click for referencing advice
analysis of
Aristotle's Politics

by H.W.C. Davis (1905)

Book One

Definition and structure of the State

1252a] The state is the highest form of community and aims at the highest good. How it differs from other communities will appear if we examine the parts of which it is composed (c. i).

1252a25] It consists of villages which consist of households. The household is founded upon the two relations of male am female, of master and slave; it exists to satisfy man's daily needs. The village, a wider community, satisfies a wider range of needs. The state aims at satisfying all the needs of men. Men form states to secure a bare subsistence; but the I ultimate object of the state is the good life. The naturalness of the state is proved by the faculty of speech in man. In the order of Nature the state precedes the household and the individual. It is founded on a natural impulse, that towards political association (c. 2).

cc. 3-13. Household economy. The Slave. Property. Children and Wives.

1253b] Let us discuss the household, since the state is composed of households 1253b23] First as to slavery. The slave is a piece of property which is animate, and useful for action rather than for production 1254a17] Slavery is natural; in every department of the natural universe we find the relation of ruler and subject. There are human beings who, without possessing reason, understand it. These are natural slaves 1254b31] But we find persons in slavery who are not natural slaves. Hence slavery itself is condemned by some; but they are wrong. The natural slave benefits by subjection to a master 1255b15] The art of ruling slaves differs from that of ruling free men but calls for no detailed description ; any one who is a natural master can acquire it for himself

As to property and the modes of acquiring it. This subject concerns us in so far as property is an indispensable substratum to the household (c. 8). But we do not need that form of finance which accumulates wealth for its own sake. This is unnatural finance. It has been made possible by the invention of coined money. It accumulates money by means of exchange. Natural and unnatural finance are often treated as though they were the same, but differ in their aims (c. 9); also in their subject matter; for natural finance is only concerned with the fruits of the earth and animals (c. 10). Natural finance is necessary to the householder; he must therefore know about live stock, agriculture, possibly about the exchange of the products of the earth, such as wood and minerals, for money. Special treatises on finance exist, and the subject should be specially studied by statesmen (c. 11).

Lastly, we must discuss and distinguish the relations of husband to wife, of father to child (c. 12). In household management persons call for more attention than things; free persons for more than slaves. Slaves are only capable of an inferior kind of virtue. Socrates was wrong in denying that there are several kinds of virtue. Still the slave must be trained in virtue. The education of the free man will be subsequently discussed (c. 13).

Book Two

Ideal Commonwealths - Plato, Phaleas, Hippodamus.

To ascertain the nature of the ideal state we should start by examining both the best states of history and the best that theorists have imagined. Otherwise we might waste our time over problems which others have already solved.

Among theorists, Plato in the Republic raises the most fundamental questions. He desires to abolish private property and the family (c. l). But the end which he has in view is wrong. He wishes to make all his citizens absolutely alike; but the differentiation of functions is a law of nature. There can be too much unity in a state . And the means by which he would promote unity are wrong. The abolition of property will produce, not remove, dissension. Communism of wives and children will destroy natural affection . Other objections can be raised; but this is the fatal one . To descend to details. The advantages to be expected from communism of property would be better secured if private property were used in a liberal spirit to relieve the wants of others. Private property makes men happier, and enables them to cultivate such virtues as generosity. The Republic makes unity the result of uniformity among the citizens, which is not the case. The good sense of mankind has always been against Plato, and experiment would show that his idea is impracticable

Plato sketched another ideal state in the Laws; it was meant to be more practicable than the other. In the Laws he abandoned communism, but otherwise upheld the leading ideas of the earlier treatise, except that he made the new state larger and too large. He forgot to discuss foreign relations, and to fix a limit of private property, and to restrict the increase of population, and to distinguish between ruler and subject. The form of government which he proposed was bad

Phaleas of Chalcedon made equal distribution of property the main feature of his scheme. This would be difficult to effect, and would not meet the evils which Phaleas had in mind. Dissensions arise from deeper causes than inequality of wealth. His state would be weak against foreign foes. His reforms would anger the rich and not satisfy the poor (c. 7). Hippodamus, who was not a practical politician, aimed at symmetry. In his state there were to be three classes, three kinds of landed property, three sorts of laws. He also proposed to (l) create a Court of Appeal, (2) let juries qualify their verdicts, (3) reward those who made discoveries of public utility. His classes and his property system were badly devised. Qualified verdicts are impossible since jurymen may not confer together. The law about discoveries would encourage men co tamper with the Constitution. Now laws when obsolete and absurd should be changed; but needless changes diminish the respect for law (c. 8).

cc. 9-12. The best existent states - Sparta, Crete, and Carthage - Greek lawgivers.

The Spartans cannot manage their serf population. Their women are too influential and too luxurious. Their property system has concentrated all wealth in a few hands. Hence the citizen body has decreased. There are points to criticize in the Ephorate, the Senate, the Kingship, the common meals, the Admiralty. The Spartan and his state are only fit for war. Yet even in war Sparta is hampered by the want of a financial system (c. 9).

The Cretan cities resemble Sparta in their constitutions, but are more primitive. Their common meals are better managed. But the Cosmi are worse than the Ephors. The Cretan constitution is a narrow and factious oligarchy; the cities are saved from destruction only by their inaccessibility (c. 10).

The Carthaginian polity is highly praised, and not without reason. It may be compared with the Spartan; it is an oligarchy with some democratic features. It lays stress upon wealth; in Carthage all offices are bought and sold. Also, one man may hold several offices together. These are bad features. But the discontent of the people is soothed by schemes of emigration (c. 11).

Of lawgivers, Solon was the best; conservative when possible, and a moderate democrat. About Philolaus, Charondas, Phaleas, Draco, Pittacus, and Androdamas there is little to be said (c. 12).

Book Three

The Citizen, civic virtue, and the civic body.

How are we to define a citizen ? He is more than a mere denizen; private rights do not make a citizen. He is ordinarily one who possesses political power; who sits on juries and in the assembly. But it is hard to find a definition which applies to all so-called citizens. To define him as the son of citizen parents is futile (c. i). Some say that his civic rights must have been justly acquired. But he is a citizen who has political power, however acquired (c. 2). Similarly the state is defined by reference to the distribution of political power; when the mode of distribution is changed a new state comes into existence (c. 3).

The good citizen may not be a good man ; the good citizen is one who does good service to his state, and this state may be bad in principle. In a constitutional state the good citizen knows both how to rule and how to obey. The good man is one who is fitted to rule. But the citizen in a constitutional state learns to rule by obeying orders. Therefore citizenship in such a state is a moral training (c. 4).

Mechanics will not be citizens in the best state. Extreme democracies, and some oligarchies, neglect this rule. But circumstances oblige them to do this. They have no choice (c- 5).

The Classification of Constitutions ; Democracy and Oligarchy ; Kingship.

The aims of the state are two; to satisfy man's social instinct, and to fit him for the good life. Political rule differs from that over slaves in aiming primarily at the good of those who are ruled (c. 6). Constitutions are bad or good according as the common welfare is, or is not, their aim. Of good Constitutions there are three: Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Polity. Of bad there are also three : Tyranny, Oligarchy, Extreme Democracy. The bad are perversions of the good (c. 7).

Democracies and Oligarchies are not made by the numerical proportion of the rulers to the ruled. Democracy is the rule of the poor; oligarchy is that of the rich (c. 8). Democrats take Equality for their motto; oligarchs believe that political rights should be unequal and proportionate to wealth. But both sides miss the true object of the state, which is virtue. Those who do most to promote virtue deserve the greatest share of power (c. 9). On the same principle, Justice is not the will of the majority or of the wealthier, but that course of action which the moral aim of the state requires (c. 10). But are the Many or the Few likely to be the better rulers ? It would be unreasonable to give the highest offices to the Many. But they have a faculty of criticism which fits them for deliberative and judicial power. The good critic need not be an expert; experts are sometimes bad judges. Moreover, the Many have a greater stake in the city than the Few. But the governing body, whether Few or Many, must be held in check by the laws (c. n). On what principle should political power be distributed ? Granted that equals deserve equal shares ; who are these equals ? Obviously those who are equally able to be of service to the state (c. 12). Hence there is something in the claims advanced by the wealthy, the free born, the noble, the highly gifted. But no one of these classes should be allowed to rule the rest. A state should consist of men who are equal, or nearly so, in wealth, in birth, in moral and intellectual excellence. The principle which underlies Ostracism is plausible. But in the ideal state, if a pre-eminent individual be found, he should be made a king (c. 13).

cc. 14-18. The Forms of Monarchy.

Of Monarchy there are five kinds, (i) the Spartan, (2) the Barbarian, (3) the elective dictatorship, (4) the Heroic, (5) Absolute Kingship (c. 14). The last of these forms might appear the best polity to some ; that is, if the king acts as the embodiment of law. For he will dispense from the law in the spirit of the law. But this power would be less abused if reserved for the Many. Monarchy arose to meet the needs of primitive society ; it is now obsolete and on various grounds objectionable (c. 15). It tends to become hereditary ; it subjects equals to the rule of an equal. The individual monarch may be misled by his passions, and no single man can attend to all the duties of government (c. 16). One case alone can be imagined in which Absolute Kingship would be just(c. 17). Let us consider the origin and nature of the best polity, now that we have agreed not to call Absolute Kingship the best (c. 18).

Book Four

Variations of the main types of Constitutions.

Political science should study (i) the ideal state, (2) those states which may be the best obtainable under special circumstances, and even (3) those which are essentially bad. For the statesman must sometimes make the best of a bad Constitution (c. i). Of our six main types of state. Kingship and Aristocracy have been discussed (cf. Bk. Ill, c. 14 fol.). Let us begin by dealing with the other four and their divisions, enquiring also when and why they may be desirable (c. 2).

First as to Democracy and Oligarchy. The common view that Democracy and Oligarchy should be taken as the main types of Constitution is at variance with our own view and wrong (c. 3). So is the view that the numerical proportion of rulers to ruled makes the difference between these two types; in a Democracy the Many are also the poor, in an Oligarchy the Few are also the wealthy. In every state the distinction between rich and poor is the most fundamental of class-divisions. Still Oligarchy and Democracy are important types; and their variations arise from differences in the character of the rich and the poor by whom they are ruled.

Of Democracies there are four kinds. The worst, extreme Democracy, is that in which all offices are open to all and the will of the people overrides all law (c. 4). Of Oligarchies too there are four kinds; the worst is that in which offices are hereditary and the magistrates uncontrolled by law (c. 5). These variations arise under circumstances which may be briefly described (c. 6).

Of Aristocracy in the strict sense there is but one form, that in which the best men alone are citizens (c. 7).

Polity is a compromise between Democracy and Oligarchy, but inclines to the Democratic side. Many so-called Aristocracies are really Polities (c. 8). There are different ways of effecting the compromise which makes a Polity. The Laconian Constitution is an example of a successful compromise (c. 9). Tyranny is of three kinds: (i) the barbarian despotism, and (2) the elective dictatorship have already been discussed ; in both there is rule according to law over willing subjects. But in (3) the strict form of tyranny, there is the lawless rule of one man over unwilling subjects (c. 10).

cc. 11-13. Of the Best State both in general and under special circumstances.

For the average city-state the best constitution will be a mean between the rule of rich and poor; the middle-class will be supreme. No state will be well administered unless the middle-class holds sway. The middle-class is stronger in large than in small states. Hence in Greece it has rarely attained to power; especially as democracy and oligarchy were aided by the influence of the leading states (c. n). No constitution can dispense with the support of the strongest class in the state. Hence Democracy and Oligarchy are the only constitutions possible in some states. But in these cases the legislator should conciliate the middle-class (c, 12). Whatever form of constitution be adopted there are expedients to be noted which may help in preserving it (c. 13).

cc. 14_16. How to proceed in framing a Constitution.

The legislator must pay attention to three subjects in particular; (a) The Deliberative Assembly which is different in each form of constitution (c. 14). (b) The Executive. Here he must know what offices are indispensable and which of them may be conveniently combined in the person of one magistrate; also whether the same offices should be supreme in every state; also which of the twelve or more methods of making appointments should be adopted in each case (c. 15). (c) The Courts of Law. Here he must consider the kinds of law-courts, their spheres of action, their methods of procedure (c. 16).

Book Five

Of Revolutions, and their causes in general.

Ordinary states are founded on erroneous ideas of justice, which lead to discontent and revolution. Of revolutions some are made to introduce a new Constitution, others to modify the old, others to put the working of the Constitution in new hands. Both Democracy and Oligarchy contain inherent flaws which lead to revolution, but Democracy is the more stable of the two types (c. i).

We may distinguish between the frame of mind which fosters revolution, the objects for which it is started, and the provocative causes (c. 2). The latter deserve a more detailed account (c. 3). Trifles may be the occasion but are never the true cause of a sedition. One common cause is the aggrandizement of a particular class; another is a feud between rich and poor when they are evenly balanced and there is 06 middle-class to mediate. As to the manner of effecting a revolution : it may be carried through by force or fraud (c. 4).

cc. 5-12. Revolutions in particular States, and how revolutions may be avoided.

(a) In Democracies revolutions may arise from a persecution of the rich; or when a demagogue becomes a general, or when politicians compete for the favour of the mob (c. 5). (t) In Oligarchies the people may rebel against oppression.? ambitious oligarchs may conspire, or appeal to the people, or set up a tyrant. Oligarchies are seldom destroyed except by the feuds of their own members; unless they employ a mercenary captain, who may become a tyrant (c. 6). (c) In Aristocracies and Polities the injustice of the ruling class may lead to revolution, but less often in Polities. Aristocracies may also be rained by an unprivileged class, or an ambitious man of talent. Aristocracies tend to become oligarchies. Also they are liable to gradual dissolution; which is true of Polities as well (c. 7).

The best precautions against sedition are these : to avoid illegality and frauds upon the unprivileged; to maintain good feeling between rulers and ruled; to watch destructive agencies ; to alter property qualifications from time to time ; to let no individual or class become too powerful; not to let magistracies lie a source of gain ; to beware of class-oppression (c. 8). In all magistrates we should require loyalty, ability, and justice ; we should not carry the principle of the constitution to extremes ; we should educate the citizens in the spirit of a constitution (c. 9).

(d) The causes which destroy and the means which preserve a Monarchy must be considered separately. Let us first distinguish between Tyranny and Kingship. Tyranny combines the vices of Democracy and Oligarchy. Kingship is exposed to the same defects as Aristocracy. But both these kinds of Monarchy are especially endangered by the insolence of their representatives and by the fear or contempt which they inspire in others. Tyranny is weak against both external and domestic foes ; Kingship is strong against invasion, weak against sedition (c. 10). Moderation is the best preservative of Kingship. Tyranny may rely on the traditional expedients of demoralizing and dividing its subjects, or it may imitate Kingship by showing moderation in expenditure, and courtesy and temperance in social relations, by the wise use of ministers, by holding the balance evenly between the rich and poor (c. 11). But the Tyrannies of the past have been short-lived.

Plato's discussion of revolutions in the Republic is inadequate ; e. g. lie does not explain the results of a revolution against a tyranny, and could not do so on his theory ; nor is he correct about the cause of revolution in an Oligarchy ; nor does he distinguish between the different varieties of Oligarchy and Democracy (c. 1 2).

Book Six

Concerning the proper organisation of Democracies and Oligarchies.

(A) Democracies differ inter se (i) according to the character of the citizen body, (z) according to the mode in which the characteristic features of democracy are combined (c. i). Liberty is the first principle of democracy. The results of liberty are that the numerical majority is supreme, and that each man lives as he likes. From these characteristics we may easily infer the other features of democracy (c. z). In oligarchies it is not the numerical majority, but the wealthier men, who are supreme. Both these principles are unjust if the supreme authority is to be absolute and above the law. Both numbers and wealth should have their share of influence. But it is hard to find the true principles of political justice, and harder still to make men act upon them (c. 3). Democracy has four species (cf. Bk. IV, c. 4). The best is (i) an Agricultural Democracy, in which the magistrates are elected by, and responsible to, the citizen body, while each office has a property qualification proportionate to its importance. These democracies should encourage agriculture by legislation. The next best is (2) the Pastoral Democracy. Next comes (3) the Commercial Democracy. Worst of all is (4) the Extreme Democracy with manhood suffrage (c. 4).

It is harder to preserve than to found a Democracy. To preserve it we must prevent the poor from plundering the rich; we must not exhaust the public revenues by giving pay for the performance of public duties; we must prevent the growth of a pauper class (c. 5).

(B) The modes of founding Oligarchies call for little explanation. Careful organisation is the best way of preserving these governments (c. 6). Much depends on the military arrangements; oligarchs must not make their subjects too powerful an element in the army. Admission to the governing body should be granted on easy conditions. Office should be made a burden, not a source of profit (c. 7).

Both in oligarchies and democracies the right arrangement of offices is important. Some kinds of office are necessary in every state; others are peculiar to special types of state (c. 8).

Book Seven

The Summum Bonum for individuals and states.

Before constructing the ideal state we must know what is the most desirable life for states and individuals. True happiness flows from the possession of wisdom and virtue, and not from the possession of external goods. But a virtuous life must be equipped with external goods as instruments. These laws hold good of both states and individuals (c. l). But does the highest virtue consist in contemplation or in action ? The states of the past have lived for action in the shape of war and conquest. But war cannot be regarded as a reasonable object for a state (c. 2). A virtuous life implies activity, but activity may be speculative as well as practical. Those are wrong who regard the life of a practical politician as degrading. But again they are wrong who treat political power as the highest good (c. 3).

cc. 4-12. A picture of the Ideal State.

We must begin by considering the population and the territory. The former should be as small as we can make it without sacrificing independence and the capacity for a moral life. The smaller the population the more manageable it will be (c. 4). The territory must be large enough to supply the citizens with the means of living liberally and temperately, with an abundance of leisure.

The city should be in a central position (c. 5). Communication with the sea is desirable for economic and military reasons; but the moral effects of sea-trade are bad. If the state has a marine, the port town should be at some distance from the city (c. 6).

The character of the citizens should be a mean between that of Asiatics and that of the northern races; intelligence and high spirit should be harmoniously blended as they are in some Greek races (c. 7). We must distinguish the members of the state from those who are necessary as its servants, but no part of it. There must be men who are able to provide food, to practise the arts, to bear arms, to carry on the work of exchange, to supervise the state religion, to exercise political and judicial functions (c. 8). But of these classes we-should exclude from the citizen body (i) the mechanics, (2) the traders, (3) the husbandmen. Warriors, rulers, priests remain as eligible for citizenship. The same persons should exercise these three professions, but at different periods of life. Ownership of land should be confined to them (c. 9). Such a distinction between a ruling and a subject class, based on a difference of occupation, is nothing new. It still exists in Egypt, and the custom of common meals in Crete and Italy proves that it formerly existed there. Most of the valuable rules of politics have been discovered over and over again in the course of history.

In dealing with the land of the state we must distinguish between public demesnes and private estates. Both kinds of land should be tilled by slaves or barbarians of a servile disposition (c. 10). The site of the city should be chosen with regard (i) to public health, (2) to political convenience, (3) to strategic requirements. The ground-plan of the city should be regular enough for beauty, not so regular as to make defensive warfare difficult. Walls are a practical necessity (c. 11). It is well that the arrangement of the buildings in the city should be carefully thought out (c. 12).

cc. 13-17. The Educational System of the Ideal Staff, its aim, and early stages.

The nature and character of the citizens must be determined with reference to the kind of happiness which we desire them to pursue. Happiness was defined in the Ethics as the perfect exercise of virtue, the latter term being understood not in the conditional, but in the absolute sense. Now a man acquires virtue of this kind by the help of nature, habit, and reason (c. 13). Habit and reason are the fruits of education, which must therefore be discussed.

1332b] The citizens should be educated to obey when young and to rule when they are older. Rule is their ultimate and highest function. Since the good ruler is the same as the good man, our education must be so framed as to produce the good man. It should develop all man's powers and fit him for all the activities of life; but the highest powers and the highest activities must be the supreme care of education. An education which is purely military, like the Laconian, neglects this principle . The virtues of peace (intellectual culture, temperance, justice) are the most necessary for states and individuals; war is nothing but a means towards securing peace. But education must follow the natural order of human development, beginning with the body, dealing next with the appetites, and training the intellect last of all .

To produce a healthy physique the legislator must fix the age of marriage, regulate the physical condition of the parents, provide for the exposure of infants, and settle the duration of marriage (c. 16). He must also prescribe a physical training for infants and young children. For their moral education the very young should be committed to overseers; these should select the tales which they are told, their associates, the pictures, plays, and statues which they see. From five to seven years of age should be the period of preparation for intellectual training (c. 17).

Book Eight

The Ideal Education continued. Its Music and Gymnastic.

Education should be under state-control and the same for all the citizens (c. i). It should comprise those useful studies which every one must master, but none which degrade the mind or body (c. 2). Reading, writing, and drawing have always been taught on the score of their utility; gymnastic as producing valour. Music is taught as a recreation, but it serves a higher purpose. The noble employment of leisure is the highest aim which a man can pursue; and music is valuable for this purpose. The same may be said of drawing, and other subjects of education have the same kind of value (c-3).

Gymnastic is the first stage of education ; but we must not develop the valour and physique of our children at the expense of the mind, as they do in Sparta. Until puberty, and for three years after, bodily exercise should be light (c. 4). Music, if it were a mere amusement, should not be taught to children; they would do better by listening to professionals. But music is a moral discipline and a rational enjoyment (c. 5). By learning music children become better critics and are given a suitable occupation. When of riper age they should abandon music; professional skill is not for them; nor should they be taught difficult instruments (c. 6). The various musical harmonies should be used for different purposes. Some inspire virtue, others valour, others enthusiasm. The ethical harmonies are those which children should learn. The others may be left to professionals. The Dorian harmony is the best for education. The Phrygian is bad; but the Lydian may be beneficial to children.

Citation suggestion


My referencing suggestion for this page is a bibliography entry:
"Davis, H.W.C. 1905, Analysis [of Aristotle's Politics]. Part of the introductory material to the 1905 Clarendon Press (Oxford) edition, reproduced at <>

With intext references to "(Davis, H.W.C. 1905)"

See ABC Referencing for general advice.

Study links outside this site
Picture introduction to this site
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
Click coloured words to go where you want

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the
Communication Form

home page for society and
science home page to Andrew Roberts'
web site the ABC Study Guide home page

Socrates, Plato and
Aristotle in Raphael's School of Athens