Who Should Rule According to Aristotle

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Aristotle said that „the rule of law. is preferable to that of any individual. This is because individuals possess flaws and could tailor government to their own individual interests, whereas the rule of law is objective. Although justice is the most important political virtue according to Aristotle (Pol. III.9.1283a38-40), the other great social virtue, friendship, should not be neglected, because the two virtues work hand in hand to ensure any kind of connection (EN VIII.9.1159b26-7). Justice enables the citizens of a city-state to peacefully share the benefits and burdens of cooperation, while friendship unites them and prevents them from disintegrating into warring factions (cf. Pol. II.4.1262b7-9). Friends are expected to treat one another justly, but friendship goes beyond justice because it is a complex mutual bond in which the individual chooses the good for others and trusts others to choose the good for him (cf. EE VII.2.1236a14-15, b2-3; EN VIII.2.1155b34–3.1156a10). Since choosing the right for each other is essential to friendship, and there are three different ways to call something „good“ for a person – virtuous (i.e. good without qualifications), useful or pleasant – there are three types of friendship: hedonistic, utilitarian and virtuous. Political (or bourgeois) friendship is a utilitarian type of friendship, and it is the most important form of utilitarian friendship because the polis is the largest community.

Unlike political friendship, there is enmity, which leads to factional or civil war (stasis) or even to political revolution and the disintegration of the polis, as discussed in Book V of Politics. Aristotle provides general accounts of political or civil friendship as part of his general theory of friendship in EE VII.10 and EN VIII.9-12. Aristotle adds: „The common advantage also unites them in that they each attain the noble life. It is above all the end for all, together and separately“ (III.6.1278b19-24). Second, what are the different forms of domination by which one individual or group can rule over another? Aristotle distinguishes different types of domination, depending on the nature of the soul of the sovereign and the subject. He first looks at the despotic rule that manifests itself in the master-slave relationship. Aristotle believes that this form of rule is justified in the case of natural slaves who (he claims without proof) have no consultative capacity and therefore need a natural master to direct it (I.13.1260a12; Slavery is defended at length in Policy I.4-8). Although a natural slave is supposed to benefit from having a master, the despotic rule is always primarily for the master and only incidentally for the slave (III.6.1278b32-7). (Aristotle makes no argument for this: if some individuals are inherently incapable of governing themselves, why shouldn`t they be governed primarily for themselves?) Next, he considers paternal and marital domination, which he also considers defensible: „Man is by nature more capable of leadership than woman, unless he is constituted in some way unnatural, and the elder and perfect [is by nature more capable of leadership] than the younger and imperfect“ (I.12.1259a39-b4). The idea that leaders should be smarter and more virtuous than ordinary citizens is alien to our understanding of politics.

We do not consider elected officials to be exemplary citizens. The strangeness of Aristotle`s point of view should lead us to wonder why, in our opinion, politics is so humiliated. It is important to note that in Aristotle`s day, states were comparatively smaller than they are today. Thus, in democracies, the greatest number could govern directly by participating in open councils. Aristotle`s ship metaphor suggests that authorities need practical wisdom to achieve the common goals they share with those for whom they are responsible. But note that Aristotle dealt with a certain type of rule: one that is „exercised over free men and is equal from birth.“ He was not thinking of the relationship between servant and master (for servant obeys out of necessity, not reason), but about the kind of relations that exist between free citizens.