Nicomachean Ethics

by: Aristotle


Aristotle’s worldview is significantly different because he thinks of human life as having a telos, or end goal, toward which it is heading. In Aristotle’s world, city-states are tightly knit communities where no strong distinction exists between public and private life. All citizens share the same goals and values, so the pursuit of happiness is a cooperative enterprise.

The close connection between friendship, the community, and the individual explains why we find a discussion of political constitutions in the middle of Book VIII. According to Aristotle, citizens should not cooperate simply because the laws compel them to. Rather, they should cooperate out of a friendly feeling that comes from sharing their lives and goals with one another. His analogies between political relationships and family relationships are not simply metaphorical: both should be determined primarily by love and duty. Laws exist only as safeguards for when the appropriate friendly feelings break down.

Aristotle discusses political constitutions in much greater detail in the Politics, which does not agree entirely with his assessment in the Ethics. In that work, he describes oligarchy as the corrupt form of aristocracy, and he is not so firm in his claim that monarchy is superior to aristocracy and timocracy.

Timocracy, which in the Politics is called a polity or constitutional government, derives its name from the Greek word teme, meaning property qualification. The idea is that all citizens with a minimal property qualification have equal rights. This is roughly the form of government that existed in Athens.

Monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy are all considered to be good forms of government because they all extend privileges according to merit. In a monarchy, the king is of more noble stature than any of his subjects, and so he has every right to govern absolutely so long as he cares for them. An aristocracy consists of a small ruling elite who again are the most noble, and a timocracy also proffers benefits according to each person’s due. This conferring of benefits according to merit is the principle of distributive justice, which Aristotle discusses in Book V.

When merit ceases to determine privilege in a state, that state slides from one of these forms of government to a corrupt form. For instance, a tyrant is a king who no longer cares for his subjects and so is no longer virtuous and worthy of his place.

It may seem strange that Aristotle lists democracy among the corrupt forms of government, as we generally think of democracy as one of the greatest inventions of the Greeks. Aristotle uses “democracy” to mean a kind of mob rule, where those who are afforded the most privilege are not necessarily those who most deserve this privilege.