Saturday, September 11, 2010

Aristotle: Politics - Why do we have a government?

Last year I did a brief introdution of Aristotle and I read a portion of his work "Politics" which I discussed. This time my assignment was to read all eight "books" of Aristotle's Politics. 

Aristotle famously says, "Man is by nature a political animal", and perhaps nothing (sadly) is more important to the advancement of civilization than politics.  It is the foundation of government, society, culture and our welfare.  Therefore a critical examination of the mechanics of politics is required for the development of any successful state.

Aristotle asks many questions such as: What are the elements of a successful government?  Why are there different types of government? What is the best government? 

Why do we need government?  Aristotle says that within a "state" man is perfected, the best of all animals.  However when he is removed from law and justice he becomes the worst.  I suppose many would agree with that assessment, including Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who said that without government man would be in a "war of all against all" and thus have lives that were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

Who should rule?  Aristotle says that some individuals are made to rule, just like some are naturally slaves and others masters.   Just like the mind rules over the appetites, so should the superior rule over the inferior.  At first I dismissed this idea as anachronistic and undemocratic, but now I am wondering if Aristotle is correct.  Do we want bad leaders?  Of course not, but what qualifies someone as good or bad? Education?  Experience?  Intelligence?  Birth?  It is worthy of further thought. 

Who is a citizen in our government?  What an apropos question as the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and the status of illegal aliens in the US is currently in the news.  Aristotle suggests that a citizen is someone who can participate in the government, specifically in the judicial system.  A virtuous citizen is one who can both obey and lead. 

What is the best government?  Aristotle compares different governments weighing their pros and cons. 

Governments can be divided into how many people rule over the state.  This can be one (royalty/tyranny), a few (aristocracy/oligarchy = governement of the best), or the many (democracy/constitutional government).

Having a smaller ruling party results in a more efficient government which does not require a consensus for its action.  It is also possible to have the best (most virtuous) rulers who are highly educated and skilled.  Conversely, having a small number of people in charge means they are more likely to express bad judgement than a larger number would.   Smaller governments also disenfranchise a great number of people. 

The worst form of government is a tyranny where one man rules without restraint.  According to Aristotle, a democracy is not too far behind. So what does Aristotle think is the best form of government?  He wryly says it is the one that is administered by the best.

Aristotle does make it clear though that inequality is the root cause of rebellion and that a strong middle class is essential.

"Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely be be well-administered, in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible that both the other classes...for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme" 

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