finally, we find an extreme form of democracy. Here no restriction has been suggested. Law is not sovereign, but people will exercise sovereign authority.
If we look at Aristotle’s classification we shall find that one type of government is not clearly different from another. Dunning says, “Clearly the Politics, as we have it, is very far from clear in distinguishing each from all the rest. Polity and mixed aristocracy are difficult to disentangle.” Different forms of democracy and kingship are no doubt perplexing.
In spite of this defect it is to be admitted that in classifying the government, he has actively considered the economic, social, historical and cultural influences. In the classification he has also remembered the three elements of government—the deliberative organ, the system of magistracies, and judicial department. Today what we call the separation of powers, Aristotle is the harbinger of that doctrine.
8. Polity: The Best Practicable State:
Aristotle has analyzed in detail the different aspects of oligarchy and democracy and this has enabled him to construct a state which would be both ideal and practicable. This type of state is free from the extremes of oligarchy and democracy, because experience has shown that extreme form of government always breeds chaos and dangers. In Book 3 Aristotle mentions the possibility of such a form of government. This is polity.
In Book 4 Chapter 8 Aristotle has described the nature of polity. It is a mixture of oligarchy and democracy. In common usage the name is confined to those mixtures which incline to democracy, and those which incline to oligarchy are called aristocracy. When the polity is a combination of oligarchy and democracy it has certain advantages.
The main advantage is that both common interest and virtue get priority. Because of this characteristic Aristotle has called it an ideal or right type of constitution. In his opinion every polity will have a popular assembly, but its powers will be limited.
The appointment of officers will be based on both oligarchic and democratic methods; judicial functions are to be performed by juries.
Polity is also identified with the middle class. Chapter 11 of Book 4 throws ample light on this aspect of polity. Polity as a form of government has both ethical and social foundations. Virtue is a mean, the middle of the two extremes. Happiness of life is possible only if the mean is achieved. Best life must always be the middle way.
The same principle is also applicable to practical or political life. The social foundation of polity is the existence of a large number of people constituting the middle class. These men are neither poor nor rich. The city or polis possessing the largest number of middle class people is the best administered polis.
The glaring ‘disparity between the rich and the poor is the root cause of dissension among classes. Both these classes resort to violence as the most effective weapon to gratify personal desires and to achieve material gain.
Poor people want to capture power of office to become financially solvent like the rich, and the rich people’s greediness and inordinate love for wealth lead them to come into conflict with the poor people.
The state is thus converted into a perennial battle-ground. As far as practicable a state should consist of like and equal men who constitute the middle class. The best government is certainly to be found in a polis which is dominated by the middle class.
Euripides had said years before that only the middle class could save states. The Middle class is not poor enough to be degraded or rich enough to be factions.
Interpreting Aristotle’s views on importance of middle class as a stability factor of administration, Sabine1 makes the following observation—the principle of middle class state is a balance between two factors—quality and quantity. The first includes the political influences which arise from the prestige of wealth, birth, position and education; the second is the sheer weight of number.
If the first predominates, the government becomes an oligarchy; if the second—a democracy. A combination of two factors is the only guarantee of stability. Only a polity can effectuate a balance and, hence, stability. A state ruled by the middle class can be most secure and can be the most law-abiding of practicable constitutions.
He thinks that for the stability of a state both quality and quantity count very much. Aristotle believes in the collective wisdom of a sober public opinion and there is less possibility of being corrupted. At the same time men of position, experience and education are required for good administration.
A state that can combine these two factors can solve the chief problems of stable and orderly government. But it is not to be understood that the polity is necessarily the best for every people and under every set of conditions. Circumstances may make a government the best.