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Commentary on Aristotle's Politics

Preface

Aristotle's Politics is very complicated work for either the philosophically minded or the casual
reader. But this commentary I hope removes some confusion and shows that the book is much
simpler than it appears. However, I warn the reader that I had some trouble with the Bekker
number citations so these may be off or a bit vague. Therefore I have also included chapter
numbers with the Bekker numbers.

So then let us begin:

BOOK I

At (1252a 25):

Aristotle tells how man is a political animal by dint of not being self-sufficient outside of states.

Up to (1258a 10), Aristotle discusses wealth and how wealth which exists purely for exchange is
bad since it substitutes the reasonable end of money which is to satisfy necessary, limited,
natural wants, with the unreasonable end of using money to gain more money. He almost seems
to be against profit. For Aristotle says at (1257 b 15), that the art of retail trade, which aims at
exchange to aquire monetary surplus is bad, since like the above, it seeks to pervert the natural
end of money -to circulate goods- with the end of aquiring money itself so that profit itself
seems vicious in Aristotle's schema. An interesting note for the reader: Aristotle's difference with
modern political economy is mostly to do with the moral and motivational aspects of money but
as to money's primary use as a circulating token, he is in agreement with most of modern
economics and the development of mercantilism was actually a step away from Aristotelian
doctrines, which doctrines were at least partly restored, ironically, by that intellectual movement
we call "the enlightenment".

At (1259a 25):

Aristotle mentions an attempt by Dionysus the tyrant of Syracuse, to corner/monopolize a


market and he seems to approve for he comments about it that "statemen ought to know these
things; for a state is often as much in want of money as a household; hence some public men
devote themselves to finance..." Though it seems odd that Aristotle would take the acts of a
tyrant, for an example in his Politics, the answer is that Aristotle in Politics does not discuss any
ethical principles per se, but only how politics works -and we shall see evidence of this
throughout the book.

At (1259b 20) Aristotle asks "why should the virtue of ruler and ruled be different" -after all,
every citizen or subject needs virtue, yet it seems the ruler exists, as the city exists, to provide
and command and therefore all the virtue of the ruler alone suffices for the whole city. However
Aristotle shows that different classes have different virtues, and (since having the virtue of
prudence implies having all of them, and the courageous or the liberal man know what is
prudent in cases of war and spending respectively, it then follows that all men can be virtuous,
but through their unique virtues.) all classes have virtue per se but they exercise it only through
a single virtue. Therefore, just as the courageous man knows the good of courage and the things
which aid it and so is prudent regarding them, so too is the statesman that person who has
commanding prudence/political prudence and knows what is prudent for the state.

BOOK II

This entire book is pretty understandable; Aristotle essentially rejects the idea of common
property. Of course Aristotle does not need to do it the way he did, for having already stated
that the state is made up of families with property interests, he could easily prove that the best
state according to himself, could not eliminate private property.

BOOK III

1-7 (1274b 5-1279a 25)

Aristotle determines that a citizen is only an adult male, born in the polis, (not elderly however)
who has a high probability of holding the powers and offices in the government. As such a king is
a citizen under monarchy since he has the whole share of power, as will appear from the
following considerations. For why does Aristotle restrict citizenship? Because (1) each polis has
its own peculiar customs and ways of life which are fit for it and are diluted through immigration,
(2) because only adult males are "people" in the proper sense of the word, and therefore only
they should be citizens, and (3) according to my interpretation of Aristotle's nonethical political
science, his method is pragmatic, and realizes that powerless citizens are citizens in name only,
not in effect, and therefore a citizen is one who holds or for whom holding office is likely.

Aristotle also determines that the "best state" is that which is ruled by the best and is obeyed by
the best.

7-9 At (1279a 25-1280a 10)

Aristotle defines different forms of government e.g. monarchy, aristocracy, etc. He determines
that these forms differ from their opposite forms through the quality of self-interest (these
opposing and privative forms are mere privations and not specific different forms of gov., just as
a sick animal is a privative of a healthy one and not a different kind). States which govern for
their own gain and not for the gain of the citizens are the privatives of the others. However, as
we have noted, only those who can practically hold office are citizens of a republic and so the
officials of a state are the same as the citizenry (at least as to potential); and for each state,
government=citizenry; likewise for the other governments so then, how can these officials not
govern in their self-interest? Suppose Aristotle means unethical self-interest, is he not adding
ethics into a study which has so far only touched on ethics, tangentially? But Aristotle's later
examination of the motives for revolution shows that self-interest on a part of the citzens does
have a central role to play in the corruption and generation of states regardless of morality. Let it
suffice that Aristotle means that the citizens of a polis are only accidentally moved by their self-
interest (assuming the state is not corrupt); as the doctor cures himself, but essentially moves
the patient (in our case, the ruled is moved by the statesman); so that either Aristotle says that
the ruled -those who are potential citizens -can be dishonored by those who actually have office
and this is the source of revolutions, or we can say that of those who hold office, some of them
revolt against and agitate against the constitution in order to have power for themselves.

Another question: did Aristotle badly define oligarchy? For instance, according to Aristotle, the
many may be rich and the few poor (as in Switzerland). Now, would this case be an oligarchy
(rule of the rich) or a democracy (rule of the many)? Aristotle says that it is rule by the many,
since for him, it is an accident of nature that the many are rich (and in anycase, the difference is
manifest, for the formal motive for rule is different according to Aristotle: in democracy it is
freedom, while in oligarchy it is wealth). Let me adduce an argument for clarifying these
conclusions, which Aristotle does not appear to have thought needful -since he nowhere
attempts it: let there be an oligarchy of the poor. Under such a state, if the few are poor and the
many rich, then the oligarchs must have some feature which distinguishes them above the many.
But this feature cannot be wealth so it must be honor, but honor is the distinguishing mark of
democracy, so it follows that this state where the few honorable people decide to rule over the
many wealthy is actually a democracy. The opposite applies in the so-called "democracy" for a
democracy of the few is one where all are equal in honor, but in a wealthy society evidently
wealth must be honorable and a source of honor so this state is an oligarchy. Additionally, few
will be wealthy, & if all are honorable, it follows that only the most honorable, that is, the
wealthiest of such a state can rule, and so this is an oligarchy; since rule by wealth is the
distinguishing mark of it -however popular this oligarchy may be.

Since according to Aristotle, all states, whether the positive form or the privative forms, are
framed with the good of only a dominating class -the citizens -in mind; & since the there are
multiple kinds of state, it follows, for Aristotle, that every state is framed with a view to only one
class of virtue -so that, the objectively good man is not necessarily a good citizen -for his virtues
surpass the virtues of the whole state and render him superflous and his polis obsolete for him.
However, if one has one virtue, is that not enough to render him an objectively good man? This
hardly matters, for if he is the absolutely best man, in anycase, then his desires and ideas
preceed the lawmaker's and he constitutes more of a law than the lawmaker does. Does this
mean that the good man can dispense with the city or that the city can dispense with him?
Aristotle does not answer that question in a way that will satisfy the reader, for he says the best
man can start a revolution but he does not have the means for it and he exists outside the city.
Yet, the reader may question Aristotle's consistency for if the best man is best,it seems Aristotle
could also argue, that he not only fulfills the law of the city but goes beyond it so it seems
unlikely that the city would reject him or he it, but that is a question which I will leave to the
interested student.

10-13 (1281a 10-1283a 25)


Aristotle clarifies his view on the efficient cause of politics: he says that the motive for ruling
ultimately depends on what people consider equal, and this depends on the honors distributed
to each class for their virtues ( or their estimated virtue, for Aristotle makes no distinction here
between democracy and republic, aristocracy and oligarchy. Using these terms almost
interchangeably.). It seems that Aristotle defines equality of honor almost as an economist
defines equality -or the tendency towards equality -of price. For Aristotle gives each occupation
and man his own honor and though unequal in degree, men, according to Aristotle, try through
exchange, deeds, and politics to equalize these honors -is this not a supply/demand schema?
Here Aristotle anticipates the "equilibrium analysis" of modern times, and as such displays how
relateable his political theories are to us, though separated by more than 20 centuries.

BOOK IV

The first point in Book IV, for Aristotle, is to establish (1) what the best constitution is, and (2)
what is the best constitution considering normal circumstances (1288 b 25).

As a partial beginning -for Aristotle will take up the subject again in greater detail -Aristotle
begins by asking what is the best distribution of offices (or constitution) a state can objectively
have.

Note: Aristotle, states that it is necessary for an oligarchy (and consequently a democracy) for
the rich to be the rulers whether many or few, but also that it is also necessary that they be few
for it to be oligarchal : oligarchy must both be of the few and of the rich. Then why did Aristotle
bother introducing the possibility of an oligarchy of the many? Perhaps (1) he distinguishes
between oligarchy and its habit, oligarchal, for there is no other alternative. And this seems like
a possibility for in a democracy of wealthy persons, each person may be equally rich with each
other, yet, the desire for honor and distinction will constitute a tendency towards inequality of
honor and wealth.

At, 1291b Aristotle says that "but the same persons cannot be rich and poor at the same time"
after a lengthy discussion on the varieties of occupation and their relative importance to the
operation of the state -viz. who should be magistrates and what is the magistrate's importance
as a class? This sentence seems random unless one suspects, as I do, that it is Aristotle's way of
saying that the same persons cannot be both e.g. husbandman & merchant (& magistrate) for
then our government will be inchoate but why? As Aristotle said in his previous discussion on
honors, different classes, with different incomes, receive different honors (which in turn
determine their income) and therefore, each class, having its own income and consequently
lifestyle, also has varied fitness for being magistrates -soldiers being more fit than mechanics for
instance, this is how I see it.
The latter part of chapter 4 is instructive for two reasons: (1) by using the word "democracy" as
the name for one of his legitimate states (for he says that there is a democracy where the law is
supreme etc.) we see that Aristotle's Politics is not a book that is of ethics but rather of
pragmatics; for he also names the bad democracy as a democracy. However, this can be
confusing. Does Aristotle intend to say that a bad state (democracy) is potentially a good one
(republic) because some democracies have a respect for law; but if so, then why would he call
them by the same name even when so comparing them? Plus the passions of the assembly, and
the self-interest of actors, are sufficient and more appropriate to Aristotle's non-ethical method
of analysis, so that separating states by their attitude towards the law or legality seems
extraneous. (2) However, the law is not meant by Aristotle to signify a separate thing -for it is a
quality and therefore inseparable -but is meant to signify a habit -that of continual abiding by
disinterested public service of the office holders. And just as there is no reason to think that
Aristotle is speaking of the privative form by using the same word, there is no reason not to
think that he isn't speaking of it, so that the reader must judge based on context.

We may ask another question: can there be transitional forms between different states? For
instance, if a democracy overthrows an oligarchy, or aristocracy, can the many not enrich
themselves from the abundance of the few and thereby produce a transitional state where the
many are rich and poor are few? And therefore a transition or intermediate form of state and the
values/honors which go along with each state? Since Aristotle did not ask or answer this
question, I answer that, and the reader may reject this interpretation, for it is just an
interpretation; there can never be such an intermediate state since the change from say, a
democracy to an aristocracy is one of privation and since there is no intermediate between
privations there is no intermediate essentially. But further there may be an inessential
intermediate, as when the many, having despoiled the rich are now in possession of greater
wealth than they previously had. For here we are faced with an oligarchy of the many or more
properly perhaps, an oligarchal democracy but not yet an oligarchy but an oligarchy per accident.
Now, since it is impossible to value two specifically/formally different things at once, it is also
impossible that there should be intermediate values e.g. of honor and wealth for these two
things are generically different goods: one is use-valued and the other is valued in-itself, so there
are no transitional honors. Lastly, if each state has a certain value attributed to it specifically and
by nature, how can there be progress out of one and into another -for nothing is ever partly in
it's nature and partly out of it -to be partly pregnant or not. Here I remark, and again this is my
interpretation which the reader may reject, but here I remark that the value of one
state/constitution is essential but it may have other accidental values which it uses but which, in
the course of circumstances may come to replace the essential value by seeming to be identical
with it or by totally overthrowing it. And as with form so with matter, and when the rich are
wholly despoiled, it follows that the oligarchy no longer exists and a democracy does (though
perhaps a weak one).

Additionally, Aristotle is discussing oligarchy and democracy without distinguishing in name, the
good from the bad, because he had earlier stated, that like the winds (chapter 3) all government
resolve themselves into 2 types : the oligarchal or the democratic -for indeed a bad democracy is
nearly equivalent to an oligarchy, and we shall see further examples of this later.

5-10 (1292b-1295a)

Arisotle gives an illuminating discussion on the nature of mixed constitutions: essentially the
constitution becomes mixed by having some element of its opposite incorporated either by a
literal copying or by a moderating of its enactments in the direction of its opposite (e.g. allowing
men of high income to vote in a democracy. Aristotle's discussion here complements his views
on how the best consitution has the most middle class influence, for the middle class in either an
oligarchal or democratic state are the ones whose enfranchisement the lawgivers have to aim at
and they have the most honor to gain. But what is this middle class? Is it not a class fewer in
number than the poor and richer but not to the extent of the rich? Some possible answers: the
middle class exists as a positive enactment -these are the people who are both
mechanic/farmer/soldier/ & a magistrate and being given an office is what makes them middle
class, or the middle class is the class which is medium between two extremes already and which
can be given a share in the gov offices, or it is a class which is given some honors but not a share
in the gov. as members of the Academie Francais, for instance.

11-12 At (1295a 25):

Aristotle, basically concludes that the middle class is the class to which all laws should favor, for
just as the single individual seeks the middle in order to achieve virtue so too, should the
statesman seek to include the middle class to dilute and moderate the desires of the other
extremes to achieve order.

13

At, (1297a 15) begins Aristotle's most shockingly modern chapter, almost mimicing the findings
of public choice theory. For, "The devices" he says, "by which oligarchies deceive the people are
five in number; the assembly," about which he says "the assemblies are thrown open to all, but
either the rich only are fined for non-attendance or a much larger fine is inflicted upon them."
That is, as per public choice theory, a regulation and imposition upon the rich, perhaps even one
that can be presented as democratic (for per Aristotle, the lower classes will always want to soak
the rich in a democracy) actually ends up giving them more power. Continuing on, "a larger fine
is inflicted upon the rich, a smaller upon the poor", consequently, as Aristotle says "having
nothing to fear, they do not attend, whereas the rich are liable to a fine, and therefore they take
care to attend." In this way, the democracy becomes closer to an oligarchy by means of
supposedly democratic laws. Just as, the regulatory system of the United States has been
recorded, according to some thinkers, to have been a guarantee of monopoly and an incentive
towards regulatory capture, and just as a majority voting scheme leads, other things being equal,
to a maximum utility only for the median voter, so too does Aristotle make the above note in the
same idea.

From (1299a 5-1301a 15):

Aristotle then describes the modes of appointment to public office in different states. He
essentially divides these modes into three categories: the democratic (in which all are elected
from all by vote or lot), the moderate or republican/aristocratic (in which some are elected or
drafted-by-lot for some offices, while the many, are eligible for some of the other by the same
selection methods), and finally the oligarchal where only a few are appointed or even elected
out of a few or out of many.

BOOK V

1 At (1301a 40):

amusingly enough, Aristotle here says that the best man is the one with the most reason to rebel
and establish his rule, yet the one with the least opportunity and connections to do so.

2 At ( 1302a 15):

Aristotle says that there are three ways revolutions happen: (1) the desire for equality, (2) the
desire of gain and honor, (3) and the material changes which include a concentration of power in
one part of the state, the neglect of small matters, and the passions of fear and fury.

3 At (1302b 5)

Aristotle says that, the desire for gain, and honor and also the avoidance of dishonor show
themselves in several ways: fear of punishment, contempt, and ambition/avarice. Through all
these ways, there may also be change of government, as also by the increase or decrease in size
or influence of one class in the state.

Furthermore, Aristotle makes clear that small changes (in quantity) can have great changes
(qualitative) e.g." the Ambraciots thought that a small qualification was much the same as none
at all" and so "was reduced to nothing".

Another cause of revolutions is difference in what Aristotle terms, "races" which do not at once
acclimate to the welcoming state.

5 At (1304b 20)

Aristotle lays down that in democracies demagogues stir up the people against the rich and this
causes revolution.

6 Continuing at ( 1305a 40)

(showing again his public choice streak) Aristotle mentions that an oligarchy can be overthrown
by oligarchs e.g. Lygdamis of Naxos became tyrant by supporting the people against his class
fellows, and at Massalia persons wealthy but excluded from the state (stir up the people?
Aristotle doesn't say but I assume that is what he means) and overthrow it.

Oligarchies collapse due to the personal rivalries of oligarchs which results in demagogy and this
latter is double: either demagogue to the oligarchs or demagogue against the oligarchs.

These insights, in my knowledge, were overlooked throughout almost 2000 years of western
european political thinking and was only recently brought up again only by certain "New Left"
historians, like Gabriel Kolko whose "The Triumph of Conservatism", details the same process as
Aristotle; or the academics of the public choice school.

8 At (1307b 35)

Aristotle gives his ideas on how to avoid revolution: (1) obedience in all matters even in small
ones; for changes in a state can happen from the smallest things :jealousies, etc. (2) short tenure
in office, and a state that tends towards a republic (since only republics adequately represent the
middle class) are stablest all things equal.

Very practically so, Aristotle embraces Machiavellianism, and suggests that one way to preserve
constitutions is through false-flags: constitutions "are preserved when their destroyers...are
near, for the fear of them makes the government keep in hand the constitution. Wherefore the
ruler who has a care of the constitution should invent terrors, and bring distant dangers near, in
order that the citizens may be on their guard..." (1308 a 25)

Further on, for Aristotle, the value of offices and the money qualification for offices should vary
with the variation in property values, and general prices (inflation/deflation).

To avoid revolution, it is also good to establish offices to inquire into the life of men who have
tempers opposite the settled state. To avoid revolution it is also good to avoid giving much honor
to any one person, and therefore to avoid the occasions for one person to do great honors.

9 At (1309a 30)

If a man is to be a leader and he is bad but a good administrator what should happen? It
depends, according to Aristotle, the man who is a skilled general, if he be bad, should
nonetheless hold office as general because generalship is rare. Now what does Aristotle mean by
this? for this repulses what he said in Ethics -that all men think they know something about
virtue but few are skilled in the arts. I think the reader may be satisfied with one explanation,
namely that Aristotle is here considering the superlative skill in an art; for generals are
considered the highest in military matters, and so this is rare although soldiery is not. Lastly the
citizens of a state should be educated in its particular culture: if republican than a republic's
education and if monarchical than a monarchic education -however, and Aristotle makes this
clear, the citizens should be educated to do the opposite: in a republic to be aristocratic and in
an aristocracy to be republican -for he criticizes the "sons of the ruling class" who "in an
oligarchy live in luxury but the sons of the poor are hardended by exercise and toil and hence
they are both more inclined and better able to make a revolution." (1310 a 20)

10

BOOK VI

A very interesting book, indeed, here Aristotle sums up and concludes in greater detail many of
the ideas begun in Book IV.

At (1318b 10) Aristotle begins by discussing democracy. He discusses the pitfalls of democracy
and also how, and this also tends to enlighten us about his use of terms in Politics, the most
advanced democracy tends towards being an oligarchy or tyranny. For the advanced democracy
where all citizens are paid to attend the assembly introduces the oligarchal element of money
which increases the esteem of property and so approximates oligarchy while the people are
gathered in a small geographic extent -the urbs -and so are easier to govern and to sway. The
best democracy is, according to Aristotle then and in contrast to modern writers on the subject,
built on a large territory, not a small one, and in poor economic circumstances so that the poor,
being distributed over a large area, only a few are able to attend the assembly and these without
pay and only temporarily; so that the passion for domineering over people and property can
scarce arise. Yet Aristotle will later point out, that the best democracy, incorporating as it does a
large number of the poor and ignoble is not the best state per se. Likewise for Aristotle, an
imperfect/weak democracy is at least materially, the same as an oligarchy, which is another
reason why he uses these terms interchangeably, and just as "the perfect is the enemy of the
good" so too are the less perfect states distinguished from the perfect versions, by the name of
the fully perverse states; so that an imperfect democracy Aristotle also calls an "oligarchy" since
it is not the Perfect State.

At (1320a 20) Aristotle says that in an urban democracy, which for him is the weakest democracy,
it is good for the the law courts, and etc. to meet only occassionally, that is, a small government
is according to Aristotle, best fitted to an urban people which is an especially unique point, given
that most thinkers, especially the American "Progressives" by whom our modern attidues were
greatly shaped, disagreed and considered that only a strong state could rule over, and contain
the problems of an urbanized country (See the popular work, "Looking Backward" by Edward
Bellamy).

BOOK VII

So we come to the conclusion, where Aristotle continues treating of the best state. And, in my
opinion, if any one is to study Aristotle's Politics it would be well to study this and the last book
for they are the closest analogue to something like Plato's Republic or Rousseau's Social
Contract, that is, they are the closest thing which the reader & student of Aristotle will get to a
general overview of all his political ideas and what he considers the ideal state. Now, for a
summary of Aristotle's views: the good absolutely is the aim of the commanders of this state, so
he lays down that the best state, has common meals for its citizens, who are organized in a series
of agorae which provide forums for leisure and the life of noble pursuits. Also, as to external
conditions, the city will be in a moderate climate and be situated neither too close or too far
from the sea, but will partake of being both a commercial city and an industrial/agricultural city.
Likewise, this best city will be neither too large or small since change in size, causes a change in
the state; and we may illustrate Aristotle's point better, by pointing out that it is generally
accepted that the American Civil War was a result of the conquests achieved during the Mexican
War.

Aristotle then continues and says that just as human nature is divided into a reasoning part and a
willing part, and a part that commands and a part which follows, so too is the state divided into
military and deliberative elements and the two are held by the same citizens but by turns and
not at the same time.

Aristotle, at (1331b 25) clarifies a subject upon which there has been much controversy, namely
natural slavery. For Aristotle, the mechanic -that is the day-laborer and the lower more menial
artists -are in the position of a subject/slave class, for they have no share in the constitution, at
least, not in the best one. And this for the fact that they are too busy to have leisure to pursue
the noble life -another reason why Aristotle considers the democracy of the poor and the
oligarchy of the few rich to be one and the same; for only a few attend assemblies in the
impovershed state while only a few rule in an oligarchy; and a few have property in an oligarchy
and seek to seize more while the many in a democracy are without property and seek to seize
what they can. He states at (1332a 10) that though the slaves are necessary for the city, not
everything which is necessary in or for life is good or noble, for, then the instrument would be
better or equal to the end; the tool would be as valuable or more so than the object gained by it.
So then, the craftsmen and such, though they do valuable work for the state are not members of
it, but only accessories to the happiness of the citizenry. Yet if a man should be found to be
capable of it, he should be freed and enrolled in citizenship. For Aristotle the best city will have a
large urban population including even slaves and foreigners but these will have no rights (yet will
have certain privileges) at least per the city-state.

BOOK VIII

This book is a simple reiteration of Aristotle's views on education. According to him, the
education of the children of citizens ought to be undertaken by the state, and this education
should be, in Aristotelian fashion, inverse to the social position and social character of the pupils;
aristocratic for the populace, and popular for the aristocrats.

Takeaway Quote: "Constitutions are preserved when their destroyers are at a distance, and
sometimes also because they are near, for the fear of them makes the government keep in hand
the constitution. Wherefore the ruler who has a care of the constitution should invent terrors,
and bring distant dangers near, in order that the citizens may be on their guard, and, like
sentinels in a night watch, never relax their attention. He should endeavor too by help of the
laws to control the contentions and quarrels of the notables, and to prevent those who have not
hitherto taken part in them from catching the spirit of contention. No ordinary man can discern
the beginning of evil, but only the true statesman."

Study Questions:

(1) Describe Aristotle's perfect constitution

(2) Did Aristotle believe that the good man was always a good citizen?

(3) Compare the similarities between oligarchy and democracy.