Book IV, Chapters 1–10
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.
Last, Aristotle distinguishes between three kinds of tyranny: (1) that among barbarians; (2) that once existing in Greece; and (3) a tyrannical and entirely self-interested rule exerted over unwilling subjects.
The text of Book IV is often very corrupt, and it is not clear how Aristotle would have wanted this material to be presented. Many chapters seem to repeat previous chapters with slight variations that alter Aristotle's meaning in significant ways. It seems possible that there were two different versions of Book IV that Aristotle wrote at different times and that the text available to the modern reader is an awkward combination of the two.
Whereas Book III deals primarily on a theoretical level, Books IV–VI deal primarily on a practical level, seeking to discover how contemporary states ought to be governed. One of the confusing results of this change in focus is that many of Aristotle's valuations seem to change. In Book IV, he spends a great deal of time discussing democracy and oligarchy, classifying different types and making recommendations for each, despite condemning all such governments as corrupt in Book III. However, it is important to realize that ancient Greece consisted primarily of oligarchies and democracies; Aristotle offered advice in response to these imperfect governments.
Aristotle's concern for the sovereignty of laws evidences the fact that laws in ancient Greece were far more permanent than they are in the modern world: there was no legislative branch of government and there were no amendments to constitutions. The government was free neither to break nor to change these laws, and it was thus held in check. In most of Aristotle's analyses of contemporary governments, thus, the laws are sovereign. In some cases, however, the government has ultimate sovereignty. Aristotle observes that the law tends to have more sovereignty in poorer cities because people can't afford to spend much time on public policy decisions, while the government tends to have more sovereignty in wealthier cities because people have more leisure time to invest their energy in politics. A strong proponent of the sovereignty of law, Aristotle is well aware that a state may become totalitarian when the government is sovereign, regardless of what kind of government it is. The twentieth century has demonstrated that extremist governments from both the left-wing (e.g. communism) and the right-wing (e.g. fascism) are prone to suppress law in the consolidation of absolute, oppressive power.
Aristotle is obviously more favorable to aristocracy and constitutional government. Interestingly, however, he seems to favor aristocracy over constitutional government even though in Book III he suggests that constitutional government is probably the best alternative. Here constitutional government is portrayed as a middle ground, giving favor to both rich and poor, between the corrupt alternatives of democracy and oligarchy. Aristotle esteems aristocracy as superior to these three alternatives, as it is the only form of government that takes merit, as opposed to wealth, into account. Of course, Aristotle has yet to present an objective standard that can be used to determine merit.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!