In addressing the question of the construction of democracies and oligarchies, Aristotle reminds us that even someone wholly committed to the principles of democracy would not want to construct a city based entirely on the principles of democracy. This would in effect be an extreme form of democracy, or demagoguery, which would undermine the very principles it was created to serve. Rather, a government must temper these principles and discover how best to apply them, given the particular make-up of the people over whom it rules.
Aristotle states that the underlying principle of all democracy is liberty, but the concept of liberty can be interpreted in two different ways. Under one interpretation, liberty means an even interchange between ruling and being ruled by all freeborn citizens. This implies the sovereignty of the majority and the equality of all before the law. Under the other interpretation, liberty means the freedom to do whatever one wants. In this system, ideally, one would not be ruled at all; if government became necessary, however, an even interchange between ruling and being ruled would arise. These conceptions of liberty (and by extension democracy) share the fundamental principle that all people are equal, regardless of wealth or merit.
Raising the question of how equality should be secured, Aristotle recommends a compromise between democracy and oligarchy, suggesting that sovereignty should be granted to whichever side has the greatest absolute amount of wealth. This is oligarchic in giving importance to wealth, but democratic in allowing the numbers of the poor to count.
Aristotle asserts that a population of farmers makes for the best kind of democracy: they must work hard and are well spread apart so they can't spend too much time in government. So, as long as they can select officers and are not robbed of their wealth, they are happier working their farms than they would be in public office. The wealthy hold all significant offices, but they are entirely accountable to the farmers.
The worst kind of population for a democracy is made up of mechanics, shopkeepers, and laborers. Because they are all crowded around the city center, they take a very active part in politics and tend to encourage mob rule and demagoguery.
Aristotle issues a reminder that the best democratic policy is not the most extreme but rather the one that will ensure the survival of the democracy. As a result, the populace should not be able to profit from confiscating the wealth of the rich, and payments to the poor should be in the form of block grants that allow them to buy land rather than simple handouts.
Aristotle states that oligarchy, like democracy, is most likely to thrive when it is practiced in moderation. While higher offices should be reserved for the wealthy, the poor should still be able to hold some of the lower offices. Furthermore, wealthy officers should be obliged to perform significant public service in order to hold office, thus earning the admiration and approval of the poor. Oligarchies fare best in cities with a strong cavalry or heavy infantry, whereas cities with many light infantrymen (poorer than heavy infantrymen) or naval forces tend toward democracy.
Aristotle closes by listing the different kinds of executive office. There are six offices dealing with day-to-day affairs that are indispensable to all cities, and there are four more important offices that require some expertise: military command; control of finance; preparation of business for the deliberative assembly; and directing of public worship.
The concept of ruling and being ruled is applicable not only on a political level but also on a personal, ethical level. A theme in the works of Aristotle and in those of eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant—and, indeed, in much of contemporary ethical theory—is that liberty, or freedom, is not a matter of being able to do what one pleases but instead a matter of obeying one's own will rather than some outside force. Aristotle states that a slave is not free by virtue of the fact that he does what others tell him what to do with no freedom of choice in the matter. However, a barbarian who rapes and pillages as he pleases is similarly not free, by virtue of the fact that he does not rule himself but rather is controlled by passions that seize him. According to Aristotle, man is essentially rational, meaning that his faculty of reason is what is most truly his own. Thus, if man allows himself to be ruled only by his faculty of reason, then he is totally free. He simultaneously rules (his reason determines what he should do) and is ruled (he obeys the dictates of his reason).
Since Aristotle believes that the distinction between citizen and city is almost nonexistent, his application of the above concept of freedom to political matters is not surprising. It is worth recalling that Aristotle claims that man is essentially a political animal and that his rationality can find its fullest expression only when he participates in the life of the polis. Since freedom expresses itself as a matter of both ruling and being ruled and man needs to be rational, true freedom exists only within the confines of the polis. Citizens rule in that they have a say in how the city is governed and are ruled in that they remain loyal to the city and obey its laws.
It might seem odd that Aristotle asks whether some consideration should be given to the rich just after he asserts that a democracy gives equal weight to all. The matter that concerns him is how to interpret "equal weight." Aristotle sees most cities fundamentally divided between a rich minority and a poor majority and believes that these two groups usually form opposing factions. If everyone were given equal voting power and equal eligibility for office, the poor majority, by virtue of their numbers, would have absolute control, rendering the rich minority very vulnerable. Absolute democracy in this sense may make each individual equally powerful, but it also renders one faction far more powerful than the other. Rather than give equal weight to each individual, Aristotle gives equal weight to each faction, so that the rich minority has approximately the same amount of power as the poor majority. This method creates a balance of power, which ensures that neither group can exploit the other.
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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