Political Form in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

10 Mar 2013

Aristotle had an interesting taxonomy of political forms in his Nicomachean Ethics. In it, he outlines three possible forms of ‘constitutions’ or systems of government: 1

There are three kinds of constitution … monarchy, aristocracy, and thirdly that which … seems appropriate to call timocratic.

— Book 8 Chapter 10

Timocracy literally speaking, means ‘rule by the honourable’. But for those not up to speed on the political organisation of ancient Greece, the term was corrupted to mean a system of government whereby political decisions were determined by wealth, status or contribution. If you owned land producing 500 bushels of wheat, you could be a general or senator. Have oxen worth 100 bushels of wheat and you could be an administrative official. Own very little (but still be white, male and non-slave of course) and you could serve on a jury. 2

Each form has its corresponding corruption:

The deviation from monarchy is tyrany … aristocracy passes over into oligarchy by the badness of the rulers … and timocracy passes over into democracy

— Book 8 Chapter 10

Interestingly, Aristotle claims that Democracy, characterised by the equality of rulers and the ruled, is worse than rule determined by a broadly structured class system or caste. His reasoning for this seems to be his claim that those who have sufficient wealth are self-sufficient and thereby can ‘not look to his own interests but to those of his subjects’ (1160b).

Aristotle’s political taxonomy then, is formed along two dimensions, which we might call diffusion of power, and purpose of power. One the horizontal axis, we have diffusion of power, ranging from the rule of one (autocracy) to the rule of few (oligarchy) to the rule of many (polyarchy). On the vertical axis, we have the purpose of power, contrasting ruling for the ruled (+) with ruling for the rulers (-).

Monarchy — Aristocracy — Timocracy
Autocracy — Oligarchy — Polyarchy
Tyranny — Plutocracy — Democracy

So the monarch, Aristotle’s Philosopher King, who rules with total power but for the good of the people, is the preeminent form of government. When the monarch rules only for himself, he becomes a tyrant.

The aristocracy, literally ‘rule by the best’, is preferred to Timocracy but when corrupted and only benefiting itself, it becomes rule by the rich for the rich (Aristotle uses the work ‘oligarchy’ but ‘plutocracy’ would be more accurate as oligarchy is generic rule by a few).

Democracy, the corruption of timocracy, is however the least worst form of the corruptions - a sentiment echoed some 2300 years later by Churchill when he remarked democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others we’ve tried.

  1. Aristotle, ‘Nichomachean Ethics’, Translated by W. D. Ross, Adelaide Ebooks, http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/nicomachean/index.html 

  2. Timocracy differs from Plutocracy (‘rule by the rich’) in that power is diffused much more widely and typically constrained by a formal constitution.