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Politics, as seen by Aristotle

Politics Aristotle, Source:  Eric Gaba (User:Sting), July 2005

by Aristotle, Written 350 B.C.

Translated By Benjamin Jowett

Comments by Walter H. Schneider, 1996 06 18

Again, the license of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state. For, a husband and wife being each a part of every family, the state may be considered as about equally divided into men and women; and, therefore, in those states in which the condition of the women is bad, half the city may be regarded as having no laws.

That circumstance appears to be a lot more complicated in our society, with the result being that far more than half of society can now be regarded as having no laws, whereas the minority of the people who live within the law foot the bill for the majority of those who don't.

And this is what has actually happened at Sparta; the legislator wanted to make the whole state hardy and temperate, and he has carried out his intention in the case of the men, but he has neglected the women, who live in every sort of intemperance and luxury. The consequence is that in such a state wealth is too highly valued, especially if the citizen fall under the dominion of their wives, after the manner of most warlike races, except the Celts and a few others who openly approve of male loves. The old mythologer would seem to have been right in uniting Ares and Aphrodite, for all warlike races are prone to the love either of men or of women. This was exemplified among the Spartans in the days of their greatness; many things were managed by their women. But what difference does it make whether women rule, or the rulers are ruled by women? The result is the same. Even in regard to courage, which is of no use in daily life, and is needed only in war,  

Things must have been a lot easier in those days for the average person.  A lot of courage is needed these days to persist in the living of the daily life.  It also appears that women in those days were firmly in the seat of power.  Why in the world are they trying so hard now to be subjected to all that men are being subjected to?

the influence of the Lacedaemonian women has been most mischievous.


The evil showed itself in the Theban invasion, when, unlike the women of other cities, they were utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy.

What happened there that was so evil?

This license of the Lacedaemonian women existed from the earliest times, and was only what might be expected. For, during the wars of the Lacedaemonians, first against the Argives, and afterwards against the Arcadians and Messenians, the men were long away from home, and, on the return of peace, they gave themselves into the legislator's hand, already prepared by the discipline of a soldier's life (in which there are many elements of virtue), to receive his enactments. But, when Lycurgus, as tradition says, wanted to bring the women under his laws, they resisted, and he gave up the attempt.

What was the nature of that resistance?  To me it sounds rather like the women kind of got the hang of ruling the roost while the men were away.

These then are the causes of what then happened, and this defect in the constitution is clearly to be attributed to them. We are not, however, considering what is or is not to be excused, but what is right or wrong, and the disorder of the women, as I have already said, not only gives an air of indecorum to the constitution considered in itself, but tends in a measure to foster avarice.

The mention of avarice naturally suggests a criticism on the inequality of property.

Why would "the mention of avarice" suggest that?  I'm suspicious when someone uses "naturally" in such a context.  It seems to me that he would use that word when he wants to discourage people from finding fault with an indefensible jump in logic.

While some of the Spartan citizen[s] have quite small properties, others have very large ones; hence the land has passed into the hands of a few. And this is due also to faulty laws;

Faulty only if we assume that the unequal distribution of property is contrary to the intentions of society.  Why would we hold the productivity and business acumen of individuals, and the right of inheritance that leads to such unequal distribution of property to be faulty?

for, although the legislator rightly holds up to shame the sale or purchase of an inheritance, he allows anybody who likes to give or bequeath it. Yet both practices lead to the same result. And nearly two-fifths of the whole country are held by women; this is owing to the number of heiresses and to the large dowries which are customary.

He should have lived today, or at least he should have had a chance to visit!  It would be interesting to see him become apoplectic at the sight of the proportion of property held by women now!

It would surely have been better to have given no dowries at all, or, if any, but small or moderate ones. As the law now stands, a man may bestow his heiress on any one whom he pleases, and, if he die intestate, the privilege of giving her away descends to his heir. Hence, although the country is able to maintain 1500 cavalry and 30,000 hoplites, the whole number of Spartan citizens fell below 1000.

The ratio of slaves or serfs to citizens must have been rather large!  Let's assume that the 31,500 active soldiers represent about 10% of the non-citizen population (after all, some had to stay home to feed the children, grow the food, run the economy, produce the weapons for the next war, etc., and that is assuming that the army did not need any support from home and was entirely self-sufficient by being able to live totally off the land through which it passed).
    It follows that the total population must have been in the order of 300,000, meaning that, on average, every citizen had 300 slaves or serfs to provide for him.

The result proves the faulty nature of their laws respecting property; for the city sank under a single defeat; the want of men was their ruin.

They deserved to be defeated!  Was it not their incessant fighting that caused the lack of men?  Why blame the women for it?  The women just stayed at home, lived in luxury and minded their own business, waiting for the spoils that their men would bring home.

There is a tradition that, in the days of their ancient kings, they were in the habit of giving the rights of citizenship to strangers, and therefore, in spite of their long wars, no lack of population was experienced by them; indeed, at one time Sparta is said to have numbered not less than 10,000 citizens.

Whether that statement is true or not, it seems that a high ratio of citizens to serfs is something that is quite normal in Aristotle's mind.  Why else would he imply that the number of citizens perhaps never was as high as 10,000 in Sparta?

It would certainly have been better to have maintained their numbers by the equalization of property.

That sounds like an early version of communism, but is really isn't, because it would only equalize the property of the very small ruling class.  It was more like a proposal for multi-corporate mergers and buy-ins, with the under-privileged classes in the end not being any better off, only with the ruling class being more firmly entrenched.  We have a lot of that now too.   We used to call that a combine and it used to be illegal.  But today, so many years after the divestiture of Standard Oil and some years after that of AT&T, nobody seems to care anymore.

Again, the law which relates to the procreation of children is adverse to the correction of this inequality. For the legislator, wanting to have as many Spartans as he could, encouraged the citizens to have large families; and there is a law at Sparta that the father of three sons shall be exempt from military service, and he who has four from all the burdens of the state.

You see? Even the concept "Baby Bonus" in our society is nothing revolutionary. Except that it has shifted from being a benefit bestowed by the state upon the family to one that is now being bestowed by the absent father upon his ex and the children in her custody, with the state (the taxpayers, that is) chipping in a small amount too.

Yet it is obvious that, if there were many children, the land being distributed as it is, many of them must necessarily fall into poverty.

If one considers that to be the result of a form of welfare in early times, that had its drawbacks even then.  If it did not entice the young fathers to procreate and multiply only for the reason to escape military service, at least it created their version of welfare dependency and the poverty resulting from that.
    It seems to me, not knowing any better, that these remarks indicate that:

  • Citizenship was tied to a certain level of property.

  • It was held that it was in the interest of society to distribute property evenly, thereby preserving as high a number of "citizens" as possible, and that the laws of inheritance in force in Sparta worked to the contrary by concentrating the wealth in the hands of a few, thereby actually reducing the total number of citizens by withholding wealth from potential inheritors who could otherwise have remained citizens of standing by virtue of having title to property.

In some ways, that system of electoral power being tied to property had been in place in Germany until recent times—every 10,000 Reichmark counted for one extra vote.  In England, suffrage was tied to property as well, only one in seven men was allowed to vote in the Victorian age.  At least that system was a bit more equitable than that of the Spartans appears to have been.
    Every non-property-holding citizen in Germany had the right to vote, even if his vote had to be combined with that of another multitude of his peers before it had an amount of influence equal to that of a single millionaire.  That's how it was during the Victorian age in Germany. (See: Gale Encyclopedia of US History: Disfranchisement -- "By the time most white women won the vote, nearly all southern black men and many southern white men had lost it." and see also "When did men and women have the right to vote in Canada???")

In our society, we now have a democratic system which prevents us from having laws that support the rich in that way, after all, people fought revolutions over such things to get rid of them.  Instead we now have money subverting and circumventing the laws that exist, and it is still getting what it wants.
    It does not seem to make any difference what kind of laws we have in place or in time.  Money, being equal to power, always gets what it wants, and what are we Helots going to do about it?  We never have been able to change that, and we never will!  The only way do escape from that is to become emancipated.  Today, as in history, that is only possible by joining the ruling class, either by being born into it, or by working to accumulate enough counters to be able to join the game.

However, our governments are exploiting the property rights of the citizens to about the same extent as Sparta did.  Our inheritance laws take care of that, and so do development restrictions.  Anyone who passes away and tries to leave something to his descendents has to consider that, unless he has very good legal advice, he will pass on about half or more of his property to the State and not to his children.  As the article on property rights accessible at this related link shows, there is a strong correlation between the average wealth of a nation's citizens and the extent to which that nation's citizens can acquire property to own and enjoy.  Through taxation, through development restrictions and through preventing people from owning any property, all of our descendents will eventually fall into the state of poverty that was so common in Sparta that it caused Aristotle to write about it.
    Sparta was so poor in those days that they couldn't even issue regular coinage and instead produced money comprised of iron bars.  That wasn't due to a lack of natural resources (all other city states suffered from that to the same extent), but was most likely due to the large amount of debt that the treasury had accumulated.

However, just like today's governments tell us that many of the ills that befall our societies, such as unemployment or inflation, are actually good for us, so the Spartan state convinced its citizens that not to have coinage that could be used in interstate commerce was good for Sparta, because that would further self-sufficiency and self-reliance.  Well, it didn't!  Sparta died.

The Lacedaemonian constitution is defective in another point; I mean the Ephoralty. This magistracy has authority in the highest matters,  

I looked up Ephoralty.  It means the five ancient Spartan magistrates having power over the king.

but the Ephors are chosen from the whole people,

All of the people, or only from the 1,000 or so "citizens"?

and so the office is apt to fall into the hands of very poor men, who, being badly off, are open to bribes.

I would say that someone who is very rich and serves in that office is even more likely to succumb to bribery than a poor man who serves in the same capacity.  The rich man is very likely to lust for more power provided through enhancement of his already large holdings.  At least the poor man is much more likely to be scrutinized by the public because he is suspect as well as being more likely to be found out.

There have been many examples at Sparta of this evil in former times; and quite recently, in the matter of the Andrians, certain of the Ephors who were bribed did their best to ruin the state. And so great and tyrannical is their power, that even the kings have been compelled to court them,

So what?  The constitution gave them the power over the king, a good thing too!  The king could otherwise have gotten away with murder, as many of them did throughout history.
    It would be great if we had men of that power in our political system now!  They would be able to straighten out the dictatorship by the government that we have now.

so that, in this way as well together with the royal office, the whole constitution has deteriorated, and from being an aristocracy has turned into a democracy.

Aha!  Now we know where Aristotle stands!  He is for aristocracy and, possibly, dictatorship, as long as it is by the king, and against democracy!  Well, who can blame him?  Anybody who has enough slaves or serfs to look after all his necessities of life, with himself being free to live a life of leisure, would probably feel that way.  Too bad that the words of any of the slaves did not survive to be passed on to later generations.  Even Spartacus, one of the slaves whom we have heard of, was only written about by others.  We don't have his very own views.

The Ephoralty certainly does keep the state together; for the people are contented when they have a share in the highest office, and the result, whether due to the legislator or to chance, has been advantageous.

I don't think that it was due to chance!  It was due to the foresight of the Fathers of the Spartan Constitution, just as the success of the Republic of the United States that we once knew was entirely due to the foresight of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. and the constitution that they had drawn up -- you know, the "historical artifact" that has in the meantime been changed beyond recognition.

For if a constitution is to be permanent, all the parts of the state must wish that it should exist and the same arrangements be maintained. This is the case at Sparta, where the kings desire its permanence because they have due honor in their own persons; the nobles because they are represented in the council of elders (for the office of elder is a reward of virtue); and the people, because all are eligible to the Ephoralty. The election of Ephors out of the whole people is perfectly right, but ought not to be carried on in the present fashion, which is too childish.

I wonder, what the fashion was that he was objecting to?

Again, they have the decision of great causes, although they are quite ordinary men, and therefore they should not determine them merely on their own judgment, but according to written rules, and to the laws.

It looks like Aristotle was a fan of the legal industry and resented the judgment of the people!  That stands to reason, because in the absence of permanent and absolute standards the will of the people is the rule of the mob according to whatever is currently in vogue and politically correct.

Their way of life, too, is not in accordance with the spirit of the constitution — they have a deal too much license; whereas, in the case of the other citizens, the excess of strictness is so intolerable that they run away from the law into the secret indulgence of sensual pleasures.

What is the allegation that is being made here?  What is the spirit of the constitution?  How did the Ephoralty's way of life deviate from that and from the way of life of the other citizens?  Was the Ephoralty allowed to openly and publicly enter "into the secret indulgence of sensual pleasures" ?

Again, the council of elders is not free from defects. It may be said that the elders are good men and well trained in manly virtue; and that, therefore, there is an advantage to the state in having them. But that judges of important causes should hold office for life is a disputable thing, for the mind grows old as well as the body.

Yes, I know.  I think that many of us know.  The judge in charge of my divorce hearing was 85 years old and walked on two canes when he came into the court room.  He could not even understand that I needed a vehicle if I was expected to get to work every day to earn the money that was needed to make the child support payments.
    I had to drive 50 miles every day — one way —, because there was no bus service except for the last 5 miles of the trip.  He couldn't understand that my ex would be so fascinated by the promises of a life on welfare that she actively sought to lead it.  He thought that I put her up to it and asked me if I wasn't ashamed.  Then he asked for the ex's case history file to find out what it was all about and found out to his surprise that his god-like powers did not trump those of Social Services, so that he couldn't get access to the file.  I knew that would happen and was only in the process of experiencing one single divorce, one that I had though would never happen in a marriage that was to last until death was to part us.  The judge, Ted Manning, Ernie Manning's brother, had presided over many divorce hearings and didn't know that would happen!?  At that moment I felt that I had good reasons to believe that his mind, too, was on crutches.

And when men have been educated in such a manner that even the legislator himself cannot trust them, there is real danger. Many of the elders are well known to have taken bribes and to have been guilty of partiality in public affairs. And therefore they ought not to be irresponsible; yet at Sparta they are so. But (it may be replied), 'All magistracies are accountable to the Ephors.' Yes, but this prerogative is too great for them, and we maintain that the control should be exercised in some other manner. Further, the mode in which the Spartans elect their elders is childish; and it is improper that the person to be elected should canvass for the office;

The childish election process we have seems to be a direct outgrowth of the one that Aristotle so deplores. All this hoopla and the whole carnival atmosphere with brass bands, shouting, placard waving and booze...all to con the public into giving a particular set of individuals the power to rule over its life, death and well-being...

the worthiest should be appointed, whether he chooses or not.

Nevertheless, I would hate to be ruled by someone who has absolutely no desire to be my representative and who in fact is being forced to serve in that capacity.

And here the legislator clearly indicates the same intention which appears in other parts of his constitution; he would have his citizens ambitious, and he has reckoned upon this quality in the election of the elders; for no one would ask to be elected if he were not. Yet ambition and avarice, almost more than any other passions, are the motives of crime.

We know that too. That's why weStop Welfare for Politicians are not surprised when we find out that many politicians are corrupt!  So much so, that we fully expect that corruption and politicians go hand-in-hand.

Whether kings are or are not an advantage to states, I will consider at another time; they should at any rate be chosen, not as they are now, but with regard to their personal life and conduct. The legislator himself obviously did not suppose that he could make them really good men; at least he shows a great distrust of their virtue.  For this reason the Spartans used to join enemies with them in the same embassy, and the quarrels between the kings were held to be conservative of the state.

I don't understand the reference that is being made here.  It must have something to do with a group of historical events of that time.

Neither did the first introducer of the common meals, called 'phiditia,' regulate them well. The entertainment ought to have been provided at the public cost, as in Crete; but among the Lacedaemonians every one is expected to contribute, and some of them are too poor to afford the expense; thus the intention of the legislator is frustrated. The common meals were meant to be a popular institution, but the existing manner of regulating them is the reverse of popular. For the very poor can scarcely take part in them; and, according to ancient custom, those who cannot contribute are not allowed to retain their rights of citizenship.

The same as now in our society.  If you are too poor to come up with the electoral deposit, you can't even enter the electoral process in hope to run for election, and then there are the costs of all the "common meals" (the election campaign itself) that are required to be staged if an election is hoped to be successful.  Kind of leaves the common man out of the picture, doesn't it?  It seems to me that the party that can put up the most luscious "common meals'' gets to win the election.
    Then we have to consider the election laws in Canada, which provide that the parties who are currently sitting in the House of Commons get their election expenses refunded to a large extent, the amount depending on whether they are the ruling party, the opposition party or just sitting in the house.  In addition they get a certain amount of free air-time on TV, paid for by the tax payers whom they exploited for the last four to five years.
    Parties who are newcomers get zilch!  Talk about preserving the status quo!

The law about the Spartan admirals has often been censured, and with justice; it is a source of dissension, for the kings are perpetual generals, and this office of admiral is but the setting up of another king.

We have a system like that too.  Once a general, always a general!  When there are cut-backs, the soldiers are laid off, but not the generals.

The charge which Plato brings, in the Laws, against the intention of the legislator, is likewise justified; the whole constitution has regard to one part of virtue only- the virtue of the soldier, which gives victory in war. So long as they were at war, therefore, their power was preserved, but when they had attained empire they fell for of the arts of peace they knew nothing, and had never engaged in any employment higher than war.

That's not what the soldiers are told when the rulers entice them to fight for the honour of their country, then they are patriots!  But, when they come back, and when they expect to reap the thanks that they feel they so richly deserve, they are told by the people who asked them to fight for them that they are despicable and are no more than common criminals.  Then they go begging and sleep in the streets.

There is another error, equally great, into which they have fallen. Although they truly think that the goods for which men contend are to be acquired by virtue rather than by vice, they err in supposing that these goods are to be preferred to the virtue which gains them.

Once more: the revenues of the state are ill-managed; there is no money in the treasury, although they are obliged to carry on great wars, and they are unwilling to pay taxes. The greater part of the land being in the hands of the Spartans, they do not look closely into one another's contributions. The result which the legislator has produced is the reverse of beneficial; for he has made his city poor, and his citizens greedy.

Nothing much new in our society in that arena, except for the scale of the disaster.  The treasury, instead of just being empty, is a black hole that sucks up everything that we can produce. The state has found many effective ways in which to force the unwilling tax payers to comply with the ravenous appetite of the treasury.  A lot of the land is being held, not by its people, but by foreigners.  Tax contributions by individuals are being kept secret through the protection of privacy laws, and nobody even wants to look, or have anybody look, into the level of contributions by individuals, for fear that other people might find out that they themselves got away with murder.  Today's equivalent of the Spartan citizens, the big corporations and rich owners — 1000 of which hold 95% of the country's wealth in their grip (at least in Canada, that's the way it is) are having virtual control of the politicians and are expanding their powers internationally — greedy as ever.

Enough respecting the Spartan constitution, of which these are the principal defects.

History tells us what happened next.  Sparta went bankrupt and became obliterated.

We now suffer from many of the same ills that caused Sparta's demise.  Can we prevent the same consequences from destroying us?

See also:

  • How Dramatically Did Women’s Suffrage Change the Size and Scope of Government? by John R. Lott, Jr., and Larry Kenny, Law School, University of Chicago; John M. Olin Law & Economics Working paper No. 60 2nd Series.

The paper can be downloaded without charge (209 kB PDF file)

The Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection (Abstract)

If you have problems downloading the paper, let me know, and I'll send you a copy.

The paper illustrates how, beginning with women's suffrage, the politician's wish to cater to women resulted in a remarkable and escalating growth in inflation.  The paper provides information on why that was and still is so.

Last updated 1999 06 04
2001 01 25 (format changes)
2002 08 15 (added reference to paper discussing the consequences of women's suffrage)
2002 11 02 (format change)
2011 07 13 (minor editorial edits)