Aristotle’s Politics

By October 22, 2013February 18th, 2021No Comments

There is an interesting section on tyranny. A tyrant desires riches, whereas a king desires honour. The tyrant has guards who are mercenaries, whereas the king has guards who are citizens. Tyrants are mostly demagogues, who acquire power by promising to protect the people against the notables. In an ironically Machiavellian tone, Aristotle explains what a tyrant must do to retain power. He must prevent the rise of any person of exceptional merit, by execution or assassination if necessary. He must prohibit common meals, clubs, and any education likely to produce hostile sentiment. There must be no literary assemblies or discussions. He must prevent people from knowing each other well, and compel them to live in public at his gates. He should employ spies, like the female detectives at Syracuse. He must sow quarrels, and impoverish his subjects. He should keep them occupied in great works, as the king of Egypt did in getting the pyramids built. He should give power to women and slaves, to make them informers. He should make war, in order that his subjects may have something to do and be always in want of a leader.

It is a melancholy reflection that this passage is, of the whole book, the one most appropriate to the present day. Aristotle concludes that there is no wickedness too great for a tyrant. There is, however, he says, another method of preserving a tyranny, namely by moderation and by seeming religious. There is no decision as to which method is likely to prove the more successful.

There is a long argument to prove that foreign conquest is not the end of the State, showing that many people took the imperialist view. There is, it is true, an exception: conquest of “natural slaves” is right and just. This would, in Aristotle’s view, justify wars against barbarians, but not against Greeks, for no Greeks are “natural slaves.” In general, war is only a means, not an end; a city in an isolated situation, where conquest is not possible, may be happy; States that live in isolation need not be inactive. God and the universe are active, though foreign conquest is impossible for them. The happiness that a State should seek, therefore, though war may sometimes be a necessary means to it, should not be war, but the activities of peace.

Russell B, A History of Western Philosophy, 1946, London: Allen and Unwin, p 214