Aristotle – Politics

Aristotle continues to reverberate through modern politics. It is an irony of modernization that the transition into the Renaissance out of the Middle Ages diminished the influence of Aristotle in favor of Plato. Yet political modernization has gradually shifted Aristotle back into prominence. The political philosophy of Plato is a dreamy kind of idealism no longer relevant within modern democracies. It is not so much that Plato is irrelevant but that his philosophy is a hurdle to overcome. Aristotle’s political thought, on the other hand, has become incorporated within contemporary political theories.

Balance is key to the Aristotelian worldview. His Politics breaks down governments into democracies and oligarchies. Of course, there are different mixed systems which incorporate elements of both. Indeed, Aristotle favors mixed political systems which strike a balance between the excesses of democracy and the tyranny of oligarchy. The American constitutional system of checks and balances owes a great deal of influence to Aristotelian theory both directly and indirectly. While Montesquieu was inspired by the English constitution, Aristotelian theory gave him the intellectual foundation for his political ideas.

Anglo-American political theorists saw similarities within Aristotle’s political ideas and the English constitution. Of course, the English Constitution was not designed according to political theorists. Rather, it emerged from a series of political compromises over hundreds of years. Yet it represented a balance between Monarchy and Aristocracy and incorporated some elements of democracy. So while Aristotelian theory did not contribute to the development of the English Constitution, it did contribute to its consolidation as an intellectual reinforcement for its political foundations.

Constitutional development arose from the balance of political forces within a community. Aristotle saw democracy as the government of the poor rather than the government of the many. Oligarchy was a government of the rich. Because the poor are always more numerous than the rich, democracy has become regarded as the government of the people. Within all societies there is an inherent conflict between the rich and the poor. These groups are normally evenly matched. But there exists a small middle class who tips the balance toward oligarchy or democracy.

Modern electoral theory is based on the belief of two ideological extremes who are diametrically opposed. The dominant political parties fight over the centrist middle. Because modernization has brought about the emergence of a large middle class, this centrist group is expected to account for the majority of the electorate. Within a classic two-party system, Downsian theory suggests the two parties will move toward the center as they compete for a majority of votes. But a large centrist middle class means even a multi-party political system largely focuses on centrist political policies.

Lipset’s Political Man becomes an interesting companion to Aristotle’s Politics.  While Lipset is influenced heavily by Aristotle, there are interesting distinctions. For example, Lipset notes the presence of an authoritarian working class. Indeed, this chapter is relevant today with the success of populist political parties within the past ten years. Moreover, it runs contrary to many Aristotelian precepts. Democracy was the government of the lower classes. And its governance led to an emphasis on personal freedom and individuality. But the working class seems to reinforce traditional values and expectations. To borrow from Durkheim, they rely on a mechanical solidarity whereas the upper classes have already made the transition toward an organic solidarity.

Aristotelian theory loses some of its explanatory power because the middle class was never supposed to become large. It was always expected to remain a small but influential group. The dominance of the middle class today transforms the dynamics of political governance. It makes democracy possible. But Lipset also sees it as responsible for the emergence of Fascism which he defines as the radicalism of the political center. This is possibly the most intriguing chapter within a landmark book on political science. Academia is surprisingly fickle. Publications focus on recent trends and ideas. They continue to move on as new challenges emerge. Because fascism remains a distant memory, very little political science has focused on its place within political development. Perhaps some believe enough has been written on this phenomenon. But it seems like everyone has simply moved on. Populism is among the topics of the day. But Fascism and Nazism are discussed only in passing. This seems like a mistake. Its essential to understand how these ideas fit into the universe of political possibilities in order to avoid their reemergence.

Aristotle’s Politics is easy to find. It is not just available in every public library but also in several online publications like Project Gutenberg where a free copy can be read online. Audible has produced a few professional audiobooks, but Librivox also offers a version for free. Plus, it is available as a podcast, so it is easy to digest in short pieces. There isn’t a good reason for a political science scholar not to have read this work. It’s simply far too available. Make sure this is added to a reading list if it hasn’t been included yet.

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