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The Politics | Study Guide


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The Politics | Book 3, Chapters 11–18 | Summary



Book 3, Chapter 11

This chapter continues the debate about what form of government is optimal. Aristotle considers the multitude as the authority in government. Multiple rulers can be better than a single ruler because they have more insights into the population; they can judge one another's character, mind, motivations, and ideas; and they can keep one another in check.

If a city is filled with people who are deprived of rights and resources, it becomes an antagonistic place. To give these individuals—usually those in poverty—some agency, a government may allow them to choose officials and oversee their work. Those who are allowed to judge should judge only those of similar status: the cook is inherently the best judge of the feast, the craftsperson the best judge of crafts. These different individuals become part of a whole judging body. Such a system requires authoritative and easily enforced laws if it is to succeed.

Book 3, Chapter 12

The main political good is justice. Justice is not the same for every individual; it varies according to people's position in society. Inequality and equality are important but can be determined only by comparing those of a similar position, such as when comparing one craftsperson to another. Someone born to a preeminent family is not necessarily born to be a leader. Someone who lacks wealth and good looks may have other worthwhile qualities. Aristotle reiterates that the city needs many different kinds of people, each playing a different role, like the instruments in a band.

Book 3, Chapter 13

According to Aristotle, a good life requires education and virtue. Wealthy people have a claim to more territory. Aristotle often sees wealth and morality going hand in hand. Those who are equal in one thing need not be equal in all things. There is a hierarchy of birth; some are wellborn—born into wealth or a virtuous family. In the hierarchy of virtues, justice is at the top. If a few people in a city have virtue, it is hard to decide who should hold the power. Some may claim to have the authority to rule based on family wealth, but they should not have power over everyone. There may not be only one good way to rule, but the good of the most must always be considered. Generally speaking, one person cannot rule fairly because he cannot understand the motivations of other classes (such as women or slaves). Democracies often must banish people who purport to hold the most power; this is the only way to maintain a sense of equality. In a tyranny or an oligarchy, it may be necessary to remove preeminent leaders to maintain a better distribution of power. Monarchs or other singular rulers need to consider their power proportionally to avoid making grandiose decisions. Aristotle says ostracism—banishment—is a productive political tactic, but it should be used only to benefit the regime. Someone who excels in virtue but not in money, strength, or other ways should not be banished but should instead serve as a sort of kinglike figure.

Book 3, Chapter 14

A city's residents must decide whether to be ruled by a kingship or another type of government. If a city has a king, people must also consider what role he will play when he leaves the city's territory. In Sparta, the king has power over matters of war when he is in battle but not otherwise. Aristotle says that in other places, such as Asia and Europe, kings have almost tyrannical power based on birth and laws. These laws and hereditary notions ensure a stable kingship. Just as there are different kinds of kingship, there are also different kinds of monarchy. Tyranny is a monarchy chosen by the people. Someone may rule for a fixed period or during certain actions. For example, someone may be elected to rule during a siege or war. The tyrant rules over the city like a master rules over his house. Kings used to have more power in cities, but people removed much of their power. Now kingships are often symbolic and ceremonial. There are five kinds of kingships: those who rule for a specific time and purpose; the king as the main moral force and juror who gains power under the law through familial relations; the elected tyrant; the Spartan, who rules based on family relations and performs general duties; and the king who holds authority over all matters.

Book 3, Chapter 15

The two extremes of kingship are the Spartan method and the absolute kingship. In Sparta, kings have less power; in an absolute kingship, the king can become tyrannical. Aristotle asks which is best. Perhaps it is something between these two extremes. Is it better to be ruled by the best person or the best laws? Aristotle believes even written laws can be altered by a political force, so it is best not to rely on rule based on laws. Despite this, laws must exist and be authoritative. Citizens unite to make decisions; they are not strong alone. Aristocracy—rule by a number of people—is typically better than a kingship—rule by a single person. Kingships often crumble because there are many other good men in a community who want further political representation. The increased political involvement of good men transforms tyranny into democracy. Larger cities naturally tend toward democracy because there are more men capable of governmental rule. Kingship can be dangerous because not all born into a certain family are fit to rule. A single ruler should be morally superior to everyone else—and that is nearly impossible.

Book 3, Chapter 16

Aristotle now investigates the role of a king. It is not more just for any equal person to be the ruler or the ruled; such people should take turns to prevent any one person from misusing his power: "Justice therefore demands that no one should do more ruling than being ruled, but that all should have their turn." Laws make rulers dependent upon a higher power; without laws, men must trust animal nature. Men cannot judge themselves, just as doctors cannot or should not treat their own illnesses. Two people will always rule better than one because they will ensure checks and balances. Monarchs are best served when many help them rule.

Book 3, Chapter 17

Nature makes people apt at certain things, such as kingship. In this and subsequent chapters, Aristotle seeks to discover who is apt at kingship and to understand the nature of aristocracy and politics.

Some families are by nature more virtuous than others in the community. More than one person may sometimes claim to have the virtue necessary to rule; in such cases, Aristotle says, they should take turns ruling.

Book 3, Chapter 18

In this short section Aristotle says personal excellence is based on strong education and good habits; such a background also makes a good leader. Again, virtue is the foremost factor in who should rule.


Regimes have many kinds of leaders. Aristotle believes the multitudes rule most successfully. Two leaders are always better than one, even if individually they are less than optimally strong. Having more people in leadership can ensure sounder decisions, since these decisions are never made to benefit just one person. Two leaders can also judge each other. Although the multitude is best, some cities may have a superior individual called to kingship. Some individuals are strong and virtuous and can unify a city. Some may want kings to serve for only specific periods, as during wars.

As he reiterates throughout the book, Aristotle believes the purpose of politics is to make people—that is, men—more virtuous. Although Aristotle continually argues that those with nonpolitical rule are important, he clearly would not favor a true democracy, in which all adults could participate, as his ideal form of government. Throughout history, various repressive methods have been used to ensure that only elites participate politically. Historians believe Aristotle sent his students around Greece to collect data from different city-states so he could study how they function. He sorted these data to determine the different kinds of regimes he examines in Politics.

Aristotle believes having more than one leader reflects an important idea: citizens' attitudes toward a regime are essential to its success. People believe a government led by multiple people is more moderate and less prone to corruption. However, directly following the political forms of ancient Greece, more monarchies and top-down methods of governing won favor. Moderate regimes last longer than those in which individual leaders become tyrannical. Groups of leaders are still susceptible to temptation, but they tend to monitor one another and remain more aware of citizens' needs. Governments need to consider all the individuals living in the regime, which is why many of Aristotle's tactics work only for rule of smaller groups of people.

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