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Aristotle’s Best Attainable Form of Government

The salience of Aristotle’s philosophy remains paramount till this day. Two of his central concerns were to understand the nature of human well-being and how best people can live together. Each of these engagements produced seminal contributions to the history of philosophy and political thought: the Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics, respectively. Early on in the former, Aristotle introduces us to his idea of virtue, which he finds to be of two kinds: intellectual or ethical (350BC/2004, p. 23).

He says that every individual bears the potential to become ethically wise, though ethical virtue is only really fully developed if it is mixed with practical wisdom (Aristotle & Crisp, 2004, p. 117): “There are three things to be found in the soul – feelings, capacities, and states – so virtue should be one of these. By feelings, I mean…in general things accompanied by pleasure or pain. By capacities, I mean the things on the basis of which we are described as being capable of experiencing these feelings…[a]nd by states I mean those things in respect of which we are well or badly disposed in relation to feelings.

If, for example, in relation to anger, we feel it too much or too little, we are badly disposed; but if we are between the two, then well disposed. ” (Aristotle & Crisp, 2004, p. 28) This becomes the framework for the development of his idea of virtue as a mean. Essentially, ethical virtue is understood as an intermediate condition between two extremes, one being a state of excess and the other a state of paucity.

Comparing ethical virtue to the craft of a skilled worker, who can maintain a mean between surfeit and deficiency, Aristotle argues that every ethical virtue – like temperance, courage, justice, generosity, etc. – is “located on a map that places the virtues between states of excess and deficiency” (Kraut, 2007). However, there is no universal or absolute determinant of this mean state, and it shall always depend on the particular case to respond accordingly.

Expanding this idea in The Politics, Aristotle asserts that a “government is good when it aims at the good of the whole community, bad when it cares only for itself” (Russell, 2005, p. 183). Hence, the common good is the ethical virtue of governments. Through a lengthy comparative analysis of the Greek city-states of his time, Aristotle finds that there are three “pure” forms of government, namely monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, the last being a sort of constitutional government).

Complementarily, there were three “perverted” forms of government: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy (Aristotle, Sinclair, & Saunders, 1992, pp. 238-240). In the framework of the doctrine of the mean, the pure forms of government represent excess, while the perverted forms elucidate deficiency. Now, if good governance were to follow the topology of ethical virtue, the logic of the mean demands that the ideal form of government should lie between the pure and perverted forms. At this point, it shall be prudent to inquire further into Aristotle’s classification of regime types to see how he develops the arrangement.

Firstly, the ethical qualities of the power holders – established by the ends of the state – determine whether a government is good or bad, not the nature of its constitution: “it is impossible for those who do not do good actions to do well, and there is no such thing as a man’s or a state’s good action without virtue and practical wisdom” (Aristotle, Sinclair, & Saunders, 1992, p. 393). Aristotle, thus, identifies moderate competence in the functions of government with virtue, and locates the latter more with the pure than perverted forms of government.

Aristotle explains that aristocracy, for instance, is the rule of virtuous men, while oligarchy is the rule of the rich. He applies his principle of distributive justice – essentially, justice as desert, distributed according to individual merit – and maintains that “justice involves treating equal persons equally, and treating unequal persons unequally, but they do not agree on the standard by which individuals are deemed to be equally (or unequally) meritorious or deserving” (Miller 2002).

Hence, oligarchs are given to thinking that greater wealth deserves greater political power and democrats deceived into believing that every citizen should have equal political rights. Instead, Aristotle opines that the “correct conception of justice is aristocratic, assigning political rights to those who make a full contribution to the political community, that is, to those with virtue as well as property and freedom” (Miller 2002).

The best constitution, therefore, in accordance with the doctrine of the mean, becomes that which can balance wealth and poverty on the one hand and the rule of one and the rule by many on the other: he calls it the “middle constitution. ” If “virtue is a mean, and that the happy life if a life without hindrance in its accordance with virtue, then the best life must be the middle life, consisting in a mean which is open to men of every kind to attain. And the same principles must be applicable to the virtue or badness of constitutions and states.

For the constitution of a state is in a sense the way it lives. ” (Aristotle, Sinclair, & Saunders, 1992, p. 266) Aristotle claims that the polity is best suited to deliver this sort of government, by identifying the middle citizens – those neither very well-off nor very badly-off – as the rulers of a state. Polities establish a balance between the eagerness and reluctance to rule, the arrogance of the rich and petty ways of the poor, and the cavalier ways of the extremely fortuitous and the subservience of the deficient.

The middle citizens do not desire the excess wealth of the rich, and no one in turn craves for their property. Polities can endure with a large middle section of population, and they also remain free from factionalism: the mean shows the way to good governance (Aristotle, Sinclair, & Saunders, 1992, pp. 264-269). Though the importance of Aristotle’s views cannot be denied, a closer scrutiny of the ideas above makes it difficult to agree with them in their entirety.

In a rousing passage, Bertrand Russell says of Aristotle’s political ideas: “I do not think there is much in it that could be of any practical use to a statesman of the present day…. There is not very much awareness of methods of government in non-Hellenic states…. There is no mention of Alexander, and not even the faintest awareness of the complete transformation that he was effecting in the world. ” (2005, p. 179). This might be an accurate description of Aristotle’s writings, but our concern is more philosophical.

The selection of the middle citizens as the paragons of virtue is problematic, especially according to Aristotle’s own standards. Since he emphasizes the relative nature of ethical virtues, it naturally follows that some rich men could act moderately, while some moderate men (middle citizens) could behave savagely. Aristotle does not sufficiently account for such anomalies, which weakens the ‘virtue-as-mean’ principle. Moreover, the end of the state, described by Aristotle as the “good life,” throws up another conceptual difficulty.

For him, it is normatively desirable to follow the path to such a good life; the end of the state, thus, is neither the appropriation of wealth, nor the promotion of liberty and equality. However, it should rather be the choice to follow individual ends that one feels to be more normatively desirable. Talents, as Aristotle recognizes, are diverse and it should then follow that the same find expression in a natural course lets individual potentialities flower. If the direction of that course is predetermined, then there is a gap between potential and performance.

This teleological conception of life is essentially paternal and appears somewhat contrary to Aristotle’s own conception of distributive justice. Importantly, Aristotle’s ethical framework remains an entirely instrumental or functional approach to the task of government. To argue that only a certain section of a population is best suited to govern the rest – not to mention that women did not figure in this schema at all – is morally unacceptable, and yet again betrays a paternal streak.

If the central question of study is how best people (or in this case, men) can live together, then every man ought to have a stake in the government of the state. Whether that necessitates a system of representative democracy, direct democracy, or even a republican or neo-republican form of popular control is a different debate; it is imperative to understand that political power cannot rest in the hands of a single category of people.

Evidently, just like monarchs can turn into tyrants, a select group – especially if their number is not fairly large – can usurp power and control indefinitely. It is clear that the Aristotelian model of arriving at the best attainable form of government serves its share of difficulties. However, it is important to note that the mean could be argued to contain the seed of modern-day democratic politics. Democracies regularly engage in balancing legitimation and capital accumulation, and at least functionally, the mean tries to achieve a similar harmony.

Also, this endeavor was not free standing: as elaborated in the opening paragraphs, governance is fundamentally linked with the problems of human well-being. Further, the construction of the middle constitution was not an end in itself; it was only a proposition for what Aristotle found to be desirable after an extensive examination of dozens of constitutions. Apart from the ideal, his methods are instructive for the political scientist in identifying the characteristics of and studying not only what is the best existing form of government but also the worst.

For instance, he emphasizes the role of law, the basis for which is again the mean, in monarchies but reminds us that a modicum of force is also required to ensure political order, which reflects a reality of contemporary politics. Indeed, “[i]n many ways, the experience to which Aristotle appeals is more relevant to the comparatively modern world than to any that existed for fifteen hundred years after [The Politics] was written” (Russell, 2005, p. 179).


Aristotle & Crisp, R. [Trans. ] (2004). Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Aristotle, Sinclair, T. A. , [Trans. ] & Saunders, J. [Contributor] (1992). The Politics. London: Penguin. Kraut, R. (2007). Aristotle’s Ethics. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 25, 2008, from <http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/> Miller, F. (2002). Aristotle’s Political Theory. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 25, 2008, from <http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/aristotle-politics/> Russell, B. (2005). History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge.

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