Monday, August 8, 2011

Aristotle's MIddle Class Republic

In Search of the Republic--5

Aristotle argued that the best possible constitution is one in which both the poor and the rich possess a share in constitution. He suggested that the best way to divide these shares was through an assembly without property qualifications in which all citizens, poor and rich participate in the lawmaking process, and through administrative offices to which the assembly elevates the best citizens by means of elections. The use of elections, according to Aristotle, introduces an element of aristocracy into a fundamentally democratic constitution.


Aristotle recognized, however, the existence of another segment of society—the middle class. He asked,


“What is the best constitution and what is the best life for the majority of states and the majority of men? We have in mind men whose virtue does not rise above that of ordinary people, and whose education does not depend on the luck either of their natural ability or of their resources."


He believed the middle orders of people serve to moderate the vices possess by the rich and the poor. “The former,” according to Aristotle, incline more to arrogance and crime on a large scale while the latter are more than averagely prone to wicked ways and petty crime.”

In addition, the middle orders of people are more secure from possessing the vices of covetousness and from becoming the victims of covetousness. “It is the middle citizens in a state who are the most secure: they neither covet, like the poor, the possessions of others, nor do others covet theirs as the poor covet those of the rich. So they live without risk, not scheming and not being schemed against.”

This helps prevent the rise of class based factions in the city-state. Class based factions plagued the Greek city-states and in many cases contributed to the degeneration of their democracies into tyrannies. In Aristotle's view, class based factions emerge when classes seek a larger share in the constitution based upon their particular version of justice. The poor claim that “those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are like free, therefore they claim that they are alike absolutely.” In contrast, the rich assume that “being unequal in wealth they assume themselves to be unequal absolutely.” Consequently, according to Aristotle, “whenever either side does not share in the constitution according to their fundamental assumption in each case, they form factions.”

In a constitution where “the middle element is large,” however, “there least of all arise factions and divisions among the citizens. And large states are freer from faction, from this same reason, namely that their middle element is large.”

Aristotle maintained that a such a well-mixed constitution will prove to be the longest lasting.


Although Aristotle's observations pertained to the city-states of his time, they possess some validity for contemporary America. The existence of our large middle class softens the class conflict between rich and poor. Such conflict has resulted in small changes to our constitution rather than convulsive, violent alterations. Consequently, we have the oldest written constitution in the world.


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