PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday February 7, 2003

[4.2] What Sort of Constitution is Best? (Politics III:10-11)


In III:10, Aris poses the following question: "what body should be sovereign in the city"? He returns to the types of constitution he listed in III:7 and rejects all but one:

·         the poor (a majority) -- if they take the property of the rich to distribute it evenly among everyone, they are "obviously ruining the city" -- and anything that ruins the city is obviously not just. (1281a, p.245)

·         a tyrant -- uses superior power to enforce his will -- obviously unjust

·         the wealthy (a minority) -- same as above -- if they use superior power to take the property of others, they are also unjust

·         "the better sort" -- this would be unjust because, if this one group of people held office permanently, no one else would get the honor of holding office, and denying that honor to others is unjust

·         "the one best man" -- this is even worse, since the honor of holding office is denied to everyone except one person.

·         [the laws -- i.e. what if the sovereignty rests in the laws of the polis themselves, rather than in any individual or group of individuals? -- still no good, since laws can be consistent with the forms of government just rejected]


This leaves only one sort of regime: "Constitutional Government" or Polity, rule by the many for the sake of the common interest. Aris defends a form of Polity in which all freemen (not slaves or women) participate in government by electing individuals to public office. [This is not the democracy of Athens, in which all freemen are themselves eligible to serve in a legislative assembly. It's more similar to a representative democracy like that of many modern governments.]


Two Initial Caveats


Aris does not whole-heartedly endorsement Polity as the best sort of political system; for two sorts of reason:


1. No matter what sort of constitution a polis has, the ultimate authorityN resides in the laws. But because it is impossible to formulate general laws that are sufficient to cover all possible circumstances, there will still be a need for specific individuals to hold legislative and judicial power. So his defense of the Polity should be understood as hedged: political authorityN ultimately belongs to the laws of the just polis (the polis with a rightful constitution), but that authority must sometimes be extended to individuals, and the best way for it to be extended is in a Polity.


2. The ideal form of constitution is a monarchy (or perhaps an aristocracy):


Whenever it happens, therefore, that either a whole family, or some one man from among the rest, emerges so outstanding in virtue as to exceed the virtue of everyone else, then it is just that this family have the kingship and have control over everything and that he be king. (Politics III:17; not in Cahn; here I'm quoting Peter Simpson's translation


Of the three [kingship, aristocracy, and "timocracy"/"constitutional government], kingship is the best and timocracy [constitutional government] the worst. (Nich Ethics VIII:10; not in Cahn; this is Martin Ostwald's translation)


But monarchy is unlikely to work in practice -- it would only work if there were men who were far, far superior to normal humans -- as superior to other men as the gods. Since it is unlikely that there will ever be such perfect rulers, Aristotle concentrates on the most practical form of constitution, one that's likely to work in the actual world.


Aris' Reasoning in Support of the Polity


His argument depends on one central claim: All the people, considered collectively, may be better than a small group of the best individuals:


There is this to be said for the many: each of them by himself may not be of a good quality; but when they all come together it is possible that they may surpass--collectively and as a body, although not individually--the quality of the few best, in much the same way that feasts to which many contribute may excel those provided at one person's expense. (1281a, p.246)


·         More specifically, they will be better judges of who should be given political authority. Remembering that Aris is defending the form of polity in which the many are not allowed to hold office themselves, but they are allowed to elect (from among "the best", presumably) individuals who will hold office. The idea is that collectively, they will make good decisions about who should rule, but they should each be prevented from serving individually -- since they're just ordinary folks and acting individually their judgment can't be trusted.

·         His claim is that the many "may" be better, not that they will necessarily be better. All Aris is claiming is that it is possible for a large group of individually less-than-best men to be better collectively than a group of the best men: "…there is nothing to prevent the view we have stated from being true of a particular group." (1281b, p.246)]


Objection #1: whether or not an individual does a good job at his profession is best judged by other members of that profession. E.g., physicians make the best judges of the competence of other physicians. So the best people to judge whether or not an individual is (or would make) a good statesman are other statesmen, not "the many."


Aris' response:

A.     Again, it is possible that the many considered collectively are a better judge.

B.     The general claim doesn't hold for all professions, anyway (diners can tell good food from bad, even if they can't cook it themselves; a homeowner can tell when there is something wrong with her home, even if she can't build one)


Objection #2: it is "absurd" to think that the many, who are of relatively "poor character", should be better judges of the most important issues (like who should hold public office) -- those with the best character will be better judges.


Aris' response:

A.     (The same as before): It's the many considered collectively that I'm advocating, and they are (or at least may be) better judges of the most important things.

B.     The many, again considered collectively, own more property than the few {Aris seems to mean this response to appease those who still think the few ought to rule in virtue of the property they own.}


So "the many," because they will exercise better collective judgment than even the few best men, have the moral right (not to rule directly, but) to participate in the deliberative and judicial functions of government -- including the election of public officials.


 [4.3.] The Source of Political AuthorityN.


Although Aris has indicated what form of constitution he thinks is most practical (a polity), he has not yet indicated from where he thinks the moral authority to rule (authorityN) originates. He gives no explicit answer to this question, but there is an important clue in VII-which-is-fourth:8:


...the city is an association of equals; and its object is the best and highest life possible. The highest good is happiness; and that consists in the actualization and perfect practice of goodness. But, as things happen, some may share in it fully, but others can only share in it partially or cannot even share at all. Obviously this is the reason why there are different kinds and varieties of cities, and a number of different constitutions. Pursuing this goal in various ways and by various means, different peoples create different ways of life and different constitutions. (1328a-1328b, p.265, emphasis added)


This, together with his defense of constitutional government, indicates that Aris is assuming a consent-based theory of political authority, i.e., that his answer to our Question 2 (What Justifies a Political Society?) is that it is the consent or agreement of those who are ruled that gives a ruling power the moral authority to rule.[1] Freemen agree that they will have a given form of constitution (either rule by one, or by a few, or by many) -- and it's that agreement that gives the one, or the few, or the many, the authorityN to rule.


This implies that it is possible for a regime to have authority­N but still govern badly. On Aris's scheme, it is possible for citizens to consent to be ruled by an individual or group of individuals (thus legitimating the rule of that individual or group) but for that group to then rule poorly -- to not do what's in the interest of all citizens, to not help cultivate eudaimonia among the citizens and in the polis. This is impossible in Plato's republic, where an individual or group has authorityN if and only if they have (and implement) knowledge of what's good for the polis.[2]


[1] Jean Hampton, Political Philosophy, p.30.

[2] Jean Hampton, Political Philosophy, p.33.

Political Philosophy Homepage | Dr. Lane's Homepage | Phil. Program Homepage

This page last updated 2/7/2003.

Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.

UWG Disclaimer