amicitia


Why does Aristotle say in book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics that there are three good polities? What principle of division is he using, so that he comes up with three, rather than two or four? It is normally said that the difference lies in whether the rulers are one (kingship), a few (aristocracy), or many (‘timocracy’). This seems rather too vague to be a good philosophical division. Does ‘many’ mean 10% of the population? Or 25%? Or 50 %? And why should not these differing percentages also be said to yield different polities?

We do not normally divide actions into species by simply looking at how many people are performing them. For example, if we are asking what the species of farming are, we might say that they are arable, dairy, and mixed; but it would be strange to say that the species are farms run by one man, farms run by a family, and farms run by a village. It is true we might distinguish five-a-side football and eleven-a-side as two species of the game; but this is because the differing numbers mean that the games require different skills and strategies, not simply because the players are more and less. In the same way, acts of governing do not seem to be distinct simply because they are performed by different numbers of people.

Another problem with this explanation is that while kingship and aristocracy are corrupted by the one man or the few ruling selfishly, timocracy is said to be corrupted not by the many ruling badly but by the many being extended by the abolition of a property qualification to the all. But why is ‘rule by all’ not a fourth basic species that could be done well or badly, and why is rule by many-but-not-all not also able to be done well or badly?

Another problem is that Aristotle says that the three good polities are patterned on three basic forms of relationship within a family, namely, the paternal, the fraternal and the marital. This is easy to understand for kingship: the good father rules his sons as a good monarch. It is a bit harder to understand why he says that the fraternal relation provides the basis for timocracy: there is no property qualification needed for brothers to be able to relate to each other, and all of them are related to each other as brothers, so why not compare brothers rather to a democracy? And it becomes baffling for the marital relation: for it is not, it seems, the parental rule over the children which is aristocratic, but the husband’s rule over the wife. But since there is only one husband, how is this the pattern for aristocracy, if the essence of aristocracy includes having several rulers?

In the Politics, the key distinction between aristocracy/oligarchy and timocracy/democracy appears to be whether the rich or poor are governing. But this is hardly more satisfying, since how can monarchy/tyranny be fitted into this scheme, using the same principle of division? Again, how would the distinction between rule by the rich and rule by the poor be patterned after the distinction of marital and fraternal relations?

I suggest that the principle of division of polities is to be sought not per se in the number of those who wield supreme power, but in the different ways in which ‘ruling’ can be related to ‘being ruled’. What I mean is this: those who rule may simply rule and not be ruled; or they may both rule and be ruled, while those whom they rule are simply ruled; or they may both rule and be ruled, with none who are simply ruled. So we have:

(i) ruler

    ruled

This applies to monarchy, tyranny and (good and bad) fatherhood

(ii) ruler

     ruling-and-ruled

     ruled

This applies to aristocracy, oligarchy and marriage

(iii) ruling-and ruled

(ruled)

This applies to timocracy, democracy, brothers, and what Aristotle calls ‘dwellings without a master’ e.g. students in shared rented accommodation.

(i) is clear. The subjects of the king have no political authority, as the children have no authority over the household. But it is not essential to kingship that there be only one person with supreme authority; it is simply necessarily so with men, since the wills of more than one man will not always coincide. But the rule of the Blessed Trinity over creation is a monarchy, not an aristocracy.

(ii) is suggested by Aristotle’s remarks about oligarchy, namely that the few rulers ‘always assign ruling offices to the same people’. This doesn’t seem to mean just ‘to themselves’, but also ‘to their favourites’. So, in oligarchy, and in aristocracy, there will be those who are chosen by the rulers but who also themselves have ruling power. This corresponds to matrimony, in that the husband, as Aristotle puts it, ‘assigns what is fitting to each’, i.e. manly tasks to himself and womanly to his wife. The wife is ruled by her husband, but also rules; she has her own sphere of authority and initiative within the household, for example over the small children. The husband’s rule is, or should be, aristocratic, though he is only one man.

(iii)  is the remaining possibility. It is exemplified clearly enough by democracy, and in the case of brothers and of those who dwell in shared accommodation. At first site it is incompatible with timocracy, since in this polity those who do not meet the property requirement (originally, possession of heavy armour) are excluded from rule. I suggest though that this exclusion happens because it is assumed that those below this level will not have the sufficient manliness to be good rulers; hence, per accidens, some are found in this polity who are merely ruled.

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Part one is here.

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Part one is here.

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And there were concerns about violence before…

Part 1 is here.

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Part 1 is here.

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This comic was originally made for Berenike. It is a first attempt.

Dash it, Jim. I’m a doctor, not an artist.

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Is br Paul Coleman. He hath a blog. See that Eucharistic flash mob? That was him, that was.

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