A REEVALUATION OF NE 8.10.1160B19-21.

It is generally assumed that Aristotle holds democracy to be a deviant regime (politeia) and, as such, it cannot be choiceworthy (haietos).(1) In fact Aristotle is usually cited as an anti-democrat if not as a severe and hostile critic of democracy.(2) One key section in the Aristotelian corpus that is usually cited to support this reading is Nicomachean Ethics 8.10. But the usual interpretation of Aristotle's supposed view of democracy is incorrect because in Nicomachean Ethics 8.10 he actually gives high praise to democracy, although that praise may be obscured by its presentation within the text.(3)

Before considering the NE 8.10 passage, we should address the contention that the praise of democracy is obscured in the text. In trying to answer this question, it is interesting to notice the reason for Thomas Hobbes' hostility toward Aristotle. Hobbes' hostility to Aristotle is due to his belief that Aristotle is either a democrat or one whose understanding of politics lends support to democracy. Hobbes favors absolute rule of the sovereign and construed Aristotle as a partisan of democracy, so this is one of his many reasons for rejecting Aristotle's arguments about political life.(4)

But why do others not see this democratic argument in Aristotle? I suggest that it is because he argues for democracy didactically and through the interaction of the several arguments presented throughout Politics 3. Yet this forces one to ask, why does Aristotle write in such an indirect way about democracy? The best answer to this question is to say that he is rhetorically addressing a specific audience.

The Problem of the Audience

Aristotle could not openly praise democracy because of whom he sets up as the rhetorically addresses as the audience of the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle describes who is excluded from being taught political science: the young, the inexperienced, the immature, and the incontinent (akrates) (NE 1.3.1094b23-a13), which describes qualities that exclude one from being a student of politics. Those who possess the opposite characteristics are considered suitable to study politics--i.e., the elder, the experienced, the mature, and the continent. In doing this Aristotle is defining the rhetorical audience of the text.

Lord and Aristide Tessitore have argued that the gentlemen (kalakagathoi) or morally serious men, are the audience Aristotle considered suitable for the study of politics.(5) Since these persons would be partisans of either, at best, aristocracy or, at least, a refined oligarchy, where education and good birth are stressed more than wealth simply, Aristotle would not get far praising democracy. Since these scholars (e.g., Lord and Tessitore) construe Aristotle's overall purpose in the Nicomachean Ethics to be teaching these morally serious persons, who will end up being the statesmen or lawgivers of most cities(6), it is reasonable that Aristotle would not desire to upset this audience by praising democracy. They would be upset because democracy is a regime towards which those serious persons are generally inclined to be hostile. Instead, he obscures his praise so only the careful reader will discover or become aware of his point.

NE 8.10.1160B19-21

The key sentence appealed to in order to support the opinion that Aristotle considers democracy to be a deviant regime, although the "least worst" of them, is Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1160b19-21: "hekista de mochtheron estin he demokratia; epi mikron gar parekbainei to tes politeias eidos."(7) Terence Irwin translates this sentence as follows: "Democracy is the least vicious [of the deviations]; for it deviates only slightly from the form of a [genuine] political system [politeias]."(8) Martin Ostwald translates it as, "[of wicked forms,] democracy is the least wicked, since its perversion of the constitutional kind of government is only small."(9) Hippocrates Apostle's translation reads, "of the forms of government which deviate, that of mob rule [demokratia] is the least evil, for this kind of state deviates only to a slight extent."(10) And last, but not least, Rackham's translation is the following: "Democracy is the least bad of the perversions, for it is only a very small deviation from the constitutional form of government."(11) All four major translations read "deviation" or "perversion" for parekbainei in relation to "evil" or "vicious" for mochtheron, where in the Greek text mochtheron is left unmodified.(12) Also parekbainei, although used in the second half of the sentence (following the semicolon), is the verb. Although mochtheron might be an adverb, it is equally likely to be an adjective used as a noun. What is to follow mochtheron is ambiguous, so the grammar of the sentence offers no clear way to understand the meaning of the sentence. But it is clear that the use of parekbainei is to link democracy, the object of the first part of the sentence and the object of the pronoun "it" in the second half of the sentence, to the to tes politeias eidos.

Simply speaking, all the above translations insert "of deviations" after "least vicious."(13) Yet there is no textual support to do so. Why is this done? There is only one reason to add words absent in the original text, to clarify the meaning of the passages. However, if it is left alone, it is unclear. But how are the translators to determine what to add? Through context of both the sentence and the surrounding paragraph. But even if one does both, the major translators' readings are nevertheless incorrect.

The sentence we have in the Greek text is ambiguous. For it is just as reasonable to say that "of regimes," not "of deviations," clarifies the ambiguity of the sentence. In fact, it is more reasonable to read "of regimes" modifying mochtheron, given the overall structure of the sentence, in that the object of the first half is the object of the second half, so that the subject of the second half would be what is modifying mochtheron. Read this way, instead of criticizing democracy this sentence can be taken as high praise of it, because democracy deviates only sightly from the form (eidos) of the regime. This suggests that democracy is closer to the eidos--be it understood as either form or essence--of the regime. Now, the eidos of the regime being spoken of here is of not any particular type of regime, but of any regime, its bare essence, what is most fundamentally common to any regime. But this includes the telos that any regime will aim toward--the essence which makes any regime a true regime rather than a deviation. For a "deviation" in NE 8.10.1060b19-21 is to be understood as a falling-short and thus, in this context, a falling-short of the true regime. The end, or telos, is implicitly included in any discussion of form, eidos. A regime is the form, eidos, which gives shape--in terms of not only defining the ruling offices of the polis but also defining what is understood to be in this particular polis to be the best way of life--to the polis. So the particular form which a given regime gives to the polis will, by necessity, imply also a given end (telos). In this light, every type of regime will have a different form. So every regime will have a different end (telos) toward which it strives. It strives for that end because the members of the city understand that end to be best, or the best way of life. Here is the interrelationship of eidos (form) and telos (end).

Given this, the to tes politeias eidos is not only the true regime but most likely the immediate candidate for the concept of the best regime. Therefore, the best regime is the regime whose form (eidos) aims at the end (telos), implying the way of life, that is best for human beings.

Change not Deviation

What is suggested by the context of the paragraph at NE 8.10? Is not the whole paragraph about deviations? No, because the only deviation clearly stated in the text is the deviation of tyranny from kingship (NE 8.10.1160b1). After that metabaines, a form of metabole (change, or revolution), rather than parekbainei (perversion) is what is discussed.(14) What is discussed after the only reference of deviation at 8.10.1160b1 is the change or transition from one regime to another. Although it is true that a perversion can be a form of change, it is not true that all changes are perversions, at least for Aristotle.(15) So the context of the paragraph, although it suggests a deviation, rather discusses trends in the changes of regimes: of aristocracy to oligarchy, of timocracy to democracy, and so on (NE 8.10.1160b12-19).

Yet someone critical of this reading of the text might point to Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1160b14 and argue that the transition from aristocracy to oligarchy is the result of the "badness of the rulers." Also, the text states that the rulers in an oligarchy don't distribute the city's goods equitably--hence justly--and they also assign the ruling offices to the same people, who tend to be wealthy (NE 8.10.1160b14-16). The text concludes by stating that the rulers in an oligarchy are vicious (mochtheron) rather than noble (agathon) (NE 8.10.1160b16-17). Would not this show that oligarchy is a perversion? But does not this question beg another question: what is it a perversion of, aristocracy or the just regime? I do not believe that these passages show that oligarchy is a perversion from aristocracy, but rather a perversion from the just rule of the best regime.

First, note that the "badness of the rulers" is the cause or reason for the change, or revolution, from aristocracy to oligarchy. By clearly labeling the rulers vicious (mochtheron), Aristotle leaves no doubt concerning the lack of nobility in oligarchy. But this does not help those who wish to read this whole passage as a discussion of regimes and their perversions, because the passage suggests that the badness of the rulers is the cause of a change from a particular regime type--aristocracy--to another regime--oligarchy. To reinforce this position, let us look at Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1160b22-23, where Aristotle summarizes the overall section in the following way: "These are the most frequent transitions from one regime to another, since they are the smallest and easiest." Clearly, this suggests that the crux of the passage is not about regimes and their perversions, but about a simple account of revolution, regime change.(16)

Aristotle is wholly silent concerning the cause of the change from timocracy to democracy. To get a negative view of democracy from this, one must assume that the same cause for the change from aristocracy to oligarchy accounts for the change from timocracy to democracy. That assumption is as unwise as the assumption that all change is perversion. Since no reason is clearly stated for the change from timocracy to democracy, we can hardly assume the change occurs because of the badness of the rulers, although this is the usual reading of the passage. Instead we are left without a clue concerning the character of democracy, whereas the picture of oligarchy is quite clear. Rather, the silence about the cause of the change from timocracy to democracy leaves open the possibility of praising democracy rather than condemning it, where no such room is possible for oligarchy. Also, the above two arguments reinforce the view that this passage is about change or revolution rather than a sketch of the perversions of the correct regimes.

Therefore, a careless or quick reader will assume that 1) there is no break in the discussion between deviations and the discussion of the trend of regime change; 2) the discussion of "change" (metabole) is really about "deviations" or, more commonly translated, "perversions" (parekbainei); 3) the reason for the change from aristocracy to oligarchy is the same for the change from timocracy to democracy; 4) one does not notice any indication concerning the character of democracy at Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1160b18-19; and 5) because the first two points, "of deviations" (or "of perversions") must be what is to modify mochtheron at Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1160b20. But these are conclusions of the reader who misses that 1) there is a difference between change and perversion; 2) the context shifts in a way to force us to examine each sentence for guidance for what the paragraph is about; and 3) the point of Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1160a19-21 is that democracy deviates only slightly from the form (eidos) of the regime.

An Elevation of the Status of Democracy

By reading this passage carefully, one can reasonably question the opinion that democracy is a perversion. Aristotle can be seen as a partisan for democracy, as both Thomas Hobbes and Algernon Sidney saw,(17) because, although democracy is said to be a deviation, it is a deviation of the to tes politeias eidos, from the form of the (true or pure) regime (NE 8.10.1160b20).

There are at least three other problematic issues commonly dwelt on in Nicomachean Ethics 8.10, that, when corrected, support a reasonable reading of Aristotle's support for democracy. The first problem with timocracy is that it said to be based on property. But in the Politics, rule based on property is said to be the basis of oligarchy. So what the Nicomachean Ethics calls timocracy is really oligarchy. Also, timocracy is not a regime discussed in the Politics, for what is described as "polity," or the "regime called regime," hardly resembles timocracy, as commonly understood from Plato's Republic. Timocracy in Plato is the regime of lovers of honor and thus is dominated by warriors.(18) Timocracy as described in Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1260a34-35 deals not with the regime dominated by the concern for honor but for a limited property qualification. Aristotle's description of "timocracy" as rule of property-owners makes it resemble oligarchy, in that property is one form of wealth. Also, the description of "timocracy" presented in Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1260a34-35 closely resembles the description of a form--or possibly two forms--of democracy mentioned in Politics 4.4.1291b29-40 and 4.6.1292b24-35. It is important to note that there is a form of democracy with assessment of eligibility for citizenship based upon a small property qualification.(19)

The second problem is that the position of timocracy as a regime type is compromised by its being "held to be a regime by the many" (NE 8.10.1160b17-18). Timocracy's position as a species of regime rests upon the opinion of the many (NE 8.10.1160a35). The important passage is at Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1260a34-35: "politeian d' auten eiothasin oi pleistoi kalein."(20) Translators tend to make the clause say, "the people call it polity." This reads the "polity" reading of politeia found at Politics 3.7 into the word "politeian" in this separate text. One must remember that the clause "politeian d' auten eiothasin oi pleistoi kalein" is referring to timocracy. So this clause does not suggest that the people call timocracy "polity," but questions the validity of calling timocracy a type of regime. I translate "politeian d' auten eiothasin oi pleistoi kalein" as "the many usually call it [timocracy] a regime." Instead of understanding "polity" as another name for timocracy, my translation of the clause suggests that the clause's purpose is to question the many's assertion that timocracy is truly a specific regime-type in Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.

The third problem is that the premise of three correct regimes and an equal number of deviations (NE 8.10.1160a32-33) is not shown in the text but merely asserted, yet one is left with two regimes--kingship and aristocracy--and only one deviation--tyranny. Given this, the text says of the regimes that timocracy is the worst (NE 8.10.1160a35). Surely, timocracy's position as both a regime and its choiceworthiness as a regime-type is put into question.

These three problems and their suggested solutions combine to undermine the assertion that democracy is the "least of the worst." The text clearly states that, of regimes, timocracy is the worst (NE 8.10.1160a35).(21)

Unless democracy is not a regime but a deviation, and given that democracy is never openly said to be a deviation in the text, we are left with the suggestion that, of regimes, democracy is not only more choiceworthy than timocracy but the most choiceworthy of all regimes. Democracy is the least vicious of all regimes and not merely the least vicious of the deviant regimes (NE 8.10.1160b19-21). So rather than rank democracy as the best of the bad regimes--Aristotle rejects doing this in the Politics--this reading suggests that democracy is the least bad of all regimes. Since all actual regimes must fall short in some way of the pure form (eidos) of the regime, this is indeed high praise.


1. Strauss puts forth the relationship between the polis and politeia (regime) in the most straightforward manner of anybody studying Aristotle. He says that a regime (politeia) is the term that Aristotle gives to that which orders the polis. Or said more philosophically, as Strauss puts it, the polis is the matter (hyle), whereas the politeia is the form (eidos) that gives shape to the matter (Strauss 1978, 45-46 and 1989 32-33; cf. Politics 3.1.1274b37-37 and 3.6.1278b8-12).

2. To name only three examples of those who hold this view see Farrar 1988, 266ff, Pascal and Gruengard 1989, 11, and Mulgan 1977, 60, 73.

3. Others (Nichols 1992, 114-121; Lindsay 1994, 1992a, 1992b) argue that Aristotle gives a qualified defense of democracy. Although I find their arguments, dealing with the Politics mostly, persuasive, I do not think they take the evidence and their arguments to their logical conclusions--that Aristotle praises democracy highly, albeit of a certain type, more than any other regime.

4. Hobbes 1991,

5. See Bodeus 1993, 97-132; Lord 1984, 1987; and Tessitore 1990.

6. See Bodeus 1993 and contrast Vander Waerdt 1991 and 1985.

7. The Greek is taken from the Bywater text (1894). Also see Grant 1885, as a very useful resource for its notes on passages of the Greek text.

8. Irwin 1988, 227.

9. Ostwald 1962, 234.

10. Apostle 1984, 153. Apostle translates demokratia as mob rule and politeia as democracy. In doing so he seriously mistranslates the text. Apostle does this to preserve democracy in the eyes of the presumed Aristotelian argument, a noble effort that needs to be done, but not through mistranslation.

11. Rackham 1934, 491.

12. I am translating parekbainei, a form of parekbaseis, as "deviations." Grant in his notes suggests it should be translated as either "perversions" or "abnormal growth" (1885, 2:270, note 1). Both Ostwald 1962 and Rackham 1934 translate it as "perversion," whereas Irwin and Apostle translate it as "deviation." The reason why I prefer translating it as "deviation" rather than "perversion" is found in J. A. Stewart, who argues that parekbaseis "seems to have been derived from the terminology of music" (1892, 2:307). If this is correct, then "deviation"--"missing the note" or "off the mark"--is a better translation of parekbaseis than "perversion."

13. Some examples of the traditional way of understanding Aristotle's regime typology, as well as the 1160b19-21 passage are the following: Lintott 1992, 115-16, Lockyer 1988, 57-58 and Mulgan 1977, 60-77.

14. Although I prefer "deviation" for parekbainei, most of the common translations and interpretation of NE 8.10 read it as "perversion." As Aristotle always begins with common opinion in order to get to a truer position, I will defer to common usage and treat parekbainei as "perversion" in the rest of this paper. Although I believe that translating it in this way will not make the usage of the word more consistent with Aristotle's intention rather it is to maintain some consistency with how the major interpreters translate this passage, who say that Aristotle holds democracy to be a bad thing. In this light "perversion" is clearly a bad thing, where "deviation" is not so clearly a bad thing.

15. See Politics 5.12.

16. See Politics 5.

17. Hobbes, who is hostile to Aristotle and views him as an opponent, nevertheless argues that the Scholastics of the Roman Church read Aristotle as arguing that if a regime is not popular in nature, it is tyrannical (1991, 471). Now if one looks at most of the Scholastics during Hobbes time and prior, a defence of popular rule was an extreme minority opinion. Marsilius of Padua is one of the notable exception that tends to prove this point. Rather the argument usually advanced by the Scholastics was a defence of an aristocracy combined with a limited monarch, which looked more like a executive or elected general than a king. (See Kontorowicz 1957 and contrast to Blythe 1992.)

I argue Hobbes knows that this is not true. Rather it is an attempt to imply that the Puritan who were advocating democracy were making a Catholic argument. But given that most Churchmen defended some form of aristocracy and not popular government, I argue that Hobbes is thus intentionally calling Catholic what believes to be really Aristotle's argument. If this is so, then Hobbes seems to read Aristotle as a defender of popular rule. This is how Hobbes supports my argument.

Sidney clearly sees Aristotle not only as a defender of popular rule restrained by the rule of law, but an advocate that it is the best regime for human being. This is shown by how Sidney consistently uses Aristotle to support his arguments concerning both the superiority of the rule of the many over the rule of kings, but also the superiority of the rule of law over the rule of wise men (1990, 84-85, 121-23, 133-34, 278-91 and 452-54).

18. See Ostwald 1962, 233, note 29.

19. See Politics 4.4.1291b37-92a1 and 4.6.1292b24-29.

20. In dealing with this passage I referred to Grant's Greek edition of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Grant, in his notes, also presents the "polity" view of this passage (1885, 2:269-70, note 1). In doing so he agrees with the way the passage tends to be read by most interpreters. I have argued in another paper that such a reading presupposes an interpretation of the use of so-called polity in the Politics that is read back into the Nicomachean Ethics.

21. Note: Later in the text, tyranny is also said to be the worst (NE 8.10.1160b8-9). Is this a textual inconsistency or are there two worst regimes? I suggest here that the latter may be the case, but if that is so this is another clue that democracy is not really a perverted or deviant regime, but rather might be one of the best regimes. Recall that Aristotle says the worst comes from the best (NE 8.10.1160b9). If timocracy and democracy are forms of each other, then democracy must be a best regime. But this would imply there are two best regimes, for kingship is said to be the best regime (NE 8.10.1160a35). How can there be two best regimes? It is generally assumed that there can be only one best of anything. But this is not so there can be more than one best if 1) there is a tie or 2) two different criteria are being used. Let us assume the latter is the case. Then there can be two best regimes in that there is a distinction between theory and practice. In this way kingship can be understood to be the best in theory and democracy to be the best in practice. Yet, the above chapter and the following chapters point to an even more shocking conclusion, that not only is democracy the best in practice but it also tie with kingship as best in theory. The reason for this, as it will be argued below is that limits that nature places upon the rule over human beings, i.e., nature does not strictly provide for natural rules and it also does not clearly distinguish between the naturally ruling sort and the naturally ruled sort.

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