Episode 60: Aristotle: What’s the Best Form of Government?

On Aristotle's Politics (350 BCE), books 1 (ch 1-2), 3, 4 (ch 1-3), 5 (ch 1-2), 6 (ch 1-6), and 7 (ch. 1-3, 13-15).

Aristotle provides both a taxonomy of the types of government, based on observations of numerous constitutions of the states of his time, and prescriptions on how to best order a state. These are meant to be practical; though he does spend some time on the "ideal" government, he recognizes that that's going to be very rare, given that it requires those in charge to be virtuous according to his stringent standards. He provides advice for all the types, whether rule by one, or the few, or the many, to help keep them stable and from drifting into their corrupt forms. He sees the state as a natural outgrowth of human nature, and that one can characterize the health of a state in much the way one can describe the health (i.e. virtue, happiness) of an individual. Yes, he's a major league elitist, but there's still some good stuff here, applicable even to modern times. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: "Don't Forget Where You Are," from the Mark Linsenmayer album Spanish Armada, Songs of Love and Related Neuroses (1993), newly remixed/remastered.

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  1. dmf says

    the question of the role of experts (and on the flip side deciding who if anyone is to be a ward of the state) in a democracy is a fascinating one, Obama is probably a kind of left-leaning technocrat, and the related question as to can one really be an “informed” citizen (how much should I know about say economics or science or diplomacy or such to make reason-able choices?).
    Also is there a field of study that is “politics” in the way that there is say math or chemistry (not that those are entirely settled), that one can have a philosophy or science about?


  2. Tim says

    Aristotle’s ideas about what constitutes a state reminded me of Carl Schmitt’s definition of politics as the distinction between friend and enemy. Schmitt, by the way, would be an excellent choice if you’re looking for more modern political philosophy. “Political Theology” and “The Concept of the Political” are both relatively short (the book versions are padded out with lengthy intros) and are both dense with provocative ideas. Schmitt has been called the “Hobbes of the 20th century,” but listening to this made me realize he may owe as much to Aristotle. All three could rightfully be called authoritarians, and though I find Schmitt’s own political position deplorable, his critique of liberalism is compelling and convincing.

    For topics like these, I think it might be interesting to take more of a “history of ideas” perspective. You guys didn’t talk much about what influence this work had on future political thinkers. When you were discussing the idea of people being “natural slaves” and how slavery might be beneficial to those naturally suited to it, I couldn’t help but think of the same arguments made later by pre-Enlightenment thinkers such as Bacon and his peers, who tended to view “the rabble” as naturally pre-disposed to crime, and supported convicts being forced into labor as part of the effort to settle the New World.

  3. Dave says

    I understand the hang up about slavery and wanting to dwell on it. But, I wish a connection would be made to the modern era and how we can have slaves on an ethical level. I mean: machines, computers, internet and robots (Is this naive?)

    Societies productivity with all our “advancements” must be through the roof in comparison to 100 years ago, but it seems we are working harder than ever. Or actually, now, working for the machines. The slaves are now in control, as we run to answer our cell phones, computers dictate schedules and cameras takes pictures and punish us when we go through a red light.

    We should be working three day work weeks and not focusing on making widgets but contemplating the essence of things. It seems these elitists like Aristotle lived better then people today.

    And with, arguably, the largest number ever of educated people in the world today, we should be utilizing that human potential and tapping in to it for all its worth. Seems like lots of smart people are wasting time in cubicles making materialistic things that have no real value long term.

    I don’t need a phone with 50 options I will never use. Give me a phone with 1 option and a three day work week for the guy who has to make it.

  4. Dave says

    I guess I wasn’t clear. Have the machines be the slaves and pick up the workload. This has already happened at a certain level, but why isn’t the average human being working less?

    We don’t have to worry about the ethics of making a robot work as a slave.

    • dmf says

      gotcha, but in fact many people aren’t working at all and partly because they have been replaced by machines (and or machine driven economies) and now are unneeded (and aren’t likely to become computer engineers to get back in the market).
      I think the guys are working towards a Marx episode where the questions of work, value, and citizenship are likely to be addressed.
      on that above site is an interesting talk about how machines do or do not fit in with our other social systems: http://edge.org/conversation/a-new-kind-of-social-inspired-technology

  5. says

    Great episode, guys. You were preternaturally on topic, and this loyal listener appreciated it!

    So … the slavery thing did provide one very legitimate avenue for exploration, the idea that some folks are “naturally” slavish, and others not. This seems to me to comment on the idea that our social standing is solely determined by our virtues, and not accident of birth. Making the link between slavery and social class in liberal America might seem a stretch (someone above mentions wage slaves), but I would argue the Aristotelian argument provides a comfortable basis for the sense of deserving (entitlement). Arguing that some are naturally slavish is the same argument that some are naturally masterly. I don’t think either is settled in the 21st century.

  6. Vasili says

    Great podcast on Aristotle. It is fascinating is how his teleological model of organic growth from kinship through the development of division of labour echoes evolutionary ideas about state formation much more than social contract theories. An interesting divergence might be to look at Pierre Clastres’ notion of “societies against the state”, small-scale societies of hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists who have developed social institutions that seem to be designed to prevent political centralization that would lead to higher level political integration and structures of coercive power. Clastres’ specifically refutes the idea “that the state is the ultimate and logical destiny of all societies.”

    There is also a puzzling omission in Aristotle’s typology of different forms of state: theocracy. There is a rich literature on phenomena like sacred kingship and religious hierarchies in archaeology and anthropology. Aristotle’s explanation of what a state is seems very much like a functionalist account of power relations in comparison. Surely he could not have been unaware of such institutions.

    • Profile photo of Dylan Casey says

      I think he’d put sacred kingship and religious hierarchies squarely under kingship and oligarchy/aristocracy. They might be yet another flavors of those types, but I don’t see that they aren’t minor variations.

      • Ryan says

        This is only true in so far as monarchies historically have almost all been theocratic, they pretty much come hand in hand, but how could you assume that a completely secular society would only be a minor variation from a religious one? It has been one of the most divisive differences of all time. Personally I would much prefer to be living under a secular autocratic state than our “religiously free” pseudo-spiritual nihilist democracy.

      • Vasili says

        You are probably right about him seeing them as subcategories. But I’d argue, like Ryan but for different reasons I assume, that they aren’t just variations of those types. Whether Aristotle would have seen this or not is an interesting question, especially since his typology is so influential. Did he leave religion out in order to avoid metaphysical entanglements?

        The functionalist explanation about the role of religion in emergence of archaic states is that it gives a metaphysical justification to those in positions of instrumental power. Multiple interlinked factors like ecological pressure, growing population density, warfare, the need to produce surplus in order to maintain a complex division of labour, which in turn is needed to organize large scale public works like irrigation that enable the production of surplus etc. all contribute to the emergence of social stratification (a classic example is Karl Wittfogel’s hydraulic despotism). Centralization of power is a sort of necessary evil and can lead to good or bad result depending on how selfish the leaders are.

        There’s certainly some truth to this view, but there are important interpretations that do not see kingship in terms of political power or organization of production. Starting with James Frazer’s Golden Bough, certain forms of divine kingship and status hierarchy are seen to be about religious status not secular authority. The king is not so much a leader as a religious object that represents the society in its totality, and on whose physical perfection the prosperity of the people and nature depends. Such kings are burdened by ritual taboos (remember the Doors song “Not to Touch the Earth”) and often trapped in their palaces. In some cases the king is put to death if he starts to show signs of physical imperfection, old age, or impotence.

        Clifford Geertz’s Negara: The Theater State in 19th Century Bali is a great example of a non-functionalist analysis of kingship. Bali was divided into related petty princedoms that competed within an internal status hierarchy. The princes used all the Machiavellian strategies at their disposal to rise in rank, but as they did so, they became further removed from the worldly machinations that elevated their sacred status. What remained were divine status and royal ceremony and pomp. The conventional view of such ceremony and pomp is that it serves to validate power. Geertz’s counterintuitive account of the status competition flipped this on its head, power was only a means to the pomp; the theatrics of the state weren’t a tool to fool the rabble but an end in itself. In fact the villages were able to regulate their complex irrigation works autonomously without the interference of the princes. The princes didn’t fight for land and resources but for the loyalty of the people who benefitted from the cosmological significance of their “leaders”.

        Of course religion has also been used to validate the rule of oppressive regimes. And as Ryan said religion and monarchies are intimately linked. “Kingship everywhere and at all times has been in some degree a sacred office. Rex est mixta persona cum sacerdote.” (E.E. Evans-Pritchard)

      • Profile photo of Dylan Casey says

        I wouldn’t necessarily consider Aristotle a simple secular rationalist, though I agree with Vasili that what his particular views are on the matter aren’t likely to be very interesting.

        I don’t agree that I’m dismissing the religious/secular distinction. I do consider both to present views of what counts as authority, both with respect to the individual and the community. The argument between religious and secular rule is one about the seat, reach, and content of authority. Just because your understanding of authority might involve obligation/responsibility doesn’t mean that it isn’t an understanding of authority.

        I’m not sure I buy the distinction being made by Geertz, but, then again, I haven’t read him.

        As far as living in a secular autocratic state, there are a number to choose from if one wants to live there.

        • Vasili says

          I have to disagree. What is at stake here is the nature of power in these different systems and its role in social hierarchy. This is fundamental. Obviously all authority entails obligations and responsibilities. But the argument that kingship in these types of states is not about administration or centralization of instrumental or coercive power is controversial for a reason. It goes again many deeply engrained assumptions about political integration, techno-environmental determinism, social inequality, and the nature of rank in stratified societies. I don’t think the difference can be simply eliminated by reference to seat, reach, and content of authority (though the last could mean anything).

          I’m not sure what you mean by not buying the distinction made by Geertz, but it’s certainly a distinction that has significance to the way societies are conceptualized. In contrast to Geertz, materialistically oriented theories tend to explain state ritual in functionalist terms, for example as “costly signaling”.

          There is interesting literature on diarchy that relates to the separation of religious authority and secular power.

          • Vasili says

            If by a remote chance anyone happens to be interested in the topics of kingship or hierarchy I’ll recommend a few books:
            The Character of Kingship (2005) edited by Declan Quigley follows the tradition of Frazer and Hocart (it contains discussion of institutionalized regicide).

            Geertz on the other hand was drawing from the theories of Louis Dumont (Homo Hierarchicus). Dumont’s ideas are further developed in, for example, Hierarchy: Persistence and Transformation in Social Formations (2008) edited by Rio and Smedal.

  7. Dyami Hayes says

    Kudos to smaller file size. But overall this podcast was pretty uninspiring. Seemed like a bunch of head-nodding over dialogue, and vague sweeping strokes instead of the depth you guys reach in other episodes.

    I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt nonetheless, and maneuver my malcontent in the general direction of Aristotle and his work.


  1. […] Like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate. Even so, Bertrand Russell’s prose is entertaining enough to make this audio chapter on Aristotle’s Politics a worthwhile supplement to PEL’s Politics episode. […]

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