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

How the Constitution provides for energy and stability while maintaining liberty and republicanism through separation of powers.


Energy and stability have been the greatest questions in government since the ancients first developed the polis. Prior to the United States, no country made better efforts to perfect the art of separation of powers than England has made. Publius describes in Federalist 37 the need for stability and energy in the new government, while at the same time protecting the liberty of the people and the republican way of life. The Constitution of 1787 achieves these aims through a separation of powers between the three branches of the Federal government and the specific make up of the departments.

In order to understand Publius’ argument better, it would be best to take his argument in Federalist 37 first, followed by his discussion of the relationship between the three branches of government. Lastly I will view his discussion of the specific make up of the various branches of the United States Government.

Publius argues for the necessity of a separation of powers in the new government in order to provide for the necessary stability and energy in government while protecting liberty and republicanism. In order to do this he argues that there most be present a separation of powers between the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of government. Furthermore, there must be a separation of powers between that of the States and Federal governments. Publius says, “Among the difficulties encountered by the convention, a very important one must have lain in combining the requisite stability and energy in government with the inviolable attention due to liberty and to republican form.”[1] The first attempt at creating a republic with the Articles of Confederation failed due to a lack of energy and stability within the government, thus it was pertinent to create in the new government fixes for these problems. Publius then goes on to explain:

The genius of republican liberty seems to demand on one side not only that all power should be derived from the people, but that those intrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people by a short duration of their appointments; and that even this short period the trust should be placed not in a few, but in a number of hands.[2]

This is the genius of the new Constitution according to Publius, it has attained the short periods of appointment and dividing the government among many hands. In order that the liberty of the people is not offended, they must remain the source of power for the government.

Yet this is not enough, in order to understand how this present in the Constitution Publius explains further in papers 47-51. In the first of these papers, Publius addresses the allegations by opponents of the proposed plan that it lacks a separation of powers. Publius explains Montesquieu’s argument for the separation of powers by saying, “he did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency in, or no control over, the acts of each other.”[3] The magistrate must have the authority to not only enforce the laws passed by the legislative, but also to veto laws that violate the Constitution, and the judicial cannot create laws but can advise the legislative.[4] Publius then goes on to demonstrate that the various Constitutions of the states provide for more blending of the branches of government than the proposed Federal Constitution.

And then in Federalist 48 Publius describes how the Federal Constitution provides a defense through a moderate blend of the branches of government. At first he argues:

But in a representative republic where the executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and duration of his power, and where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly, which is inspired by a supposed influence over the people with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions by means which reason prescribes; it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people out to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.[5]

So in order to prevent the encroachments of the legislative on the rights and liberties of the people, the executive and judicial branches must have authority to reign in the power of the legislative. The legislative is also apt to encroach on the power and freedom of the other branches through pay[6], and thus they must be limited on how they are able to alter the pay of these other branches. Publius provides examples of Virginia and Pennsylvania where the powers of the legislative were not protected against and the judicial and executive branches were usurped by the authority of the legislative. Having demonstrated the dangers of allowing unbridled power to exist within the legislative branch, Publius goes on to explain how it might be possible to prevent the encroachments of one branch on the power of another.

Federalist 49 provides for this explanation and Publius defines that the people alone are the source of charter for the Constitution and its parts. Thus the people alone should be consulted when the powers of the Constitution are in question as to demolishing them, or creating a new power.[7] Appeals to the people are necessary in order to prevent the encroachments of power by the various branches. Yet frequent appeals are insufficient in protecting the freedom of the society. Not only this but it is impossible, as Publius explains, “The members of the executive and judiciary departments are few in number, and can be personally known to a small part only of the people.”[8] Yet the legislative is many in number and can be known by a larger number of the people.[9] Thus the legislative would be most likely to take advantage of the appeals from the people and thus encroach on the various powers of the other branches. As such frequent appeals of the people could turn out to be bad for the stability, energy and liberty of the society as the legislative might take their appeals as a mandate. And so how this can be moderated is discussed next by Publius.

Publius states at the beginning of Federalist 50, “It may be contended, perhaps, that instead of occasional appeals to the people, which are liable to the objections urged against them, periodical appeals are proper…”[10] In order to achieve this, Publius argues that a fixed period for appeals to the people could be detrimental to the purpose of those appeals. If they are too close together Publius argues, “the measures to be reviewed and rectified will have been of recent date, and will be connected with all the circumstances which tend to vitiate and pervert the result of occasional revisions.”[11] Yet by the same token, if they are too far apart then the people are likely not to know each other and to be unaware of the circumstances which lead to the need for revisions. [12] To demonstrate his point, Publius once again looks to the states for an example. He tells of how in Pennsylvania there had been a meeting of censorial council to remedy the defects of their Constitution. He elucidates however that the members of the council were prominent citizens who were members of the parties within the state. Secondly, some of the members of the council had served in the legislative and executive departments. Third, the proceedings of the council were disrupted by the factionalism of the members themselves. And finally, the council either did not understand the limits placed on the legislative and executive, or the legislative completely ignored the changes made by the censorial council.[13] Publius demonstrates properly the difficulty of having occasional or frequent appeals to the people for the remedy of the defects for the Constitution.

And so Publius goes on to discuss in Federalist 51 the structure of the government in regards to checks and balances. He states, “it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.”[14] The importance of each department having its own will is demonstrated in the preceding papers, where Publius demonstrates the likely chances of an encroachment and usurpation by the legislative. In order to achieve this, Publius also states, “It is equally evident that the members of each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others for the emoluments annexed to their offices.”[15] Thus the departments must have a will of their own and should not be made dependent on the other departments for their pay. But at the same time Publius argues that the members of the various departments must be given the constitutional means and personal motives to protect against the encroachment of another department on their own.[16] Publius argues, “The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It must be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.”[17] However, Publius also reminds the reader that the legislative must be predominant in republics. In order to properly control the legislative against usurpation Publius argues:

The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.[18]

By dividing the authority of the legislative, a republic is capable of controlling the growth of power and influence of the legislative. Yet this is not enough, as Publius points out it is important in a “compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments.”[19] By dividing the legislative, you weaken its ability to encroach on the authority of the other branches. But by dividing the government into two different governments and allotting them different powers a republic can prevent the creation of a tyranny.

However, one question still remains and that is how the different bodies of government are erected for the purposes presented in Federalist 51. The various branches must be provided with different powers so that no one branch can consolidate that power. The branches must also have varying degrees of separation from the people, so that the passions of the majority cannot rule in society. In regards to the legislative branch, the branch should be split into two distinct houses with one having more of a dependence and response to the people than the other. As the legislative branch is closest to the people, and thus lays one of legislative threats, it is proper that it be divided so as to limit this closeness with the people. The first branch of the legislative Publius discusses is thus the House of Representatives, which is designed to be the department most dependent on the people. Publius describes, “As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.”[20] The House of Representatives will only share in the legislative authority of the government and will be able to respond to the passions of the people while the upper house will be able to filter out the reason. This great authority constitutes a need for a shorter duration of power as Publius states, “It is a received and well-founded maxim that where no other circumstances affect the case, the greater the power is, the great out to be its duration…”[21] Further, the House of Representatives will be watched not only by the people through its direct dependence on them, but also by the collateral branch of the legislative.

Next Publius discusses the Senate, which serves as the connection between the States and the Federal government as directed by the un-amended Constitution.  On this Publius states, “It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems.”[22] So that the States retain some type of authority under the new Constitution, it is important that they be given the authority to appoint the members of the Senate. The advantage of this stands that now law cannot be passed without the consent of both the people and the States.[23] And it also serves as a way to prevent members of the legislative body from forgetting their constituents by requiring the laws to be passed by both distinct bodies. Publius goes on to say:

The necessity of a senate is not less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by the factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.[24]

The Senate’s mutability is important as well, so that the members restrain their passions and tyrannical nature. By having the Senate elected by the States, the States have their own elections for government offices. By changing the government representatives in the States, the Senate will be apt to change and thus opinions will be changed. Their length of office will allow the Senate the opportunity to learn the laws of the nation as well, and so that they are not constantly changing and that the opinions and measures remain some what consistent.[25] The importance of the Senate within the make up of checks and balances and separation of powers is clear. It serves as a check on the passions of the people, while balancing the representation of the States within the Federal government. Further the two branches of the legislative provide for stability and energy in the new government by removing the passions of the people and allowing for competition within the branches.

Thus next Publius discusses the executive branch, by far the most controversial of the day and most in need of defense by Publius. Publius discusses the mode of electing the President in Federalist 68. As with the legislative, the mode of electing the President must have a way of preventing the passions of the majority from ruling. Thus the Electoral College was devised as a way of preventing the encroachments of the people’s passions from entering into the election of the President. Publius describes, “It was equally desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation.”[26] By doing this the Electoral College is made up of a small number of individuals so that deliberation is permitted in the election of the new President. Publius says, “This process of election affords a moral certainty that the office of the President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”[27] As for the proper place of the executive in the stability and energy of government, he is of the most importance. As Publius says, “A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory must be, in practice, a bad government.”[28] The executive must be strong and energetic in order to properly execute the laws he is charged to enforce. Publius calls “united; duration; an adequate provision for its support; and competent powers”[29] to be what constitutes an energetic executive. Energy is found in unity as in a single person the powers of the executive can be carried out quickly without delay. If the executive power were divided among more than one person, it would be subject to deliberation which will prevent an energetic executive. [30] Likewise, the President’s tenure of office is important for his energy. The duration of office is also an important element in the stability of the executive. If he stays too long, then he is apt to be too firm and possibly encroach on the powers of the legislative. Yet if he is tenure is too short then he is apt to fall prey to the legislative.[31] Shortness in the tenure of office is also likely to prevent the interest of the executive from performing his duties. This is also the argument used by Publius in Federalist 72 in regards to the reelection of an executive; by allowing him to run for reelection, he will watch how he acts in office so that the people look upon him favorably.[32] These are the aspects which allow for an energetic and stable executive, without which the government as a whole would lack stability and energy.

Lastly, Publius discusses the importance of the Judiciary in the make up of the new Constitution. Publius calls the Federal judiciary, “the best expedient which can be devised in any government to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.”[33] The purpose of the Federal judiciary he proposes is to prevent “the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body.”[34] Publius counters the fears of judicial usurpation by asserting that the Federal judiciary will be the weakest of all the branches as it lacks power over the purse and sword. Publius further argues:

Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them.[35]

The Judicial branch will have no authority over the purse or over the sword, but instead only over judgment.[36] It will thus be able to prevent against legislative and executive encroachments by striking down laws which are contrary to the Constitution and the laws and treaties of the United States. The separation of the judicial from the legislative is also important so as to allow the judges to exercise their judgment without fear of reprisal by the legislative branch. Thus, the salaries of the judges cannot be lowered so as not to influence their opinions.[37] Their tenure of office also allows for freedom of judgment in judicial matters. Their appointment is for during good behavior, which prevents their judgment from being dependent on reelection, which may have a negative effect on their opinions. Thus through the judicial department is called upon to be safeguard against the encroachments of the representative and executive bodies. It will further only have the power of judgment, not the power of the purse or the sword. And it will further lack dependence on the legislative branch because their salaries cannot be lowered and their tenure of office is during good behavior, not apt to reelection.

The Federalist lays out a discussion of how energy and stability will be present in the new Constitution without violating the principles of republican government and the liberties of the people. As such, the basic necessity to ensure this requires a separation of powers. Publius describes how the various departments of the new government participate and uphold the principles of the separation of powers. He further demonstrates how the people and States partake in the controlling of the new government by their participation in the election of the houses of the legislative. Publius properly upholds his argument in Federalist 37 in his discussion of the following papers.


[1]Federalist 37, in Alexander Hamilton et al., The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter, introduction and notes by Charles R. Kesler (New York: New American Library, Mentor, 1999), 194.

[2] Federalist 37, 195

[3] Federalist 47, 270

[4] Federalist 47, 271

[5] Federalist 48, 277

[6] “as the legislative department alone has access to the pockets of the people…”Federalist 48, 278

[7] “As the people are the only legitimate fountain of power…” Federalist 49, 281-282

[8] Federalist 49, 284

[9] “The members of the legislative department…” Federalist 49, 284

[10] Federalist 50, 285

[11] Federalist 50, 286

[12] “If the periods be distant from each other…” Federalist 50, 286

[13] “Pennsylvania in 1783 and 1784, was, as we have seen….” Federalist 50, 286

[14] Federalist 51, 289

[15] Federalist 51, 289

[16] “But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several…” Federalist 51, 289

[17] Federalist 51, 290

[18] Federalist 51, 290

[19] Federalist 51, 291

[20] Federalist 52, 295

[21] Federalist 52, 298

[22] Federalist 62, 345

[23] Federalist 62, 346

[24] Federalist 62, 347

[25] “The mutability in the public councils…” Federalist 62, 348

[26] Federalist 68, 380

[27] Federalist 68, 382

[28] Federalist 70, 391

[29] Federalist 70, 392

[30] Federalist 70, 392

[31] “Duration in office has been mentioned…”Federalist 71, 399

[32] “The first is necessary to give the officer himself….” Federalist 72, 404

[33] Federalist 78, 433

[34] Federalist 78, 433

[35] Federalist 78, 433

[36] Federalist 78, 433

[37] Federalist 79, 441

Doctrine of Self Preservation


 

In the Summer of 1763 John Adams undertook the writing of an essay entitled “On Private Revenge.” The turmoil of the French and Indian War was only freshly over and the British Parliament in that same year adopted the Proclamation of 1763. The Proclamation granted control over the lands acquired through the Treaty of Paris to the British government, not the colonial governments. Within a decade the Parliament would go on to do more to seek retribution from the Colonies for the assistance England provided during the war. This enraged the passions of colonial Americans, specifically in New England in and around Boston. We must read Adams’ essay only in the light of these events. In his traditional style, Adams calls for law and order to persevere over chaos and anarchy.

The first paragraph of the essay sets up the plan Adams has laid out for his argument. In the Politics, Aristotle asserts that man outside of the city is either a beast or a god. Adams argues that man is distinguished from other animals because of his ability to unite and entire into society. The natural attributes of man are not enough to make him superior to other animals, but in fact Adams believes they would make man weakest of all other animals. What makes man superior is his ability to unite with others of his kind; thus agreeing with Aristotle partly by stating man outside of society is nothing more than a beast such as, “the bear or the tiger.” Within this man, like other animals, Adams argues, “As he comes originally from the hands of his Creator, self-love or self-preservation is the only spring that moves him.” Locke argues that the law of nature is only known through reason, with exception of the first law which is that of self-preservation. Hobbes too argues that within society the Magistrate is capable of ordering his subjects to do whatever he wishes, except if he desires to kill them in which case the law of self-preservation requires them to defy the Magistrate.  And thus Adams has created his argument; man is superior to other animals because he is able to unite himself within society. However, like other animals man has implanted in his soul self-preservation, which calls upon man to defend his life against all threats. How does one preserve his life and at the same time allow himself to exist in society? The law of self-preservation appears to grant man the authority to execute the law of nature. Society limits this ability and grants that authority to an impartial third-party.

Adams description of a state of nature comes closer to the description provided by Rousseau. He describes that in this state man is propogated, food is found on “the banks of clams and oysters”, weapons for war are present, and animal hide become clothing. Yet this society is void of friendship, trade, and human bonding unless instinct calls for it. In essence, man is truly free and independent without any other above him or below him. Adams defines the virtues of the “savage state, courage, hardiness, activity, and strength.” Take these four virtues and compare them to the four classical virtues, “Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance.” Many view the virtue of courage as among the basest virtues, in fact Aristotle in the Ethics describes it almost immediately, indicating that it is the most base of all virtues. The man who is in charge in this society is the one who can kill the best, or run the fastest. This is the basis for tribal leadership, and possibly the roots of how one became king in ancient England, France, or Germany. This basis for determining who is superior will also result in the usage of revenge over justice; the man who perceives himself to be stronger and is beat by another will take it as an insult and attack the other man. Adams even argues that the idea of allowing a third-party to mediate the situation is indication  the deficiencies of the savage state. It is clear that Adams views revenge as the hallmark of a savage state. New Englanders within a few years of this essay will attempt to overthrow the established system and seek revenge for the ills done to them by the British parliament. Adams, in a possible prophetic statement argues that when a horse treads over a gouty toe, our passions are so excited that we feel we must kill the horse. The horse is a symbol of Aristocracy in philosophy, which can lead one to see the prophetic nature of the comment. The horse represents the British Parliament, which does end up stepping on the gouty toe of the colonies, who never really recover from the French and Indian War. Adams finishes this section by saying:

For the great distinction between savage nations and polite ones, lies in this,—that among the former every individual is his own judge and his own executioner; but among the latter all pretensions to judgment and punishment are resigned to tribunals erected by the public; a resignation which savages are not, without infinite difficulty, persuaded to make, as it is of a right and privilege extremely dear and tender to an uncultivated nature.

A stark contrast between the savage state and the polite state is clear,  in the one man is his own executioner while in the other he is not. Rousseau argues in the Social Contract:

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces in man a very remakable    change, by substituting in his conduct justice for instinct, and by giving his actions the moral quality that they previously lacked. It is only when the voice of duty succeeds physical impulse, and law succeeds appetite, that man, who till then had regarded only himself, sees that he is obliged to act on other principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations.

Rousseau’s sentiments are similar to Adams, in that when man passes into civil society he is expected to give up those habits which were present in him in nature.

This brings up the next point. If society should ever come to the point where we will give up our polite and noble nature, we will become worse than the Goths before becoming Christians. He compares the individual who believes that when offended one should draw his sword to that of the fowl, the bull, and stallion. The image of these three animals are simple, the bird can represent bloodshed, the bull destructive force, and the stallion life and death. It should be noted that he does not use horse, but rather stallion which indicates not the symbol of aristocracy specifically. Instead, the stallion represents the wild, unbridled passions of man and specifically can be seen as a symbol of life and death, which horses are known to symbolize. After initially using fowl, in his ending sentence of this paragraph Adams states, “But are cocks and bulls and horses the proper exemplars for the imitation of men, especially of men of sense, and even of the highest personages in the government!” The cock more specifically than fowl represents the underworld, passion and pride, and thus we arrive at how man is outside of nature: Prideful, passionate, destructive, and wild.

And finally Adams attacks the point that such images of gallantry have been argued from the military. Adams argument begins by stating that such images are not praised by the military, nor have they ever been. Instead, the dregs of society have idealized the Cock, Bull and Stallion as exemplars for man. He argues, “For every gentleman, every man of sense and breeding in the army, has a more delicate and manly way of thinking, and from his heart despises all such little, narrow, sordid notions.” Of these he mentions specifically Divines, Lawyers and Physicians. Divines represent religion, God; Lawyers represent the law; Physicians have a philosophic meaning behind them, in that whenever a Physician appears it represents healing of the body politic. In this instance, though it is much more likely that Adams is speaking that Physicians heal the body,  Adams suggests that they praise themselves above all others such as Divines and Lawyers do. The other set of professions he mentions include: husbandmen, manufacturers, and laborers. They lack the virtue of magnanimity and are instead short-sighted, little minded individuals believing their professions are the best in the world. It is likely then, that soldiers of lower ranks are just as likely to believe themselves superior to any other order. They are, as a result, prone to the, “principles of revenge, rusticity, barbarity, and brutality…” which Adams described earlier as the principles upheld by the savage. However, soldiers who are superior in their senses recognize the authority not only of their superiors but also of the civil society. Once again, in a similar prophetic nature as before, these soldiers recognize the superior nature of English law. Moving away from calling them soldiers, it is evident at this point that Adams is specifically referring to men in general, not just those who serve in the Army. England, being an image of the polite society, is superior to the savage society; some of his fellow New Englanders wish to rebel against English rule, thus stooping to this level. A truly polite and decent man would recognize the doctrine of self-preservation as indignant.

Adams having completed his argument has demonstrated that man who seeks the doctrine of private revenge has no regard for civil society, and therefore is only as good as a tiger or bear. Only within civil society is man able to full perfect his nature, which is where Adams demonstrates the Enlightenment principle that nature is created imperfect. It is man’s responsibility to perfect nature by building upon it, making things, and this is only possible in society. Likewise, man is only able to be fully man within society under the constrains of law and order which is characterized by justice; whereas man outside of society and in total chaos is characterized by the doctrine of self-preservation, or revenge.

The Good of the City and Man


Some in history have attempted to associate the good of the city with the good of man. In ancient times the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle argued this very notion. The city, according to Aristotle, is developed to assist man in reaching the complete human life through the administering of the daily and non daily needs. Thus what is good for the city must in the end is ultimately good for man. Man’s own good is tied to the city because it is through the city that man is able to live the complete human life. Initially what develops is the family, which is unable to provide for the non daily needs of mankind. Thus families enter into compacts with others to form villages, which are unable to provide for the daily needs of man. Finally villages are forced to join to form cities, which are capable of providing both the daily and non daily needs and thus is the only order capable of allowing for the complete human life. The ultimate struggle at the root of Socratic dialogues of both Plato and Xenophon, and the treatises of Aristotle, is the question of whether or not it is better to live of life of activity (politics) or the contemplative life (studies.) The breaking point comes between the politician and the philosopher but it is never truly clear as to which is better. We are only left with the evidence that only in the city are both lives possible. Thus what is good for the city must ultimately be good for man as well.

By the time of the Renaissance philosophers began to look at the question of the city differently. In the 17th and 18th centuries England produced two of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke helped to redefine what the city is and man’s relationship to the city. No longer was the city a natural order which helps man attain the complete human life. Rather, now the city is looked upon as an escape from the natural order. For Hobbes this natural order is a state of war because the only law is that of survival. Without a government to maintain order and ensure everyone obeys the laws of nature and maintains their contracts it is left to the individual to secure their rights. If you imagine the world before pan-national organizations like the United Nations or NATO you see this principle at work. Nations exist in a state of nature with each other, and thus in a state of war. There is no governing body able to enforce the laws of nature or maintain the contracts between two nations. Instead the nation becomes the judge, jury and executioner leading to a state of war. John Locke attempts to appear less savage than Hobbes but essentially reaches the same conclusion. Man exists in a state of nature, which is a state of pure freedom. Through reason man is able to know the law of nature. Yet in the state of nature man is responsible for enforcing the law of nature and contracts. Life is truly short and brutish in a state of nature as Locke states. Ultimately this state of nature dissolves into a state of war causing man to seek to escape nature and enter into society. For the moderns nature was something to be conquered and therefore society cannot be viewed as natural as the Greeks viewed it. Society is formed to allow for an impartial judge, and a common law which is enforced by an outside force. Outside of these responsibilities, society is useless to man. Hobbes defines society, as a Leviathan, the modern view of society is not as man’s friend but as his enemy. Unchecked society can do whatever it pleases whether it is for the good of man or not. For Hobbes the magistrate can do whatever he wants to his citizens and they must obey, save of course when one’s life is in danger and you are obligated by the law of nature to defend yourself. Thus for our Founders, students of men like Hobbes and Locke they would have viewed society, our Constitution, as a necessary evil.

Yet in recent times, namely the end of the 19th century, a new understanding has developed which does not exclude the Leviathan nature of society but does not reject society’s ultimate benefit to mankind either. The men who were associated with the German school of thought developed by men like Marx and Nietzsche associated society with being able to advance man. The central concern of Nietzsche is breaking man out of his “all too human” nature and the creation of the ubermensch. Marx viewed society as a tool to help advance man along the historical timeline to a period where no government would be necessary. In America we call the men and women associated with this line of thought the Progressives. It was their belief that in order for man to be moral the government had to instill that morality. For the moderns, morality was already present in the form of the law of nature. In order to understand morality one merely needs reason to understand the law of nature. Yet the German Historicist school of thought rejected a universal morality outside of the confines of the society. This notion was what helped spur on the Prohibitionists who believed it was government’s responsibility to ban alcohol to help better mankind. What developed was a notion similar to the ancient understanding that what is good for the city is good for man. Unfortunately, they were unable to temper the Leviathan and encouraged it to grow to control every aspect of human life. Through this belief came the rise of the Totalitarian states of Communist Russia, Fascist Italy and Spain, and Nazi Germany.

What makes the Progressive era different than the Enlightenment? The Enlightenment believed it was the responsibility of the government in a way to enforce the moral code. Yet the Enlightenment had the law of nature, which dictated right and wrong to society. Society was obligated to create laws in accordance with the law of nature or face being deemed illegitimate—they were able to hide the notion that really morality is whatever the majority willed. With the destruction of God by German philosophers came the destruction of the law of nature (ultimately rooted in the Divine Law.) Now it is whichever faction with the biggest guns makes the morality. The society for the Enlightenment is only charged with the safety of the people. Their complete perfection is left in the hands of the individual person. As Locke argues in his Letter on Toleration, society is permitted to promote religion but not religious beliefs—in other words it is man’s responsibility to find his way to salvation by whatever means he thinks best, but society is able to promote a religious lifestyle and prevent dangerous factions from existing within society. The Progressives were less worried about safety and more with perfection of humanity. The Ancients throw a wrench into the wheel of both movements by encouraging the notion that the city provides safety (non daily needs) and that the city provides for the complete human life. However, that safety doesn’t mean that the city should be ignored as in the case of the Enlightenment where individuals can essentially live and let live. Political activity was central in the Ancient understanding of the city. A man who refused to engage in Politics was called an idiot by the Greeks. Their definition of the complete human life had nothing to do with the divine—the idea of man’s salvation and perfectibility would have been lost on Aristotle in the Progressive sense. Rather, complete human life tends towards two arenas: Politics or Philosophy. Both lives potentially can lead to the complete human life. The obligation to be involved in the political life, more than merely casting a vote, is at the heart of why the city’s goods are good for man. By the Enlightenment man’s obligation to society was vested in merely voting. The interests of man at large are often mixed with the passions and interests of the individual. Progressives would view that it is important to have experts in positions of authority, so that their own private passions and interests are eliminated. Man is no longer able to make his own decisions, but is left to the dictates of supposed experts. Thus, since society should be dictated by those of superior intellect (experts in a given field), what is good for the city and man are intrinsically connected.

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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