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Aristotle on the Polity Essay

In Politics Books 3 and 4, Aristotle analyzes different types of constitutions, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each. Aristotle regards a “polity” as the best for of constitution. According to Aristotle, why is a polity the best type of constitution? What are the characteristics of a polity? What sorts of problems does it overcome? In a polity, whom would posses political power and why? What type of justice would prevail? Could there really be rule by the middle class, effectively keeping the upper and lower class from exploiting each other?

It would be a fantastic approach to government, but probably one that is not possible in today’s political world. Would it not be great to have more of a say in what happens in your world? Especially if it meant getting to tell the ultra-rich, like Bill Gates and Michael Eisner that they could not build 75,000 square foot houses on 1000 acres of land because that land was going to be needed for the development of homes for those that are less fortunate than they are. Is this what Aristotle had in mind when he described his idea of polity?

Was there any issue such as this occurring while he was describing his ideal form of constitution? One will probably never know the answers to some of the previous questions, but Aristotle makes clear why he believes that polity is the best form of constitution. By mixing aspects of democratic and oligarchic principles, by having the middle class play the role of mediator between the rich and the poor, and having a political community that strives for virtue and correct justice, Aristotle asserts that by doing this, a constitution will be effective and long lasting.

According to Aristotle, the polity is the best type of constitution because of the presence and sheer number of the middle class. The middle class help counter the differences between the poor, such as one having money and property, and the other having little to none of both. The middle class serve to make it easier for the political community to come to a decision for the common good of the whole community versus letting the few rich, or the many poor, make a decision that could be to the detriment of the other that is not in power.

What helps make this the best type of constitution is that a polity combines elements of both oligarchic and democratic rule. According to Aristotle, “oligarchy is for the benefit of the rich, and democracy is for the benefit of the poor. But none is for their common profit (1279b6-9). ” It could be said that if the rich were the sole rulers, as in an oligarchy, they would rule for the benefit of the few rich and not take the many poor into consideration when making their decisions within the political community.

The same problem would arise if democracy ruled also, but this time, the many poor are ruling and they rule what is in their best interest, which would certainly be to deny the few rich any political power. Since those who are in the middle class are similar and nearly equal in wealth, they would be the best group to rule and be ruled. According to Aristotle, “of all citizens, those in the middle survive best in city-states. For neither do they desire other people’s property as the poor do, nor do other people desire theirs, as the poor desire that of the rich.

And because they are neither plotted against nor engage in plotting, they live out their lives free from danger (1295b29-33). ” The middle class has enough wealth, but not too much, like the rich, to be happy enough to not want more wealth or to want to rule all the time. It is because the rich and the poor would want to rule all the time, either to assert their supremacy, as the rich would want to do, or to get back at the rich for their lack of money or property, as the poor would do, that the middle is needed to provide balance to the groups.

The characteristics of the polity include combining the defining principles “formed from both oligarchy and democracy (1294b1). ” According to Aristotle, there are three ways to combine oligarchic and democratic rule. First, “take legislation from both constitutions (1294a36). ” Second, “take the mean between the organizations of each (1294b2),” and third, “to take elements from both organizations, some from oligarchic law and others from democratic law (1294b6). ” This would allow for equal representation both from the rich and from the poor, both getting opportunity to have their ideas heard and carried out within the political community.

This would help limit or erase the requirement to have amassed large quantities of property for serving in an elected position within the community, therefore giving the masses the opportunity to hold elected office also. Mixing the defining principles of oligarchy and democracy would also help to blur the line between the very rich and the very poor because it would allow everyone the opportunity to be educated the same way, eat the same type of food, and even give the poor the opportunity to wear the same type of clothing that the rich did, similar to the constitution of Sparta.

In my opinion, the polity is the best form of constitution because the governing would be made by “everybody” for “everybody. ” While the rich and the poor would still surely exist, neither would seek to take advantage over the other. The y would both accept their differences and allow the other to continue to live in the status quo, content with their place in life, and not look to exploit the other. Since both rich and poor would have near equal participation within the political community, there would be no reason to try and gain an advantage over the other to try and change the way ruling is currently taking place.

In essence, it sounds like Aristotle is defining what I understand to be a form of utopia. Everyone is living in harmony, together, and committing acts that benefit the community as a whole, and not looking to gain for individual purpose. With a polity being the best form of constitution, it helps overcome the problems of tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. “A tyranny, as we said exists when a monarchy rules the political community like a master; in an oligarchy those in authority in the constitution are the ones who have property.

A democracy is the opposite; those who do not posses much property, and are poor, are in authority (1279b16-19). ” A polity seeks the middle ground, not giving either the rich or the poor a heavy advantage over the other. “And where the multitude of those in the middle outweighs either both of the extremes together or even only one of them, it is possible to have a stable constitution. For there is no fear that the rich and the poor will conspire together against these, since neither will ever want to serve as slaves to the other (1296b37-42).

” Both groups distrust each other so much, that they would not want to be put under their rule, even for a short period of time, and because of this, the middle needs to be between them. The middle class would posses most of the political power in a polity, because they are the most who are “equal and similar (1295b25). “

Those in the middle class, “most readily obey reason, whereas whatever is exceedingly beautiful, strong, well born, or wealthy, or conversely?exceedingly poor, weak, or lacking in honor, has a hard time obeying reason (1295b5-8). “

Because the rich do not know how to rule, because of their wealth, and the poor do not known how to rule, because they have only known slavery, the middle has to rule to balance out the needs and wants of both the few rich and the many poor. The middle class is content with what it has and therefore does not tip the balance of power to either the rich few or the many poor, they act as more of a political counter-weight.

As Aristotle claims, “it will tip the balance when added to either and prevent the opposing extremes from arising (1295b37-39). ” The middle would also assist in keeping the community just and virtuous. In the polity, a more correct form of justice would prevail, because the middle class would ensure that the few rich or the many poor would not be able to take power over the other. The rules enforced would be more for that of the common good, rather than for any individual gain. Rules would be made for the good of everyone, stressing virtue as the main goal.

The classes would take turns ruling, feeling that it was an obligation, not a duty, within the political community. As Aristotle said, “in the case of political office too, where it has been established on the basis of equality and similarity among the citizens, they think it right to take turns at ruling. In the past, as is natural, they thought it right to perform public service when their turn came, and then to have someone look to their good, just as they had earlier looked to his benefit when they were in office (1279a8-12).

” According to Aristotle, when a constitution looks to have everyone benefit, they are a constitution that is just, but when the individual benefit is the main goal, “for they are like rule by a master (1279a19-20). ” Aristotle believes that a constitution that follows his ideas, and strives to become a polity has a great chance of not only succeeding, but also being a long lasting community. He states that the political community that strives to make virtuous decisions and rules is a just community, and that the community’s needs need to be above the needs of the individuals that make up the community.

While it may be a difficult task, so difficult, that he fails to mention a constitution that is a true polity, he lays the groundwork for what should be undertaken to achieve, quite possibly, utopia. If each member within his political community places the community’s needs over his own needs, constantly striving to make sure his actions do not harm others, and looking towards the greater good, not only would that community be fantastic, but the world would not only be a much better place too. Works Cited 1. Reeve, C. D. C. Aristotle: Politics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988.


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