We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Preamble to The Constitution of 1787.



Before we examine Aristotle's treatment of the many in Politics 3.9-3.13, we must address what most scholars consider to be the best regime for Aristotle, aristocracy. To examine aristocracy as the best regime in Aristotle's political thought, one usually considers Politics 7-8.(1) The regime presented there is said to be both the best regime and a regime traditionally understood as an aristocracy(2) although it is not given a proper name but it is merely called the best regime. Some Aristotle scholars claim that the regime of Politics 7 is not an aristocracy, but a "polity" or the "so-called" mixed regime.(3)

Those who argue that the best regime of Politics 7-8 is a "polity" have a difficult case to make. Their arguments are problematic in that they tend not to explain why, if the regime of Book 7 is a "polity," it was previously discussed in Politics 4. This would mean that the presentation of "polity" is repetitive. Now, it is true that Aristotle does repeat arguments, although he does so for a purpose usually different from the one in the earlier presentation, but such is not the a case in this context. Whether or not one takes the "mixed regime" to be a possibility, the regime of Politics 7 is no "mixed regime." It is the rule of leisured gentlemen, not the rule of both the gentlemen and the demos.(4)

Interpreters of the best regime in Politics 7 assume that that regime presented is an aristocracy given the statement at Politics 3.18.1288a40.(5) Another hint at its being an aristocracy is the acknowledgement that the regime presented in Politics 7 is a form of the rule of the few--that all but the virtuous and those of leisure are citizens,(6) although nowhere in the text of Politics 7 is that regime ever clearly or explicitly called an aristocracy; it is nevertheless reasonable to assume that it is one.(7)

Although formally nameless, the regime presented in Politics 7 is said to be the best regime (7.1.1223a14-15). Its namelessness coincides with the fact that, in discussing the best regime, Aristotle spends little time and gives little information, as Charles Kahn notes, "concerning the political institutions" of the best regime.(8) Instead we are given comments on the condition and preconditions for the best regime's existence. Could the namelessness of the best regime point to the possibility that no specific regime is, strictly speaking, the best regime? That the best regime is best for each given people.(9) Or that each people, due to its nature or makeup, is suited to a different type of regime, which is best for it?(10) Another possibility is that the namelessness of the best regime in Politics 7 is to force the reader to examine the general inherent limits of political life.(11)

The argument that the best regime of Politics 7 is not the presentation of the best regime but a discussion of the limits of politics is advanced by Mary Nichols and John Wilson.(12) They argue that the account of the best regime of Politics 7 is not actually the account of the best regime simply. Rather, it is an examination of the limits of the political in human life--what politics can and cannot do for human beings.(13) The importance of education and music in the regime presented in Politics 7 is to help the reader see that politics goes beyond ruling; forming the character of the rulers so they will rule justly will require a concern for their education.(14)

Wilson argumes that the regime of Politics 7 is far from the best regime, if one pays attention to the details of the text, in light of what has been taught in Books 4-6.(15) He further points out that the best regime of Politics 7 rests upon conventional slavery (7.10.1033a25-33), which was previously said to be unjust (1.3.1253b20-23 and 1.5.1254a18-21).(16) How can the best regime, which by implication should encompass the rule of justice, be the best if its existence depends upon injustice?

Again, the injustice in question in the so-called best regime is its dependence on slavery. To provide the leisure the rulers need for a contemplative life, the regime rests upon the fundamentally unjust act of having conventional slaves. So, Nichols and Wilson argue that the irony of having the best regime rely on unjust slavery--along with other problems in the presentation of the best regime--is intended to teach us the limits of politics.(17) But I suggest an alternative reading of the best regime presented in Politics 7.

The Best Regime vs. The Best Way of Life

The presentation of the best regime in Politics 7 starts not with the examination of which regime is best, but with the question of which way of life is best (7.1.1223a14-16).(18) This is important because, in starting with the best way of life, one assumes a direct correlation between the best way of life for an individual human being and the best way of life, or the best regime, for human beings. The two may not be the same, for human beings differ greatly in both their capacities and their desires.(19)

Another problem with starting with the question of which way of life is best, rather than which regime is best, is that there may also be no correlation between what is best for human beings as human beings and what is the best way to live together as a community. The concern with the best way of life, politically, is how all who live together will live together in the best way possible for all. The political concern for the best way of life cannot really entail that all will live the best way of life simply. This is shown in that only a few--in the so-called best regime of Politics 7--can attain that way of life, and the others are excluded from it.

The assumption, made by many commentators on Aristotle, that there is only one best way of life for all people that the best regime should embody is highly problematic. The first problem with this is the identity problem: what is best for a single human being, what is best for a group of human beings, and what is best for all human beings. This problem is the same as that regarding the one and the many.(20) Another problem is that what is best for one man is not necessarily best for another. What is best for a man must be particular, in that what is good for human beings varies greatly between individuals. To assume that the best way of life can be achieved politically leads to the stated injustice of the best regime in Politics 7. Thus, the limits of politics are not the limits of politics simply, but the limits of how the best can be applied to accommodate the inherent variability of all those living in a regime.

Aristocracy as Rule of the Best vs. the Best Rule

Let us examine not the so-called aristocracy of Politics 7,(21) but the aristocracy discussed in Politics 3. Aristocracy is first said to be the rule of the few for the common advantage (3.7.1279a34-37). But, in reality, the passage indicates that there are two understandings of aristocracy. The first is the rule of the best persons (3.7.1279a35), the second, that those who rule do so "with a view to what is best for the city and for those who participate in it" (3.7.1279a36).

At first glance, these two statements apparently correspond. But if that is the case, why are they stated separately? Also, by separating them, Aristotle suggests that aristocracy might be 1) the rule of the best person simply, regardless of the justness of his rule, or 2) the just rule of people who are not the best. The first stresses the virtue of the ruler. The second stresses the justice of the actions of those who in fact rule. But the question of number is missing in these two statements--except that they were qualified by the statement that "[the rule] of the few (but of more than one person) we are accustomed to call aristocracy." Aristocracy's status as a form of the rule of the few rests upon tradition and opinion, not up on the truth concerning what it is. Yet the qualifying statement, which defines aristocracy properly, excludes the importance of number.

Also, given the dismissal of the qualitative claim at Politics 3.8, aristocracy should be understood strictly within the context of the two specific claims made: 1) the rule of the best persons, or 2) rule simply, regardless of who is ruling. But the difficulty posed by these two claims leads us to a deeper examination than what is at first presented.

A deeper examination entails our raising some questions. Who are the best persons? What is just rule? The latter is answered clearly in the text. Just rule is the rule for the common advantage (3.12.1282b16-17). The former is left to be examined in Politics 3.10, where "the best" is replaced by "the respectable" (3.10.1281a14), which indicates that the claim that aristocracy is the rule of the best people ignores a important question--who are the best people and where are they? This question leads us to the problem of Politics 7, which I addressed earlier, applying what is best for one to all. If this is the case, the problematic--that is to say, unjust--character of the best regime of Politics 7--understood to be the rule of the best persons--leads us to question the validity, or at least the usefulness, of the rule of the best persons as the defining character of what is either aristocracy or the best regime.

But what happens if aristocracy is the rule of the best people most broadly understood, the rule by those who are best suited to rule justly? Such would collapse the two stated principles defining aristocracy, as well as the best regime, into the definition of aristocracy. This is suggested at the end of Politics 3.18. If aristocracy is the generic label for just political rule, it ceases to be a description of a specific form of political body.

However, such a consideration begs another question: what specific regime is the best regime? To suggest aristocracy, as is usually done, is to remain at an unuseful level of abstraction. What needs to be addressed is what particular and actual regime is best. Because aristocracy is reduced to meaning the best rule, it loses its specificity as a regime. So any regime that rules best can legitimately be called an aristocracy. And if aristocracy can encompass many regime possibilities, it is no longer useful as a regime type.

This will make us examine the other regimes--for one of them must be the best regime in either theory or practice.(22) In practice, the best regime of any given people will depend upon what is best for them and, therefore, will vary from one set of circumstances to another,(23) whereas what is best in theory is true simply and will not vary.(24) So, we must look elsewhere--away from aristocracy as finally understood as best rule--for the best regime. The other regime usually considered the best in both theory and practice is the regime usually called "polity," which is mentioned in Politics 3.7 and supposedly discussed in more detail in Politics 4. Many scholars--of whom Mary Nichols and William Bluhm are the two best examples--suggest that "polity" is the best regime. Because scholars point to "polity" as the best form of popular rule, it is necessary to examine it.


1. Mulgan 1977, 100-101.

2. See Mulgan 1977, 104; Strauss 1978; Lord 1982 and 1987; and Bartlett 1994b.

3. See Bluhm 1962 and Johnson 1988 and 1990. Both Bluhm and Johnson's attributing the regime of Politics 7 as a mixed regime is unconvincing in that regime is not a form of popular rule. Since "polity" or the so-called mixed regime is a form of popular rule, the claim that in the regime discussed in Politics 7 there will be no demos, but rather only slaves, clearly eliminates the possibility of that regime being a form of popular government.

4. Lord 1987; Bartlett 1994b; and Strauss 1978, 36-37.

5. Strauss 1978; Mulgan 1977, 88-93; Lord 1987; and Bartlett 1994b.

6. Lord 1982 and 1987.

7. Mulgan 1977, 88-101 and Strauss 1978.

8. Kahn 1989, 370, 375-378.

9. See Mulhern 1972.

10. The support for this reading is the division of three types of multitudes--kingly, aristocratic, and political--at Politics 3.17.1288a6-18.

11. Nichols 1991 and Zuckert 1983.

12. See Nichols 1991 and Wilson 1992.

13. Nichols 1991.

14. Nichols 1991, 151-63. Also compare Lord 1982 and Bartlett 1994b.

15. Wilson 1992.

16. Also see Wilson 1992.

17. Wilson 1992 and Nichols 1991, 163-65.

18. See Nichols 1991, 125-36. Also compare Bartlett 1994b.

19. Compare Bartlett 1994b.

20. Contrast to Plato's Meno.

21. Note that this regime is founded on 1) leisure, 2) education, and 3) good birth. Earlier in the Politics a form of oligarchy is said to encompass these claims. I suggest that strictly speaking the regime of Politics 7 is an oligarchy not an aristocracy.

22. For an excellent discussion of the relationship of theory to practice in Aristotle, see Salkever 1991.

23. Compare to Mulhern 1972.

24. See NE 6.1-2.

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