2. Harmony and Division in Ancient Greek Thought
About This Text
Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student, agreed with his teacher on many things. In general, though, Aristotle’s surviving works demonstrate a greater willingness to engage with the messy realities of politics of the world around us. This is certainly true if we compare Aristotle’s Politics to Plato’s Republic. Where Plato devotes nearly all his energy to describing the perfectly just soul and city, Aristotle offers a nuanced exploration of the actually existing types of regimes. In the excerpt below, Aristotle does turn to consider the question of the best possible type of regime, but notice that he does so with one foot still rooted firmly in empirical reality. Most notably, he begins by positing the unavoidable presence of socioeconomic and so political divisions between the rich, the poor, and those who fall in “the mean.” As you read, pay particular attention to the role these divisions play in Aristotle’s arguments about oligarchy and democracy, and think about how Aristotle’s analysis of political conflict might relate to (and differ from) the idea of separation of powers.
excerpts from Politics (source)
Translated by Benjamin Jowett
Book IV, Chapter XI
We have now to inquire what is the best constitution for most states, and the best life for most men, neither assuming a standard of virtue which is above ordinary persons, nor an education which is exceptionally favored by nature and circumstances, nor yet an ideal state which is an aspiration only, but having regard to the life in which the majority are able to share, and to the form of government which states in general can attain. As to those aristocracies, as they are called, of which we were just now speaking, they either lie beyond the possibilities of the greater number of states, or they approximate to the so-called constitutional government, and therefore need no separate discussion. And in fact the conclusion at which we arrive respecting all these forms rests upon the same grounds. For if what was said in the Ethics is true, that the happy life is the life according to virtue lived without impediment, and that virtue is a mean, then“the life which is in a mean, and in a mean attainable by every one, must be the best” the life which is in a mean, and in a mean attainable by every one, must be the best. And the same principles of virtue and vice are characteristic of cities and of constitutions; for the constitution is in a figure the life of the city.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle lays out his understanding of virtue as a mean between extremes. The virtue of moderation is particularly central to his argument. Broadly speaking, moderation in anything (eating, say) falls between the extremes of ‘too little’ and ‘too much.’ All the moral virtues, according to Aristotle, take this basic form. Thus courage is a mean between rashness and cowardice. Aristotle now brings this thinking about the mean to his examination of the best form of regime.
Now in all states there are three elements: one class is very rich, another very poor, and a third in a mean. It is admitted that moderation and the mean are best, and therefore it will clearly be best to possess the gifts of fortune in moderation; for in that condition of life men are most ready to follow rational principle. But he who greatly excels in beauty, strength, birth, or wealth, or on the other hand who is very poor, or very weak, or very much disgraced, finds it difficult to follow rational principle. Of these two the one sort grow into violent and great criminals, the others into rogues and petty rascals. And two sorts of offenses correspond to them, the one committed from violence, the other from roguery. Again, the middle class is least likely to shrink from rule, or to be over-ambitious for it; both of which are injuries to the state. Again, those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends, and the like, are neither willing nor able to submit to authority. The evil begins at home; for when they are boys, by reason of the luxury in which they are brought up, they never learn, even at school, the habit of obedience. On the other hand, the very poor, who are in the opposite extreme, are too degraded. So that the one class cannot obey, and can only rule despotically; the other knows not how to command and must be ruled like slaves. Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship in states than this: for good fellowship springs from friendship; when men are at enmity with one another, they would rather not even share the same path. But a city ought to be composed, as far as possible, of equals and similars; and these are generally the middle classes. “the city which is composed of middle-class citizens is necessarily best constituted”Wherefore the city which is composed of middle-class citizens is necessarily best constituted in respect of the elements of which we say the fabric of the state naturally consists. And this is the class of citizens which is most secure in a state, for they do not, like the poor, covet their neighbors’ goods; nor do others covet theirs, as the poor covet the goods of the rich;and as they neither plot against others, nor are themselves plotted against, they pass through life safely. Wisely then did Phocylides pray- ‘Many things are best in the mean; I desire to be of a middle condition in my city.’
Stop & Think
Aristotle starts from the assumption that there will always be some citizens who are very rich and some who are very poor. Do you think this is a reasonable assumption to make? Why or why not?
Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant. Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme- either out of the most rampant democracy, or out of an oligarchy; but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle constitutions and those akin to them. I will explain the reason of this hereafter, when I speak of the revolutions of states. The mean condition of states is clearly best, for no other is free from faction; and where the middle class is large, there are least likely to be factions and dissensions. For a similar reason large states are less liable to faction than small ones, because in them the middle class is large; whereas in small states it is easy to divide all the citizens into two classes who are either rich or poor, and to leave nothing in the middle. And democracies are safer and more permanent than oligarchies, because they have a middle class which is more numerous and has a greater share in the government; for when there is no middle class, and the poor greatly exceed in number, troubles arise, and the state soon comes to an end. A proof of the superiority of the middle dass is that the best legislators have been of a middle condition; for example, Solon, as his own verses testify; and Lycurgus, for he was not a king; and Charondas, and almost all legislators.
Stop & Think
There is a great deal of talk about the middle class in the contemporary United States. In surveys, most people describe themselves as belonging to the middle class, and political rhetoric is full of praise for the middle class. How do contemporary discussions of the middle class compare to the way in which Aristotle describes the middle class?
These considerations will help us to understand why most governments are either democratical or oligarchical. The reason is that the middle class is seldom numerous in them, and whichever party, whether the rich or the common people, transgresses the mean and predominates, draws the constitution its own way, “the middle class is seldom numerous … and whichever party, whether the rich or the common people, transgresses the mean and predominates, draws the constitution its own way”and thus arises either oligarchy or democracy. There is another reason- the poor and the rich quarrel with one another, and whichever side gets the better, instead of establishing a just or popular government, regards political supremacy as the prize of victory, and the one party sets up a democracy and the other an oligarchy. Further, both the parties which had the supremacy in Hellas looked only to the interest of their own form of government, and established in states, the one, democracies, and the other, oligarchies; they thought of their own advantage, of the public not at all. For these reasons the middle form of government has rarely, if ever, existed, and among a very few only. One man alone of all who ever ruled in Hellas was induced to give this middle constitution to states. But it has now become a habit among the citizens of states, not even to care about equality; all men are seeking for dominion, or, if conquered, are willing to submit.
What then is the best form of government, and what makes it the best, is evident; and of other constitutions, since we say that there are many kinds of democracy and many of oligarchy, it is not difficult to see which has the first and which the second or any other place in the order of excellence, now that we have determined which is the best. For that which is nearest to the best must of necessity be better, and that which is furthest from it worse, if we are judging absolutely and not relatively to given conditions: I say ‘relatively to given conditions,’ since a particular government may be preferable, but another form may be better for some people.
Stop & Think
Consider what Plato and Aristotle have to say about divisions of various sorts in the city. Recalling Paine and Adams, do Plato and Aristotle fall closer to Paine’s praise for “simplicity” or Adams embrace of “complexity?