Aristotle: Revolution and Political Decay

Authors: Emily Rodriguez, Genovi Rattan-Jones, Matt Saville, Morgan Salvato

Book V

Prepare yourself readers, we are going to learn about revolutions and how to prevent them in Book V of Politics by Aristotle.

Aristotle examines the imperfect aspects of government within democracy and oligarchy and discusses their instability. Oligarchs stem from unequal societies who believe that the few are fit to rule over the majority. Democracies stem from believing that everyone is equal. Aristotle believes that oligarchies and democracies are imperfect because both can be corrupted by its leaders. This corruption would then lead to a revolution in order to bring change. The revolution starts “whenever their (parties) share in the government does not accord with their preconceived ideas, stir up revolution”. If there is disagreement within a government, then there will be people who want to change things to suit their own needs. Aristotle states that there are two ways change can happen in a government. One way is changing the constitution (government) into another form, such as democracy to oligarchy. The other way is not affecting the constitution but changing parts of it or the rulers. So, one way is starting from scratch while the other is fixing what is broken with the system. Aristotle believed equality is made up of two parts, numerical and proportional. Numerical equality looks at the equality in number or size whereas, proportional equality is the equality of ratios. Democracy is safer and less prone to revolutions than an oligarchy. Aristotle explains this by saying “A government which is composed of the middle class more nearly approximates to democracy than to oligarchy, and is the safest of the imperfect forms of government”. Aristotle believes a democracy is better than an  

oligarchy. People will not rebel if they feel that they are equal in a society or state. When there is less chance of a revolution occurring, the government system is secured, and the citizens are content with their lives.

People can start revolutions for a multitude of reasons. These include disagreements of profit and honor, insolence, fear, excessive predominance, contempt, or if there is a disproportionate increase in some part of the state. When corrupt and greedy politicians go against the constitution, they do so at the expense of the people. Instead of helping the people, the politicians are only helping themselves. History has shown, time and time again, people react negatively when politicians are only interested in helping themselves. “Revolutions also break out when opposite parties, e.g., the rich and the people, are equally balanced, and there is little or no middle class; for, if either party were manifestly superior, the other would not risk an attack upon them”. This is odd because one would think that if everyone was equal, then there would be no conflict. This is not the case.

Democracies can have revolutions due to incompetent rulers. This would lead to the nobles or the masses to overthrow the leaders. If the leader in a democracy was a general, the government would then turn into a tyrannical government. In oligarchies, revolutions can occur due to oppressing the people or when there is a personal rivalry between the oligarchs. This is expected because even among the rich, the greedy will still try to have the most among each other. Revolutions in aristocracies occur similarly to oligarchies where only a few share in the honors of the state. The majority of people believe that they are as good as their rulers. Deviating from justice also aids in starting a revolution.

Aristotle then explains how to preserve the constitution and stop revolutions, as this will

stop the people from gathering with pitchforks and torches. If we know what causes the revolution, then we know what can stop them. as Aristotle says, “Opposites produce opposites, and destruction is the opposite of preservation”. Instead of being a corrupt leader, be a good leader. Instead of favoring one group, treat every group in the state equally. Obedience to the law is important, especially with the small matters. Take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves. The state should guard against the beginning of change. Another important tool is shortening the terms of offices in order to prevent families from running them and decrease the chance of tyranny. Finally, politicians cannot make money while in office. This is really important. People will be very ticked off if they find out that politicians are stealing public money.

Qualifications to hold office are necessary. These are loyalty to the constitution, greatest administrative capacity, and virtue and kindness appropriate to the kind of government. It is important to teach these qualifications to children, as well as education of the government in general, in order to instill in them the tendency to follow laws and then be less likely to revolt. Aristotle also critiques the extreme form of democracy’s definition of freedom which conflicts with the interests of the state. He states, “men should not think it slavery to live according to the rule of the constitution; for it is their salvation”. True democracy is unjust because what one thinks is good for him may not be good for the state or other citizens. There needs to be structure and compromises in order for a government to last.

In monarchies the royal rule is aristocracy, whereas tyranny is oligarchy and democracy in their most extreme forms. A tyrant seeks out his own pleasures while a king seeks noble goals. Monarchies are usually overthrown by disgraceful behavior, fear, contempt, ambition, and desire for profit. A monarchy could also be destroyed from the outside by a superior regime or from the  

inside when the rulers are in conflict. Kings are appointed from the wealthy class due to their own or their family’s excellence in virtue. A tyrant is elected in order to protect the people from the nobles and prevent the people from being injured. Kings should not say that they are kings for a non-noble reason, such as King Arthur from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In the movie, King Arthur explains that he was chosen to be king of Britain by receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. This is a comedy movie, but it showcases how incompetent King Arthur is as a monarch. A monarch should be king for being virtuous and upholding the rule of law, not because he was given a magic sword.

A peasant’s response was the reaction any sane person would have.

In order for a monarchy to be preserved, the ruler’s authority needs to be limited. For a tyrannical monarchy; potential rivals must be eliminated. The tyrant should be awed but not feared and must also not sleep with a lot of women or consume too much alcohol. Paying attention to the gods and honoring good citizens are also requirements. In order to prevent a revolution in a monarchy, a king must be respectful and treat his citizens equally.

King Arthur from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an example of what not to do as a king.

Book VI

In Book VI, Aristotle clearly presents his critique on both democracy and oligarchy. He believes there is a contradiction between true freedom and the freedom represented in democracy. His issue with this is not with the freedom of the individual, but that there are two

translations one could take away from this concept of liberty. If liberty means anyone can do whatever they want to pursue their own happiness, this may interfere with another’s happiness and quality of life by potentially creating hostility and chaos through revolution in the city. Conversely, liberty can mean for all to rule and be ruled. By that standard, this means every individual is equal; something Aristotle was not ashamed to disagree with. The threat of equality in Aristotle’s eyes was that it meant that the poor would be better represented in a democracy than the rich because they are more in number. He did not like the idea that justice was in the hands of the majority over other, more qualified individuals.

Democracy is not completely wrong, it’s just not quite right.

On the other hand, Aristotle did not think the privileged alone should judge, as in an oligarchy, because that too was an injustice for the city. He believed that there needed to be a healthy dose of both democracy and oligarchy. The ideal government resembled a community of pastoral people, with a wealthy ruling class holding political office. The farmers and herdsmen should be able to select their officials and go about their agricultural business peacefully and mostly uninvolved in politics. Looking at a democracy like Athens in his day, Aristotle detested the fact that any shopkeeper or laborer held equal part in justice and eligibility to run for office. The idea of a pastoral community was ideal for him because this meant there would not be a centralized location everyone would gather and participate in politics as there was in a big city-state democracy like Athens. Not everyone was qualified to participate in government.

Aristotle did not think that the wealthy rulers should be inconsiderate with the poor, but rather establish and maintain a relationship of admiration and trust between the two. He

encouraged the wealthy to do charitable acts for the poor to gain admiration. The poor could also hold lower political offices.

Essentially, Aristotle conceived that the wealthy are more capable than the poor to guide a city virtuously into success and happiness. The poor should be generally taken care of and guided by the wealthy to ensure happiness, as it is just for everyone to be able to pursue happiness. He did not like the idea that happiness was determined by anyone who wanted to contribute to politics, but that the state was guided by a wealthy and educated class of individuals to preserve freedom for all; freedom as the right to individual happiness.

Wealthy citizens in Aristotle’s ideal city to the poor (probably).

Book VII

In Book VII of Politics, Aristotle speaks on how to live a virtuous life, how to rule a city, and how to train reason and habit in citizens.

Beginning with Part I, Aristotle dives into the concept of three classes of goods that one needs to live a happy life; external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul. He states that external goods do not cause all happiness, and are limited. While these goods are limited, they are still vital for people to be able to live a happy life. Aristotle describes a life of happiness as one of virtue and wisdom, in which the participant is driven by virtuous and wise action, “the best life is that of virtue, when virtue has external goods enough for the performance of good actions” (Book VII).

“Happy” by Pharrell Williams

Part II begins with asking the question, “is the happiness of the individual the same as that of the state?”. Aristotle finds these two concepts to be the same; “For those who hold that the well-being of the individual consists in his wealth, also think that riches make the happiness of the whole state, and those who value most highly the life of a tyrant deem that city the happiest which rules over the greatest number; while they who approve an individual for his virtue say that the more virtuous a city is, the happier it is”. He believes that the government functions at its best when man can act virtuously and happily.

Part III speaks on the specifics of practicing a life of virtue. Aristotle argues that some think that the life of a freeman and a statesman differ, and that the life of a freeman is the ‘best of all’. He also claims that some believe that the life of a statesman is the best, but argues that “the actions of a ruler cannot really be honorable, unless he is as much superior to other men as a husband is to a wife, or a father to his children, or a master to his slave” (Book VII). The life of true virtue is that of the active life, and if “happiness is assumed to be virtuous activity, the active life will be the best, both for every city collectively, and for individuals” (Book VII). This aligns with the concept of utilitarianism, in which actions are deemed right if they benefit the majority; this is taught to Eleanor in The Good Place. Jason, the loveable idiot, was the one that explained it perfectly. Jason talked about how his friend Donkey Doug was going to get married and move away with a woman so Jason and his dance crew framed the woman for theft in order for Donkey Doug to not leave the dance crew. Donkey Doug was their best dancer which meant if he stayed, everyone would be happy.

Here is Chidi teaching Eleanor. Insert picture 6

In Part IV-VI, he begins to delve into his arguments on how to properly run a city, and the conditions of such. Aristotle states that the conditions of a perfect state are having a certain number and character of citizens, that size and character of the country must be decided, and the amount of needs are supplied properly to sustain life. In the military aspect; a state must have military authorities, be difficult for enemies to access but easy for inhabitants to, easily seen in order to be easily protected, situated between the land and sea, and placed upon good soil. He believes that a city and territory should be connected to the sea to properly defend themselves and also trade.

Parts VII, VIII, IX and X speak on the character of the citizens of the city; and that ideally they should have spirit, intelligence, skill and be inventive. There must be; food, arts, and arms in a city, revenue for internal and external needs, care of religion, and power to decide what is in the public interest. Aristotle finds that the citizens must be involved in politics in some shape or form; “in the state which is best governed and possesses men who are just absolutely, and not merely relatively to the principle of the constitution, the citizens must not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble, and inimical to virtue. Neither must they be husbandmen, since leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties” (Book VII). Citizens will also be divided into warriors and councilors, and these classes are made to be separated.

Part XI-XII speaks on the layout of the city in a physical sense. It will be open to both the land and sea, and to the whole country as far as possible. The city must lie to the east, while also sheltered from the north wind. There must be an abundance of springs and fountains in the city to provide for the citizens. The city is recommended to be laid in squares, in a grid-like layout, with private houses. The walls are to be divided by guardhouses and towers. The young will fight and  

the old shall remain in magistrates.

Parts XIII-XV focus on the manner of the citizens in the city. Aristotle states that, “there are three things which make men good and virtuous; these are nature, habit, rational principle” (Book VII). Qualities of man are altered by habit, and their biological qualities can be turned by habit to be either good or bad. Man only, has a rational principle, and must be taught by both habit and instruction. “The soul of man is divided into two parts, one of which has a rational principle in itself, and the other, not having a rational principle in itself, is able to obey such a principle” (Book VII), and principle is also divided into two. “The whole of life is further divided into two parts, business and leisure, war and peace, and of actions some aim at what is necessary and useful, and some at what is honorable” (Book VII). They must exist in both virtues of leisure, and the end of war. Once the necessities of life are supplied, many may live as such.

Parts XVI-XVII then focus on the rearing of children, beginning with marriage. The ages of the parents must be considered, when the child shall succeed the parents, and how the legislator must mold the frames of the child. Aristotle states that “women should marry when they are about eighteen years of age, and men at seven and thirty [37]” (Book VII), which allows for the child to succeed the father early in life. The child’s constitution should be inured to labor, but not exhausted. Deformed children will not be permitted to live. After being born, children are to be reared in order to expand on their bodily strength. As a baby, they will be treated with care, and once hitting at the age of five, are told stories of heroes. He mentions the idea that “There are two periods of life with reference to which education has to be divided, from seven to the age of puberty, and onwards to the age of one and twenty [21]”. The rearing of a child is key in fostering a life in which they can live virtuously and participate properly in their city.


Book VIII serves to discuss the importance of education in the role of the state and personal well-being. Aristotle believes that one’s character is deeply influenced by the educational system in which they grew up. Aristotle stresses that “the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth” which shows the significant impact education has on the city’s youth. Since an individual should not be concerned with their own distresses but rather the states, they must be educated in a public manner. There exists only a singular end for the city as a whole, which is prosperity, that all citizens must strive for. Aristotle then focuses on the different aspects of knowledge. Youths shall not concern themselves with learning skills meant to serve others. Instead, one should learn enough to satisfy their mind and no more.

Education should be public so that each citizen is receiving the same teachings, which promotes the city as a whole.

Education can be broken down into four key categories. The first being reading and writing which is “useful for the purposes of life in a variety of ways” and allows other sorts of knowledge to be acquired through them. Gymnastics is the second aspect of learning; however, it is the first to be taught. Aristotle emphasizes that “Men ought not to labor at the same time with their minds and with their bodies […] the labor of the body impedes the mind, and the labor of the mind and body.” Thus, learning how to control your body is essential in learning how to control your mind. It is important to note that there is a physical limit to the pursuit of

gymnastics. Gymnastics must not take precedence over other educational subjects for “Parents who devote their children to gymnastics while they neglect their necessary education, in reality, vulgarize them”. However, courage, a valuable emotion, is brought about when educated in gymnastics. The third branch of education is music, which is important in the restful aspects of life. Drawing is the fourth and final branch that provides utility in having the capability to form “a more correct judgment of the works of artists”. Education of useful and necessary aspects of life provides the citizen the ability to manage the household, make money, acquire knowledge, and participate in political life. Whereas reading, writing, and drawing provide clear connections for success, music deals with intellectual enjoyment in leisure.

Music, the third branch of education, is contentious because there is a strict line between educating yourself and pleasing the masses. The main consideration is leisure and Aristotle believes that “we should be able, not only to work well but to use leisure well.” Leisure itself provides pleasure and enjoyment of life which are not experienced by the lower classes but rather by those who have leisure. Music became a part of Aristotle’s ideal educational dimensions not because of its utility or necessity but for “intellectual enjoyment in leisure”. “Innocent pleasures are not only in harmony with the perfect end of life, but they also provide relaxation”. Rhythm and melody have a character of rest, motion, and emotional ties. Understanding harmony in music helps young citizens recognize and strive for harmony in their souls. Music has the power to form character and therefore, children should be taught music but “only until they are able to feel delight in noble melodies and rhythms, and not merely in that common part of music in which every slave or child and even some animals find pleasure.” Aristotle omits instruments that require great skill, like the flute or harp, from education because they are “intended only to give pleasure to the hearer, and require extraordinary skill of hand.”

This distinction ties back to the idea that youths must not concern themselves with skills meant to serve others. Music shall not be pursued as a profession because professional musicians must play a “lower sort of music before an audience of a lower type” because music corresponds with the minds of the audience. Aristotle believes that if one is of a lower class and not a freeman, they will not understand the melodies that the freeman will understand. Since a performer must adapt music to the audience, they are studying a skill only to be used to please others and therefore the performer is unable to be an end in himself. Aristotle believes leisure provides relief and provides a way that a life of good quality can be obtained.

As men begin to grow old, Aristotle believes they should practice the gentler modes and melodies which is “suited to children of tender age, and possesses the elements both of order and of education”. Therefore, Aristotle concludes, “it is clear that education should be based upon three principles- the mean, the possible, and the becoming.” to provide an ideal system of education of the youth. A system that combines teaching what is useful, teaching moral goodness, and teaching pure knowledge for its own sake helps create a well-educated and virtuous citizen. This citizen will also, in turn, contribute to the overall goal of the prosperity of the city as a whole.