Aristotle asks what sorts of states are the most practical for existing circumstances. Having asked what constitution is the best in an ideal case, he wants to study what sort of constitution suits what kind of civic body, how best a given constitution can be maintained, and what kind of constitution is best suited for the majority of contemporary cities. Every city has different constituent elements: the number, diversity, wealth, skill, etc., of the different classes of society may vary greatly, allowing for many different constitutions.
Aristotle defines democracy as a state in which the freeborn are sovereign, and oligarchy as a state in which the rich are sovereign. In order to analyze the different kinds of democracy and oligarchy, Aristotle breaks the city down into nine constituent parts: (1) farming class; (2) mechanical class concerned with the arts and crafts; (3) merchant and retailer class; (4) hired laborers; (5) soldiers; (6) wealthy patrons; (7) the executive, (8) the deliberative, and (9) judicial branches of public affairs.
Though the same person may fall into more than one of these categories, no one can be both rich and poor. As a result, there are always two distinct classes in society, and two basic forms of government—democracy and oligarchy—depending on which of the two classes is in power. Aristotle classifies five different forms of democracy: (1) everyone is equal by law, regardless of wealth; (2) an individual must meet a modest minimum property qualification to hold public office; (3) only the nobly born may hold public office, but the law remains sovereign; (4) anyone can hold public office, but the law remains sovereign; and (5) anyone can hold public office and the public, rather than the law, is sovereign. This last form is susceptible to the onset of demagoguery, in which a popular leader can sway public opinion to the extent that he can do as he wills without repercussion.
Aristotle classifies four different kinds of oligarchy: (1) there is a property qualification for holding public office; (2) there is a high property qualification for holding public office and the current officers select new officers; (3) public office is hereditary; and (4) dunasteia or dynasty, in which public office is hereditary and the officers, rather than the law, are sovereign.
Aristotle notes that a state with a democratic constitution is often a de facto oligarchy, and vice versa. Normally, when people have wealth and hence leisure sufficient to devote a great deal of time to public office, states tend toward the more extreme forms of government in which officers, rather than the law, are sovereign.
An aristocracy accords public office primarily on the basis of merit, though some regard may be paid to the wealthy or the masses. Politeia, or constitutional government, is a mixture of oligarchy and democracy that confers benefits both on the masses and on the wealthy, but it does not discriminate on the basis of merit. A constitutional government can mix democracy and oligarchy in one of three ways: (1) a combination of the two; (2) a mean between the two; or (3) a mixture of elements taken from each. In a healthy constitutional government, it is essential that everyone in the city be content with the constitution.
Early in book one, Aristotle states, “for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.” The wording of “they think” in his statement implies that humankind seeks “good” based on their subjective definition of the term. If humankind seeks what they think is good, it naturally falls that individuals will seek what they believe to be good for themselves, which then seems to lead naturally to the accumulation of coin because of its ability to bring material comforts.
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