Aristotle’s Pragmatic Democracy

The Politics and Nicomachean Ethics incapsulate Aristotle’s inquiry on the intertwined nature of politics and morality. This is especially true for the Politics, which theorizes and proposes the proper preconditions for the structure of a political community oriented towards the common-good, the flourishing of its constituents. Book I of the Politics offers readers insight on man’s nature as a social creature that generates a web of communal and familial associations. Families are foundational to the political community, as they aid in achieving self-sufficiency. As the indivisible unit in society and the fount of order, families are animated by justice and operate in a governing dynamic of the ruler and ruled which extends into politics. Aristotle’s Politics also provides insight on government types, embodied in the sixfold schema, wherein he evaluates three regimes and their lesser forms. Although the basis of Aristotle’s political thought is contingent on the inculcation of virtue espoused in his moral philosophy, he distinguishes the ideal from practical, preferring the pragmatic option. Aristotle’s pragmatic approach to democracy is the cause for his support of a mixed government.

A mixed regime is desirable because it contains elements of democracy and oligarchy without the political community suffering the full effects of either regime’s perniciousness- thus being the pragmatic option. Mixed regimes ameliorate both democracy and oligarchy as they neutralize their excesses by opening governance to the masses and wealthy, being the “admixture of the rich and the poor” (Aristotle. Pol. IV.8.13-4). This balance allows for the preservation of laws in a political community, as well as political stability which prevents domestic discord emerging from the strife of factions. Law is the practical application of justice, and the democratic justice that enables participation in government is congruent with Aristotle’s concept of distributive justice. Internal stability emerging from democratic justice is symmetric with distributive justice and offers the ability for the individual pursuit of virtue, thus ameliorating the polis as a whole.

The Sixfold Schema

Aristotle proposes a sixfold schema wherein he enumerates differing regimes based on their ideal and corrupted forms. He lists three virtuous regimes; monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, and contrasts them with their corresponding perversions; tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.

Monarchy, the makeup of “first governments” in early state, is the rule of a virtuous individual. The king occupies a paternal figure in the political community and supersedes his subjects in moral excellence, conveyed in his benevolence (Arist. Pol.III.13). In contrast, tyranny is defined as the abusive reign of a single individual who lacks or is otherwise inconsiderate of virtue. Since monarchy is deemed “the most divine”, tyranny is regarded the worst perversion of all regimes (Aristotle. Politics IV.2)

Aristocracy is government under the auspices of the aristoi, a virtuous and wealthy few. The aristoi is comprised of the “best men absolutely”, unlike a monarch or democratic body “who are good when tried” by a given standard (Arist. Pol.IV.1293b). The governing aristoi are ultimately a minority entrusted with administering the political community’s common-good and the universal good of all citizens, requiring them to be unselfish. However, the wealth of the aristoi can corrupt a virtuous aristoi and devolve aristocracy into oligarchy. This regime surfaces when rulers have wealth, but ignore the moral tenets associate with governing (Pol. III. 8.35). Oligarchy is classified in four forms, two of which isolate the impoverished majority. The first category strips the poor majority from having a share in government because of untenable property qualification, and the other includes the aristocrats selecting leaders inconsiderate of moral standards (Arist.Pol.IV.1292b) . Hereditary oligarchies wherein “the son succeeds the father”, and magistrates holding omnipotent power over the law, are the remaining two types of oligarchies according to Aristotle (Arist.Pol.IV.1292b).

Lastly, while polity is the rule of the virtuous many where there is equal participation in government, democracy operates solely to advance the interests of the impoverished masses (Politics. III. 7.5). Democratic governance, through an egalitarian framework, culminates in the poor and vicious demos exercising “despotic rule” over the better citizen through a demagogue (Arist. Pol. IV. 4.29). Such a scenario would strip the laws and justice of meaning, effectively rendering them subject to popular will. Nadia Urbinati’s account of isonomia-Greek democracy-contains an egalitarian and individualistic framework parallel with the corrupted regime Aristotle warns against. For Urbinati, the democracy developed in antiquity allows for individuals “to live as they like” and to obey laws they create on their own accord. However, Urbinati rightly points to the equal participation of government that is a feature in polity.

Human Corruption

Given man’s imperfection ideal governments are improbable and can lead to dangerous consequences (as historical examples also demonstrate). The solution for Aristotle is thus a mélange of oligarchy and democracy as a pragmatic model for governance that minimizes the excesses of each.

The Aristotelian tradition holds inequality to be entrenched in all political society, beginning in the family where the father has authority over the mother, children and slaves. This divide extends to the political community and is manifested in the ruler and ruled dichotomy. Using the analogy of a ship, Aristotle addresses economic inequality as another trait attached to all poleis (Pol.III.4.2) . Regarding moral excellence, individuals ought to be virtuous and become “good citizens”, yet virtue cannot be commonly achieved within the entire citizen body (Aristotle.Pol.III.1277a). In the Ethics, Aristotle supplements this concern claiming it is “easy and in our power” to behave unjustly (Aristotle. EN. 1137a). It is thus illusory to believe all can pursue virtue at a similar pace, making the three ideal regimes untenable.

Evaluating the lack of viability in monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, Aristotle proposes a mixed government that combines elements of oligarchy and democracy as a pragmatic alternative. Not only are mixed regimes compatible with democratic justice, they alleviate the worst qualities of oligarchy and democracy to yield stability, and safeguard laws. Offices are divided in two categories, one elected and the other selected by lot. The voting body is confined to property owners of moderate wealth, akin to a middle class through a qualification inclusive by design (Arist. Pol.IV.1297b). Only through the middle demos can the city be “best governed” (Arist. Pol. IV. 11). This creates a group between the two extremes of the “notables” and poor masses that demonstrates another instance of the golden mean embedded throughout Aristotelianism. The value in mixed governments is found in the “wisdom of crowds”, the aforementioned demos who govern more judiciously than the impressive few. However, even their power is not obsolete, being stabilized by the upper class. In sum, both factions mutually balance one another, creating a regime where law and stability ensues.

Democratic Justice

Democratic justice and its relation to justice is needed to understand Aristotle’s advocacy for the mixed regime of a pragmatic democracy. Aristotelian justice, akin to political wisdom (phronesis), is symbiotic in that it can be applied on an individual and macrocosmic scale. Justice is independent of the moral excellence of individuals, as it can be present in a political order without all citizens being individually just. The application of justice in a political community not only requires justice in personal exchanges, but additionally a strict adherence to the laws on the part of political leaders. Being relative, it cannot be equally distributed because it is proportionate to specific circumstances; “the justice of a master and that of a father are not the same as the justice of citizens” (Arist.EN.V.6.9) . Although distributive justice, a branch of justice, can be misinterpreted as proposing an egalitarian framework of redistribution, equality implies equality qua another’s due. In this sense it is both relative and equal with respect to proportion. Violating the proportion, “in excess” or “defect”, is considered by Aristotle an injustice. Moreover, political justice “exists only between men whose mutual interest is governed by law”, and without law there can be no scale of what constitutes injustice (Arist. EN.V.6.9) At the heart of Aristotle’s ideal pragmatic democracy that functions through a mixed regime is the principle of democratic justice, wherein the demos and wealthy notables have an equal share in government, mirroring distributive justice. Under this paradigm, both groups should rule equally so the wealthy “have no more share in the government than the poor” (Arist. Pol.VI. 1318a) .

Although a normative analysis of justice and democratic justice would indicate there are competing notions over the role of equality, democratic justice is compatible with the justice espoused in the Ethics because they mutually hold the law in regard. Chaos breeds injustice, yet the democratic justice found in a pragmatic system preserves laws from abuse, hence preserving justice. Democratic justice also parallels distributive justice as both are administered equally but are relative to a certain recipient, the enfranchised demos and the notables. The just, in a distributive sense, is quantitative and not abstract in number. So too is democratic justice, which holds a numerically equal participation in government. Via democratic justice, the virtue of justice can be cultivated as mixed governments give room for both trade and leisure. Since Eudemonia is the telos of all, it what each is due, and leisure affords the ability for individuals to grow justice and reciprocally ameliorate the city.

It has already been established that Aristotle believed man to be both fallible and unequal. These inequalities surface in political communities in uneven virtue and profession, disqualifying the ideal regimes. The solution is thus a pragmatic democracy that encompasses a mixed regime that neutralizes the excess of democracy and oligarchy while retaining the desirable elements of polity and aristocracy. Mixed governments foster a responsibility between the aristoi and the demos. Strengthened by the rule of law, nobody in the political community “should be allowed to do as he pleases”, because absolute freedom ignites the evil “inherent” in man (Arist.Pol. VI.1319a) . Rule by law is deemed by Aristotle to draw from God and reason, whereas rule of man, found in insonomia and oligarchy, adds “an element of the beast” because the human will can corrupt even the most excellent political leaders (Pol.III.16.6) . The excesses of both democracy and oligarchy erode the rule of law, contributing to the risk of driving political communities towards instability. A golden mean via the middle class is therefore self-neutralizing and thus strips the two extremes from potentially abusing the law.

The Law

The foremost danger present in democratic governance is the poor masses ruling without restraint. Since they outnumber the wealthy minority, the impulses of the voting body bring about the potential exploitation of justice and law to suit majoritarianism. Justice bereft of principle subsequently becomes an instrument of majoritarian desires. This would result in the confiscation of property from the landholding gentry (Arist. Pol. VI. 2.3-4). Similar concerns are raised in his critique of oligarchy. A government under the auspices of the wealthy would lead to a minority making all decisions. As previously addressed, oligarchic magistrates would be supreme over the law. In manipulating justice, the law subsequently becomes susceptible to corruption. Democratic justice in political communities protects justice against the poor majority and law from magistrates because it balances the demos and notables’ pursuits. Aristotle concedes that laws are determined by majority decision; “Now, they agree in saying that whatever is decided by the majority of citizens is to be deemed law” (Pol. VI.3.5). Given the varying degrees of political and moral excellence amongst the citizenry, a law that embodies God and reason can devolve into an instrument of oligarchic or democratic control if it falls to either group. Distributing participation in government between the many and wealthy, democratic justice protects the law against being overridden by a single segment of citizenry. Unlike the economically polarized groups, the franchised middle class, that should compose the majority of the citizenry “respect and obey the laws” without aiming to abuse or govern outside of its boundaries (Pol.IV.1298b). In so doing, it ensures that justice is preserved in society with law acting as the mean (Arist.Pol.III.16.9) . Readers are again confronted with the mean as an ideal. Interestingly, while Aristotle identifies justice as a “neutral”, the law is the mean. This ambiguity is an attempt to reconcile the ideal with practical. Law is not a virtue, but it is an instrument of procuring justice in a political community populated by an imperfect, and largely unvirtuous, citizenry. Being inexplicably tied to God and reason and society’s fount of political justice, it has the ability to protect humans from corruption, bearing witness to its imperative role in the political community. The “wisdom of crowds” in mixed states mitigates the corrosive patterns of democracies and oligarchies. Although individuals are unequal in their material pursuits and moral enterprise, they can collectively make decisions that are beneficial to the political community, even better “than the few good” and (Arist. Pol.IV.11).

Political Stability

Political stability is another factor that is fundamental in the pragmatic democracy of Aristotle as makes mixed states can be a more viable alternative to the regimes outlined in the traditional schema. The concept mixed government is rooted in Aristotle’s attempt to placate the hostilities among poor and rich and ensure that stability is salient. States ought to be designed to endure, warning that whenever a political community changes regime, the whole society and the order on which it rests is consequently affected (Arist. Pol. VII.15). Mixed regimes consolidate the competing factions because democratic justice is centred upon the equal distribution of participation in government among classes.

Democracies and oligarchies by themselves are both susceptible to revolution. Akin to oligarchy, Aristotle gives a hierarchy order to the various democratic regimes, with Agrarian democracy being superior as rural farmers do not covet the wealthy. Other, lesser, democracies produce demagogues who are the primary instigators of political instability. The demagogues, displaying no virtue, target the wealthier classes because they err in trying to obtain equality in all domains (Arist. Pol. V). Justice as a virtue is inimical to total egalitarianism, effectively making the push for equality among the poor to be a consequence of our imperfect condition, rather than an admirable endeavour. Nonetheless, oligarchy is the government Aristotle identifies as most liable to chaos. This is due to his overall lack of trust in the aristoi, a group he envisions as inevitably inclined to oligarchy. This occurs when the abundance of property leads “notables” to do “too much as they like”- suggesting political imbalance and abuse of power (Arist. Pol. V. 7) . Oligarchic governance leaves the polis most vulnerable to revolution. Unlike other regimes, oligarchs distrust the masses, and their anxiety prompts them to contract mercenaries or to temporarily give the masses a share in government. Fear of being deposed similarly makes oligarchs lend power to the military which in turn overtakes both the oligarchs and citizenry as the arbiter of power (Arist. Pol. V. 6) .

Aristotle’s solution to the issue of instability is the mixed constitution, which enables the equal participation in government among the wealthy few and middle-class constituency under democratic justice. A property holding demos proves the ideal balance. To rearticulate, they do not envy the wealthy nor are they subject to envy by lower classes. While extreme poverty erodes democracy, the middle class owns property and outnumbers the higher and lower classes (Arist. Pol. IV.11). Aristotle later ambiguously argues that wealth, if needed, can be redistributed among the lower classes. But since the middle class already comprises the majority of citizens, it can be deduced that such acts, which implicate the “confiscation of property” would be seldom occurrences (Arist. Pol.VI.5) . While it may appear the confiscation and redistribution of property juxtaposes justice, it is ultimately aligned with distributive justice because it is, equal and relative to the recipients. The confiscation is strictly proportionate to the poor’s due for their engagement in government and does not transgress the distribution in either excess or deficiency. Property ownership allows for leisure that can be directed to moral growth, including the class of individuals who are recipients of wealth redistribution. The stability produced from the equal participation in government, administered through distributive justice affords individuals the leisure to work on obtaining justice and grow in virtue. Individuals are endowed with the responsibility to work towards moral growth, and domestic stability that provides leisurely aside from trade lays the foundation for virtue to be obtained. Stability is the channel for a city to become virtuous as it enables the citizens to grow in virtue individually and a polis can only be virtuous “when the citizens who have a share in the government are virtuous” (Arist. Pol.VII.13). A city enhanced by virtue is oriented towards the common-good and therefore, due to its composition, just.


Liberal democracy seems to be in crisis as we near, not the end of history, but towards greater uncertainty. Never before has the institution, that has become a near truth in society, yielded such questioning and reconsideration since the end of the Cold War. Answers to such daunting questions and scenarios are never simple but re-examining one of the integral figures in the Western patrimony, insight can be gained. Hearkening to Aristotle’s theory of a pragmatic democracy may be helpful to our modern statesman and those who operate the functioning of our governments. Aristotle defends pragmatic democracy on account that it offers protection of the laws and long-lasting stability


Aristotle, Politics. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Introduction by H.W.C Davis. Dover Thrift Editions.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by David Ross. Oxford University Press. 2009
Nadia Urbinati. Competing for Liberty: The Republican Critique of Democracy. Columbia University. Vol 106, No.3. August 2012.