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.
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.
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. 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
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…” 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.
Aristotle’s Politics Book III
Aristotle’s Politics Book IV
Aristotle’s Politics Book VI
Aristotle’s Politics Book IV