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A Note on Aristotle's Absolute Ruler

Author(s): R. G. Mulgan
Reviewed work(s):
Source: Phronesis, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1974), pp. 66-69
Published by: BRILL
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Accessed: 07/10/2012 01:06
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A NVote

ccording to Aristotle in the Politics, absolute rule, i.e. rule

unrestricted by law, can be justified only in the case of a man

or men of transcendent virtue. Though Aristotle is clearly
influenced by the arguments in Plato's Statesman, he gives much
more emphasis than Plato does to the relative as distinct from the
intrinsic qualities needed in an absolute ruler.' To qualify him for
absolute rule, a man's virtue would have to be not only very great
but also far beyond that of the other members of his city. The problem to be discussed in this note is the terms in which Aristotle describes this relative superiority of the absolute ruler.2
The most commonly accepted view is that the ruler's virtue must
surpass that of all the others put together.3 This interpretation has
been developed most fully by Braun4 who sees the justification of
absolute ruleas an applicationof what he calls Aristotle's 'Summierungsprinzip' or summation principle. This is the principle Aristotle uses
when he compares the political claims of two groups of people by
summing their respective qualities. For example, by applying this
principle, he is able to give some support to the claim of the many
to participate in deliberative and judicial decisions. Individually,
the many may be inferior judges compared with the few best men,
but collectively, when their individual contributions are added up,

Cf W. L. Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, Oxford 1887, Vol. I, p. 276.

includes the possibility that there may be more than one candidate
for absolute rule (1284 a 3-8, 1332 b 16-23). However, as he combines his discussion of absolute rule with a discussion of kingship (Book 3, chapters 14-16)
some of his arguments apply only to a single absolute ruler, the Absolute King.
Cf. V. Ehrenberg, Alexander and the Greeks, Oxford 1938, pp. 71-6. This discrepancy does not affect the present point at issue which is how superior a
man has to be in order to qualify either as a single ruler or as a member of a
group of absolute rulers. But see below, note 9.
a So Newman, Vol I, pp. 275-6, H. von Arnim, Zur Entstehungsgeschichte der
Aristotelischen Politik, Vienna 1924, pp. 72, 82; W. D. Ross, Aristotle', London
1949, p. 255, uses the word 'transcends' which is more appropriate.
4 E. Braun, 'Die Summierungstheorie des Aristoteles,' JOA I, 44 (1959) pp.
157-84; Das Dritte Buch der Aristotelischen Politik, Sb. Ost. Ak. Ph-Kl. 247.4
(1965) p. 224.


they may be superior in judgment.5 According to Braun, Aristotle

holds that absolute rule is justified when the merits of the ruler or
rulers exceed the sum of those of all the other members of the city.
This interpretation, however, is open to serious objection. It is nowhere unambiguously spelled out by Aristotle. Furthermore, it is
contradicted by the one passage where Anrstotle does clearly specify
the extent of the absolute ruler's superiority.
There are three passages where Aristotle mentions the extent of
this superiority:
(i) 1284 a 3-11 et 86 nq 1=tv et4 t0oao3tkov&wipcov xocr'MpCTiq(ntepEO1) tLiV CM; tJ


7B0pM 'apcOtCn6Xecdg,
11k6'OL 7vZc,OIuvCroX
v 8VOa
&pcv 7xvTh

V ?V

V 7)LrX'tV
7WpO5 'LV


eti 8 'X

XedVCOV, E' 7C EEte,


~t6vov, oux6'rt r&vt&VTo&Souq ,t6po; -x6Xewq &8txqaOV'(LL YMPMELOUVLeVOL

'LCiVta(jv, &VLaOLrOaOiYkOv XOCt' Cperv 6,Ve
v &uvoc[Ltv
xal '~7rr oXvrX
C&otep yOCp?6v

Fv &vpco'7rots



elvoL '6v

(ii) 1288 a 15-19, 24-28 6'rovoiuv1 y6vo; 6Xovq XOCl

wvoiau,Bp 8auLTpovxa yeVea'LxNxt Xp0'rCEV
SroaoUov 6C$' UkrepiXeW
r?v ?eXeVOU









va roirkov ...
pasatXe 'Ov
X'reEvetv : (PUYOC8eUt)LVouA oza'poxLmLv 8' 7Ov 'o6V TOLOU'TOV

&aL1oDV &PXza,OCL xaoa

r- 8i

,ro5 navmo,


ou y&p 7rttUXC




'wv rrALXmou'71v
67reppo),%vgXowrt roDro u3mxv

(iii) 1332 b 16-23. et tu'v roWvuv
ecraov 'roaoDov &ovp6povte;



su Uc, 7rp&'rov
VOLq t-V



)ovs xaLt rouc) r'pcioc;


T0o suacqC =coXv



SCVL xoal 9PXVepoc&V




gXowrocg 67rep,oXv,

8)9Xov 6trL r3e?tov

&C1 trov;

v 8t&9e'pLv,




oCUT0oi tou0



d pxeLv


Of these passages, the first gives the most precise account of the
necessary extent of superiority. Men's apetrq and 7ro0vrLxx 86voc(uX

must be so outstanding that they cannot be compared (sd aCu,B7-tv)

with that of the others. au43?kt6; has, for Aristotle, a clear, technical
meaning.6 Two things are utpkq if they can be compared on the
same scale either as fractions of one another or at least as greater
than or less than or equal to one another. The appropriate qualities
of the absolute ruler must therefore be on quite a different scale from

1281 a 39-b 21.

6 See Ross' note on Metaphysics 1080 a 19 (W. D. Ross ed., Aristotle's Meta-

physics, Oxford 1924, vol. II, p. 427).


the others'. It is for this reason that he cannot be a Le?poq

If he were, he would have to share his rule with the others which
would imply that he and they were governed by the principle of
political justice. But this principle can only apply to those who
are either absolutely or proportionately equal.7 Because the absolute

ruler's qualities are incomparablethey cannot be related even proportionately to the others' and so he cannot be expected to share his
rule with them.
Now this argument cannot be seen as an application of the summation principle. The absolute ruler's merits are not simply greater
than the sum of those of the others; they are in a class of their own.
He is like a god among men. In fact, the mathematical analogy of
incomparability is logically inconsistent with the analogy of summation which necessarily implies comparability on the same scale.
In the third passage from Book 7, the degree of superiority of the
absolute ruler is described as 6aov 'ou eou xac 'roi inp&caqruyovu,oc
T6V a'v.p(c'V 8LCprpev.This clearly recalls 'aotep ... bho?v tv ivap oLt
from the first passage and we may reasonably infer that Aristotle
has in mind the incomparability of the qualities of the superman with
those of other men.
The second passage, however, is more problematical.The statement
that the king must exceed in virtue the virtue of all the others (&aypepo,VTO... X0Cr' pq



Srrjvo rXEO


n'rv'rv) might seem to imply the summation principle: when
the virtue of the subjects is added up, it is still not equal to the king's.
There is certainly no explicit suggestion that the king's virtue must
be incomparable. On the other hand, Aristotle says a few lines above
that he has already described the superiority of virtue which justifies
absolute kingship8and he may therefore think that it is not necessary
to be so precisein recapitulation.
Later in the same passage he compares the relation of the king to
his subjects with that of a whole to a part. To allow the subjects
to share in the absolute king's rule would be like thinking that the
part should exceed the whole which is unnatural (oi) yap 7cp'yux? TO


ro5 nV'6q, TXo

e 'qV qTyxaU&rv



What is the point of this analogy? If Aristotle is using

7EN, 1134 a 26-8, b 13-15; Pol, 1259 b 4-6, 1277 b 7-9.

8 'rit 8' o -rp67nro, ex'r&kov. tp-ract 8U cg i87) xLt iTp6Srepov (1288 a 5-6). Is there any
significance in Trw? It might, but need not, imply that Aristotle wishes to change

his earlier formulation.


the summation principle, the point must be that the king is greater
than all his subjects put together just as a whole is greater than any
of its parts. On the other hand, the analogy recalls the argument of
the first passage where Aristotle says that the superman is not a part
of the city because of his incomparable qualities. Perhaps this is what
Aristotle means here. Because his virtue is incomparable, the absolute
king is not a part of his city and cannot share his rule with other
parts. Instead he is like a whole and must therefore have all the rule
to himself.
It is, perhaps, impossible to decide between these two interpretations
of this passage simply on the basis of the text. However, once it has
been recognised that the earlier passage does not imply the summation principle, it is preferable, if we can, to interpret the second
passage in the same way. Alternatively, we must admit that in recapitulating his argument, Aristotle changed his mind.9 Of course,
given the notorious nature of the Politics, such an admission is not
fatal. But at the very least we would have to accept that we had yet
another problem in Aristotle's account of absolute rule.
University of Otago

* There are other minor discrepancies between the second and the other two
passages. The latter refer to the possibility of more than one absolute ruler while
the former is restricted to the case of a single ruler (see above, note 2). Again,
the latter refer to qualities other than &pe-r necessary in the absolute ruler
(noMITtx' 86vacLtq1284 a 6-7; iTp.7.tovxa.Tr&T-6 C@i ... elt- xoi9v
+UXv 1332 b
18-20; cf Newman vol 1, p. 275 n. 1), while the former mentions &pErfionly.
These differences might suggest that Aristotle is presenting a different account
of the absolute ruler in the second passage. However, the omissions in the second
passage can equally well be explained as due to the brevity appropriate to the
recapitulation of a previous argument.