Classical Political Thought
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...