Examining Plato and Aristotle’s Political Regimes Structures Plato and Aristotle both understood the importance of wisdom and virtue in founding a good regime. In their writings, they suggest the effect they felt a ruler had on a regime and vice versa. Where Plato saw a linear slope of five increasingly misguided and degenerating regimes, Aristotle saw six regimes: three true and three corrupt. Each regime has a ruling political good. This will be more apparent in Plato’s Republic, but is also present in Aristotle’s Politics.
They agree that a good ruler will yield a good regime, but differ in their opinions of how the perfect regime should be managed. It’s important to note which people qualify as citizens and their status relative to the regime. Both philosophers set out to identify the capabilities and dynamics of all regimes and devise a way to achieve the best possible regime to channel human ambition and desire. Aristotle gives a number of definitions for regime, but the one most applicable would be “the way of life of a city as reflected in the end pursued by the city as a whole and by those constituting its governing body” (Politics, 94).
In the Politics, there are six distinct types of regimes presented. These regimes are separated into two categories, the ideal regimes and the perversion of those. The ideal regimes aim for the common good while their counterparts aim for the good a specific part of the regime. The true regimes are limited to kingship, aristocracy, and polity. The best regime of these regimes is kingship, or monarchy, which is ruled by the single person most fit to rule. The corrupted form of monarchy becomes tyranny. The next regime, aristocracy, is ruled by a few who possess a certain degree of wealth.
And once aristocracy is corrupted it becomes an oligarchy. In an oligarchic regime, those few who possess wealth rule with advantage to themselves and others who are well off. The final model of a true regime is polity. In this regime, the multitude is in power, and governs in a way fit to advance the common good. Aristotle says, “Because [polity] has not often existed, it is over looked by those who undertake to enumerate the kinds of regimes” (Politics, 129). Plato is among those political philosophers who don’t take into account this regime.
When the multitude is in power, but imposes laws that are to the advantage of the poor at the expense of the wealthy few, the regime becomes democracy. Additionally, Aristotle says that there are several kinds of democracy and oligarchy. For types of democracy, there exists one that is based on equality, another where offices are based on assessments, and still another where all take part in the offices, but law rules. Types of oligarchy include similar variations: one where offices are based on assessments but the poor do not share, another form where son succeeds father, and one where the officials rule rather than law.
These deviations of regimes are the result of the participation of the people’s different parts. The main difference in between the true and corrupt regimes is the idea of promoting the well being of all rather than particulars. Aristotle puts it, “Regimes which look to the common advantage are correct regimes according to what is unqualifiedly just, while those which look only to the advantage of rulers are errant, and are deviations from the correct regimes. ” (Politics, 95) In the Republic, Plato constructs a different arrangement of the regimes.
Although he includes most of the same regimes found in the Politics, Plato presents the ordering of regimes to be a slope as the result of natural deterioration. To help explain his structure, Plato represents each regime by comparing the regime to the type of soul that would be in that type of person. Book XIII lays out the inevitable stages a city will pass through, from best to worst. These stages form a slope starting out as aristocracy and ending in tyranny. Plato says the philosopher must rule in order to actually achieve the best regime.
The city in speech, which the Republic is a dialogue based on, must be ruled by the philosopher because only these men are truly able to understand the Forms. Timocracy, the regime that follows aristocracy, is no longer ruled by wise men; instead, spirited men, driven more by honor than virtue, are in command. The timocratic man is represented by the son of an aristocratic man who encourages the rational part of his son’s soul. But he is influenced by a bad mother and servants, who inspire in him the love of money.
This is the one type of regime not present in Aristotle’s account. After further corruption, the timocracy becomes an oligarchy followed by the even more dreadful democracy. These regimes are characterized by their motivation of necessary and unnecessary appetites respectively. In an oligarchic regime, love of wealth is the ruling political good in the city. Plato notes that this love of wealth creates two cities, “the city of the poor and the city of the rich, dwelling in the same place, ever plotting against each other” (Republic, 551d).
The soul of the oligarchic man can on reason about to preserve and increase his wealth. Only the fear of losing wealth prevents him from acting immorally. As the tension between rich and poor continues, the oligarchy suffers from “stinging drones,” or dangerous beggars and criminals that encourage each side to fear the other. These drones give the poor the idea that the rich are oligarchs and give the rich the idea that the poor plan to revolt. So convincing are the drones that eventually the ruling rich become so sure that the poor are planning to revolt, they limit the their freedoms.
Conditions become so bad that many in the city are driven into poverty. The poor see this as clear evidence oligarchs are ruling them and, lead by the drone that caused the situation to arise, they get rid of the rich. After the revolt, those left in the city attempt to establish order in the city but the want of freedom causes a lack of harmony; all things are shared on an equal basis and positions of power are given out with no regard for who is most fit. This resulting regime is a democracy, driven by unnecessary appetites.
The soul of the democratic man becomes aware of and caught up in all the lavish pleasures that money can buy; he desires to live every sort of life. Socrates says the democratic man calls “insolence good education; anarchy, freedom, wastefulness, magnificence; and shamelessness courage” (Republic, 560e). Tyranny is the last stage of the regime slope, being the worst regime of all. Plato explains that, like the love of wealth that characterized oligarchy and also causes its downfall, love of freedom is the cause of democracy becoming a tyranny. Tyranny, as the worst regime, corresponds with Aristotle’s structure.
Now that both philosopher’s regime structures have been laid out, we can identify who each thought would best lead the perfect regime and how each felt philosophy benefits political life. Plato believed that in order to be virtuous, one must know exactly what virtue is which required many years of study. The only one who could achieve this knowledge would be a philosopher. Some interpretations of the Republic emphasize that, instead of a literal blueprint for the perfect regime, it was more concerned with proposing the education that would bring out the best in people.
Plato acknowledges this unmistakably in this passage: “The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, of humanity itself, till philosophers are kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy come into the same hands… This is what I have hesitated to say so long, knowing what a paradox it would sound; for it is not easy to see that there is no other road to happiness, either for society or the individual. (Republic, 473d) Its clear from this that Plato felt political life, and life in general for that matter, should be guided by philosophers. By trusting our senses, we mistake our interpretations for fact. Philosophers who aim to understand the Forms are the only hope we have to escape from the cave where shadows on a wall seem like reality, according to Plato. In contrast to Plato’s appointment of philosophers as rulers, Aristotle would argue that instead, implementing the right laws is most necessary to rule the perfect city. For Aristotle, the laws represent all that is virtuous and just.
In the Politics Aristotle gives an account of Hippodamus that shows how laws can be put in place to govern a city more effectively than a ruler. However, there is criticism based on allowing only the military part of the city to hold arms. This has negative implications because “the generals and regime guardians and practically all the authoritative offices will necessarily be selected from among those possessing arms” (Politics, 71). It is dangerous for the authoritative element of a regime to be man rather than law because humans are subject to passions in the soul that cannot always be controlled.
It could be said that, later in his life, Plato wrote the Laws because he found laws more important than philosophers and accepted the impracticability of the city in speech. Aristotle notes that in the Laws, Plato even said, “the best regime should be made up of democracy and tyranny” (Politics, 66). And, while this doesn’t necessarily allude to laws surpassing philosophers, it does suggest Plato distanced himself from the ideology he promoted in the Republic. The Republic and the Politics illustrate similarities and differences in the way the authors present their spectrum of regimes.
The age between Plato and Aristotle could partially explain their differences in thinking. Aristotle understands that when people come together in common interest, the regime that guides their city will be relevant to interests of the people. He also felt that, instead of trying to create the best regime and implement it in a city, the city should naturally tend to what regime is most suited for its society. Plato, on the other hand, would advocate that before a city is formed, the spirited, calculative, and desiderative parts should be in order to avoid the risk of the ending up with a city that lacks proper virtues.
Because Plato believed in that each regime naturally degenerated, he assumed there was no way of working back to the previous regime; the city would have to continue through the slope. And while this is true, ultimately a society will find it most enduring and beneficial to employ a mixture of various regimes. Bibliography Aristotle. Politics. Ed. Carnes Lord. London: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Bloom, Allan. The Republic of Plato. New York: Basic Books, 1991.