In recent scholarship on Aristotle's political thought there has been an ever-growing trend to treat "polity," or so-called the mixed regime, as Aristotle's central political teaching on the best regime. But this view--as well as the traditional one to see "polity" as a regime that is an alternative to the best regime--is not only a misinterpretation of Aristotle's political teaching, but a misreading of the text. It ignores or overlooks the plausible argument for democracy--the rule of the many--being restrained by law as the best regime. I argue that the view of "polity," which includes the "mixed regime," of Politics 4 is an anachronistic reading of the "mixed constitution" of the Middle Ages into Aristotle's political thought.(1)

One of the recent works on Aristotle's Politics which embodies this trend to treat "polity" as the best regime, if only in practice, is Mary Nichols' Citizens and Statesmen. Nichols sees the practical teaching of Aristotle's Politics as the necessity of turning regimes into "polities," which is the title of the middle chapter of her book.(2) Nichols argues for "polity"--the "mixed regime"--which supports the existence of the middle class as a middle ground between two opposing views of Aristotle's political teaching. The two sides(3) she opposes are 1) the aristocratic view, which has Aristotle advocating the rule of leisured gentlemen (as argued by Leo Strauss, Delba Winthrop, and Carnes Lord, to name a few), and 2) the radical democratic view, which has Aristotle supporting radical participatory democracy so that human beings can fulfill their political natures (as represented by William Sullivan, Hannah Arendt, and Ronald Beiner, among others).(4) I think that it is ultimately Nichols' Aristotelian desire for moderation that leads her to see "polity" as Aristotle's best regime. In doing so, she is not alone. William Bluhm, several years before Nichols, argued that "polity" is in fact Aristotle's best regime.(5)

Bluhm argues that "polity" is the best regime because it fulfills the teleological nature of the city. In other words, "polity" is the regime which most fully achieves man's political nature.(6) However, Bluhm's analysis does not offer an argument about "polity" as simply as it does about the rule of the many, which takes into account the correction to stabilize a regime presented in Politics 4. In effect, Bluhm argues that the rule of the many, supported by the stability fostered by the creation of a middling class, is Aristotle's best regime. How can such a regime be called "polity"? Rather, could it be understood as a qualified defense of democracy achieved through "political mixing"?(7)

Nichols' position similarly cannot be defended. She criticizes Bluhm's account of "polity" because it overstates the virtues of the middle class, while understating the political necessity of statesmanship.(8) Nichols defends "polity" because it provides a place for statesmanship. But would not a qualified account of democracy equally require statesmanship? Nichols supports "polity" only because she does not fully account for Aristotle's deceptive statements about the defective character of democracy in the Politics. Just because the regime typology of Politics 3.7 identifies democracy as a defective regime does not mean that this is Aristotle's last word on the subject.(9) The several arguments supporting the rule of the many in Politics 3--their superiority in both deliberating and judging, their superior ability to provide for the city and the relative stability of their desires, and that their desires are less dangerous than those of the few who seek either honor or power--are arguments for a virtuous form of democracy and not "polity."

Uses of "Politeia"

"Polity" is what many scholars translate politeia as. It has been argued that politeia has two different meanings. The first is that it is the form of the polis; the second, that it is a specific regime type. By form of the polis, I mean the defining shape which a political community takes. Strauss suggests that the polis--the political community--is the matter (i.e., the raw material) and the politeia is the form--the particular shape--which the matter is to take.(10) One can only know what a thing is when one perceives both the form and the matter, else it would be unintelligible.

When referring to politeia as the form, as is traditionally done in Ernest Barker's translation of Politics, the word is often translated as "constitution."(11) Yet there is a problem with using "constitution" in that politeia is not to be understood as a written constitution such as we understand the term today.(12) French translations usually render politeia as gouvernment, but this is also misleading to modern readers, in that changes in "governments" that occur after electoral defeats do not necessarily mean a change in the form of a political community. Strauss and his students suggest translating politeia as regime,(13) with which I agree because "regime" is the least misleading term.

The second use of politeia, as a specific regime type, is the source of contention. Scholars like Lord and Nichols--as well as Barker--translate politeia, in this instance, differently when it is used to refer to the generic understanding of politeia, i.e., regime. In the use of politeia to refer to a particular form of regime, they translate it as "polity," thus agreeing with traditional usage.

Nichols says that Lord translates politeia in two different ways "for the sake of clarity."(14) With respect to doing so, Richard Robinson, in his translation of and commentary on Aristotle's Politics, argues that,

English scholars often use the word "polity" for this specific sense, thus removing the ambiguity. This is sometimes a good thing to do in discussing Aristotle; but it is a bad thing to do in translating him, because a translation is inaccurate if it is less ambiguous than the original. It is particularly bad when there is considerable doubt in the Greek which sense Aristotle intends.(15)

Robinson goes on to suggest that, in the text of The Politics, it is difficult to determine the sense in which Aristotle intends politeia to be used or even what is to be understood by the specific use of the word. It is ironic that an English classical scholar--belonging to a group usually opposed to the Straussian hermeneutical method--uses the word more consistently than a student of Strauss in his translation of Politics.(16)

To translate politeia when it is referring to a specific regime type as "polity" removes the ambiguity that is inherent in Aristotle's text. There must be a reason he labels this regime with the name common to all regimes. He must be pointing to something. The ambiguity in the text when politeia is translated consistently usually leaves the reader very confused. Thus, the ambiguity in the text leads to ambiguity in argument. Therefore, to remove ambiguity for clarity's sake does not allow the reader to see for himself whether or not the ambiguity of the argument makes the case for this regime any less persuasive. Note that the absence or presence of ambiguity in both the text or the argument might be a textual clue, provided by the author, that one needs to look more closely at the text itself. The ambiguity might be a purposeful clue to force the reader to read between or even under the lines, in order to get at what the author really desires to teach.(17)

The Regime called Regime

On the problematic character of the presentation of the regime called politeia in Aristotle's Politics, Patrick Coby describes the problem of understanding "polity":

Polity is first introduced as the correct form of rule by the many (3.7.3), also as a regime where the people possess military virtue (3.7.4, 2.6.16), and later as a democratic regime under law (3.17.4). Mainly through polity is a mixed regime, one which includes the rich, the poor and the middle class--if a middle class exists (4.8.3, 4.12-4.16).(18)

Coby's accurate description of how the text of the Politics presents the regime referred to as "polity" leaves one confused. After reading what Aristotle's text says about "polity," one is left with questions.(19)

First, what is "polity"? The reader as the above citation shows, is given several different definitions of the regime called "polity" with no indication as to which is the best definition. The best definition cannot include everything that is presented in Coby's list because some of the definitions contradict each other. I count at least four different definitions of "polity," and again most of those definitions are neither mutually exclusive nor do they easily embrace each other. Aristotle does not at any time in the text state how the other, earlier definitions of "polity" are defective, and he nowhere clearly presents a final definition for the regime called "polity."

Also, as additional evidence of the confusing character of the presentation of "polity," "polity" is said in Politics 4.8 to be a "mixture," or more textually correct, a "blending" of oligarchy and democracy (4.8.1293b33-34). Robinson makes a very interesting point by asking, how does the mixing of two defective regimes produce a good regime?(20) How can the mixing or blending of defective regimes produce a virtuous one, unless one assumes that the defective regimes are not merely defective but are only inclined to be defective? In other words, these regimes are not so defective in nature, but their rule can and usually leads to corruption. This line of reasoning might suggest that the argument which asserts the defectiveness of those regimes may have been an overstatement rather than an accurate examination concerning their true nature.

Second, do all these descriptions refer specifically to the regime called regime (i.e., "polity") or to something else? Is the discussion of "polity" that occurs in Politics 3.7 continued in Book 4? Or is that a completely different discussion? Could there be a difference between the regime called politeia and the mixed regime? These two regimes are generally thought to be synonymous. But are they? Could they be two wholly different discussions, rather than a single teaching about a regime type? It is commonly assumed that the main reason these two arguments are two halves of the same argument in that one needs a more complete description of the "regime called regime" (i.e., "polity") in Politics 3.7 than one receives, and Politics 4 appears to fulfill this need. If so, however, the "regime called regime" should be seriously considered as a possible regime type.

In fact, in Politics 3, only three regimes are fully discussed: 1) universal kingship (pambasileia), 2) oligarchy, and 3) democracy. Thus, it is very significant that the regime called regime (i.e., "polity") remains without a clear description of its defining principles until Book 4. This can only be the case if the discussion of the "mixed regime" is somehow linked to the regime called "polity."

Those who hold the view that "polity" is a regime assert that the mixing is a reference to the mixing or blending of two differing regimes--oligarchy and democracy.(21) However, if one reads Book 4 without the preconception of "polity," the discussion there seems to indicate the means and methods for strengthening the political stability of any regime by combining two or more differing elements together within a regime.(22) Could the teaching about the mixed regime be a teaching concerning how to preserve any regime by balancing the forces that will exist in every regime, the rich and the poor? Could the teaching about the middle regime be a misreading about how to moderate, as well, the tension between the rich and the poor?

In response to the above questions, let us beware of one very important fact: nowhere in the text of Politics does Aristotle use the term "mixed regime." He does say that a regime is a blending (michis) of oligarchic and democratic elements (4.8.1293b33-34). But the use of the word "blend" is not an adjective for "regime" (politeia). Thus, there is no explicit or implicit "mixed regime" in Aristotle, especially in Politics 4.8. It is true that there is a discussion of blending of regimes within a regime to make that regime more stable, but this is not a discussion of a specific regime type. Rather, this discussion is a generic discussion of what composes a regime and how to ensure some form of regime stability. Again, the prescription of the blending of democracy and oligarchy at Politics 4.1293b33-43 is not a suggestion of combining two regimes and making them one but an examination of the blending of elements or social classes that compose the city (i.e., the rich and the poor).(23)

One must note that the city is in fact composed of differing elements, which will have differing beliefs concerning the best way of life. The rich will tend to support the oligarchic view that the wealthy should rule, and the poor will tend to hold the democratic view that the many should rule. Aristotle labels these elements in the city by the regime's claim that they support. He does not mean to reject his earlier discussion concerning the regime, where he says that the regime of a city will present one view of the best way of life as the best for all and that view will be authoritative. By being authoritative, it will politically overrule the other claims.

This does not mean to say that the other views will disappear. Politics 4 presents the argument that regime stability and justice requires some form of blending of the claims of what is just among competing elements within a regime. Although Politics 4 seems to suggest that a regime, if it desires stability, will need to redress claims of the non-ruling elements within, it, the text still suggests that those other elements and their corresponding claims will lack authoritative status in the regime. Also, although the other elements within a regime lack authoritative status, it is possible for the counter claims to obtain authoritative status in a regime. When that happens it is called revolution.(24) Thus, Politics 4 is no concession to political pluralism. Rather, it is an argument about how any regime may arrive at political justice and thereby to achieve political stability.

If we take the argument about the "mixed regime" seriously, we would have to reject the fundamental position held by Aristotle consistently in Politics that the regime is the political expression of the authoritative view of a city concerning the best way of life. The idea that a regime can hold as authoritative two opposing views of the best way of life would suggest to the serious student of Aristotle that such a regime would be either schizophrenic--this is to say, founded upon incompatable principles--and thus undesirable or theoretically and/or practically impossible, in that one claim concerning what is the best way of life will be more authoritative politically than the others in that regime. If so, then, in either case, it would be doubtful whether Aristotle seriously advocates such an argument.

Let us for a moment consider Politics 4.7, where it is argued that the politeia called politeia is brought up again as a possible regime type. It is raised as a fifth form of regime that due to "its infrequency, ... escapes the notice of persons trying to count the kinds of constitutions" (3.8.1293a35-b1). Originally only two regimes are discussed, oligarchy and democracy. Aristotle also says that we must not forget aristocracy and monarchy as well as the "regime called regime." But it is very interesting what Aristotle does here? He introduces monarchy as a regime type, but monarchy is not a specific regime type discussed in Politics 3.7.

Monarchy is the generic title of the rule of one person, incorporating both kingship and tyranny. In speaking of monarchy (monarchia) rather than of kingship (basileia), Aristotle uses the generic title--which refers not to the type of rule but the number of rulers--as a specific regime type. If there is no need to distinguish between the good rule of the one and the defective rule of the one here, then why make the distinction in the rule of the few and of the many? Also, does not the collapse of the virtuous rule of the one with the defective rule of the one under a single regime type suggest that such is also possible with other regimes--especially with the rule of the many? The above passage in Politics 4.7 leads one to question even further the belief that the "regime called regime" is an actual regime possibility, both as a regime type and as the best regime. This passage suggests the possibility that the rule of the many is but one regime, and the need to give it two names comes from the need to adhere strictly to the regime typology established in Politics 3.7.

Third, can one take it as simply given, as do most proponents of the "polity" interpretation, that there are in fact two possible and different meanings for the word politeia in Aristotle's text? Is politeia both 1) the generic name for the form of the given political community, and 2) the specific name of a particular form of regime? If this view is not the case, then translating politeia with two differing words will be extremely misleading. In light of this distinction, Robinson argues in commenting on Politics 3.7.1279b4, that in the use of politeia,

we have a new sense of "constitution," the specific sense in which "constitution" is one of the six species of constitution in the generic sense. This is what may be called a "genus-species" ambiguity, where the same word is used to mean now a genus and now one of the species of that genus.(25)

The creation of this "genus-species" ambiguity undermines the strength of the argument that "polity" is either a regime possibility or the best regime.

Again, the view that Aristotle's discussion of the politeia called politeia represents a specific regime type is an erroneous reading of Aristotle's Politics. Instead, one must be clear about the text in order to see what Aristotle has to say as if one had have never read or heard about his work before.

The Use of 'Regime' in Aristotle

Let us look at what Aristotle has to say about the regime that is labeled "regime" or, as most translators have it, "polity." Aristotle only uses "polity" as a specific regime type in the Politics. Nowhere else in Aristotle's works is the regime of "regime" to be found. Is it not interesting that he does not mention this regime anywhere else? Some scholars do argue, however, that the regime called "regime" is mentioned once in Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1160a34-35, derived from the following Greek clause: "politeian d' auten eiothasin oi pleistoi kalein."(26) They read the clause to mean, "the people usually call it polity." But, this reads the so-called "polity" reading of politeia into the word "politeian." One must note, however, that the clause, "politeian d' auten eiothasin oi pleistoi kalein," is referring to timocracy. The clause does not suggest that the people call timocracy "the regime called regime," but it questions the validity of calling timocracy a type of regime. I translate "politeian d' autên eiôthasin oi pleistoi kalein" as "usually the many call it [timocracy] a regime." Instead of understanding "the regime called regime" as another name for timocracy, a sound translation of the clause suggests that the clause's purpose is to question the many's assertion that timocracy is a specific regime type.

Note that timocracy is not a regime discussed in the Politics, and what is described as "regime called regime" hardly resembles a timocracy, as commonly understood to derive from Plato's Republic. Timocracy in Plato is the regime that loves honor and thus is a regime dominated by warriors. Timocracy as described in Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1260a34-35 deals not with the regime dominated by the concern for honor but a regime with a limited property qualification. The matter is clarified by Martin Ostwald, in the introduction to his translation of the Nicomachean Ethics:

Contrary to Plato who in Republic 8.545a-b derives 'timocracy' from time ("honor"), Aristotle derives it from timema ("property qualification") and means by it a government of property owners, i.e., of those who have a stake in the country by reason of the property they own.(27)

Yet Aristotle's description of "timocracy" as rule of the property owners more closely resembles oligarchy, in that property is one form of wealth. Also, the description of "timocracy" presented at Nicomachean Ethics 8.10.1160a34-35 also closely resembles the description of a form--or possibly two forms--of democracy mentioned at Politics 4.4.1291b29-40 and 4.6.1292b24-35. So it is ultimately unclear what exactly the reference to "polity" in Nicomachean Ethics really means.

Further, the supposed discussion of "regime called regime" in Politics 4 is not about a specific regime type. Rather, it is a generic discussion of any regime and what elements constitute it.(28) The discussion of the "mixed regime" is thus not about a specific type of regime but a discussion concerning how to stabilize any regime. This view makes sense structurally in that Book 5 is about revolution, or political change, and preservation, and Book 6 concerns the establishment of regimes (i.e., foundings).

The first time politeia is used in the Politics, it is used as the proper title of Plato's Republic, for the real title of Republic in Greek is Politeia. Also, Aristotle's first use of politeia to describe a specific regime type occurs in Book 2.6.1265b29, in his discussion of Plato's Laws. There he refers to a regime which "is intended to be neither democracy nor oligarchy, but the one midway between them" (2.6.1265b28). He classifies this "midway" regime as one between democracy and oligarchy. Lord understands this regime to be a "mixed regime," so he translates the word politeia in the text as "polity." The text also mentions that this regime created by Plato is "based on those who bear [heavy] arms" (2.6.1265b29), which ties into the reference of "polity" at Politics 3.7.1279b1-4. Yet this discussion deals with Aristotle's examination of the type of regime argued for in Plato's Laws. And the regime of the Republic is also likened to an armed camp (2.5.1264a25).

Given that the first use of politeia as a specific regime type is in reference to the regime of Plato's Laws and also to the rule of the guardians in Plato's Republic, we should not be too quick to think such a regime is considered a choiceworthy one in Aristotle's eyes. Aristotle criticizes both the Laws and the Republic. The similarity to Plato's regime in both the Republic and the Laws to the specific regime called politeia leads us to question whether it was really ever presented seriously as the best practical regime.

As mentioned earlier, the main line of reasoning that supports the view that "polity" or, more correctly, "the regime called regime" is both a regime and the virtuous rule of the many is that Aristotle clealy says that democracy is a defective form of regime. But throughout the whole of the Politics the only regime which is consistently described as the rule of the many is called democracy, not "the regime called regime." The reasoning holds that, if democracy is a defective regime, the virtuous rule of the many must have a different name. Leo Paul S. de Alvarez observes in the supposed discussion concerning "the regime called regime" (Politics 4.8.1294a24-26), Aristotle "does not speak of virtue as an end of the constitution [of "polity"], but rather of freedom and wealth,"(29) which would severely undermine this line of reasoning. Also, the argument for "polity" (the mistranslation of "the regime called regime") tends to dismiss the possibility that democracy is the only regime which is the rule of the many and that democracy can embody both the virtuous rule of the many--in that they are restrained by law, and the defective rule of the many.

Plato's Eleatic Stranger, at Statesman at 307d-e, makes such an argument about democracy. The Stranger calls both the virtuous rule of the many and the defective rule of the many by the same name, democracy. If Aristotle actually agrees with the argument made by Plato's Eleatic Stranger, it is possible that Aristotle's apparently negative view of democracy and his apparent suggestion that the "regime called regime" is the virtuous rule of the many is a surface deception to mislead the careless reader. If this is the case, and he really desires to present a positive teaching about democracy leading to the possibility that it might be the best regime in practice, then why does he not come out and say it? Why does he takes pains to present a deceptive teaching about "the regime called regime"? Why does he not simply give a defence of democracy? First, it's hard to do that if democracy is both a good regime and a defective one. Is it not easier to overstress the negative and to allow the thoughtful reader to see through the ambiguous and confusing discussion about the "regime called regime"? But this is not what is going on here. Aristotle's teaching about the "regime called regime" is not deceptive, it is simply not there. Rather, the teaching concerning the "regime called regime" is one of interpretation rather than text. This is clearly seen by discerning readers.

One such thoughtful yet ultimately critical reader of Aristotle was Thomas Hobbes. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that Aristotle is a democrat, as well as an advocate of law.(30) Hobbes considers Aristotle as naive about man's ability effectively to rule, so Hobbes opts for more autocratic forms of rule.(31)

One can see though the "polity" reading very easily--as Hobbes does--because the text is full of ambiguous and confusing language. However, for the reader who does not know Greek, translators must refuse to make things more "clear" than they are in the original and abstain from spurious translations. If the argument of the text is both ambiguous and confusing, then supporting the "regime called regime" as a specific regime could not be persuasive to the careful reader of the text. Another reason why the text was incorrectly read for so long was that it was mostly read as a systematic-philosophic treatise by so many interpreters of Aristotle, who ignored the varying rhetorical forms within the text. The tendency to read Aristotle's Politics merely as a treatise also has led to the smoothing over of the rough spots--arguments which are either not developed or developed poorly--in order to present a wholly consistent teaching (e.g., the "regime called regime," turned into "polity"). This smoothing over makes problematic arguments into more palatable ones, which are more consistent with earlier arguments. In other words, these interpreters take the text not as a possible argument to be proven or disproven but as holy writ, which is not what Aristotle intended. Rather, he intended it to serve the pedagogic purpose of instructing his students how to think through political arguments and to judge their validity. Most readers of the Politics have failed, and continue to fail, to do this. Others, like Hobbes and Sidney, and occasionally St. Thomas Aquinas, have been successful.

In light of this, Aristotle's positive teaching is not about the possibility of so-called "polity" but the possibility that democracy is not as defective a regime as was argued earlier. Not only is the earlier devaluation of democracy to be questioned, but the possibility that a particular form of democracy--one in which the many is to be restrained by the rule of law--is to be seriously considered as a contender for the best regime for Aristotle.

One is forced to wonder, why has the view of the "regime called regime," or so-called polity, as an actual regime type been so persuasive? And not only has it been persuasive, it has been understood to be the authoritative view of how to read the section which deals with both the "regime called regime" of Book 3 and the so-called "mixed-regime" of Book 4.(32) The fact is that many interpreters see "polity" as a classical means to defend the creation of a regime that supports the existence of a middle class. Such a middle class regime also includes an understanding of the separation of powers. But this is a very misleading view of Aristotle's text.(33)

Desiring the Mixed Regime

Why do scholars find the "mixed regime" something to be desired? From the perspective of contemporary politics, the mixed regime looks very attractive to those who hold either a conservative or a liberal viewpoint. The "mixed regime" teaching looks attractive to conservatives in that it appears to give classical support for separation of powers and for limited government.(34) The "mixed regime" teaching looks attractive to liberals because a regime looks like a system of power-sharing among differing elements within the political community, granting them each so much access to actual political authority, i.e., pluralism.(35) Yet, as Leo Paul S. deAlvarez has noted, it is not the ancients who desire the establishment of "polities" and hence pluralistic politics, but rather the moderns--with the exception of Hobbes.(36) To understand the reason why the ancients are silent about establishing "polities," we must again return to what Aristotle teaches about the nature of the regime.

Aristotle puts forth the position that the regime of a political community will order and structure the way of life of the entire community--right down to the ordering of the family--toward some conception of the good and the noble way of life that all men should strive to obtain. Because there are many--if not valid, then authoritative--opinions about the best way of life, there will be many regimes. So what truly defines a regime will be the authoritative opinion concerning the best way of life that is held by those who actually have political power in the polis.(37) In light of the nature of what constitutes the political character of a regime a "mixed regime" would be a contradiction in terms, because a regime proper cannot have several different authoritative opinions concerning what is just and what is not and still remain a workable political system. Also, Aristotle's presentation of the political character of the regime does not provide a basis to foster political pluralism. To allow for the possibility of pluralism one must do away with the authoritative status of the regime's view of what is just and allow the other claims that exist within the regime to have equal status. Political pluralism would make Aristotle's teaching about the regime politically impossible.

Some scholars of political thought, such as Stephen Holmes, reject Aristotle's understanding of the regime in defense of liberal pluralism.(38) They reject it not because they disagree with its premises or conclusions about political life in a Greek polis but on other grounds: in modern political life, they maintain, there is a multiplicity of political communities all legitimately claiming the right (or power) to form our way of life; and the centralization of the political, which the classical idea of the regime represents, would be totalitarian. Thus modern politics favors liberal pluralism instead of politics classically understood.

In the classical world, the regime of the polis was the political unit that claimed authoritativeness in forming the character, or soul, of its subjects and citizens. Politics controlled everything. Pluralists find this understanding of politics troubling because they advocate a politics of openness and tolerance, as in that of John Stuart Mill in his On Liberty. The pluralist would see classical politics, with its concern for character development and comprehensiveness, as a closed society and, therefore, politically repressive. Such is the case with Karl Popper's claim that Plato and the classical teaching about politics appear to be fundamentally totalitarian.(39) The pluralist Popper rejects the understanding of the political that is presented in the writings of classical political theorists.

In the Greek polis, as well as in Aristotle's polis, political authority was unified under the regime.(40) Although alternative views of the best way of life, different from the authoritative opinion about it did exist in a polis, they lacked authority unless they overturned the regime in a revolution. Thus, each regime would have only one authoritative understanding of the best way of life. No regime could have more than one, or that regime would be in a condition of continual civil war. Yet the regime understood as "polity"--viewed along with the discussion of the "mixed regime" of Book 4--would be a regime with two authoritative opinions about the best way of life, since it is a mixture of democracy and oligarchy, which have different claims about which way of life is best. Democracy claims that freedom and free birth are best, while oligarchy claims that the life of wealth and profit is best. But a regime that is in fact a regime, one that forms the character of its citizens, cannot be sending its citizens mixed signals about the best way of life.(41) If it did, it would be creating citizens without a commonly held view of the common good, and such a regime would itself be schizophrenic, divided about its true nature. Can such a regime really be a regime? Using Aristotle's own criteria of regime, I think not.

Yet the "mixed regime" is still an important political reality that those who study political things must confront. The reason we must address the "mixed regime" is not that it is a theoretical claim derived from Aristotle's political thought, but from the necessity to deal with the political reality of the "mixed constitution" as a political product of both the Roman Empire and the Christian Middle Ages.(42)

The Historical Origins of the Mixed Constitution

It is not Aristotle, but Polybius, who first discusses the mixed constitution, in referring to the Roman Empire. Polybius' description connects the ideas of a mixed constitution and the Roman Empire's handling the issue of how the localities were to be ruled. The idea of empire, of political rule encompassing areas of large size and including numerous and diverse peoples, makes the idea of regime difficult in that shaping the character of all the subjects of the empire will require massive force and eliminate the diversity of views about the best way of life. In other words, the imposition of the classical idea of regime on a political entity the size of the Roman Empire would only lead to tyranny. Practical political men, I suggest, during this time understood this well and did not attempt to shape the character of all the subjects under the Empire; rather, they kept the peace. If the formation of the character of the subjects were to occur, it was to be done by local authorities who swore obedience to the Empire. The compromise was that the Empire kept the peace and kept the local authorities from challenging Imperial hegemony, but the local authorities continued to form the moral character of the subjects. The Empire would not interfere too much in what the local communities propagated, as long as what was advocated did not threaten the peace or challenge the Empire's hegemony.(43)

With the advent of Christianity, the formation of souls and characters, previously unified in political rule, became separated into the role of the King (secular rule) and the role of the Church (spiritual rule). In the Middle Ages, the political concept of empire--the remnant of the Roman Empire--operated within the political reality of a multiplicity of smaller political communities which exercised de facto rule over the people and territories in the immediate area. This mixture of separate spheres of political power creates the concept of the mixed constitution.(44)

It should be noted that during this time, there is no record of any political theorist or political actor having knowledge of Aristotle's Politics. Aristotle's Politics was lost and was not rediscovered until the late Middle Ages. In other words, the political reality of the "mixed constitution" was working well without the intellectual link with Aristotle. Also, the traditional intellectual defense of the "mixed constitution" until St. Thomas Aquinas usually looked toward St. Augustine.

With Aquinas and the rediscovery of Aristotle, there was a demand to justify or to rectify Christian practices with, not only philosophy, but politics.(45) The attempt to reconcile Christian teachings with classical philosophy is St. Thomas's principle intention. Since it is clearly Aquinas who links the "mixed constitution" of political practice with Aristotle, one begins to see how the identification of the two could today be so intellectually commonplace.

Also, it is again Aquinas who appears to develop the argument, as James Blythe indicates in Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages, that the "mixed constitution" derived from Aristotle is the best regime for human beings on Earth. In fact, Aquinas argues that in Heaven only royal rule of God exists while on Earth the best regime is not mere kingship, because of the objections to absolute kingship made by Aristotle (Politics 3.15-17) that it is unstable politically.

So both the identification of "mixed constitution" as the best regime and the tendency to see the intellectual origins of the "mixed constitution" in Aristotle's Politics began with Aquinas and are handed down in the Scholastic tradition. Yet, as I have demonstrated above, one does not encounter in Aristotle's Politics any substantiation of such preconceptions of what others attribute to him.

But why does Aquinas begin this erroneous reading of Aristotle's Politics? There are two possible answers. First, Aquinas did not know Greek and his understanding of Aristotle is dependent upon translations, especially, as Blythe shows, that of William of Moerbecke's for Aristotle's Politics. Also, Blythe and Nicolai Rubinstein demonstrate that Moerbecke makes several misleading translations within the Politics. Aquinas, unaware of this, probably construed Moerbecke's text as what Aristotle in fact wrote.(46) If this is the case, then we should not place too much weight on what Aquinas says concerning the issue of the "mixed constitution."

Second, in his attempt to make Aristotle acceptable to Christianity, Aquinas may not have attempted to understand Aristotle as Aristotle understood himself but rather to read him with the principle of "interpretive charity"--a common hermeneutical practice in the Middle Ages. If this is so, then Aquinas does not give us Aristotle qua Aristotle, but an Aristotle that has been sanctified, or made compatible with Christian teachings. This does not deny that Aristotle may in fact be compatible with Christian teachings. This also does not deny that Aquinas in other places does much justice to Aristotle. But, with regard to both the best regime and the claim that the "mixed constitution" has its origins in Aristotle, Aquinas does, in fact, err.

The Possible Origins of the Idea of Limited Government

Let us return to the history of the "mixed constitution." In the modern era, or since the seventeenth century, there has been a movement to centralize political power and authority for the sake of giving more power to national leaders against imperial leaders. Practically, this has entailed the burgeoning role of absolutist states in France, e.g., Louis XIV, and in Russia, e.g., Catherine the Great.(47) However, theoretically, the idea of absolute authority comes to be represented in Hobbes' theory of the idea of the unity of the Sovereign. Hobbes rejects the idea that the sovereign power can be divided and so he rejects the mixed constitution.(48)

In many of ways, the classical and the modern understanding of political life and the claims to authority over sub-political units, such as the family, are similar to each other when compared to the political realities of the Middle Ages. Both argue that the political community claims ultimate authority to order human life. The example of the Middle Ages, however, would lead one to assert that other entities have equal or greater claim to authority than the political community has for the ordering of family life. The experience of the Middle Ages would also lead one to question both the modern and the classical tendency to see political authority as unified and stemming from one source.

The source of intellectual support for the "mixed constitution" comes from critics who see the trend toward centralizing power in modern politics as dangerous in threatening human liberty. Some of these modern thinkers who construe the "mixed constitution" of the Middle Ages as the best means to preserve human liberty are Montesquieu, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville.(49)

The "mixed constitution" represents a plurality of political authorities usually occuring in a large political system to ensure that the political freedom of local communities and of individuals is protected against any single authority exercising or possessing sole, ultimate political authority. This understanding of political authority allows both individuals and local communities to use one source of authority against another to preserve liberty. The need to preserve liberty in a "mixed constitution" gives rise to the idea of checks and balances on the exercise of political power. One can see in the idea of the "mixed constitution" the intellectual origins of modern separation of powers theory and the constitutional concept of federalism in the American government, which not only imposes them on the federal levels but also leaves the individual states some power to regulate and to provide for the way of life for their subjects.(50)

Nevertheless, no matter how attractive the "mixed constitution" view is to modern political life, it is not what Aristotle is talking about in either Politics 3.7 or 4. Also, although the mixed regime is defensible as a possibility for a large political community composed of several smaller ones, the tendency toward political centralization--aided by technology (automobiles, trains, airplanes, TV, radios, microwaves, computers, etc.)--tends to make such a view of political life unlikely. In this way, Aristotle's understanding of political life addresses the problem of the shrinking of our world that occurs when political centralization occurs. This is to say, once one power center eliminates all the others, the number of sources which shape the lives of citizens is drastically reduced. Only the centralized state is left to shape the citizens. Although this is unattractive to modern tastes, it is the reality one faces. Aristotle's point is that if this shaping is to occur, it occurs best in smaller political communities rather than in larger ones.


As I have argued above, the main political entity for Aristotle is the polis, which is fundamentally different from the modern nation-state. In this regard, the Anti-Federalists were consistent with Aristotle's actual understanding of the political regime in their doubt that classical republicanism could work in large political entities. This does not mean that the Anti-Federalists were simply correct, for at the time of the Federalist/ Anti-Federalist debate there were multiple communities strong enough to form the character of America's citizens. Now those communities are no longer that capable of forming character but, given the centralizing character of American political life that occurred after the Civil War until the present, the concerns expressed by the Anti-Federalists have hit home all too well. So Aristotle's insight concerning the regime would be a defense of local politics over federal or national politics.

Aristotle presents a teaching not of limited government but of local government, one which aims at unifying a community toward some expressible notion of public happiness understood in terms of the good life for those who live together in the political community. This is at odds with contemporary conservative-libertarian thought, whose theory of limited government cannot fundamentally distinguish between federal and local governments' roles in regulating one's life.

Also, many contemporary conservatives see a link between the balance-of-powers teaching and the idea of federalism, and the assumed teaching of Aristotle's "mixed regime." The linking is mistaken, in that they assume that the medieval idea of the "mixed constitution"--which is the true source of the concepts they support--is merely the continuation of Aristotle's so-called "polity." Also, liberals see a pluralist teaching present in the so-called "mixed regime," a view of pluralism which is lacking the usually relativistic foundation. Both liberals and conservatives are unfounded in thier tacit appeals to Aristotle's teaching. Instead of letting Aristotle speak for himself, they read their own political agendas into his work, making him their spokesman, which results, in the final analysis, in simple misinterpretation.


1. The most likely culprit, who began both the trend to see "polity" or the "mixed regime" of Politics 4 as the best regime and the trend to see Aristotle's Politics 4 as the intellectual origin for the Medieval institution of the "mixed constitution," is Thomas Aquinas. For the best account currently available of the intellectual history of the "mixed constitution" in medieval political thought, see Blythe 1992.

Von Fritz (1954) argues that it is Polybius who puts forth the idea of the "mixed constitution."

2. Nichols 1991, 85-123.

3. There is another group of Aristotle scholars (i.e., Steven Salkever and Judith Swanson) who claim Aristotle is or more correctly can be made into a defender of liberal democracy. See Rasmussen and Den Uyl 1991, Salkever 1991, and Swanson 1992.

4. See Strauss 1978, 1953, and 1989; Winthrop 1978a and 1978b; Lord 1982 and 1987, 118-54; Sullivan 1984; Arendt 1958; and Beiner 1983.

5. Bluhm 1962, 743-53.

6. Bluhm 1962, 745-46.

7. For a similar but different account of a possible defense of democracy, see Lindsay 1992a.

8. Nichols 1991, 201-02, note 9.

9. For an excellent article, which has influenced some of my thinking about reevaluating the value of democracy in Aristotle's political thought--seeing that Aristotle sees both the likely possibility there exists political goodness in the rule of the many--see Bookman 1992, 1-12.

10. See Strauss, "What is Political Philosophy?", In Strauss 1988, 133-34.

11. Barker 1946, 101-113, lxv-lxviii.

12. Lord in his translation of Politics argues that "the common translation 'constitution' is misleading insofar as it connotes a formal legal order" (Lord 1984, 279). Also see Lord 1984, 20-21.

13. See Lord 1984, 18-21 and 278-79.

14. Nichols 1991, 63.

15. Robinson 1962, 24.

16. Compare Lord 1984, 75-76.

17. The argument that passages used to support the view that "polity" is to be understood as a specific regime are both ambiguous and confusing is supported by Johnson (1988) and Robinson (1962). Robinson says that the definition of the "regime called regime" in Politics 4 is both "obscure and uncertain" (1962, 90). Johnson says that these sections of Aristotle's Politics are full of more "apparent difficulty" than other sections. He also says that "Aristotle's discussion of [polity] is in a certain respect a miniature of The Politics as a whole" and that these passages used to support "polity" are "often perplexing, if not muddled." He also wonders if "polity" can consistently be all of the things Aristotle seems to claim for it. (Johnson 1988, 189).

18. Coby 1988, 906.

19. Also see Johnson 1988, 189-209. Although Johnson attempts to clarify the confusion, I find his overall presentation not only unpersuasive but misguided. He simply tries to force clarity on the text, where lack of clarity may be an important clue for us to reexamine some of the earlier premises Aristotle set forth, i.e., the regime typology of Politics 3.7.

20. Robinson 1962, 90.

21. The blending need not be limited only to the two regimes mentioned above (i.e., democracy and oligarchy). Kingship is also said to be blended in such a regime mixture at Politics 2.6.1265b33-40. In fact Thomas Aquinas understood Aristotle's "mixed regime," which he held to be the model of ideal earthly government, to be the mixture of all three elements of the royal ruler, the virtuous aristocracy, and the people. For a summary of Aquinas' position on ideal government, see Blythe 1992, 39-59.

22. See Bernard Yack 1985, 169-88, and 1993, 209-41. Although in both pieces Yack says that the "mixed regime" is an actual regime, his argument would work better if he did not argue this but rather argued that the discussion of the "mixed regime" is merely an examination of the generic character of any regime and how one can stabilize regimes by proper mixing of political forces.

23. Pierre Pellegrin 1987 and 1993 also argues that what is being advanced at Politics 4 is not a specific regime, but legislative principles serviceable to all regimes. Yet he also ties these legislative principles to the best regime of Politics 7-8. To me, he is wrong in doing so, in that, as I have argued above, that the best regime of Politics 7-8 is more a thought experiment than an regime to be strived for.

Lord also claims that the regime presented at Politics 4 "is less a specific regime type than a reflection of the strategy which informs Aristotle's approach to the construction and preservation of regimes generally" (1987, 114).

24. See Politics 5.

25. Robinson 1962, 23. Also, this makes one think of what Aristotle does with monarchy in Politics 4.7. Aristotle seems to be treating monarchy not as a genus but as a species.

26. I use Sir Alexander Grant's Greek edition of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Grant, in his notes, also presents the "polity" view of this passage. See Grant 1885, 2: 269-70 note 1.

27. Ostwald 1962, 233 note 29.

28. Here I am supported by Robinson 1962, 90. He notes that the definition for so-called "polity" in Politics 3.7.1279a37 is not the same as the one developed for this specific regime in Politics 4.

29. deAlvarez 1988, 257.

30. Hobbes 1991, 469 and 471.

31. Hobbes 1991, 471.

32. The authoritative view is not the position held by Nichols 1991 and Bluhm 1962, that "polity" is really Aristotle's best regime and not aristocracy presented at Politics 7 and 8, but the view that "polity," although not the best regime, is nevertheless an actual type of regime and is a runner-up to aristocracy as the best regime (See Nichols 1991, 210 note 4).

For a defense of the traditional distinction between "polity" and the best regime, see Coby 1988.

33. Compare Johnson 1988; Nichols 1991, 93, 97-99; and Bluhm 1962, 745-46.

34. See Eidelberg 1968 and Diamond 1981.

35. Even the liberal Nussbaum sees the "polity" teaching as a defense of what she calls "shared rule." (See Nussbaum 1980, 395-435.)

36. de Alvarez 1988, 258. He notes that Aristotle himself is completely silent about the question of establishing "polity" as a regime in political actuality.

37. See Strauss, "What is Political Philosophy?" and "Classical Political Philosophy" in Strauss 1988 or 1989. Also see Lord 1987.

38. It must be honestly stated that Holmes rejects the classical view of political life as either applicable or desirable for contemporary political life because the classical position denies the political possibility of pluralism. Only in this light does his criticisms have limited possibilities. See Holmes 1979, 113-28. Also see Holmes 1993.

39. Popper 1945.

40. To see how this affects the actual Greek polis, see Meier 1990. For an explanation of Aristotle's concept of the regime's relationship to the polis see Strauss 1988 and 1989.

At Politics 3.7.1279a25-26, Aristotle equates the "governing body" with the regime. He then goes on to speak of the "authoritative element" (3.7.1279a27-79b10 and 3.10.1281a11-15).

41. Is this not the very reason Yack defends the "mixed regime"? He sees it leaving open fundamental questions, allowing political disputes to be resolved through group compromise between the various factions within the political community. See Yack 1993, 201-241.

42. See Blythe 1992. For an account of Polybius' account of the Roman regime and of how Polybius read both Plato and Aristotle, see Von Fritz 1954, 3-183. He contends that "Polybius himself had offered his theory not as a purely theoretical construction, but as a result of historical studies" (1954, vii).

43. I suggest that the origins of political pluralism are from the political reality of the Roman Empire and thus by extension to the political rule of Christendom. However the pluralism that comes from this is a macro-pluralism (a pluralism of differing communities), one which allows for a plurality of nations to live together under the Empire without losing their independent identities. Modern pluralism, such as advocated by J. S. Mill and Karl Popper, is a micro-pluralism (a pluralism of individuals within any given community), which does not think that the political community should impose notions of morality on its subjects, but that subjects should impose notions of morality on the political community.

44. For the argument that this mixing of differing sources of political authority is the cause of modern liberal parliamentary democracy, see Hintze 1975, 302-53.

45. See Blythe 1992.

46. Blythe 1992, 19, 33-34, 42-43, 57, 81, 96.

Also see Rubinstein 1987, 41-56. Rubinstein shows how William of Moerbecke's mistranslation of politikos and his connecting it to polity led Aquinas and those following him into critically misreading Aristotle's Politics. He argues that the perpetuation of the polity teaching was due to a defense of the republicanism within the political-historical context of Renaissance Italy.

47. See Schmitt 1976.

48. See Hobbes 1991, chapters 17-22.

49. Paul Eidelberg has argued that the American Constitution was a mixed regime (1968). I believe that Diamond (1981) definitively disposes Eidelberg's argument and I do not wish to readdress that old debate here. But I do wish to point out that Eidelberg takes it for granted that Aristotle does have a teaching concerning the so-called "mixed regime." So far I have argued that Aristotle does not have such a teaching, rather that it is the reading into Aristotle the "mixed constitution" argument of the Middle Ages. Thus I would criticize Eidelberg for perpetuating the misinterpretation of Aristotle.

Moreover, Diamond's praise of the American regime and his criticism of Eidelberg both arise out of the belief held along with Eidelberg that Aristotle does not praise popular rule. In this way, Eidelberg and Diamond agree in their understanding of Aristotle's position on the rule of the many. I would argue that they are both mistaken on Aristotle, that Aristotle ultimately favors popular rule. This will be developed further in my next two chapters. In fact, I would argue that Diamond's defense of the American regime would fundamentally echo Aristotle's defense of democracy restrained by the rule of law as the best regime.

50. See de Alvarez 1988, 243-60. Also see Tocqueville 1969.

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