Sunday, August 7, 2011

Aristotle Invents the Republic

In Search of the Republic--4

Unlike his teacher Plato, Aristotle never composed a book called The Republic.

He did describe, however, a kind of government that later assumed that name. He called it a polity.

By polity Aristotle meant a popular government that rules in the common interest of the city-state. The best means of crafting such a constitution is to include both poor and rich in the administration of the state.

Aristotle proposed several ways to accomplish this. First, the laws could require the state to pay the poor for attending and to fine the rich for not attending the meetings of the assembly. This would encourage participation of both orders. Second, the laws could assess a small property requirement for participation in the assembly. This requirement might increase the influence of the more affluent, educated members of the city-state. Finally, the laws could divide the different parts of the government between the different orders.

Aristotle suggested the laws establish a popular assembly with no property qualifications to insure the poor a share in the constitution. In contrast, he suggested a property qualification for the offices of the state. Moreover, instead of filling of offices by lot, as was the case in most democracies, they should be filled by elections. In this way, the people might choose those they believed best to rule for the common interest of the city-state. This introduces an aristocratic element into the constitution.

This constitution, which Aristotle called not the ideal but the best obtainable, mixes democracy and aristocracy. Under such a constitution, the mass of the people would dominate the assembly and the judicial element, while the aristocrats or notables would dominant the offices that managed the city-state between meetings of the assembly. With both groups enjoying a share in the constitution, perhaps they both would seek to rule for the common good. Because both orders shared the government, it reduced the likelihood of one order or the other forming a faction.
It was this idea of a mixed regime that came to be identified as a republic and which endured until the time of the founding of the United States.

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