Thursday, July 28, 2011

Monarchy, Aristocracy, . . . and Republic?

In Search of the Republic--2

In the previous post, I suggested that any inquiry into the idea of a republic must begin with Aristotle. The philosopher's classification of constitutions defined the terms of political debate for the next 2,300 years.

Aristotle defined a constitution as “the organization of the offices, and in particular of the one that is sovereign over all the others.” This differs from the concept of constitution that we have today. Modern Americans think of a written document which specifically creates the arrangement of offices and describes the powers invested in each office. Aristotle defined constitution as the arrangement of the offices themselves, whether or not any written document created them.


In addition, Aristotle distinguished between correct and deviant constitutions. He wrote:


“It is clear then that those constitutions which aim at the common good are right, as being in accord with absolute justice; while those which aim only at the good of the rulers are wrong. They are all deviations from the right constitutions.”



Aristotle identified three general types of correct constitutions with operate for the common good:

--Rule by one, called monarchy, that aims at the common good.

--Rule by the few, called aristocracy, in which the best men, or most virtuous, men rule for what is best for the state.The most virtuous are those who have developed the human virtues or excellencies described in his earlier work Ethics.  Aristotle's virtues included such moral virtues as courage, temperance, generosity, and amiability. They included such intellectual virtues as knowledge, intuition, skill, prudence, and wisdom.  As might be expected, Aristotle believed that an aristocracy was the best government. It is, after all, government by the best, or most virtuous.

--Rule by the many, called polity, in which the mass of the populace exercise power in the common interest. In contrast to the many virtues of the aristocrats, the only virtue possessed by the masses is military virtue. That is why, according to Aristotle, the “defensive element is the most sovereign body, and those who share in the constitution are those who bear arms.”

Aristotle observed that different city-states developed many variations of these three basic types of governments. Much of his text explored the different varieties of democracies and aristocracies.


Aristotle noted, however, that these correct constitutions degenerate into deviant forms in which those with the sovereign power no longer exercise it for the common good, but for the private good of the rulers. He defined three deviant constitutions:


--Rule by the one, called tyranny, or monarchy for the benefit of the monarch.

--Rule by the few, called oligarchy, for the benefit of men of means

--Rule by the many, called democracy, for the benefit of men without means.



Aristotle distinguished these constitutions by the ends that they serve, but Aristotle noted something in common when he elaborated on these constitutions from an economic perspective. Aristocracy is rule by "the best," but this usually means the rich. In this way it resembles an oligarchy. Polity is rule by the many, but  this usually means the poor. In this way, polity resembles a democracy. Correct and deviant constitutions resemble each other when compared economically. They differ dramatically when compared teleologically--what end or purpose do they serve.


What seems to be missing from his account?


A republic.


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