Book V, Chapters 1–7
The general topic of Book V is constitutional change: what causes constitutions to change; the ways in which different constitutions are susceptible to change; and how constitutions can be preserved. Aristotle argues that the root cause of constitutional change is that different groups have different conceptions of justice and equality. While democrats believe that all freeborn people are absolutely equal, oligarchs believe that inequality in wealth implies inequality on an absolute scale. The wealthy and the poor are thus liable to form separate factions, each trying to alter the constitution to its advantage. Some argue that justice should be in proportion to merit or birth, but because these individuals of great merit or high birth are so few in number, they never form powerful factions. Absolute democracy and absolute oligarchy are not very durable, as some compromise between the two is usually necessary. However, Aristotle suggests, democracy is less susceptible than oligarchy to factionalism.
Aristotle identifies three aspects of the cause of factional conflict: (1) the state of mind that leads someone to form a faction; (2) what can be gained or lost in forming a faction; and (3) the causes of political disputes that may lead to factions. Aristotle then identifies eleven potential causes of constitutional change: (1) arrogant behavior or hubris on the part of a ruler upsets his subjects; (2) a faction realizes how rebelling might profit it; (3) people act to avoid disgrace or to win greater honor for themselves; (4) a ruling oligarchy or monarchy is too powerful; (5) people fear punishment at the hands of those in power; (6) those who are not in power despise the poor government of those in power; (7) one class grows disproportionately larger than another; (8) corrupt election procedures lead to safeguards that alter the constitution; (9) people who are not loyal to the constitution rise in the ranks; (10) much minor change to the constitution amounts to one substantial change; and (11) large numbers of immigrants splinter into factions. Aristotle identifies several other causes of constitutional conflict: petty quarrels between important officials; changes in the power of certain public offices; equality between antagonistic elements (the poor will not revolt against the rich unless they feel as powerful as the rich); force; and fraud.
Aristotle identifies causes of change that are particular to democracies, oligarchies, and aristocracies. A democracy is most liable to be overthrown when it devolves into demagoguery and when the demagogue leads a crusade against the rich. Oligarchies can be changed either from without or from within. Change from without may occur when the poor—or others who have been mistreated and excluded from government—fight back. Change from within may occur with infighting, the impoverishment of certain members, or the formation of an inner, even more elite, circle. Alternatively, change may occur when the city as a whole has become much wealthier, allowing a great many more people to meet the property requirement that makes one eligible for office. Aristocracies endanger themselves when the ruling circle becomes increasingly narrow. Additionally, aristocracy and constitutional government both contend with the challenge of balancing the democratic and oligarchic aspects of government.
Aristotle notes also that all forms of constitution are subject to change from without if a powerful neighbor with a different form of constitution uses its might to impose its constitution on conquered states.
Both the rich and the poor conceive of justice and equality selfishly. Each party interprets these principles in the manner that will confer the most benefits upon its constituency. Aristotle maintains the doctrine that all intentional actions have some good as their goal; no one ever knowingly does what is wrong, and thus evil results always from an ignorant and skewed prioritization of goods. The ways in which the rich and the poor conceive of justice and equality are thus prime examples of the ignorance that the Greeks took to be the source of all evil. Consequently, Aristotle considers both oligarchy and democracy to be perverted forms of government.
Aristotle is quite detailed in his listing of the different ways in which a constitution can be changed. The first seven relate directly to the inherent nature of the state and constitution. The ease with which the ruling party can fall out of favor illustrates the ever-present tension between the ruling and the ruled. The last four that Aristotle lists are more accidental causes of change, for which the unpopularity of neither constitution nor ruling faction is responsible.
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