Aristotle's Politics

Aristotle's Politics Summary and Analysis of Book III

Chapter 1

The first matter of investigation is the definition of citizenship. Different regimes define citizenship in different ways. Some are citizens only in a qualified sense‹like children who are not old enough to participate in the affairs of the city or elders who have been relieved are their civic duties. In an unqualified sense, the citizen is one who shares in holding office and making decisions. This type of citizen in the unqualified sense really only exists in a democracy. In general, one can say that whoever is entitled to participate in an office‹even if he actually does not do so‹is a citizen.

Chapter 2

Commonly speaking, however, a citizen is usually defined as a person whose parents are both citizens. There can be difficulty in this definition, however, as regards those who came to be citizens after a revolution. There is a question of whether such people are citizens justly or unjustly.

Chapter 3

The question is often raised regarding when a city as a whole actually performed action, particularly when it is a question of whether the city has a duty to fulfill public agreements after a change of regime. The deeper issue at stake in this question is what it means for a city to change. One possible criteria to look at is location, but that is rather superficial. A more serious consideration is whether a city remains the same even though its inhabitants change through birth and death. The answer is that one can only really decide whether the city is the same by looking at the regime. As long as the regime stays the same, the city is bound to uphold its commitments.

Chapter 4

A connected matter is the examination of the virtue of a good man in comparison with that of a good citizen. A citizen is somewhat like a sailor, one among a number of partners on a ship, each with different tasks and functions. Although each has a specific virtue according to his capacity and duty on the ship, there is also a general virtue similar to them all, which is the preservation of the ship. In a similar way, the virtue of the citizen is with a view to the regime. It is possible, therefore, for a person to be an excellent citizen yet not an excellent man. Will the virtue of the citizen ever be the same as the virtue of a human being? The virtue of a citizen is the capacity to rule and to be ruled. The virtue of an excellent man would be simply the capacity to rule, not to be ruled. However, there are different types of rule. There is the rule which is proper to a slave, but there is also the type of rule over those who are "similar in stock and free." This is political rule, which can be learned only by being ruled. Therefore the good citizen will need to know both how to rule and to be ruled. The good person must have this same capacity as well. The only virtue peculiar to a ruler is prudence, while all other virtues are common for both rulers and ruled.

Chapter 5

Are only those who may participate in public office true citizens? If a person who is not eligible for office is considered a citizen, then the virtue of a citizen will have to vary depending on the person's status in society. There are several kinds of citizens, corresponding to the different types of regimes. In a democratic regime, laborers must be citizens, while in aristocratic regime citizenship is granted only in accordance with virtue and merit. In an oligarchy, on those who are wealthy are citizens. In one type of city the virtue of the excellent man and the excellent citizen is the same, but in another it is not.

Chapter 6

The next point of discussion is the different types of regimes. A regime is "an arrangement of a city with respect to its offices," particularly the governing body. It has already been established that "man is by nature a political animal." Men come together into a political partnership both for the sake of living and for the sake of living well. Mastery is different from political rule in that mastery is exercised primarily with a view to the advantage of the master, while political rule should be exercised with a view to the advantage of the city as a whole. Those regimes which look to the common good are correct regimes, and those regimes which look to the advantage of the rulers are unjust, because such regimes involve mastery, and "the city is a partnership of free and equal persons."

Chapter 7

Now it is time to specify which are the correct regimes and which are the deviant regimes. The regime is defined according to composition of its governing body, or authoritative element. The correct regimes are kingship‹rule by one, aristocracy‹rule by a few, and polity‹rule by the multitude. The deviations from those regimes are, respectively, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.

Chapter 8

To elaborate on the nature of these regimes, we find that tyranny is the rule of a master, oligarchy is the rule of those who have property, and democracy is the rule of the poor. The essential difference between democracy and oligarchy is the accidental distribution of wealth. In reality, however, it always happens that the majority are poor and only a few are wealthy. The cause of dispute between democracy and oligarchy is that while some are poor and others rich, all are free.

Chapter 9

To determine the different claims to rule made in democracies and oligarchies, it is necessary to examine views regarding justice and equality. Justice is equality for equals and inequality for those who are unequal. People do not realize this, however, because they are poor judges concerning themselves. Oligarchs suppose that because people are unequal in one thing‹wealth‹they are unequal in everything, while democrats suppose that because people are equal in freedom they are equal generally.

The city exists "not only for the sake of living but rather primarily for the sake of living well." Consequently, "virtue must be a care for every city." The city is not just a group of persons in a common location, living together to avoid committing injustices against one another and to transact business. While all of those things are part of city, there is also something more. "The city is the partnership in living well . . . for the sake of a complete and self-sufficient life." Therefore the political partnership is not aimed merely toward living together but toward living nobly. Those who contribute most to this partnership are consequently those who are most virtuous. The dispute over what type of regime there should be is, at its core, always a dispute about justice.

Chapter 10

One major question is what part of the city should constitute the authoritative element. If the majority rules and distributes the wealth of the minority among itself, the city will be destroyed. If the minority of the wealthy rule, they will rob the multitude. If the respectable rule, all the others will be deprived of a share in ruling. If only one best person rules, even more are deprived of the prerogatives of ruling. It is best for law, rather than a human being, to have ultimate authority, because human beings are too easily swayed by their passions.

Chapter 11

The multitude does have some claims to rule. Joined together, in certain areas the multitude may have virtue than one excellent man. The many are good judges of things such as music and poetry. By looking at the areas in which the multitude has the advantage in judging one can determine the ares in which the multitude should have authority. Allowing the multitude to take the highest governing offices is unsafe, but depriving them of all authority will surely lead to rebellion or at least serious factional conflict. Therefore the multitude should share in deliberating and judging‹i.e. choosing officials and auditing them. At the same time, however, it can be argued that those who know how to rule are also those who have the best knowledge of how to choose who should rule. However, the multitude does have some capability for justice, and taken together their opinion may be valuable.

First and foremost, it is undeniable that laws‹"correctly enacted"‹should have more authority than the ruler or ruling body. Deciding whether or not laws are correctly enacted depending on the regimes to which they belong. Laws enacted in accordance with the correct regimes are just, and those enacted in accordance with the deviant regimes are unjust.

Chapter 12

"The political good is justice, and this is the common advantage." Justice is considered to be a certain sort of equality, but what remains to be determined is what sort of equality and equality in what things. Persons preeminent in some things may not be preeminent in others, and some things are more of claim to honor and merit than others. The well-born, the free and the wealthy deserve some sort of honor.

Chapter 13

With regard to a good life, education and virtue above all deserve honor and merit. Different parts of the regime each have different claims to rule. The wealthy have a greater part of the territory, the free well-born naturally have claim to honor, the virtuous have a claim as well, and the majority has a claim to rule on the basis of its being superior and wealthier taken together. Logically, there is difficulty in claiming that the wealthiest have the claim to rule, because then it would make the most sense simply to have the wealthiest person rule. If virtue is the claim to rule, then why should not the most virtuous person rule alone? And if the multitude deserves to rule because it is superior to the few, why should not the most superior person rule alone? One can therefore see that none of these claims to rule are altogether correct, though they are partially correct. If one person (or small group) is so superior to the rest that the virtues of all the other citizens are incommensurable, then that person is not part of the city. Such a person would be "like a god among human beings." Legislation has to deal with those who are "equal both in stock in capacity." For this reason, democratic cities ostracize those who excel in virtue, because they pursue equality as the highest good. Because it is for the common good, ostracism does involve a certain political justice, although it is best if the regime is constructed in such a way that such ostracism is not necessary. In the best regime, if a person so preeminent in virtue appears the only proper reaction would have to be for everyone to obey him and to make him king.

Chapter 14

Now let us investigate kinship. There are five types of kingship. The first is from the times of the heroes, which is hereditary, based on law, and for certain fixed purposes. The second is the barbaric, which is similar to the rule of a household. The third is dictatorship, or elective tyranny. The fourth is permanent generalship based on family, as in the Spartan regime. The fifth is when one person has absolute authority over all matters.

Chapter 15

Is it more advantageous to be ruled by the best man or by the best laws? The best man will be able to deliberate well regarding particular matter, while law is necessarily based on general principles and cannot specify each case. Should the one best person rule, or should all rule? A group may be better able to judge something correctly than a single person, and a group is more difficult to corrupt. However, a multitude will inevitably have factional conflict. The rule of those who are excellent in soul‹an aristocracy‹is better than kingship.

Chapter 16

Absolute kingship is unjust if the persons ruled are equal to the ruler. When all are equal, the only just situation is to rule and be ruled in turn. But that arrangement is simply the rule of law. Therefore the rule of law is preferable to the rule of a single citizen. Having law rule is like having the intellect rule without interference from appetite. Having a person rule allows desire and appetite to affect decisions.

Chapter 17

Perhaps it is true that for a certain people kingship would be the best type of rule, but for those who are similar and equal kingship is unjust. Still, when it happens that one person turns out to be preeminent in virtue and outstanding from all the rest, that person should be made king.

Chapter 18

In the best city, the virtue of the excellent man is identical to the virtue of the excellent citizen.


Book III is, thematically speaking, probably the central book of the Politics. In this book Aristotle lays out almost all of his major ideas about the purpose of politics, the virtue of citizens, the varieties of regimes and the nature of justice.

Aristotle discusses at length a seemingly very technical question of what the true definition of a citizen ought to be. The reason that this issue merits such exhaustive treatment is that definition of a citizen depends greatly on one's underlying assumptions about the nature of politics and also has a strong influence on one's idea of the best regime. Being a citizen is not, for Aristotle, simply a formal legal status, but implies very specific political rights and duties. A citizen in an unqualified sense is one who has a share in ruling the city. This definition underscores Aristotle's belief that politics is essentially about debate and deliberation regarding what is just. Those who participate in politics‹the citizens‹can only really do so if they have a share in the city's decision-making. Additionally, Aristotle's definition of citizens will also play an important role in his discussion of the best regime in Book VII. Because Aristotle thinks that not all people have the capacity to rule, in the best regime only an elite few will actually be citizens.

Another aspect of citizenship is the particular type of virtue that goes along with it. In order to understand Aristotle's distinction of the different types of virtue, it is necessary to remember that for Aristotle a virtue is a specific functional excellence. For that reason, the virtue of human being is that which will lead him to his ultimate end‹happiness. But the virtue of a citizen is that which will lead to the preservation of the regime. This is what Aristotle means when he writes that "the virtue of the citizen must necessarily be with a view to the regime." These two types of virtue are generally different, and they are different in proportion to how much the regime deviates from the best regime. In the best regime, the virtue of a citizen is exactly the same as the virtue of a human being, because the aim of the city is, after all, to live well‹that is, according to virtue.

Aristotle discussion of the best regimes and the deviations from them brings out several of his main ideas about justice and the nature of politics and political rule. Political rule is rule among those who are "similar in stock and free." No one particularly has a claim to rule over the other, so the citizens rule and are ruled in turn. As a result, kingship is actually apolitical, because the king makes all the decisions and there is no room for the citizens to deliberate about justice. In fact, there really are no citizens (except the king himself) in a strict kingship, because citizenship requires participation in ruling. In a sense, political rule, like kingship, is essentially democratic in that it is the rule of free and equal citizens over one another. Political rule is also distinguished in that it should be rule which looks for the common good, not for the advantage of the individual ruler. If the advantage of the individual ruler is the goal, the type of rule is mastery, not political rule properly speaking.

A key portion of the book is Aristotle's examination of justice and equality, particularly with the regard to the claims to rule made by aristocracies, democracies and oligarchies. Democrats and oligarchs both base their claim to rule mistaken view of equality. Oligarchs believe that because the poor are unequal in wealth, they are also inferior in general. Democrats, on the other hand, think that because all are equally free, all are equal generally. Each of the regimes is based on a particular view of justice, and as such they all reflect a partial truth about political life. Justice means giving equal measures to equals and unequal measures to unequals. Aristotle realizes that people are bad judges concerning themselves and that‹as in oligarchy and democracy‹they tend to confuse a part of justice with the whole of justice. Justice must be central concern for every city, because the city exists "not only for the sake of living but primarily for the sake of living well." As a result, "virtue must be a care for every city," and a city can only foster virtue to the extent that it is just. For this reason, "the political good is justice." Yet since each of the regimes has only a partial claim to justice and the correct regimes tend to degenerate into their incorrect forms, it is necessary to mix the different types of regimes in order to mitigate their basic flaws. In other, one can take the aspects of each regime which are just and mix them together. For example, the multitude does have a certain claim to rule because in some areas it may be able to judge better collectively than any single person. Therefore a good regime should give the multitude this power to rule in the areas where it merits that power, such as in making judicial decisions. In other areas, however, such as the higher governing offices, rulers should be selected according to the aristocratic principle of merit and virtue. At the same time, however, a recurring theme throughout the book is how one should react to those who surpass all the others in virtue and excellence. While Aristotle wants to avoid rule by a single man because it is apolitical and also thinks that the rule of law should be preeminent because human beings are too easily swayed by their passions, he cannot deny that if a such an outstanding person or group of people existed, it would be irrational not to allow them to rule.