The best practicable constitution (polity) and Aristotle's justification of this constitution over his real preference for aristocracy

Essay, 2009

9 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Aristotle defends his claim of polity as the ideal constitution by arguments taken from his ethical thoughts, namely his theories of mean, virtue and equality. The first part of the essay will therefore discuss these ethical concepts before in the second part Aristotle’s arguments leading to his first ‘ideal’ constitution - aristocracy - will be laid down. Discussing several problems of an aristocracy in the third part, the essay will describe Aristotle’s real preference for polity as a ‘mixed’ and ‘middle’ constitution in the fourth part. The last chapter is dedicated to reflect Aristotle’s discussion shortly in today’s light and present some points of critique. The ‘basis’ of his Politics, however can be seen in his ethical conceptspresented in the upcoming first part.

As Kant puts it generally (1914: 118): „A true political philosophy {...} cannot advance a step without first paying homage to the principles of morals {...}“. For Aristotle, the theory of politics can therefore not be understood without knowledge of his ethics presented in his Nicomachean Ethics and his Metaphysics (Burns, 2003) These volumes are the background for his Politics - especially in terms of understanding his choice of the ideal constitution. Of highest importance are his understanding of human nature and the ideal life, his concept of equality and his theory of the mean presented in short in the following three paragraphs starting with Aristotle’s concept of human nature and the ideal life.

Human nature is in Aristotle’s sense political. Man is a „zoon politicon“ (Aristotle, 1992: 59,187), a political being living in a political community developed by nature. Aristotle furthermore argues, that a life of justice is what for man is a natural life representing the ‘good’ (id.: 437). Justice itself is a „feature of the state“ and so political (id.: 61). Hence, a life of justice and in this sense a political life is the aspiration of a human being. A political life does take place in the polis, the Greek city-state. Here, the ideal society is to be established in order to develop the human being to achieve this goal. „The polis is the telos or fulfilment of human community“, as Bluhm expresses it (1962: 744). Or as Burns puts it (2003: 76): „{...} politics is to enable such a process of personal development to take place.“ A virtuous life is only possible in a political society (Aristotle, 1992: 59,428). Human nature and politics are linked in reality and in Aristotle’s theory likewise as is a notion of justice to the state, as the next paragraph shows.

In his theory of justice and equality, Aristotle differentiates between many different notions of justice of which ‘proportional or proportionate equality’ is the most basic one. With this concept, Aristotle tries to reconcile notions of superiority (oligarchic principle) and equality (democratic principle) (von Leyden, 1985: 3). Proportional equality requires that equals are treated equally and unequals differently - always according to certain relevant aspects and in proportion to their achievements. Thus, people contributing more would receive for example more income, easier promotion and access to offices. As von Leyden (1985: 4) states, this principle „{...}is more

equitable than the democrats´ conception of mere numerical equality {...and...} more justifiable than the oligarchs´ claim that either wealth or noble birth by itself deserves the highest rewards“. Justice does therefore not mean ‘perfect’ equality, as we would understand it; depending on the natural degree of difference, the treatment varies. Anything else would not be just (von Leyden, 1985: 10). This concept holds true in the course of politics as well: citizens as equals should all be treated equally (Aristotle, 1976: 179). Slaves, in contrast, are as naturally unequal treated differently also in matter of politics - they are not allowed to vote for instance (Aristotle, 1992: 64). Additional to the proportional justice, Aristotle uses the concept of distributive justice (1976: 177) as a notion of fairness in distributional terms. It is composed of three elements: the good to be distributed, the persons the good is to be distributed among and the standard of distribution. There are different standards of distribution comparable to the standard of proportion mentioned above. I will discuss these standards especially regarding political terms when defining Aristotle’s ideal state.

It should be clear, that Aristotle’s principles of justice are important to understand his politics - the transition from one to the other is crucial (Burns, 2003). But before, his argument for the best constitution is discussed; his theory of the mean will be summarized in short in the next paragraph.

Aristotle’s theory of virtue is linked to his notion of the mean. In his Ethics, he states that virtue can be achieved by reaching the mean (1976: 101). Virtue in this case is moral virtue - feelings and actions. The mean is the end actions should aim at:

But to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate, that is to the best, degree; and this is the mark of virtue; {...} and in them, excess and deficiency are failings, whereas the mean is praised and recognised as a success {...}. (Aristotle, 1976: 101)


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The best practicable constitution (polity) and Aristotle's justification of this constitution over his real preference for aristocracy
Royal Holloway, University of London
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Political Philosophy, Politische Philosophie, Politik, Aristoteles
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Johannes Lenhard (Author), 2009, The best practicable constitution (polity) and Aristotle's justification of this constitution over his real preference for aristocracy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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