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Ranking the Regimes in Aristotle's Politics: The Four-Principles Approach

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 November 2020


There is a long-standing debate over which constitution Aristotle regards as best in the Politics. I attempt to clarify his view by reconstructing four principles he uses to assess constitutions, in both ideal and more ordinary circumstances: (i) the supremacy-of-virtue principle, (ii) the more-virtuous-citizens-are-better-than-fewer principle, (iii) the equality principle, and (iv) the stability principle. I apply these principles to defend a rank ordering of constitutions, which situates the ideal aristocracy of books 7 and 8 at the top, and tyranny, along with unmixed forms of democracy and oligarchy, at the bottom.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of University of Notre Dame.

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An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2016 annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association. I thank the attendees, copanelists, and especially the discussant, Stu Gray, for their feedback on that occasion. I also thank George Klosko, Doug Reed, the journal's editor Ruth Abbey, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. My deepest gratitude goes to Dan Devereux, without whom this paper would never have existed.


1 Kraut, Richard, Aristotle: Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)Google Scholar, esp. 231n71, 399–402; Daniel Devereux, “Aristotle on the Just Distribution of Political Power: Politics III.9–18” (unpublished manuscript).

2 Ober, Josiah, “Nature, History, and Aristotle's Best Possible Regime,” in Aristotle's “Politics”: A Critical Guide, ed. Lockwood, T. and Samaras, T. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 224–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Frank, Jill, A Democracy of Distinction: Aristotle and the Work of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

3 Aristotle distinguishes between “justice” and “advantage” (or “benefit”) throughout the Politics, but without explicitly specifying what constitutes the latter. I assume that whatever conduces to virtue is advantageous, even if the good in question is not (a) strictly speaking, required by justice or otherwise necessary for the formation of virtue, or (b) exclusively a good for virtuous regimes or people (as opposed to vicious regimes or people) (3.7.1279a25–33). Advantage, then, is not necessarily an ethical concept. Moreover, views about what counts as advantageous may differ between those ruling a polis and those subject to that rule. From the perspective of the rulers in a “deviant” polity, for instance, stability is likely to be considered advantageous, while subjects would likely regard stability as (personally and collectively) disadvantageous, insofar as it implies a continuation of oppressive, unjust, or vicious conditions.

4 While this paper largely follows C. D. C. Reeve's translation of the Politics (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998), every quoted or discussed passage has been evaluated against Carnes Lord's (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013) and Trevor J. Saunders's (London: Penguin Books, 1981) renderings of the text. Potentially significant points of disagreement are indicated in footnotes.

5 See, e.g., 3.4; 3.13.1283b40–1284a1.

6 I share the common view that Aristotle's primary aim in the Politics is to identify regimes in which it is possible to live well—i.e., in which the full extent of human flourishing can be realized and sustained (1.2.1252b27).

7 The unqualifiedly best constitution is, as is well known, very closely related to Aristotle's conceptions of well-mixed aristocracy and aristocratic polity, especially as these are described in book 4 (see 1293b1–20, 1273a2–5, 1294b10–11; cf. Kraut, Aristotle, 231n72).

8 This view has its roots in Werner Jaeger's distinction between Aristotle's practically and ideally best constitutions (Jaeger, Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development, 2nd ed. [London: Oxford University Press, 1948]), and is supported by Aristotle's own description of his investigation in 4.1 (esp. 1288b20–30). For recent attempts to settle the question of the best constitution by distinguishing between multiple lines of inquiry (and thus multiple “best” constitutions), see Coby, Patrick, “Aristotle's Four Conceptions of Politics,” Western Political Quarterly 39, no. 3 (1986): 480–503CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mulgan, Richard G., Aristotle's Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 102Google Scholar; and Alexander, Liz Anne, “The Best Regimes of Aristotle's Politics,” History of Political Thought 21, no. 2 (2000): 189–216Google Scholar. For arguments against Jaeger's distinction, see Kraut, Aristotle, esp. 428n2; Lord, Carnes, “The Character and Composition of Aristotle's Politics,” Political Theory 9, no. 4 (1981): 459–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Frank, Democracy of Distinction, 164.

9 Ober also suggests why there are multiple answers to this question: different regime types may be best at different points in the historical sequence (“Nature, History, and Aristotle's Best Possible Regime,” 229). While I agree, it is still helpful to distinguish between constitutions that are “qualifiedly” best versus the one that is “unqualifiedly” best—i.e., the “polis of our prayers.”

10 See 5.8.1308a9–18 on the idea of a collective person, or “people,” representing a single “part” of society.

11 Note that Aristotle also thinks rule of the virtuous will be beneficial, since the virtuous contribute “the most” to a true polis (3.9.1281a1–6).

12 In these passages and elsewhere (e.g., 5.9.1309a33–39), Lord translates politikē dunamis as “capacity” or “the capacity to achieve the best things.” Saunders similarly translates this concept as “the capacity for statecraft,” which he describes further as “the ability to contribute to the life of the state by proper discharge of the functions of a citizen in his capacity as a statesman” (Politics, 213n7).

13 On this point, see also Garver, Eugene, Aristotle's Politics: Living Well and Living Together (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Plato, Laws, trans. Trevor J. Saunders (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), 712a. Note that in the passage cited, Plato is discussing the best constitutional form when founding a state, not necessarily the best constitution in an absolute sense.

15 Plato, Republic, ed. C. D. C. Reeve, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1992), 473c–d.

16 Plato, Laws 680e–681d; cf. 709e–710a, 711d–712a, 875a, 691c–d. Aristotle, Politics 3.15.1286b7–13, 1284a3–b35; 7.14.1332b21–23; 3.15.1286b3–21.

17 But should there be multiple simultaneous philosopher-rulers in the Republic, then Aristotle's view tracks Plato's that much more. For an interesting defense of the claim that Aristotle's best regime is actually one ruled by philosopher-kings, see Alexander, “The Best Regimes of Aristotle's Politics.”

18 See 3.16.1287b7–15, 1286a38–b5, 1332a33–39.

19 Aristotle associates this with hoi spoudaioi (Pol. 1281b1–17).

20 Though seemingly not impossible—hence, the ideal constitution in books 7 and 8.

21 But cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1.9.1099b18–20, which suggests that this difficulty may be more attributable to educational shortcomings than ordinary human defect.

22 This is the essential idea behind Aristotle's famous “wisdom of the multitude” argument in 3.11. It appears again in 3.15.1286a22–35 and 7.13.1332a35–39.

23 Aristotle makes this argument explicitly in 3.15.1286a36–1287b9 and somewhat more obliquely in 3.5.1278a6–11 and 3.7.1279a39–b4.

24 See 7.3.1325b7–10; 7.14.1332b25–29; 2.2.1261a22–b6; 3.12–13; 3.17.1287b40–a1; 3.6.1279a8–15; 4.9; 3.9; 3.6.1279a8–15. See also 5.8.1308a9–18; 3.16.1287b25–34; 3.13.1284b4–15.

25 Aristotle sometimes discusses other bases—e.g., “good birth” (e.g., 3.13.1283a1–b20). He usually reduces these to the primary three, however—for instance, he describes being “well born” as a function of being born free to a virtuous and/or wealthy family (3.13.1283a32–37; 4.8.1294a20–22).

26 See, e.g., Lyons, David, “The Weakness of Formal Equality,” Ethics 76, no. 2 (1966): 146–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; cf. Georg Spielthenner, “The Role of Formal Justice in Ethical Reasoning,” Res Publica 21, no. 1 (2015): 78–81.

27 See also 3.9 and 5.1.1301b29–30. Note that “aristocratic justice” is related to the supremacy-of-virtue principle, in that it stipulates that aristocratic justice takes priority over the competing distributive ideals of oligarchic and democratic justice whenever there is conflict among them.

28 Cf. Nic. Eth. 1131a14–b23.

29 By making this distinction, and by attributing one form to democracy and another to aristocracy and oligarchy, Aristotle's discussion again mirrors that in Plato's Laws (see especially 757a–758a, 744b–e).

30 Note, however, that the absolute best constitution described in 7 and 8 is not a mixed constitution, as it lacks various factions and so rival ideals of distributive justice. This is discussed further below.

31 Aristotle explains: “what is correct must be taken to mean what is equitable; and what is equitable in relation to the benefit of the entire city-state, and the common benefit of the citizens” (1283b38–40).

32 Garver also argues that stability constitutes an additional criterion for assessing constitutions (Aristotle's Politics, 83).

33 But, as Ober points out, considerations of stability also factor into Aristotle's assessments of “correct” constitutions like kingship or aristocracy (“Nature, History, and Aristotle's Best Possible Regime,” 230, 235).

34 See 2.9.1270b20–23; 4.9.1294b34–40; 4.12.1296b14–16; 4.13.1297b1–12; 5.8.1308b34ff; 6.4.1318b14–28; 5.9.1309b16–18; 6.5.1320a14–17.

35 See 3.11, 1281b25–35; IV.12, 1296b34–a12; 3.16, 1287b25–34.

36 This distinction is suggested by Reeve in an editorial footnote (Politics, 52n109).

37 Ober seems to recognize this feature of stability when he claims that the best constitution includes all “would-be citizens”—i.e., all those with the “natural capacity to exercise citizenship” and thus the “cultural expectation” of exercising it (“Nature, History, and Aristotle's Best Possible Regime,” 224–26).

38 7.9. On this see Reeve, Politics, 206n43.

39 For instance, women, children, resident aliens, and foreigners. See 1.13; 3.5.1278a7–12; 7.9.1329a17–26; 3.4.1277b1–10; 7.4.1326a17–20; 6.4. See also Kraut, Aristotle, 214–20, 277–305, 464–65.

40 For further discussion of Aristotle's views on the middle class, see Thomas L. Pangle, Aristotle's Teaching in the “Politics” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 186–94.

41 Specifically, when an individual is too influential in a democracy or too rich in an oligarchy; not, however, when an individual is greatly superior in virtue (3.13.1284a17–b25; 3.17.1288a24–29).

42 For discussion of this form of government, see Newell, W. R., “Superlative Virtue: The Problem of Monarchy in Aristotle's ‘Politics,’Western Political Quarterly 40, no. 1 (1987): 159–78Google Scholar; Lindsay, Thomas K.The ‘God-Like Man’ versus the ‘Best Laws’: Politics and Religion in Aristotle's Politics,” Review of Politics 53, no. 3 (1991): 488–509CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Albeit not an exclusive or unqualified claim to rule. For city-states with multiple parts—e.g., a rich, a poor, and a virtuous part—all of the claims to political power must be balanced for the sake of justice (and stability). On this point, see 3.9.1281a8–10; 3.13.1283a26–29, 1283b19–30; 3.10.1281a28–34. See also Coby, “Aristotle's Four Conceptions of Politics,” 490–92; Devereux, “Aristotle on the Just Distribution.”

44 Newell, “Superlative Virtue,” 174.

45 Ober, “Nature, History, and Aristotle's Best Possible Regime,” 228–30.

46 Devereux, “Aristotle on the Just Distribution,” 5. See also Pol. 3.13.1283b27–30, 1283a26–29.

47 See 7.14.1332b12–27. Pangle stresses the same point, arguing that the divine monarch represents the “most superior” regime, while the regime described in books 7 and 8 is the “best republican regime,” which is to say, “the best political community for a multitude of citizens of ‘similar’ civic capacity” (Aristotle's Teaching, chap. 5, esp. p. 225). In section 4, I reject the claim that divine monarchy is the best regime, if it even counts as a “regime” at all.

48 If we construe stability according to the strong variant of (iv)(a), however, this may not hold. See 4.9.1294b35–40, where Aristotle seems to suggest that this stronger notion of stability is the only one unqualifiedly compatible with correct regimes.

49 Equality may also exist (to some extent) in deviant constitutions; those constitutions fall short, however, of being completely or unqualifiedly equitable (5.1.1301a36–38).

50 These points echo Plato's justifications for excluding the producer class in Republic.

51 Unless a finer distinction is made, I use “best” throughout this section to indicate both what is most just and most choiceworthy.

52 Note that principle (i) can only settle what is best in the sense of being most just; it does not itself bear (directly at least) on the question of what is most choiceworthy.

53 This is Kraut's view of book 3 (Aristotle, 225n63, 359, 359n4, 416–18). Others, however, interpret book 3 as a defense of democracy or polity: e.g., Lindsay, Thomas K., “Aristotle's Qualified Defense of Democracy through ‘Political Mixing,’Journal of Politics 54, no. 1 (1992): 101–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lindsay, , “Liberty, Equality, Power: Aristotle's Critique of the Democratic ‘Presupposition,’American Journal of Political Science 36, no. 3 (1992): 743–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Nichols, Mary P., Citizens and Statesmen: A Study of Aristotle's “Politics” (Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield, 1991)Google Scholar; Salkever, Stephen, Finding the Mean: Theory and Practice in Aristotelian Political Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; and Bates, Clifford Angell, Aristotle's Best Regime: Kingship, Democracy and the Rule of Law (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

54 This explains the various instances in which Aristotle appears to regard kingship as the best constitution (e.g., 4.2.1289a39–b5; cf. Nic. Eth. 8.10.1160a31–36).

55 For an argument that aims to demonstrate precisely this, see Devereux, “Aristotle on the Just Distribution.” For other attempts to show that Aristotle considers “aristocratic democracy” or “democratic aristocracy” best overall, see Frank, Democracy of Distinction; and Ober, Josiah, “Aristotle's Natural Democracy,” in Aristotle's “Politics”: Critical Essays, ed. Kraut, Richard and Skultety, Steven (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005)Google Scholar.

56 This qualifying clause is significant in light of 3.13.1283b19–23.

57 Although it is generally uncontroversial to regard the ideal constitution in 7 and 8 as an aristocracy, note that Ernest Barker argues against this (Barker, The Politics of Aristotle [London: Oxford University Press, 1958], 153).

58 On this point, see Hansen, Mogens, Reflections on Aristotle's “Politics” (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2013), 9697Google Scholar.

59 This condition is part of what makes the ideal constitution “blessed” (7.13.1332a20–30; 7.2.1324a23–25). Note also that the similarity and equality found in the ideal constitution suggest that it would possess an extreme amount of civic friendship (3.16.1287b32–34).

60 This excludes children, who are yet to possess full practical wisdom (3.1.1275a13–18; 8.5.1339a29–32; 7.14.1332b31–1333a3).

61 It includes everyone capable of acquiring the principal virtues. Of course, other constitutions may be as inclusive but without awarding each citizen equal political power; e.g., a polity may include all citizens capable of acquiring virtue, but restrict some from holding certain offices. Moreover, some constitutions may be even more inclusive, say, by allowing even those citizens who are incapable of achieving virtue in the strict sense (e.g., hoi banausoi) to participate in the constitution, as is the case in unmixed democracies.

62 Coby draws attention to this point (“Aristotle's Four Conceptions of Politics,” 491).

63 4.7.1293b5–6; 7.13.1332a30–35; 7.14.1333a10–15; 5.12.1316b9–10.

64 See esp. 1288a37–39. Kraut also links Aristotle's argument in 3.4 to his endorsement of aristocracy, though he does not develop the claim in the way I do here (Aristotle, 359, 366–68, 428n1).

65 See 3.10; 3.17.1288a9–12; 3.5.1278b4. Kraut draws attention to this possibility (Aristotle, 359, 359n4, 366–68), but associates it with kingship and aristocracy simpliciter; he also argues that permanent rule of the few over the many is characteristic of the best constitution—a point I contest here and below.

66 3.4, esp. 1277a20–24. See also Pangle, Aristotle's Teaching, 111–21.

67 This is suggested at 7.14.1332b21–23; 3.15.1286b3–21. See also Newell, “Superlative Virtue,” 174; Pangle, Aristotle's Teaching, 156.

68 Garver also raises doubts about whether divine monarchy is a form of “political rule,” or more akin to household management (Aristotle's Politics, 100–102).

69 (1) is ranked highest not only because it is completely just and beneficial, but because it is the most “blessed” and most compatible with civic friendship (7.1–2; 7.13; 3.16.1287b32–34).

70 The ordering of the subforms of well-mixed aristocracy is based on 4.7.1293b1–21.

71 (2a) is ranked highest because in balancing all three claims, it is most completely just and, for this reason, presumably most stable.

72 (2b) is ranked higher than (2c) because Aristotle considers democracies more stable than oligarchies, making an aristocracy that privileges the claim of the people more stable and so more choiceworthy than one that privileges the claims of the rich.

73 By not intentionally distributing political power in accordance with virtue, polity does not adhere to principle (i) in a strict or deliberate sense, making it less excellent than well-mixed aristocracy. That said, polity still outranks unmixed aristocracy, reflecting Aristotle's claim that certain multitudes, when acting collectively, can “be better than the few best people” (3.11.1281a40–b1).

74 (3a) is ranked above (3b) because polities that privilege wealth are more aristocratic in nature, since wealth tends to secure education and the material preconditions of virtue; a properly calibrated property assessment ensures that as many individuals so educated and equipped are able to take part in the constitution as is possible (see, e.g., 4.8).

75 Even though (3b) may be more stable than (3a) by dint of being more democratic, it is ranked lower than (3a) for being less just (which is a higher-order good than stability).

76 (4) emphasizes justice perhaps at the cost of stability, though it fulfills principle (i) and, at least in archaic times, may have been relatively stable.

77 (5) is ranked below (4) because kingship has fewer virtuous people.

78 (6a) and (6b) outperform (7) and (8) both in justness and stability. (6a) is ranked higher than (6b) because, while both are only partially just, democracy is more stable (and more conducive to civic friendship). On these points, see Kraut, Aristotle, 432, 444–51; Ober, “Nature, History, and Aristotle's Best Possible Regime”; Frank, Democracy of Distinction, 167–78.

79 (7a) and (7b) perform poorly on principles (iii) and (iv). (7a) is ranked higher than (7b) because democracy is more stable.

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