Here this you kings! Listen, you rulers!: Thomas Aquinas and his Regimes


An important part of any political philosophy seems to be the question of Constitution. Plato and Aristotle both spend time in their seminal works on politics to understand the forms of government. For Plato those regimes are Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny.[1] Aristotle expands on those regimes by excluding Timocracy and adding Kingship, and Polity.[2] The Neo Platonic and Aristotelian thinkers of the Middle Ages took a similar view on the forms of government. St. Thomas Aquinas is no different than his fellow Middle Age thinkers and devotes time to understanding the various forms of government. In the First Part of the Second Part of his Summa Theologiae Aquinas lays out his Treatise on Law. Within that treatise, in question 95 article 4, Aquinas argues for five forms of government.  Within his discussion of the forms of government a series of important questions are brought forth including, the relationship between law and regime, the place of the ecclesiastical within the civil society, and what can be determined as Aquinas’ best regime despite what he explicitly states.

First it is necessary to examine the regimes laid out by Aquinas and also their corresponding form of law. By understanding the type of law associated with each regime and what Aquinas believes to be the best regime as a result we may gain a better understanding of their relationship. From there it seems proper to discuss the place of the ecclesiastical authority within the civil society and in particular whether or not Aquinas gives any authority to the ecclesiastical. Finally, based on his three statements found in questions 95, 105 of the Summa and On Kingship we may come to some understanding of what Aquinas understands as the best regime.

Aquinas explicitly discusses his regimes and their relationship to human law in question 95 article 4. The first regime Aquinas mentions is monarchy, and the form of law associated with this regime are “royal ordinances.”[3] Aristocracy is the second regime and is associated with “authoritative legal opinions and senatorial decrees.”[4] Oligarchy is associated with “praetorian law” or what Aquinas also calls, “honorary.”[5] Democracy is the final regime associated with law, as tyranny is lawless, and democracy has, “acts of plebian assemblies.”[6] It is curious that Aquinas does not place the distinction of human law in particular on any of the regimes. The closest are Aristocracy and Oligarchy yet even those are only “opinions” and “honorary” laws. And considering the regimes and the form of law associated with them, Aquinas declares that none are the best government. This is unique given that in question 105, and in his work On Kingship where Aquinas declares that Kingship is the best form of government.[7] Yet in light of the relationship between regime and law none seem to have authoritative human law associated with them. This may be because Aquinas states that the best is a mixed regime with Kingship, Aristocracy and Democracy.  However, if, none of the political regimes have law proper, then where does one receive law? Can authoritative human law be achieved through the temporal, or must one look towards someplace else? Aquinas exhibits four kinds of law: Eternal, Natural, Divine and Human law. The Human law is a reflection of the Natural and Divine laws. The Natural law is the Eternal Law’s participation in human reason. Therefore, it would appear as though only the ecclesiastical can make authoritative human law.

While Aquinas does not, in these sections, directly reference the relationship between the temporal and the ecclesiastical. However, using what Aquinas states in questions 95 and 105 of the Summa and On Kingship it nonetheless appears important to discuss that relationship. The polity is declared in question 95 to be the best regime. In question 95 of the Summa, polity, a mix of Kingship, Aristocracy and Democracy, is declared the best regime; this polity could be likened to the regime found in England. However, does Aquinas mean by polity a mix of temporal and ecclesiastical authority with the Papacy at its head as king, and local aristocratic and democratic assemblies to deal with the day to day operations of the civil society? At the time the Papacy was only beginning to take the traditional title of Kings, “Vicar of Christ” for itself. However, based on Aquinas’ view of the Human law, it would appear that the ecclesiastical authority is necessary in the creation of human law. And so looking at this possible relationship between the two spheres, temporal and ecclesiastical, then one may see in Aquinas his willingness to give to the Papacy political authority in connection with the Papacy’s emerging claim to the title of Vicar of Christ.  Authoritative Human law could be possible under Papal rule, if one assumes that Human law is a reflection of the Natural and Divine laws and that they can only be decreed by members of the clergy. If this in fact is true, then a starker contrast can be seen between Aquinas and the moderns, even a starker contrast between Aquinas and a fellow medieval like Dante. The alternative to seeing Kingship as filled by a temporal, civil leader rather than by the Papacy would call into question Aquinas’ belief that the ecclesiastical has any authority within civil society at all.

And so having examined what Aquinas defines as the political regimes, and what he explicitly states as the best regime and the place of the ecclesiastical within civil society we can now turn our attention to be better understand what exactly Aquinas’ view of the best regime is. Within the Treatise on Law and On Kingship Aquinas states his view on the best regime three times. In question 95-4 the best regime, as already stated, is a polity with Kingship, Aristocracy and Democracy. Yet ten questions later Aquinas contradicts himself by stating the best regime is Kingship. And then again in On Kingship the best regime is seen as Kingship. Looking at On Kingship we may dismiss the account of the best regime on one major premise, the treatise is written to the King of Cyprus. The seriousness of Aquinas’ claim in On Kingship, therefore, can only be taken in light of question 105-1 from the Treatise on Law. Yet, an understanding here may be taken in light of question 95-4 where he indicates polity will include kingship. However, in his On Kingship Aquinas states, “Man therefore needs something to guide him towards his end.”[8] This guide is a ruler, whether it is a King, aristocrat, oligarch, or democrat and the end appears to be, “man may devote his reason to some particular branch of learning.” The best guide or form of government, in On Kingship is Kingship. He further defends his argument for Kingship as the best regime on the grounds that government of many is more likely to become unjust than the government by one.[9] The question of government by many is explained by Aquinas as, “For there is no beauty in a body unless all its members are properly disposed, and ugliness arises when even one member is improperly so”[10] In each instance throughout On Kingship Aquinas appeals to what might be called the energy and efficiency of the one over the many. In addition, Aquinas considers that if there are three rulers and one is corrupt than the whole is corrupt. Both of these reasons are why Aquinas suggests that Kingship is the best possible regime.

However, in his Treatise on Law it appears that the best government, polity, corresponds to that government with the most authoritative law. Throughout the whole of the Treatise on Law it appears that law is the ultimate good given to man by God as it allows man to know and participate in the Divine As such, it appears that the best regime must have the best human law associated with it. As Aquinas says in questions 90 and 92 in his Treatise on law, “A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order to the common good,”[11] indicating that the best regime should be the one that best orders the common good. He goes on to say, “Consequently it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is “that which makes its subject good,” it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect.”[12] And as before, it would appear that the best regime would be the one that best makes its subject good. And since Aquinas argues that the best regime in relation to law is polity, it would follow that the best regime simply for Aquinas would be polity.

Therefore, in looking at his description in the Treatise on Law and On Kingship of the best regime, the argument from the Treatise on Law that the best regime is the one with the best law seems to be stronger than the one in On Kingship. Because the argument in the Treatise on Law appears stronger, we may assume that Aquinas believes polity is the best government albeit with the proper form of kingship. This appears true because the role of law is so important in human affairs for Aquinas throughout the Treatise on Law.

Aquinas’ description of the regimes calls into question three key things, the relationship between regimes and law, the role of the ecclesiastical in civil society, and what appears to be Aquinas’ view of the best regime based on the relationship of regimes and law. Some may question the necessity of addressing the role of the ecclesiastical in society because Aquinas himself does not address this. However, because of the historic role of the Church at the time of Aquinas and the centuries immediately following his life one cannot exclude the possible implications of ecclesiastical in society. And because Aquinas states in various locations differing views of what can be called the best regime it is necessary to attempt to better understand Aquinas’ view based on what he says but not necessarily what he says is the best regime; i.e. the role of the regime in human life, and the role of law.


[1] Plato’s Republic book VIII. Plato also states that Aristocracy degrades into Timocracy, which degrades into Oligarchy and then into Democracy and finally into Tyranny.

[2] Aristotles’s Politics book III and IV. Aristotle claims that Kingship is the most desired regime and this differs from Aquinas’s view in On Kingship where he calls it the best regime. Aristotle calls polity the best possible regime and it is here in Question 95 of the Treatise on Law that Aquinas agrees with Aristotle’s account.

[3] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae IaIIae 95-4 in  Aquinas: Political Writings edited by R.W. Dyson, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008) pg. 135

[4] Summa Theologiae I, II, 95-4 pg. 136

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “A kingdom is the best form of government of the people” Summa Theologiae I, II, 105-1. And, “The rule of the King is best.” On Kingship, pg. 11.  One must call into question Aquinas’s declaration of kingship in On Kingship as it is a letter written to the King of Cyprus. As such, one may argue that Aquinas is simply appeasing the king in declaring kingship to be the best regime. His seemingly contradictory statements in the Treatise on Law may be rectified by demonstrating that Kingship is one of the regimes in the Polity and that Polity should be in the form of a kingship, albeit with Aristocracy and Democracy elements.

[8] Aquinas Political Writings, pg. 5

[9] Aquinas Political Writings, pg. 17, “If, however, one man rules…” and “For when dissension arises.”

[10] Aquinas Political Writings, pg. 13.

[11] Summa Theologiae, 1.1.90-3

[12] Summa Theologiae 1.1.92-1

Comments on John Adams letter to Samuel Adams from 18 Oct. 1790


As the American Constitution of 1787 went into effect focus shifted from how to create a new political order to how to preserve it. John Adams, the Second President of the United States, in the autumn of 1790 wrote to his cousin Samuel with his thoughts on how to preserve the American political system. Adams presents three main principles to preserve the American system of government.

The first problem presented by Adams for the new republic was the competing notions of the commerce of luxury and the commerce of economics, called by Adams, “hay, wood and stubble” in reference to Montesquieu. How is it that this government will be able to escape the problem of Europe? Adams suggests that the “prevalence of knowledge and benevolence” are the necessary elements in this endeavor. It is curious that Adams suggests benevolence as a cure for the problem of the commerce of luxury, as benevolence calls to mind piety. For the ancients, piety was one of the main elements needed to moderate the soul. Curiously, Adams is suggesting that piety is necessary in this new republic in order to temper the collective soul of America. Secondly, Adams is calling for a knowledgeable people in America. In fact in his essay Thoughts on Government, Adams calls for liberal education specifically of the lower classes. Once again in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Adams states, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”[1] Adams places an emphasis on education as a means of preserving liberty. Knowledge and piety, through the manner of benevolence, are necessary for the preservation of the commerce of economics: or prevention against tyranny.

Adams adds a third element for the preservation of this new regime, namely virtue. Adams contrasts knowledge, virtue and benevolence with ignorance, error and vice. He states, “If there were no ignorance, error, or vice, there would be neither principles nor systems of civil or political government.” Of course this hearkens to the Federalist Papers statement, “If men were angels there would be no need for government.” Knowledge, virtue and benevolence must be implemented by the government in order to over come human nature. The best regime to instill these qualities in people and to preserve liberty is discussed next by John Adams.

Republicanism stands as the best method to preserve liberty within the body politic for John Adams. Adams defines republic as, “a government in which the people have collectively, or by representation, an essential share in the sovereignty.” However, Adams does not wish for our country to have a republican form of Poland, Venice, Holland or Bern as he calls them no different, “than the monarchical form in France before the late revolution.” In order to understand what Adams means by this, it is prudent to explain these examples. Poland between 1569 and1795 was a Commonwealth comprised of a single house parliament composed of nobility. Any member of the parliament could abolish it or veto any law it passed. As a fundamental principle, Adams professed that there should be a bi-cameral system of the legislator. Poland violated this principle, making it no better than an absolute monarchy like in France. The Venetian Republic was comprised of an executive and legislative branch of government, with the nobility comprising the legislative assembly. The Venetian Republic was very close to the model of the Roman Republic, which was based on the Commerce of Luxury. Once again, the Venetian Republic violated to the principle of a two house legislator. Holland was a confederate regime with a weak central government and independent states. Once again, the nobility was in charge of government affairs in the Dutch Republic. The system of Bern, which is the capital of Switzerland today, was originally a Dutch style Confederation of independent states. For Adams these regimes lacked the fundamental principles by which a Republic can stand. How Adams envisions the composition of a Republic is left off for later in the letter. Rather, he states, “For, after a fair of trial of its miseries, the simple monarchial for will ever be, as it is has ever been, preferred to it by mankind.” Simply put, republican government is apt to suffer miseries and will eventually dissolve into a simple monarchy. Adams rightly points out that monarchy has always been the preferred method of government by mankind.

In an attempt to explain why it is that monarchy has been preferred over republic, Adams describes the English situation. Adams declares, “They [the English] have succeeded to such a degree, that, with a vast majority of that nation, a republican is as unamiable as a witch, a blasphemer, a rebel, or a tyrant.” Witch and blasphemer are affronts against God, while rebel and tyrant are analogous for affronts against liberty. The most blatant charges against republic is that it produces impious citizens, and that it destroys liberty. For the ancients the regime imitated the divine, and the divine were governed by monarchy: for Christianity the king was divinely ordained by God to rule and so it appears monarchy is the divinely appointed regime. In republics, because it is not the divine regime, the people will tend away from religion and so a good republic will instill a sense of piety within the people.

Secondly, the people are the worst protectors of their own liberty: Thus a regime based on the power of the people would appear as the most unable to protect liberty. How republic can maintain liberty is discussed later by Adams through the implementation of two exterior checks. For now Adams argues that government must cultivate knowledge and benevolence as a method of maintaining liberty and piety within the people. Virtue is a product of knowledge and benevolence and so the republic which instills knowledge and benevolence will produce virtuous citizens. But this is not enough, Adams argues if we wish for the American people not to, “renounce, detest and execrate” the word republic as the English, then there must be “explanations, restrictions and limitations” placed on republic. Adams has provided the explanation of republic and how to combat the problem of the people: Adams is aware that benevolence, virtue and knowledge will not be enough to maintain republican form. Human nature is too powerful to be overcome by these qualities alone, and so needs physical barriers to prevent human nature from destroying liberty.

The first obstacle to self government is human nature, which Adams describes as, “the ocean, its tides and storms.” Adams defines these tides and storms as, “Human appetites, passions, prejudices, and self love.” In order to conquer them, human means are the least helpful. And so religion and education are unable to temper human nature. Religion as Adams states is dependent upon the idea of the Messiah returning and ruling over the world. As this event is still in the future, it cannot be used as the only means against human nature. Universal education, a principle of government for John Adams, is not accepted by the governments of Europe and so knowledge via education cannot depended upon. The people cannot depend on themselves for the preservation of “safety, liberty and security.” Instead the two methods will stand together as “dikes” against “the ocean, its tides and storms” with other natural barriers. These natural barriers were established as a means of preserving liberty.

The first of these barriers Adams wishes to place on society is the development of nobility out of the natural aristocracy. He asserts that “prejudice, passion and private interest” are the roots of the destruction of liberty. These three elements counter public principles, motives and arguments. The nobility when placed without a check has contrived to destroy stability and liberty through summa imperii. However, Adams counters, “So have the plebeians; so have the people; so have kings; so has human nature…” But the nobility, Adams asserts, has also been the greatest protector of liberty. The people and king have only attempted to destroy liberty when given the chance, and so there must be a check on them in the form of the nobility. Adams makes it clear to his cousin that he does not imply to mean hereditary conventional nobility, rather a “natural and actual aristocracy among mankind”: We cannot deny the existence of natural aristocracy. The people, “only serve to foment prejudice, jealousy, envy, animosity, and malevolence. They serve no ends but those of sophistry, fraud and the spirit of party. It would be true, but it would not be more egregiously false, to say that the people have waged everlasting war against the rights of men.” But the nobility, they have been the ones to protect liberty in Europe; it was the noble class who gave England it’s celebrated Magna Carta, not the people nor the king.

Love of liberty according to Samuel Adams “‘is interwoven in the soul of man’”. John takes the opportunity to elaborate on his cousin’s observation. In Jean la Fontaine’s The Wolf and the Lamb, Adams finds that the wolf is a lover of liberty much like man. Together he finds that man and the wolf must be solitary creatures in order to enjoy this love of liberty. Only when man becomes “rational, generous, or social” through enlightenment of “experience, reflection, education, civil, and political institutions” that he can live outside of solitude. The wolf in the story chooses to live alone, lean and hungry because he sees that dogs who live sleek and plump must live under restraint. Like the dog, some men in the past have chosen, “ease, slumber and good cheer to liberty.” The people, as a result, cannot be depended upon alone to preserve liberty: neither can a simple love of liberty within the people be depended upon: The people will quickly forsake their liberty for simple monarchy. So we must introduce political institutions that will fight against tyranny. Yet, in those institutions those without money will always attempt to destroy those with money. In reference back to Aristotle’s Politics, where the democrat fights the oligarch, the poor will desire to destroy the wealthy. But the wealthy will only put up with this for so long when, as in they did in Rome, will tire of the poor. The people and nobility must be checked against each other so as not to allow either to become complacent. For Adams this would be found in a bicameral legislature with one house being for the nobility and the second house for the people. By making the people members of the government, you allow them to be responsible for the preservation of their own liberty. But the people will contrive to destroy that liberty and so the nobility must stand as a vanguard against the destruction of liberty and so they must be placed against the people in the legislature. The people and nobility must stand against each other to prevent either from destroying liberty. The only preservation of liberty is found in a bicameral legislature.

For all the good nobility can and has done for the preservation of liberty, Adams is not blind to how much nobility has contrived to destroy liberty as well. The people according to Adams “pretended to nothing but to be villains, vassals, and retainers to the king or the nobles.” The nobles themselves were not truly free either according to Adams, “because all was determined by a majority of their votes, or by arms, not by law.” This leads to the second problem in the preservation of liberty, family popularity. He asserts that the overthrow of monarchs by the nobility was for little more than to support ambition and family pride. Pride itself is identified as the concomitant of “riches, of knowledge, of genius, of talents, of beauty, of strength, of virtue, and even of piety.” Pride must be brought under check, but Adams rightly points out that family pride would have been nothing if family popularity had not been established. People attach themselves to popular families and as such causes the person to feel a great sense of pride, e.g. the people who attached themselves to the Kennedy family in the 20th century. But this problem according to Adams will always exist, “As long as gratitude or interest, ambition or avarice, love, hope or fear, shall be human motives of action, so long will numbers attach themselves to particular families.” This similar situation existed in ancient Rome, when plebeians would often attach themselves to patrician families in order to serve their ambition to power.

Popularity must be guarded against so as not to allow a single man or family too much power within society to risk the destruction of liberty. The power behind popularity of this kind according to Adams “will be employed to mortify enemies, gratify friends, procure votes, emoluments and power.” Therefore, to check the power of popularity Adams suggests placing “two watches upon them” namely a king and the people. Yet the problem with family popularity is its ability to create factions. Party and mobbish spirits can be traced to popular families. Adams quotes Tarquin, “In nove populo, ubi omnis repentina atque ex virtute nobilitas fit, futurum locum forti ac strenuo viro.” This stands in contrast to the traditional well born of societies where in America the nobility stems from a sudden out growth from the individual virtue. But still Adams fears that popularity of one family will cause other families to become envious. Those who would acquire their position by real merit will be overshadowed by the families: And so how can the family popularity be overcome? The nobles are necessary in society for the preservation of liberty, but the people will become pawns in the ever ambitious attitudes of the nobles.

Adams proposes that there be an arbitrator between the nobles and the people: What this arbitrator might be is not entirely clear. One could suggest that it might be law itself, as Adams points out previously that the nobles are not truly free without law. However, law only protects noble from noble so as not to cause majority tyranny. The King has already been suggested as being placed on the other side of the nobles opposite the people. But we already know from the need of a bicameral legislature that the King cannot properly be this arbitrator. As Adams has already expressed the need for independent legislature and executive, the only branch left is the judicial. To preserve liberty we must have nobility, but that nobility in order to not destroy itself must be restrained by law. The people must be restrained by the nobility, as ought the king. But how are the people to be protected from the nobility except to make them subject to the same law. And by making the people subject to the same law allow for an independent arbitrator to be established to maintain justice and prevent the creation of a conventional aristocracy.

John Adams presents for his cousin Sam and for us readers the need for a defect in society. This defect will serve to cause people to continuously pay attention to the matters of government. The rule of law, bicameral legislature, an executive and independent judiciary are all methods to preserve liberty and together they must promote knowledge, virtue and benevolence within the people. The rule of law will restrict and set free the nobility. A bicameral legislature and executive will place the people, nobility and king against either other and allow none to seize too much power and destroy liberty: The people cannot be trusted to maintain their own liberty and so there must be a nobility. Together the nobility and people will check each other in the bicameral legislature. Because the nobility cannot be trusted, there must be something superior to them and the people to check it’s authority. The executive, or king, is placed above the nobility in the upper house of the legislature and the people are placed in the lower house. Finally the arbitrator between the people and the nobility will be the judicial, who will have the authority to maintain the rule of law. The nobility will naturally attempt to seize power for itself through popularity of families, so in order to prevent this there must be a guardian of the law which was established to free the nobility.


[1] Massachusetts Constitution Part The Second, Chapter V, Section II

Plato and Aristotle’s Regimes: Republic and Politics.


There might be some confusion concerning the nature of politics and the type of regimes. Today we tend to think of a number of regimes, although many of them are simply the same regime with a different title. We call the government in England a Constitutional Monarchy, yet it simply is a Monarchy. China we say is a Communist regime, yet really all the political form of Communism is Oligarchy. All the regimes currently in use today can be boiled down to a list of just a handful. These regimes were originally defined and stated by Plato and Aristotle, two classical Greek philosophers who concerned themselves heavily with the nature of the polis. To get an idea of what the regimes are, this essay will attempt to outline the various forms of government as laid down by both men. In order to deal with the two authors it will be prudent to describe Plato’s regimes first followed by Aristotle.

In Book VIII of the Republic, Plato speaks of the degenerate regimes after having spent considerable time describing an Aristocracy. Aristocracy in the classical sense is not rule by the few, or rule by the wealthy. Aristocracy for Plato meant rule by the virtuous. The ideal city would be ruled by a Philosopher king, but because no philosopher will want to rule in the city there must be a handful of virtuous individuals willing to rule.

The first degenerate regime that flows directly from Aristocracy is Timocracy. This form of government is rarely spoken of and is largely forgotten compared to the remaining regimes. Timocracy is the rule by the honorable, or more simply a Warlord. Timocracy comes about when instead of concerning oneself with virtue itself, one concerns themselves with the seeking of honor. The primary means of attaining honor is on the battlefield, and thus the idea of a military leader leading the city falls into a Timocratic regime.

From the Timocrat comes the Oligarch, the son of the man who is more concerned about his honor than about wealth. When honor is lost and you have nothing else, then you are empty. The Oligarch as a result is a stingy person who spends little but acquires much. Oligarchy is defined by a few very wealthy individuals ruling the city over the less fortunate and often impoverished inhabitants. Oligarchy is the most popular form of government and the wealthy are often times viewed as the best individuals and therefore most worthy of ruling. Today Oligarchy is often confused with Aristocracy due to their elitist tendencies. With the fall of Oligarchy, so goes the way of the virtuous regimes. Oligarchy, Timocracy and Aristocracy represent the various parts of the soul for Plato, and also different virtues or, in the case of Aristocracy, virtue itself. The three parts of the soul that correspond with the three regimes are: Rational part with Aristocracy, the Spirited part with Timocracy and the Appetitive part with Oligarchy.

The first regime lacking virtue is democracy, or rule by the people. The democrat comes about because of the lack of equality in the Oligarchy. In the Oligarchy limits are placed on how much one can spend, preventing the democrat from being allowed to do as he sees fit. This coupled with the lack of equality brings about the Democracy. Democracy is ruled on two principles: Freedom and Equality. Because of its nature Democracy lacks virtue but it is not totally depraved. Democracy is the best possible regime while Aristocracy is the regime most wished for.

Finally Plato ends his account of the regimes with Tyranny, the most dreaded and depraved form of government developed by mankind. Tyranny is the exact opposite of Aristocracy. The tyrant comes to rule because he desires all. Tyranny is characterized by the lack of concern for one’s subjects and a desire to obtain all one wishes for. The tyrant cares nothing for his people or his city, only for his own selfish gains. Where the Aristocrat rules for the sake of the city, the tyrant rules for the sake of self. With the end of the analysis of the tyrant and tyranny comes the end of Plato’s discussion of the regimes within the Republic.

Aristotle does not entirely agree with Plato’s assessment of regimes in the Republic. His Politics is largely a rebuttal of the arguments made in the Republic. Aristotle defines three chief regimes: Kingship, Aristocracy and Polity. These regimes all have a degenerate regime corresponding with it: Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy. One will immediately identify that Aristotle lacks the Timocratic regime and instead replaces it with Polity, a mixture of Oligarchy and Democracy.

Kingship is a fairly self explanatory regime, for Aristotle it is the most desired regime but due to its ability to quickly turn into tyranny it is not the best possible regime. Kingship is simple, it is the rule by one person who is king. In the Kingship there is only one citizen and that is the King himself. This can be compared in some manner to Plato’s discussion of the Philosopher King, although the king in such a regime need not necessarily be a Philosopher but not a Tyrant either.[1]

Aristocracy is essentially the same regime for both Plato and Aristotle, the rule by the virtuous.

Polity as said above is a mix between Oligarchy and Democracy. Depending on the rulers it can either be more heavily Oligarchic or more heavily Democratic. The difference between the two being that an Oligarchic Polity would be ruled by a few selected wealthy individuals, while the Democratic Polity would be ruled by the people in general. This regime is what Aristotle calls the best possible regime because it involves the rule by the middling class. The middling class often makes up the most of all inhabitants in a city and thus the regime which allows for them to be citizens allows for the most participation in the operation of the city. Many often compare this to a Republic, but that is a false comparison as will be shown briefly.[2]

Oligarchy and Democracy are the same as in Plato and therefore require no additional attention. It should be noted, however, that Aristotle defines four types of democratic regimes unlike Plato. The first, considered the best and the oldest by Aristotle is democracy ruled by the farming sort. The second, similar to the first, is based around those who are herdsmen. The herding Democracy is exemplified by it’s military capabilities, as Aristotle states, “they are particularly well exercised with respect to their dispositions as well as useful with respect to their bodies and capable of living in the open.”  The third sort is made up of the middling class, or the merchants and exists in the city.[3]  This democracy is prone to more individuals being involved in the regime because of the proximity of living in the city. The fourth democracy laid out by Aristotle is where all are included in citizenship. Citizenship for Aristotle means those who are able to participate in the ruling of the polis. Therefore, this last sort admits people into the rank of citizenship who are unsuited for ruling the polis, including slaves. In this instance, slaves would apply to anyone who is unable to rule themselves and not the slaves who have been conquered in war.

Book Four of Aristotle’s Politics offers us another list of democracies, this time five. The first democracy in book four is based on the equality between the poor and rich, where neither class is preeminent in society. The second is where, “the offices are filled on the basis of assessments…”[4] The next two regimes are where those of unquestioned descent, and those who are citizens fill the offices but the law rules. The fourth is where the multitude, not the law, rules. The fifth democracy is similar in make up to the previous democracies except that the multitude, not the law, rule.

The best regime, and best way of life according to Aristotle are the same. The best way of life is the mirror image of the best regime. While Kingship is the regime most desired, and Polity the best attainable regime it is the mixed regime that is the best regime. The mixed regime contains elements of each individual regime, just as the best person is a mixture of all the different virtues. The regime must incorporate virtue, the farming class and the middling class. It is this regime, the mixed regime, which must properly be defined as a Republic. A Polity as stated before is a regime of Oligarchy and Democracy, while a Republic is a mixed regime with multiple regimes tied into it. Take for example the American regime, which is not a Polity at all but is a Republic. We have the element of Kingship in the President, we have the element of Democracy in the House of Representatives, we have the element of Oligarchy in the Senate and we have Aristocracy in the Supreme Court. Such a regime is the best possible regime because it allows for the virtues of each regime to be apart of the city; just as the the virtuous person participates in each individual virtue, so does the city participate in the virtues exemplified by the various regimes in a mixed regime.

[1]
Aristotle’s Politics Book III

[2]
Aristotle’s Politics Book IV

[3]
Aristotle’s Politics Book VI

[4]

Aristotle’s Politics Book IV

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