Aristotle’s Politics: Oligarchy and Democracy Short Summary

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In Aristotle’s Politics, he focuses much on the regimes of an oligarchy and of democracy. Democracies exist when the free and poor, being a majority, have the authority to rule, and have an equal share in the city. Oligarchies exist when the few wealthy and better born have authority and grant benefits in proportion to a person’s wealth (1280a:10-30;1290a:5-10).

Within each regime, there are the farmer, the working element and craftsmen, the marketing element and traders, the laboring element, the warrior element, the priests (Aristotle skips this sixth element but suggests this possibility), the rich, and the magisterial (1290b:40; 1291a:5-35). Within regimes are two distinctive classes and forms of government which are the well off and the poor. While the well off are few and the poor are many, these parts of the city oppose the other. Regimes are instituted accordingly on the basis of the sorts of preeminence associated with these which holds to be two sorts of regimes: democracy and oligarchy (1291b:5-10). Within the two regimes, there are several kinds of both the people and of the notables. Within the people, there are the farmers, those engaged in the arts, the marketing element, the element connected with the sea, the menial elements having little property, and the free element. Within the notables, there are kinds distinguished by wealth, good birth, virtue, education, and whatever is spoken of as based on the same sort of difference as these (1291b:20-30).

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Aristotle defines five different kinds of democracy. First, everyone is equal by law regardless of wealth and majority rules. Second, there is a modest minimum property qualification to hold public office. Third, only the nobly born hold public office, but the law rules. Fourth, anyone can hold public office, but the law rules. Lastly, anyone can hold public office and the multitude of rules, not the law. The last form is vulnerable to becoming demagoguery of the majority (1291b:30-40;1291a:5-10).

In addition, he defines four different kinds of oligarchy. First, there is a minimum property qualification for holding public office. Second, there is a high property qualification for holding public office and they themselves elect in filling vacancies. Third, public office is hereditary and the son succeeds the father. Fourth, public office is hereditary and those in power rule, not the law. The last form is vulnerable to becoming a dynasty (1292a:40;1292b:5-10).

Aristotle then goes on to discuss a constitutional government known as a polity, which can mix democracies and oligarchies by either becoming a combination of the two, a mean between the two, or a mixture of elements taken from each (1294a:35-40;1294b:5). In a democratic regime, public offices are chosen by lot and not on a basis of assessment. In an oligarchic regime, public offices are elected and on the basis of assessment. The defining principle of a good mixture of a democracy and oligarchy is a polity in which each of the extremes is revealed in it and is held to be both and neither (1294b:5-35).

In addition to the well off and the poor, there is also a third element known as the middling class. While some of the well off only know how to rule, some of the poor only know how to be ruled and be slaves. Thus, the middle class is the most stable and best of all as they do not desire the things of others, as the poor do, nor other their things, as the poor desire those of the wealthy. As a result of not being plotted against or plotting against others, they remain free from factionalism (1295b:5-30).

In an oligarchy, the rich are fined for not participating in the assembly, public office, law courts, army, and athletics. Thus, the rich are encouraged to participate while the poor have no motivation to do so. Democracies practice the opposite by paying the poor but not the rich for participating in civic activities. A mean between the two would be to find the rich and reward the poor in order to encourage participation from both (1297a:15-40).

Regarding the civic government, there are three elements. These consist of the deliberative, executive, and judicial elements. While a democracy permits all people to be involved in these matters, an oligarchy permits only a select group to be involved (1298a:5-40).

In a democracy where the people have authority over the law, it is advantageous in deliberating and assemblies to arrange a fine for nonattendance of those they want to have adjudicated to ensure that they do adjudicate, while the popular sort pays for the poor. Thus, all will deliberate better when they do so in common. It is also advantageous for those who deliberate to be chosen by election or blot in equal numbers from the parts of the city. In addition, where the popular sort among the citizens greatly exceed the notables in number, it is advantageous to either no provide pay for all but only for as many as will balance the multitude of notables, or exclude the excess by lot from participating (1298b:15-25).

In an oligarchy is it advantageous to either elect additionally certain persons from the multitude to serve as officials, or to establish an official board of preliminary councilors or law guardians and to have a popular assembly that will take up only that business which in concerned with the preliminary council. This allows a way for the people to share in deliberating but will not be able to overturn anything connected to the regime. It is also advantageous to give the multitude authority to veto measure but not to pass their own (1298b:30-40).

In addition to the three elements of civic government, there are eight different kinds of courts. Within these courts, those that are selected from all that decides on all matters make up democracy and those selected from some to decide on all matters make up an oligarchy (1300b:20;1301a:15).

We’ve now progressed into what causes constitutions to change. While Democrats believe that all freeborn people are equal, oligarchs believe that inequality in wealth implies inequality as a whole. Thus, the well off and the poor engage in factional conflict (1301a:30-40). Revolutions can occur in two ways. Sometimes factional conflict is with a view to the regime in the sense that it will transform from one to the other, such as democracy to oligarchy and oligarchy to democracy. There also may be factional conflicts concerning more or less, such as a more or less oligarchic run or less or more or less democratic run. There also may be a factional conflict with a view to changing a part of the regime, such as abolishing a certain office

Aristotle defines three causes of factional conflict. First, is a state of mind that leads someone to form a faction. Second, is what can be gained or lost in forming a faction. Third, are the causes of political disputes leading to factions (1302a:20). In democracies, factional conflict only arises between the poor majority and the few rich. In oligarchies, two sorts of factional conflicts arise, on against each other and the other against the people. In addition, there are eleven potential causes of constitutional change which can lead to a revolution. They include profit, honor, arrogance, fear, preeminence, contempt, the disproportion of growth, electioneering, underestimation, neglect of small things, and dissimilarity (1302a:35-40;1302b).

In oligarchies, many engage in factional conflict because they believe they are done an injustice for not partaking of equal things in spite of being equal. In democracies, the notables engage in factional conflict because they partake of equal things although they are not equal (1303b:5-10). Democracy is most likely to be overthrown when it devolves into demagoguery and leads a crusade against the rich. In some cases, the rich are exiled but later return, defeat the people in battle, and form an oligarchy. Democracies also undergo revolution wherever offices are chosen by election (1304b:20-35;1305a:30). Oligarchies can be changed when the poor or others who have been mistreated and excluded from the government fight back or from within from the impoverishment of certain members or a formation of an inner and even more elite circle. In addition, revolutions in oligarchies occur when they expend their private wealth in wanton living as well as by accident when the city as a whole becomes much wealthier, allowing a great many more people to meet the property requirement that makes an individual eligible for office (1305a:40;1305b:5-40;1306b:10-15).

Aristotle goes on to explain how the constitutions may be preserved. He recommends that the ruling part always is on guard against the beginning point of destruction, never tries to deceive the masses, treat everyone well and fairly, with great respect to those outside the constitution, develops a state of emergency so that people will not attempt to revolt, prevent in-fighting between notables, ensure that the property assessment for office remains proportionate to the wealth of the city, be cautious not to award great promotions or significant withdrawals of honor too suddenly, be guarded of a class on this rise and give power to either the opposing or middle class, prevent the public office from becoming a source of profit, and offer special consideration to the rich in a democracy and the poor in an oligarchy (1308a:5-40;1308b:5-40;1309a:5-30).

Those who are going to rule in authoritative offices ought to have three things. First, affection for the regime. Second, a great capacity for the work involved in the ruling. Third, they should have virtue and justice (1309a:35). In addition, is it crucial that a majority in the city be in favor of the constitution and that the constitution refrain from being too extreme, yet strive to be more of the middling element? Most important of all is the education relative to the regimes in the spirit of the constitution as being bound to a constitution can be liberating rather than enslaving (1309b:15-30;1310a:5-30).

Within a democracy, there are two reasons for several different sorts. One is an equal interchange between ruling and being ruled by all freeborn citizens. is the freedom to do what one wants in which one would not be ruled at all. If the government became necessary, an equal interchange would arise. Both share the principle of equality of all people, regardless of wealth or merit (1317b:5-15). Aristotle claims the best regime is made up of farmers since they work hard and are well spread apart so they can’t spend much time in government. The worst kind of democracy is made up of shopkeepers, mechanics, and laborers since they are all crowded around the city center and are very active in politics (1318b:10-20;1319a:25-30).

Like democracies, oligarchies also thrive when ruled in moderation. While the wealthy should hold higher offices, the poor should still be able to hold some of the lower offices. In addition, wealthy officers should be obliged to perform significant public service in order to hold office, gaining respect for the poor. Oligarchies thrive most in cities with a strong cavalry or heavy infantry, whereas cities with light infantrymen or naval forces thrive more in democracies (1320b:20-35).

Aristotle’s advice to democracies and oligarchies teaches us to tend toward the middle instead of to the extremes in politics. Whether it be the few or the many in power, the goal is to please the majority and give everyone an opportunity to participate in politics at varying levels. Different political make-ups call for different laws and constitutions that will best fit the well off, the middle class, and the poor.

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Aristotle’s Politics: Oligarchy and Democracy Short Summary. (2017, Jan 13). Retrieved from

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