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What is the Role of Law in Aristotle’s Politics?

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Authored in the mid-4th Century BCE, Aristotle’s Politics is one of the seminal works on political philosophy. Born in Macedonia in 384 BCE, Aristotle traveled to Athens when he was around 18 and spent a period of 20 years studying at Plato’s Academy before returning to Macedonia and tutoring Alexander the Great. Written in a period of great transition in ancient Greek history, the Politics examines different approaches to government drawing on different approaches taken by different Greek city-states. Within this study, the role of law was a key point of discussion.

 

Aristotle’s Politics: Building on the Nicomachean Ethics

school of athens raffaello_sanzio da urbino
The School of Athens, by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, 1511, via The Vatican Museum

 

Aristotle’s Politics builds on his work in the Nicomachean Ethics which explores the concept of the good life. It explores the ways in which public institutions can help facilitate the behavior discussed in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle viewed the subjects of his Ethics and Politics as closely connected, stating that the study of politics naturally follows from the study of ethics; once it has been established how an individual can live a good life, the role of politics is to help create the conditions that allow for this.

 

Many of the discussions in Politics build on concepts established in the Nicomachean Ethics. For example, the earlier text includes wide-ranging discussions on the definitions of justice and fairness which covers topics from distributive justice to equity. One topic that is discussed is the difference between being a good person and a good citizen: A good citizen could act in accordance with unjust laws, while a good person could feel an obligation not to. This discussion of the potential clash between individual virtue and the state highlights the overlapping nature of the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.

 

Defining Justice

dream of ancient athens aristotle politics
A Dream of Ancient Athens, by Sydney Herbert, 1881 via Artuk.org

 

Aristotle’s Politics builds on definitions of justice outlined in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics. This concept of justice goes beyond compliance with the law and refers to actions that comply with a set of values. In the Nicomachean Ethics, the concept of justice is discussed in relation to justice within a city-state and justice within an individual. A distinction is then drawn between a complete sense of justice, which is the philosophical ideal of justice, and a partial sense of justice, which may be expressed through law in a city-state.

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Partial justice in this text is separated into concepts of distributive justice and corrective justice. Aristotle acknowledges that goods may be distributed differently depending on a city-state’s constitution. A distinction is also drawn between natural justice and conventional justice. Natural justice is considered uniform whereas individual city-states may employ different forms of conventional justice. This introduces an idea of comparative justice.

 

As Aristotle states, although conventional justice can manifest in many forms, there is a natural form of government that represents the ideal. Exploring and comparing different forms of government to identify the ideal system forms the central theme of Politics.

 

Defining a State

aristotle francesco hayez
Aristotle, by Francesco Hayez, 1811, via Gallerie dell’Accademia

 

In Book IV of Politics, Aristotle defines three core elements necessary for a state to exist. These constituent elements of a state are the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of a government. Many of the distinctions Aristotle identified between different constitutions related to different approaches to organizing these elements of the city-state. This theory would later be developed into a contemporary understanding of the separation of powers necessary within a liberal democracy, but in Politics, Aristotle’s distinction between these activities served to evaluate the merits of different constitutional frameworks.

 

Distinguishing Laws from Constitutions

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The Acropolis in Athens, via Encyclopedia Britannica

 

One clear distinction made in Politics is between laws and constitutions. A constitution in this text is defined as the way in which the essential functions of government are organized, as well as the state’s constituent parts and the aims of the state. Laws are defined more narrowly as a set of rules that are in effect within this constitutional framework. This differs from most modern definitions of a nation’s law and constitution. A constitution is seen as a set of fundamental principles that underpin a nation’s legal system. This reflects a broader definition of law. Aristotle’s definition categorizes a constitution as the organizational structure of a city-state while the law, in this text, is only the explicit set of rules that prohibit or proscribe activities.

 

In Book V, Aristotle ranks the forms of political constitutions identified in the previous book in the following order, from best to worst: polity, aristocracy, monarchy, democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny. Of these different constitutions, Aristotle considered tyranny, a government in which one individual ruled only in their own interests, as the worst option. Polity, a constitutional democracy, is described as encompassing democracy in its best form.

 

One of the reasons why Aristotle favors this system, which relies heavily on democratic rule, is the principle of the wisdom of crowds. This refers to the idea that a large group, though not necessarily experts in a topic, may arrive at a better conclusion than a single expert. This theory, in a governmental context, runs counter to the idea of the “Ship of the State” put forward in Plato’s Republic in which a single expert’s view is considered preferable to a larger group’s outlook in decision-making. Aristotle was the first philosopher to outline the concept of the wisdom of crowds, a concept which has since seen frequent discussion in relation to a wide range of subjects from jury theorems to quantity estimation.

 

Mixed Government

aristotle politics statue
Aristotle Statue at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, via Wikimedia Commons

 

One idea that is discussed within Politics is the idea of mixed government, a government that combines elements of different constitutional frameworks. At one point in the text, Aristotle discusses this within the context of democracy and oligarchy, describing a system combining the two that is no longer recognizable as either constitution individually. Many modern nations employ a form of mixed government with the United Kingdom governed through a constitutional monarchy and America governed through a republic. One benefit of mixed governments Aristotle discussed was increased stability, through the checks and balances provided by the different state institutions.

 

The Responsibilities of Legislative Government

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Powerful Athenian Politician, Pericles, Roman copy of Greek original, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In Book IV Aristotle outlined five responsibilities of the legislative government. These responsibilities relate to military decisions, political alliances, legislation, various penalties, and the appointment of public officials. Aristotle also defines the responsibilities, in more general terms, of the executive and judicial branches of government. Although not introducing the idea of a separation of powers, the intent is similar in describing a system where the focus is on ensuring stability and working to avoid the consolidation of power by an individual politician or institution.

 

The Rule of Law

view of acropolis rudolf muller aristotle politics
View of the Acropolis from the Pnyx, by Rudolf Muller, 1863, via the Benaki Museum

 

Whereas Plato’s Republic puts forward the idea of philosopher kings, who are equipped to rule on the basis of their virtue, Aristotle criticizes this approach. The central idea put forward in Politics is that a well-designed system can create a framework for a set of rules to engender virtue. Aristotle argued that the law could not apply to extraordinarily virtuous individuals stating “There can be no law governing people of this kind. They are a law in themselves.” Contrasting with Plato’s philosophy that a city-state should be ruled by these individuals, Aristotle argues for ostracism, as their power and influence could destabilize a city-state’s government.

 

This links to one of the reasons why Aristotle favors the mixed-government approach of a polity over a democracy. The argument is put forward that there is a risk that democracy can devolve into tyranny when demagogues gain power. Within a government with more checks and balances, it is less likely that an individual will reach a position where they are above the rule of law.

 

Aristotle stated that it is preferable for laws to govern a state than for citizens. In instances where it is necessary for there to be a “supreme authority”, Aristotle stated that they should be appointed as “servants of the law.” Although the phrase “the rule of law” would not be coined until the 16th century in Britain, the principle that all individuals within a state are subject to the law is a key principle underpinning Aristotle’s political philosophy.

 

Creating a Constitutional Order

the acropolis leo von klenze
The Acropolis At Athens, by Leo Von Klenze, 1846 via Neue Pinakothek

 

In Book V of Politics, Aristotle puts forward a series of steps for creating a constitutional order. In Book IV Aristotle discussed some of the factors that can give rise to instability in democracies, oligarchies, and aristocracies. The advice provided in Book V is intended to mitigate that instability. One recommendation advises what essentially amounts to a zero-tolerance policy on crime, arguing that when small legal infractions become widespread this undermines the credibility of the law. The argument made in Politics uses the analogy that a large object can be made up of numerous small constituent parts. This is known as the fallacy of composition stating that what is true of the individual components is true of the sum of its parts.

 

Another piece of advice in this section highlights one of the many differences in political philosophy between Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic. In Plato’s Republic, the concept of the Noble Lie is discussed, putting forward the argument that it is sometimes necessary for a state to lie to its citizens. Aristotle’s political philosophy differs from this view instead stating that a government should avoid misleading its citizens as this can risk increasing instability.

 

Additionally, Aristotle states that officials who develop a reputation for honesty should be rewarded. Honesty and integrity are presented as central axioms of a stable political system. Underlying many of the ideas presented within Politics is the concept of a social contract in which stability is contingent on an agreement of rights and responsibilities between individuals and the state.

 

The Lasting Influence of Aristotle’s Politics

aristotle politics bust
Marble bust of Aristotle, c. 330 BCE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Thousands of years after it was published Aristotle’s Politics remains a foundational text in Western philosophy having provided the groundwork for many modern works of political philosophy that followed. Discussions of concepts such as the rule of law and the stability of a constitution are still highly relevant in a modern context. Standing alongside Plato’s Republic as one of the most significant works to address theories of political philosophy from antiquity, the different viewpoints expressed in Politics reflect the diversity of political thought in classical Athens. Together these texts put forward a range of views that formed central points of discussion in arriving at a modern understanding of political theory.

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