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.
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 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…” 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