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.

Formerly, when the father of a family voted, he did so as the head of his household. The household as such was thus represented in the counsels of the nation. What should we think of an army where the commander-in-chief would take advice from the lower ranking officers but not, on principle, from the higher-ranking officers who have charge of these? We should say that the army was functioning badly, and that its proper hierarchical requirements were being ignored. How much more incongruous, since contrary to a more basic and universal hierarchy, for a State to seek to be directed by private citizens and not by heads of families. The family is the cell of the State; that is, it is the only natural society that exists beneath the level of the State. So it is a disorder to give some authority over the State to a private citizen while denying any authority over the State, in principle, to the family.

A film is coming out, or maybe has already come out, about the suffragettes. I wonder how many of those who oppose the abolition of marriage that has recently taken place in formerly Christian countries would be willing to trace the problem back to female suffrage. Yet the link seems clear.

The ‘same-sex marriage’ advocates require two things: a denial of the complementarity of the sexes, except in the most obvious physical sense, and a denial of the family as a natural society. Female suffrage achieved both things. First of all, it reduced people’s sense of the complementarity of the sexes by giving man and woman in principle an identical role in the direction of public affairs, contrary to the innate tendency of man to act primarily within the public sphere and woman primarily within the private sphere. Secondly, it took away from the man the power to represent his family in the State, and therefore weakened the idea that the family is not the creature of the State.

Politically speaking, female suffrage pulverised the family. The husband and wife may well vote in opposite directions, and then their family for all practical purposes has no voice. But even if this does not happen, their family ceases to have any organic place in the State; it is changed into two isolated individuals who have no more relation to each other than if one were voting at Land’s End and the other at John o’ Groats.

But who will chain herself to the railings in Downing St and demand change?

It does not seem as if God was very keen to give the Israelites a king. The first man to call himself a king in scripture was Nimrod. God told the Israelites He was their king. When they insisted, He told Samuel they were rejecting God Himself and not just His prophet. Of course, in the end, He would assume human nature through the line of David and so cut the Gordian knot tied out of His complaint to Samuel and His promise to David. Jesus Christ, son of David and King of Israel is alive and reigning with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God forever and ever. Christians have no need for any other King. In fact, as if to confirm this line of reasoning, God chose the Roman Commonwealth as the vehicle by which He translated the covenant to the gentiles, the polity of a people with a very special loathing for the name of ‘King’ whose monarchical ruler, for all his vast power, did not dare to adopt the title.

One thing, however, troubled me about this analysis. Albeit the so-called ‘Divine Right of Kings’ is a particularly Protestant superstition, still there is a slightly Protestant ring to the argument given above. It is too similar to the argument against Christian priests: that Christ is the one true priest offering the all-sufficient sacrifice. Yet, it seems as if there is room for a Christian kingship just as there is room for a Christian priesthood without validating the Ancien Regime. Although we acknowledge that the Bishop possesses the fullness of the ministerial priesthood of the new covenant, it is not the Bishop but the Presbyter whom we habitually mean by the term Sacerdos. Christ is Prophet, Priest and King and the Christian is called to be Alter Christus. It would seem as if the religious, clergy and laity exemplify each of those charisms. On that basis it is the monk, the presbyter and the father who are, in the new dispensation, most properly, after Jesus, referred to as prophet, priest and king. Only secondarily do we apply these titles to the theologian, the prelate and the politician. As Leo XIII taught,

“The rights here spoken of, belonging to each individual man, are seen in much stronger light when considered in relation to man’s social and domestic obligations. In choosing a state of life, it is indisputable that all are at full liberty to follow the counsel of Jesus Christ as to observing virginity, or to bind themselves by the marriage tie. No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage ordained by God’s authority from the beginning: ‘Increase and multiply.’ Hence we have the family, the ‘society’ of a man’s house – a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.”

– Rerum Novarum §12

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