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The ideas that formed the Constitution: part 5: Aristotle

The ideas that formed the Constitution: part 5: Aristotle

Above: Aristotle instructing Alexander (conjectural)

This essay first appeared in the Nov. 21, 2022 Epoch Times.

Unlike Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato—the subjects of the third and fourth installments in this series—Aristotle wasn’t an Athenian. (For the first and second installments, see here and here.) Aristotle did, however, win fame in Athens.

He was bornin Macedonia in 384 B.C.E. At the age of 17, he moved to Athens and enrolled as a student in Plato’s Academy. Aristotle always paid tribute to his teacher, although Aristotle took a very different intellectual direction from Plato.

(Essay continues below, after the timeline.)

Epoch Times Photo

After Plato died in 346, Aristotle moved to northwestern Asia Minor (Turkey). There he directed his attention to classifying marine animals. He identified more than 500 species. He’s credited with founding the science of zoology.

In 343 or 342, Phillip II, king of Macedonia (and thus Aristotle’s sovereign), summoned the scholar home to tutor Phillip’s son. This was the boy later known as Alexander the Great. Aristotle remained in Macedonia for two years. In subsequent times, when Alexander was on his mission of conquest, he frequently sent his former teacher biological specimens from distant lands.

Sometime before 336, Aristotle returned to Athens. There he founded his own school, the Lyceum, and began the most productive period of his life. Along with a staff of assistants, he delved into botany, chemistry, ethics, history, logic, metaphysics, politics, psychology, physics, poetics, and rhetoric. His scope was astounding.

After Alexander’s death in 323, anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens induced Aristotle to relocate to the island of Euboea, just to the north and west of Athens. He died the following year, at age 62.

The ‘Politeia’

Aristotle’s principal treatise on political science was the “Politeia.” English translators commonly render that title as “The Politics” or “The Republic.” However, the word politeia has a collection of meanings, including constitution, citizenship, civic life, the body of citizens, commonwealth, and statesmanship. In the book’s title, Aristotle used the word to mean “political science.” Within the book, he employed it to designate a particular kind of constitution. We shall refer to the book’s title as the “Politeia” (capitalized) and the particular kind of constitution as politeia (italicized and uncapitalized).

Most of Aristotle’s polished writings have been lost. The number of writings that survive is vast, but they often seem unfinished—much like lecture notes or lesson plans. This is true of the “Politeia.” The book is crammed with ideas, but sometimes they are underdeveloped or even contradictory.

Despite being unfinished, the “Politeia” was an astonishing achievement, both because of the quality of Aristotle’s analysis and the number of his sources: The book rests on a survey of no fewer than 150 existing constitutions.

Modern Americans may recognize some of the ideas in the “Politeia.” For example, Aristotle divided government officials into three kinds: (1) the deliberators, (2) the magistrates, and (3) the judiciary. This was the precursor to our constitutional division between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.

Similarly, Aristotle argued that officials should govern for the benefit of the people rather than for themselves. This was the seed of the Anglo-American duty of “public trust” (pdf).

Aristotle refined Socrates’s and Plato’s classifications of constitutions. The “Politeia” identified three political systems in which the rulers governed for the benefit of the people. They were:

  • Monarchy or kingship—that is, legitimate rule by one person;
  • aristocracy—legitimate rule by a relatively small class of “the best” citizens; and
  • constitutional democracy checked by the rule of law and by an aristocratic council. This was the form Aristotle called politeia.

Aristotle added that each of these three forms can degenerate into the following deviations:

  • ​Tyranny (the worse of the six)—illegitimate dictatorship for the benefit of the dictator;
  • ​oligarchy—illegitimate rule by and for the benefit of a few; and
  • ​democracy (unchecked by an aristocratic council).

Aristotle also recognized variations on these forms, including five kinds of democracy. The American Founders paid special attention to one of these five. This was teleutaia demokratia, which they translated into “pure democracy.” In 18th-century English, that phrase meant “unconditional democracy.” Because teleutaia means “end” or “uttermost,” most modern writers translate teleutaia demokratia as “extreme democracy” or “final democracy.”

Aristotle explained that in most democracies, the will of the mob was tempered by magistrates and by the rule of law. But in teleutaia demokratia, the mob made all decisions directly and without restraint. As a practical matter, that situation cannot last long, so this extreme form of government was more theoretical than real. Aristotle doubted whether it really was a constitution at all.

Influence on the Founders

Eighteenth-century schoolboys encountered snippets of Aristotle in grammar school. Only the small minority who attended college studied his writings thoroughly. However, schoolboys learned about Polybius’s work, which relied heavily on Aristotle. And they were immersed in the writings of Cicero, who in turn relied on Polybius and Aristotle. (Polybius and Cicero will be the subjects of the next two installments in this series.)

Indicative of Aristotle’s influence was that when a committee of the Confederation Congress recommended that Congress acquire certain foundational books, the “Politeia” was on the list. The members of the committee were Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, and James Madison of Virginia—all of whom later served as delegates at the Constitutional Convention.

For a closer look at Aristotle’s influence, let’s focus on three Founders who had attended college: John Adams, who attended at Harvard; John Francis Mercer, who studied at the College of William and Mary; and James Madison, educated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).

John Adams

I have discussed Adams’s influence on the Constitutional Convention in earlier essays in this series. Adams was serving as a diplomat in Europe when the convention met, but the first volume of his “Defence of the Constitutions of the United States” had just been published. It was an encyclopedia of republican constitutions, and it circulated at the convention.

Adams’s “Defence” repeatedly relied on Aristotle and on writers (such as Polybius, Cicero, and Machiavelli) who had themselves relied on Aristotle. Aristotle informed Adams’s descriptions of ancient Greek governments. He also used Aristotle as a resource for his criticisms of Plato and in contending for the rule of law.

John Francis Mercer

Mercer represented Maryland at the Constitutional Convention, but left early and opposed the final document. He was probably the author of the newspaper essays written over the signature, “A Farmer.”

In his second “Farmer” essay, Mercer argued that the world hadn’t learned much about political science since Aristotle wrote the “Politeia.” In other words, he thought the Greek scholar knew as much about politics as his own generation did.

Mercer relied on Aristotle for a description of ancient Greek constitutions. Also, the central theme of his essay was based on Aristotle’s theory of how good constitutions degenerate into bad ones.

Mercer apparently believed that if the proposed Constitution was adopted, it would create a politeia: The rule of law and an aristocratic Senate would check the democratic House of Representatives. But he argued that this balance wouldn’t last long. A strong, independent executive was necessary to maintain the aristocratic–democratic balance. The president was too weak for this purpose, Mercer believed, and too dependent on the Senate. So the Constitution’s politeia soon would sink into tyranny.

Fortunately, when George Washington became president, he firmly established customs of behavior that protected the presidency from the Senate. Otherwise, Mercer’s prediction might have proved correct!

James Madison

Madison’s influence on the final Constitution is often overestimated. Nevertheless, he was its most important single architect.

Madison admired the “Politeia.” Although many trace his famous theory of “factions” in the 10th Federalist paper to the Scottish philosopher David Hume, you can find an early version of the theory in the “Politeia.” Aristotle, like Madison, argued that factions (special interests) cause less harm when the participating citizenry is large than when it’s small.

Madison also addressed Aristotle’s concept of teleuteria demokratia. He argued that this form of mob rule wasn’t a republican form of government because it wasn’t subject to the rule of law and because it lacked officials with significant power. In this regard, Madison’s ideas probably were assisted by Cicero, who further developed Aristotle’s treatment of the subject.

At this point, a clarification in order: In the 1840s, the misconception arose that Madison thought all democracy was inconsistent with republicanism. Neither Madison nor any other Founder believed that; Madison was speaking only of “pure” or “extreme” democracy (pdf). Nevertheless, in some quarters the notion still persists that the Founders drew a sharp distinction between a republic and a democracy. It’s a stubborn myth that sometimes even creeps into The Epoch Times.

The next installment will explore the contributions of yet another Greek. He was a historian who also was a man of action: Polybius.


Rob Natelson